How to get a record deal
How does one go about getting a record deal? If you’ve followed American Idol or any other talent competition, you’ve seen the tens of thousands of aspiring and sometimes multi-talented singers waiting sometimes days to endure a grueling audition. As some industry insiders would tell you, that’s the “easy way” to get a record deal!
So what do you need to get a record deal?
Preparation to get a record deal
1. Talent: Talent – like beauty – is in the eye of the beholder. If you have seen the early rounds of the Pop Idol auditions, you know that there are a lot of well-meaning, but moderately talented people out there who think they have talent. Before you invest thousands of dollars and years of your life into pursuing the dream of becoming a Rock star, try to get honest and constructive criticism from professional sources. There are a number of good song critique services that will listen to your demo and critique it. But you should also ask people outside your immediate circle of friends for their honest feedback. If you have talent but are still in need of help to become world-class, hire a professional vocal coach or choreographer to get you to that next level. After all, the competition isn’t sleeping and is trying to get better all the time.
But the ability to sing is not enough! Can you dance? Can you perform live with a band in front of thousands of people? Even if an A&R executive likes your demo recording, you have to proof in multiple live showcases that you have a commanding stage presence and can perform live.
2. A Professional Demo: It’s not uncommon for A&R executives to receive dozens if not hundreds of unsolicited demo CDs every week. If you think your average A&R executive can hear the beauty of your voice on a home-made demo recorded on a 4-track, think again. The simple piano or guitar + your vocals demos are long passé. If you want to have a realistic chance at impressing the spoiled ears of A&R executives, you need a full-blown, world-class production – if not master-quality – demos that could be released on radio tomorrow. Don’t leave anything up to imagination, because your competition doesn’t. Make it easy for an A&R executive to say yes. In fact, it’s not uncommon for serious artists to spend several thousands of dollars to record professionals demos.
What kind of songs you need? Industry rumor has it that you need 3 original hit singles to get a record deal. After all, it comes down to the music and it’s not easy to write a hit single. Again, don’t rely on your own judgment but actively solicit honest feedback from professionals. Another (free) option is to post your songs on Broadjam.com, Garageband.com and other services that allow you to get feedback from peers. If you don’t have good song material, you should approach composers and publishers and try to get good songs.
Finally, you need a professional photo portfolio. Home-made shots won’t cut it. You actually need to think about the image you want to portray and hire a professional image consultant, photographer and make-up artist for the photo shoot. Again, all of this can be very costly, but that’s the investment you have to make to impress an A&R executive.
Approaching a record label
You have the talent, you have a great professional demo, now what?
First things first, don’t send your demo to a record label without a proper introduction! For legal liability reasons, the vast majority of record labels do not accept unsolicited material. Your packages will be returned unopened, or in the worst case scenario, discarded. So don’t even try. Instead pursue the following avenues:
1. Subscribe to casting sheets: There are a few casting sheets like the Bandit Newsletter and Taxi that publicize submission opportunities. Those are decent alternatives if you don’t have contacts in the music business. But to be honest, we haven’t heard of a major act that was signed as a result of a submission to one of those casting sheets.
2. Retain a music attorney: Reputable music attorneys maintain good relationships with record labels, and can introduce you to an A&R executive or, at the very least, forward your material to them. But to maintain a good reputation, music attorneys will not represent just anyone and will do some quality control on their end. After all, they want record labels to take them seriously and maintain long-term relationships, so your demo better be good! To retain a music attorney, expect to pay an upfront retainer of $5,000 to $10,000. Some attorneys will also take a client for a percentage of all revenues, usually between 5% and 20% of all revenues.
3. Find a music producer. Like music attorneys, good music producers work closely with A&R executives and oftentimes have direct access to key decision makers at record labels. The easiest way is to hire a music producer to produce your demo. That allows you to work with them closely and for the music producer to see how good you are. For a quality 3-track demo, expect to spend anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000. For an introduction to a label, a producer will also expect anywhere from 5% to 20% of any signing bonus.
4. Get a manager. Good managers – like music producers and music attorneys – also cultivate relationships with record labels. But please, verify their credentials and get references from their existing clients. If they have never placed an artist, chances are that they are not as well-connected as they should be. Again, expect to give up 10% to 20% of your revenues. It is not uncommon for the top management companies to ask for a 2-year exclusive management contract.
5. Get a publisher. Publishers work closely with record labels and A&R executives on a daily basis. They know what music and type of artists are in demand, and are trying to place as many songs in their catalogue as possible. As a result, they like to work with singer/songwriters who write and perform their own material. If the publisher owns a piece of the publishing, they get more commercial releases. A publisher will sometimes sign a singer/songwriter if they believe that a singer/songwriter has a realistic shot at getting a record deal.
6. Attend trade shows. The easiest way to get in front of an A&R executive is to attend one of the big trade shows where A&R executives, publishers and producers meet several times a year to do business, get to know other executives, and meet new artists. The trade shows are usually very expensive because they only want to attract serious industry professionals. Some of the best trade shows are:
MIDEM in Cannes, France – http://www.midem.com
South by Southwest in Austin, Texas – http://www.sxsw.com/
Please note that it can be very expensive to attend these shows. Expect to pay up to $1,500 for the ticket to get into the trade show. That is in addition to flights, hotel and other expenses you have to incur to attend the show.
7. Build a buzz. This is the “hard way” and we applaud the many hard-working artists like No Doubt and Jason Mraz that have earned success the hard way. Some of today’s hottest acts started out playing in small venues, coffeehouses, clubs, college campuses, and high school gyms and slowly built a fan following. Master P is said to have sold thousands of CDs out of the trunk of his car! A&R scouts frequent these bars, usually in music hot beds like London, Los Angeles, NYC or Atlanta and observe how music lovers react to new artists. Once the buzz is there, the record deal is not far behind. Cost: Potentially, several years of your life.
8. Self-release your album. If you have the financial resources, you can also release your album yourself. iTunes allows you to release your album directly to the public at almost no cost. However, you need spend time and money on marketing your album. If you have access to a lot of capital, you can also approach an indie or a major record label and “rent” their distribution capabilities. Cost: Several tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Whatever avenue you choose to pursue your dream, never give up!
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