Ah, the elusive record deal.
The glory of getting signed to a major label is the ultimate music career status symbol for every aspiring singer, rapper, songwriter, producer, musician and band — and yet, it remains the biggest unsolved mystery of the music industry.
This guide will serve as a roadmap for how to get signed to a record label, as well as a staunch reality check for those who’ve underestimated what it actually takes to get signed.
The Reality of Getting Signed Today
Record labels are like venture capitalists, and indie musicians are a startup company. The investor will provide financial resources and exclusive connections to artists with high growth potential in exchange for an equity stake.
Depending on the type of record deal you sign, that “equity stake” can total 50-90% of a signed artist’s earnings — but perhaps it still beats the $25,000 median annual salary of an indie musician.
The Bottom Line: Record companies will only sign you if they believe they can profit from you.
Even if you are worthy of a record deal, there’s a lot more competition today — with 4,000 monthly Google searches for terms like “how to get a record deal” and “how to get signed to a record label.”
So, you have to ask yourself – “how would I stack up against 4,000 other artists?”
There are literally thousands of indie artists trying to get the attention of a major label. This is not going to happen magically. You need to be generating serious buzz on social media and in the streets, otherwise you’ll need a bonafide connection to an executive decision maker.
If You’re Desperate to Get Signed, It Won’t Happen
As the saying goes, “Don’t try to get signed. Try to get popular first.”
The funny thing about getting a record deal, is that you ALREADY need to be doing the things a major label would help you accomplish.
Artists who get record deals usually don’t need a label — that’s the irony of getting signed.
If you’ve already got a catalog of great music supported by a strong online fanbase, you’re going to eventually be noticed.
Record companies want to sign indie artists who are already doing live shows, earning royalties and making money.
Keep in mind that major record labels like Sony, Universal, and Warner aren’t taking risks on new artists like they used to. Investing in unsigned artists is a lot like gambling on horse racing — and no one wants to bet on a losing horse.
10 Steps to Get Signed to a Record Label
- Don’t quit your day job (until you can afford it).
- Be realistic: are you signable?
- Learn how to write hit songs.
- Learn music production.
- Learn the “business side” of music.
- Learn the different types of record deals.
- Learn how to monetize your music career.
- Master the art of online marketing & promotion.
- Master the art of networking.
- Develop a killer live show.
1. Don’t Quit Your Day Job (Until You Can Afford To Go All-In)
Russ has proven that going “all-in” is necessary in order to become a songwriter, whether indie or signed to a major label.
Russ dropped a new song per week on SoundCloud, every week for two years straight before his music started to catch on.
Russ is considered a pioneer of profitability for independent artists. He is one of the most successful indie artists of all-time, pushing the limits of what can be accomplished in the music business without the help of a record deal from a major label.
Should You Quit Your Day Job to Pursue Music? Not necessarily.
You shouldn’t go broke to pursue your dream as a rapper, but let’s face it — you need stability.
If you don’t have money, you won’t be able to invest in advancing your music career. How will you pay for the following expenses?
- Recording costs.
- Music production fees.
- Mixing & mastering.
- Musical equipment.
- Music videos.
- Music marketing.
- Promotion & ads.
- Album artwork.
- etc, etc, etc.
Not to mention rent, food, gas, and everyday costs of living.
You should only quit your day job once you are making enough money with your music career to adequately sustain yourself.
2. Be Realistic: Are You Signable?
Why do you want to be signed? Is it even realistic?
Be honest with yourself by asking these questions:
- Do you have mass market appeal?
- Do you have your own unique style of music?
- Do you stand out? Do you have star qualities a record label looks for?
- Do you have a real music career opportunity, or just an expensive hobby?
- Do you know how to effectively market yourself online?
- Do you have any real buzz or momentum going?
- Are you able to write hit songs? Can you write killer toplines?
- Are you a content creation machine?
- Are you brandable? Do you have a memorable artist name?
- Are your social media accounts engaging?
- Are your social media profiles properly branded?
- Are your live shows on point?
- How does your own music compare to artists that are already signed?
3. Learn How To Write Hit Records
This is the music business. And it’s all about hit songs.
Consider your approach to music releases:
- Singles, EPs, or Albums?
- How will you find music producers?
- Home studio recording vs. professional?
- What about mixing & mastering?
- Which digital distributor will you work with?
Keep in mind, you don’t necessarily have to be signed to a label in order to become a successful songwriter.
4. LearnMusic Production
The more you learn about the music creation process, the more signable you’ll become.
Why? Because the more skills you can bring to the table, the more appealing you’ll become to a record label.
You might not get signed as an artist, but you could earn a production deal if you have serious skills.
The following music production skills will not only make you more marketable, but it will broaden your creativity.
- Learn how to make beats on your own (this also saves you money on producer fees).
- Learn about DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) and the basics of how they work.
- Learn how to track vocals in ProTools, Logic or Ableton.
- Learn the basics of mixing, mastering, plugins and new music production technology.
- Bonus: Learn how to play a musical instrument like piano or guitar at a basic level.
5. Learn The “Business Side” of Music
After all, this is the business of music. And the money has to come from somewhere.
Even major artists like Future have recognized that no one is going to teach you all of these confusing concepts. That means you need to take massive initiative and learn the business of music yourself.
Before getting signed, you must acknowledge that record labels will give you upfront money or an “advance”, along with a team of resources — but not unless they believe you can become a money making machine.
And by the way, that upfront money advance is recoupable, meaning it must be paid back in FULL, which means you actually have to make money and be profitable at some point. (And in most cases, streaming isn’t going to close the gap.)
You must learn the role of all people (and things) that will be involved in your music career.
- Learn the role of a music manager.
- Learn the role of a music agent.
- Learn the role of a music attorney.
- Learn the role of a publicist.
- Learn the role of streaming platforms like iTunes, Spotify, SoundCloud, Amazon Music.
- Learn the role of Digital Distributors like Tunecore, Distrokid, CD Baby, AWAL, etc.
- Learn the role of BMI, ASCAP, SESAC, and GMR.
- Learn the role of music publishing companies.
- Learn the role of SoundExchange.
- Learn the role of artist royalties and songwriter royalties.
- Learn the role of sync licensing and how to get paid from music licensing.
- Learn the role of copyrights and trademarks in the music business.
6. Learn The Different Types of Record Deals
There are many types of record deals out there. And unfortunately not all of them are good ones.
Here’s a list of the record deals you should know about (before signing one):
- The 360 record deal.
- The traditional record deal.
- The distribution deal.
- The single deal.
- The EP deal.
- The licensing deal.
- The publishing deal.
- The production deal.
Watch this video from Financial Times to understand the inner workings of how record deals work.
7. Learn How To Monetize Your Music Career
Let’s start out by acknowledging that streaming payouts are worth peanuts, so let’s look at better ways to monetize your music career.
- Earn Song Placements (Sync Licensing).
- Earn Performance Royalties.
- Earn Mechanical Royalties.
- Earn Digital Album/Song Sales.
- Earn Revenue from Live Shows.
- Earn Revenue from Selling Merchandise.
- Songwriting & Producing for Other Artists.
- Get Sponsored by Companies & Brands.
- Get Paid Doing Influencer & Affiliate Marketing.
- Offer Exclusive Fanclub Memberships on Patreon and OnlyFans.
8. Master The Art of Online Marketing & Music Promotion
This is perhaps the most important skill you can learn as an upcoming artist or musician, because it’s a transferable skill that can apply to any business.
If you are just getting started, your initial goal should be to earn 1,000 true fans, which is defined as a fan that will buy anything you produce.
So, how do you do that?
- Know your audience – marketing to EDM & Techno fans will be vastly different from marketing to hip hop fans.
- Gimmicks – Do you have one? Do you need one? What’s your angle? In corporate marketing, this is called “messaging & positioning” but we’ll stick to gimmicks here.
- Content creation – You need to become a content creation machine. That includes live performance, music videos, photos, interviews, press, blogs, new music, cover videos, etc.
- Social media – Trying to master YouTube, SoundCloud, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, LinkedIn, Bandcamp and Spotify all at once will result in failure. However, if you pick 1-2 platforms and go “all-in” you’re more likely to be successful.
- Playlists – What is the role of playlist curators and bloggers? Getting your music featured is a complicated process, but it can be done.
- Website – Do you need one? Yes. It should contain your bio, EPK, press, videos, photos, music, links to upcoming gigs, access to your email list and more.
- Press Coverage – You probably won’t get featured in the NY Times. But you can focus on finding bloggers that matter. If you can’t afford a publicist, you’ll need to make connections on your own and pitch journalists on why they should cover your music.
- Radio – Is this required in order to grow a fanbase? Not necessarily, but you’ll need to know how to properly submit your music to commercial radio stations.
- SEO – As you pick up traction, people will start searching for your brand on Google and YouTube. This is why consistent branding for musicians is critical.
- Organic vs. Paid – Will you pay to play? Or grow organically? Or leverage a mix of both? If you decide to pay for promotion, where will you invest your budget?
9. Master The Art of Networking
Networking in the music business is less about getting what you want, and a lot more about the value you can bring to someone else.
You need to imagine that when you approach someone, they are a bank account.
If you never made a deposit into that account, how can you expect to make a withdrawal?
This is why you should always prioritize adding value before shooting your shot.
Here are some quick tips for networking in the music business:
- First impressions matter – Make sure your social media is on-point. Write a proper bio and showcase all your best content at the top of your feed before sending a DM.
- The sauce is in the follow up – Be careful here. You don’t want to be annoying. But remember that people are busy and distracted. Sometimes, catching a person at the right time with a genuine follow up can work wonders.
- Be consistent – Doing cold outreach for 1 day and quitting will get you nowhere. Remember there’s no substitute for hard work – networking is a grind, and you need to be intentional about it.
- Be specific – Know exactly what you want, and keep your messages short and clear.
- Timing – Perfect the art of writing cold emails, cold DMs, and understanding when to shoot your shot.
- Go around roadblocks – “Demo submissions” died a long time ago. Label A&Rs won’t accept unsolicited music — they are too heavily spammed and bombarded. Find a warm intro, or leverage a mutual connection to work your way in the door.
- Beware of scams – The music industry is notorious for various types of schemes that target upcoming artists. Everything from fake music promotion, consulting from ex-big wigs, pay for song feedback, ineffective online services.
10. Develop a Killer Live Show
The primary purpose of performing live is NOT to get signed, however it can increase your odds of being noticed by label A&Rs.
The primary purpose of performing live is to connect with your audience and fans in a way that’s more meaningful than doing it online.
Now let’s be real, the days of being “discovered” at open mics are long gone. Don’t expect a label A&R to walk into your set and offer you a contract. However, an impressive live show could help you land a major label meeting.
Here are some quick tips for a killer live show:
- Align to the audience – Cater to the audience and environment. Don’t treat a bar or lounge performance the same way you’d treat a festival performance.
- Choose the right songs – The type of event itself should dictate your setlist, but you need to have hyper-awareness about ensuring your music matches the vibe.
- Stage presence – Connect with the audience. Body language and eye contact matters. Don’t give off a nervous vibe, because the audience will notice.
- Be technically prepared – Never make excuses. Make sure your instruments are tuned, your soundcheck is done, and everything is in order.
- Show love to your bandmates – This demonstrates humility and showmanship. The audience will recognize and applaud your appreciation for your fellow mates.
- Show love to the headlining act – If you are opening for a more well known artist, make sure to shout them out and show love. This is a major key to earning the audience’s respect.
- Be in shape physically & vocally – You need to look and play the part. That means cardiovascular conditioning and taking care of your voice.
- Don’t piss off the sound guy – Avoid being bossy, pretentious or annoying. Treat the sound technician with respect. The quality of your gig depends on it.
- Don’t “cup” the microphone – This is the number one way to create a muffled sound with lots of feedback and screeching.
- Don’t annoy the audience – Avoid talking about controversial topics like politics, sex or religion. If you are performing for a liberal crowd, don’t push republican rhetoric. Use common sense and read the room.
- Don’t always expect to make money – Especially at the beginning of your music career, you will be doing shows to build brand awareness, gain exposure and capture new fans.