The unconventional guide to getting signed by a record label

The unconventional guide to getting signed by a record label

Do you have great music and want to score a record deal? Or have you always wondered how artists got through to big labels and ended up getting signed? In this post, I will teach you my foolproof method for scoring a record label deal and set you up with a sweet checklist of to-do’s which you can pick up right here.

It’s a little unconventional and it requires hard work, but it sure as hell works. With this approach, I have signed tracks of hardly known artists to internationally reputed labels. Even when the artists and I were just freshly starting out in the game.

The Fundamentals

Before you do anything, we have to sort out the basics. These are the things that have to be right before you even attempt getting in touch with a record label.

The Music

This is where it all begins and is the essential part of the puzzle. You have to make sure that your music is absolutely mind-blowingly awesome. These are steps you should take to guarantee it truly is.

Get feedback
Whenever you reach that point on a track where you think that it’s ready to send it to a record label, you need to pause and ask for feedback.

Send it over to people whose opinion you value, but not your friends or relatives. They will likely be yeah-sayers. You don’t need that. You need hard criticism.

Take it all in and work with it. Not everything that others consider wrong with it has to be corrected, but if you get multiple people pointing out the same things, it should start ringing some bells.

Polish the sound
Now that you have ironed out most of the track’s issues, you need to make sure it sounds as good as it possibly can – I’m talking about mixing and mastering here. These final touches can make a world of difference…. even if you’re not great at it, a decently mixed and mastered track is going to sound miles and miles better than one that’s not.

Now, if you’re a producer, then you probably know how to put down a decent mix and master. If not, then I highly suggest you either send your polished track over to a friend who does know this stuff, get it sent over to an audio engineer or learn how to do this yourself.

My co-founder over at Heroic, Tim, has written a great guide on mixing & mastering.

The Presentation

You know the saying ‘First impressions last’? It’s true… and highly relevant when you’re trying to get signed.

When you manage to get a label to listen to your music, chances are that they are going to catch a glimpse of your online appearance. And if they don’t, they will definitely look you up if your music has intrigued them. You want to make sure that the impression you leave is as good as can be.

Here’s the minimum of things that you should have sorted out:

Socials
Set up accounts under your artist alias on at least Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and SoundCloud. Make your specific URLs the same for each platform… so if you’re www.facebook.com/thebestbandever, you want to try and have www.soundcloud.com/thebestbandever too.

Then, interlink everything. All your profiles should have links to your profiles on other platforms, your website, and contact email. If you have a manager you can replace your email with theirs, and if you also have agents you’ll want to include their information as well.

You can also throw in a branding marker unique to yourself next to these links to keep your SoundCloud looking interesting.

Official Website

You should have your own .com domain. It just looks more professional.

If your band name is TheBestBandEver, try going for www.thebestbandever.com. You can get .com domains for as little as $10, but with a little trick I’m about to teach you, you could score one for less than $3 a year. First, you want to make sure that the domain you’re after is not occupied yet…. do that by going to GoDaddy and executing a domain search. Hopefully, you’ll find a .com that you like. Don’t even bother going for anything else than .com.

Now, you want to find a discount coupon for GoDaddy. Go to FatWallet or RetailMeNot and find a code that offers an 80%+ discount on .com domains. Then use this code during the checkout process at GoDaddy. Booya, you’ve just scored yourself a domain. Now all you need is a website on there… you can build one yourself or run with WordPress or Tumblr if you’re not that

Booya, you’ve just scored yourself a domain.

Now all you need is a website on there… you can build one yourself or run with WordPress or Tumblr if you’re not that tech-savvy.

Branding
You also have to have an established brand that’s visually pleasing as well.

You should have a logo, some decent photographs and possibly artwork for all your releases. Make sure these are all set up correctly on your social media sites and website. If you have mediocre designs or did a

If you have mediocre designs or did a half-assed attempt at crafting something yourself, ditch it. You’re better off with no design than ugly design – it looks cheap. Ideally, you want to find a designer who can specifically cater to your needs and with whom you can develop a

Ideally, you want to find a designer who can specifically cater to your needs and with whom you can develop a long-term working relationship. Most good designers are expensive though. Alternatively, there are a few ways you can get

Alternatively, there are a few ways you can get good designs for a reasonable price; you either find a designer whose willing to work with you for free or cheap, or use design competition websites. For the prior, you can browse EDM producer forums as they often have categories where beginning designers are enthusiastically giving away free designs to practice their trade. Try looking at

For the prior, you can browse EDM producer forums as they often have categories where beginning designers are enthusiastically giving away free designs to practice their trade. Try looking at EDM District’s Community forums.

Then there are design competition websites – these are sites where you can post a job offering, for example for a logo design, offer a set price, and a bunch of designers in the website’s community will pitch designs to best match your requirements.

Once your job posting expires, you get to choose the design you like the most, and that designer gets the money. Check out 99designs and Crowdspring.

I can’t stress enough how essential these basic things are. If you have checked and sorted out everything, you should now have a decent foundation built and you’ll look more professional to both labels and fans.

Thinking Like A Label

To increase your odds of getting signed, you have to understand what labels do, want and experience. Because when you do, you can cater their needs way better.

Step into their shoes with me.

First and foremost, a record label is a business. They have operating costs (for distribution, marketing, design etc) and need to generate revenue to cover those costs.

Everything in excess is their profit.

They generate this revenue by selling music, collecting mechanical royalties (cash they get when people play, buy and stream their tracks), and sometimes through selling merchandise and hosting events.

Whether focused on mainstream or underground, they have to make ends meet. With this in mind, think about the type of artists they want to sign – artists that help them make money. The factors that contribute to that are great music, a (big) fanbase, good marketing, and dedication. The better you score on these points, the more interesting you are to sign.

The Art of A&R

Good labels receive tons of demos. They often have A&R’s (Artist & Repertoire) working for them. These are the people that scout talent and listen to the demos. Top notch commercial labels such as Dim Mak, Mad Decent and Spinning Records receive over 100 demos DAILY. These pile up so quickly that it’s nearly impossible to keep up with. Some bigger labels go through their demos once a month, but I know of a few who have just given up on checking their general demo boxes and mail folders altogether. Instead, they find and sign music through their network. This is a hugely important notion which I’ll treat later in this article.

They often have A&R’s (Artist & Repertoire) working for them. These are the people that scout talent and listen to the demos.

Top notch commercial labels such as OWSLA, Mad Decent, and Spinnin’ Records receive over 100 demos DAILY.

These pile up so quickly that it’s nearly impossible to keep up with.

Some bigger labels go through their demos once a month, but I know of a few who have just given up on checking their general demo boxes and mail folders altogether. Instead, they find and sign music through their network. This is a hugely important notion which I’ll address further on.

Download a step-by-step checklist on how to get signed to a record label

Essentially, all labels are looking for a hit.

It doesn’t necessarily need to be a ‘mainstream’ hit, but something that’s good enough and unique to catch a lot of attention. Music that has the power to make them and their artists stand out.

Next to that, there’s something else that’s becoming increasingly important – independent power.

With the rise of all the social networks and other online tools, it’s easier than ever to market yourself independently as an artist.

This effect has come at a cost for labels though… they no longer control the only channels through which music is distributed and are thus more dependent on the marketing power of artists themselves. As a result, labels are increasingly looking for artists that would be able to make it ‘big’ by themselves; with big and dedicated fan bases, unique marketing styles and great ways of branding themselves. This is becoming a hugely important part of the equation. They want to pick up the acts that could go ‘viral’ without them.

As an artist looking for a deal, you should be aware of these cornerstones. Great music is rarely all it takes when you’re looking to get signed. That’s just the reality. To illustrate, Deadmau5’s label Mau5trap stated earlier that they no longer sign artists

To illustrate, Deadmau5’s label Mau5trap stated earlier that they no longer sign artists who are not totally self-sufficient, regardless of musical quality.

The more aware you are, the better you can prepare yourself.

The Pitch

Before we get to the real work, it’s essential that you determine exactly who you’re going after.

The Groundwork

Make a top five list of the labels that you’d want to release with the most. It is important that these labels are compatible with your music… it’s pointless to send dubstep to an indie rock label. You know what I mean.

The more your music fits their style, the better. Create this list on your computer using Word, Excel, Evernote or something alike.

Then, track them down. Research all the places where the labels are located.

For each of them, find their YouTube channel, SoundCloud, Facebook Page, Twitter account, website and email addresses.

A good way to start doing this is by searching Google with the label’s name. If they are decently organized, the first page of Google should lead you to everywhere you need. Also, you will probably be able to find links to all their channels on their website or Facebook Page.

Make sure to cross reference everything – you might find an email address on their website that’s not on their FB page, etc.

Now it’s time to figure out who is running the show at these labels. You’ll want to know the names and email addresses of the founders, directors or A&R’s. The bigger the label, the harder this will be.

You might have already found some of this information in the previous step. If you did, good. Proceed regardless.

As you can imagine, there are many people that want to know this information. Try all of these steps until you’re absolutely certain that you’ve totally figured out who you’re dealing with and how to contact them. Make sure to take notes!

Label Website

Look for the about and contact pages to see if there are any function titles or personally addressed emails available on official label sites. Possibly, there will be a biography on the site giving you more information.

You can also use Google Chrome plugins like Hunter to assist in finding emails. Hunter is a free tool that scans website cache for email addresses and provides you with a list of emails on the site.

 

As you can see, I used Hunter on the OWSLA website which picked up a few personal emails plus two general emails.

Most companies use a standard firstname@website.com email – like OWSLA does. Bigger companies may use [email protected]but for the most part, it’s pretty standard.

Now that you have the email, it’s important that you trace the source back to somebody relevant. Cold-emailing the OWSLA graphic designer won’t make it any easier for you to get signed. To do that, just Google “firstname OWSLA LinkedIn“, that’ll usually take you their LinkedIn page which will most likely have their job title and a few key responsibilities.

Alternatively, you can just start with LinkedIn right off the bat.

LinkedIn

Hunter integrates perfectly with LinkedIn, so if you’re not having much luck on the official website, you can head straight to LinkedIn.

Make sure you have an account, it’s free to sign up and doesn’t require much customization, and then simply search for the record label’s name in the search bar. Look for them as a ‘company.’

Once you’ve found them you’ll be able to see a list of employees with their job titles and some basic descriptions. Click on a relevant A&R profile and Hunter should find their email for you momentarily. More on LinkedIn searching here in the ‘Who to pitch to’ section.

Social Media

If you’re having no luck with Hunter you can go straight to the source sometimes. While searching on social media is unlikely to give you an email right away, it should be a good starting point for a full name to work with.

Facebook’s search tool is an extremely powerful to find people.

Navigate to the “Find Friends” feature and check out the right-hand side menu for a whole ton of options. You’ll want to scroll down to “Employer” and then enter the name of the specific record label you’re trying to reach. If the employees have assigned the label as their employer on Facebook, then they will show up in the search results.

Note that anybody on Facebook can list any company as their job. So when you find a profile, be sure to vet them to make sure they actually look like they work there.

The Facebook page and SoundCloud profiles of the record labels tend to have some information as well that could prove useful.

For SoundCloud look at the bio on the right hand side – you’ll usually have to click “show more” to find more information.

For Facebook, navigate to the “about” page. With a little luck, there will be more contact details there. Sometimes you can even find a reference to the page’s owner there. Look

Consolidating The Data

If you’ve found the names of the label’s employees then you should repeat these investigatory steps for them as individuals. Most of these people are actively engaged in social media and

By virtue of the business, a majority of these people will be public-facing people who are actively engaged in social media and networking and will have personal Twitter accounts, Instagram accounts, Facebook accounts and maybe even their own websites. Track it all down.

By now you should know who are running the label and where to reach them. If not, then you either need to dig deeper, or think of more inventive ways to uncover (contact) information. Alternatively, you could try getting in touch with people whom are likely to know more and ask them (such as artists releasing with the label or their management).

Earlier we discussed how the bigger a label gets, the more demos they receive. Their A&R’s will hardly pay attention to the public demo folder and are more inclined to sign tracks that they’ve gotten through their own network, discovered on the web or by visiting shows. Sometimes that public folder is only checked once a month. By an intern.

Assuming you’re doing everything you can to have the best music, marketing, branding and social media going that you possibly can, there’s one single thing that you can do that will make a world of difference – Make friends with the right people.

Growing these relationships can be a tough task though. Particularly if they’re brand new.

Especially early in the relationship, you’ll need to interact to build familiarity.

Constantly.

People tend to recognize things, be it brands or faces, once they’ve seen them 2 or 3 times. That means that you’ll probably only be recognized from the point where the label has seen your name come around about three times.

If you’ve managed to strike up dialogue, be sure to show genuine interest. 

Focus on the other person. Avoid talking about yourself. Ask relevant questions.

Research what they’ve been up to – social media is great for that. Act on that.

People tend to do more for people they like. This is what we call goodwill. Foster it.

You increase the rate with which you gain this by adding value in your interactions with people.

Give them ideas, criticism, links or comments that could benefit them. Point out something they could have missed. Put in some effort. Make life better for them. They’ll appreciate you for it.

Remember most of all – fortune favors the bold.

Don’t feel afraid to connect with people, regardless of their status, or if they are strangers to you. Good things come from those little risks.

You should apply all of these principles in many of your business relationships. Especially if you want to collaborate with someone, these things go a long way.

Building relationships

The unconventional guide to getting signed by a record label - 2I will show you my approach to establishing new business relationships. Our goal here is to create friends or at least acquaintances. You want them to get familiar with you and need to develop goodwill with them. This will later serve as the basis on which you’ll receive a preferential treatment when submitting tracks.

Download a step-by-step checklist on how to get signed to a record label

Apply this approach with all the the five labels on your list. With a little luck, the people you meet first will make meeting the others easier. Networking is cumulative like that.

Take note that building relationships takes time and that you should start doing this at least two weeks before you submit any music. If you rush things, you might not have had enough time to bond and can not reap the benefits. Also, getting all friendly with people and then asking for things directly afterwards usually isn’t appreciated either.

Apply the following steps for all five labels on your list and their employees.

Connect
You’ve already discovered where to find the label and it’s people. It’s time to connect with them, everywhere.

Follow them on Twitter, like them on Facebook, follow on Soundcloud. If you know the personal names of the employees, try looking for their personal Facebook accounts with the end goal of having them accept your request. They way you do that is by…

Directly Interacting With People
If you found the names of the label’s people, it’s time to start interacting with them publicly

On Twitter, try @replying them regularly. Respond to content, refer them to something they’d appreciate or simply say ‘hi’. These are all easy ways to get a conversation going, but also have the other party recognize your name and handle. In case your attempts on Facebook and Twitter fail and you have an employee’s email address, you could start there. Shoot them an email saying ‘Hi’ and respond to one of their more recent posts or releases. Try and add value. Even mail can prove a great way to start a dialogue.

Once you’ve developed a rapport online (this takes some time) and you feel comfortable enough to chat privately you should send a Facebook friend request. More on the do’s and don’ts of pitching here.

Getting Physical

In case the label or it’s employees are somewhere near you geographically, then I highly recommend that you get physical.

If it’s a decently sized label, I’d simply go with calling up their offices, asking for the A&R, explaining who you are and telling them that you’d love to meet. They will either tell you to send them an email first (in which case you can collect the A&R’s email), or you’ll be able to schedule a meeting straight away.

If they don’t pick up, or if the A&R isn’t in office just keep trying again until you speak to them. People will remember someone who stepped in their office a thousand times more than the dude who was just emailing, so aim for that.

As for the email: keep it short, tell them who you are and add some links to your music.

Make sure to show interest in what they’ve been doing, and that the music you send is compatible with their style. Then ask if you could schedule a meeting, because it’d be nice to put a face to the name. Usually, that’s all it takes to get a meeting. Grow a pair and do it!

Do some bonding
This is your end-all goal. Bond with the label’s people. Make some friends in the process.

Let go of the ‘I have music and really really want you to listen to it NOW‘ mindset and just talk to them. Joke around a little. You’ll see how easy it is to make friends.

That’s what you need to get ahead in this business.

Be consistent
Once you’ve initiated a few conversations, thrown out a few emails, messages and possibly started to get a dialogue going, it’s important that you are consistently communicating. I’m not saying you should stalk them to death, but make sure the fire keeps burning. The longer you talk, the more acquainted you get.

Get friendly, be yourself and invest a load of time. Before you know it, you’ll have developed a little network of people you never thought you’d be in contact with. It’s easy once you get started. When that’s set in place, and you’ve let a little time pass, it’s time to get to the actual demo submissions.

Submitting Music

The unconventional guide to getting signed by a record label - 3We’re finally here! You get to submit some music.

This is the easiest of all the steps we’ve discussed.

I’ll run you through this process in three steps; the (un)spoken rules, preparing for the submission and actually sending it in.

The (Un)spoken Rules

Only submit finished, unsigned, unpublicized original material – that excludes all remixes, edits, reworks, works in progress and also everything you’ve uploaded somewhere publicly already.

Avoid using copyrighted material – unless you have a potential chart topping #1 hit in your hands, labels are not too eager to release music that contains copyrighted material. Clearing it takes a lot of effort and potentially money. Only the big boys clear stuff. The smaller labels either let it slide and hope they don’t get caught, or have to pass on those tracks altogether.

Make it easy for them – good labels receive a lot of music (yeah yeah I’ve said that already). Listening to all that music is a pain in the ass. You need to make this process as convenient as possible for them. Also, there’s always a chance you’re going to be looked over. You need to be precise and persistent to get your stuff heard.

Quality over quantity – do not send more than three tracks at once in a demo submission. If you have more, force yourself to filter out the best. This will increase the odds of the label hearing something that they’ll like. The more tracks are in there, the bigger the chance that they won’t hear your best work immediately, or that it seems like a huge task to go through everything. If you want to submit an EP or Album, I’d suggest creating interest with the best tracks first.

Everyone wants to feel special – including the label. Don’t send a demo submission to multiple labels at once. Especially not when using a personalized approach like we are. Just imagine what would happen if two of them said yes at the same time. That wouldn’t go too well.

Download a step-by-step checklist on how to get signed to a record label

Preparation

Export the right quality – make sure to send tracks in the right format. 320 kbps MP3 is all you need. Lossless file formats such as WAV and AIF are overkill and could ruin your chances of the label even downloading them in the first place.

Use correct file names and ID3 tags – tracks and emails tend to get lost. This is why it’s essential that you use clear and easy to comprehend file names and ID3 tags. The latter is the track info that you can edit in your DAW or in an audio player such as iTunes. You know, the ‘Artist, Track Title, etc’ information.

I recommend that for both filename and ID3, you run with a “Artistname – Track Title (Mix Type) (email address)” format. The label needs to be able to figure out who you are, what track it is and where to reach you, if they were to just find the file somewhere.

Upload a streaming version and a download
No modern label likes to receive tracks attached to emails. They often have email filters set on that filter out mails with attachments, or will simply skip the email altogether.

Just don’t do it.

The preferred method is the combination of a streaming and download link hosted on familiar places. SoundCloud private links or Google Drive links work best here. For Google Drive, make sure if you send over a Google Drive link make sure your track is organized in the right folder before grabbing its share link.

Be sure to change the permissions to make sure that ‘anybody with the link can view.’ You want to make this as painless as possible for the other party – especially if you’re going with a cold email.

For private SoundCloud uploads, make sure all track tags are set correctly and that your email address is in the description. You can grab a shortened ‘sharing link’ from the upload.

The Email Game

Here is where you’ll finally get to put to use all of the research you did earlier.

Start writing a new email and aim for the label A&R or employee that you have the closest relationship with. Chances are even if he can’t give you an affirmative answer he’ll be happy to introduce you to someone who can.

Submission emails should always be straightforward, short, and efficient. Make sure you’re only sending it to a single label and let them know that it’s exclusively for them. Obviously, attach the streaming (private) and download link. The email’s subject line is important too. If you’ve built a decent relationship with an employee, then you could use something like “Thought you’d like this”. If not, then run with a generic subject such as “Demo Submission –

Don’t forget any of the private links you worked so hard to set up, test them all in incognito browser beforehand to make sure the sharing works for anyone with the link. Make sure all of your social and branding are on point before you do. Chances are if somebody opens your email and listens to your music they’ll look you up as well.

The email’s subject line is important too. Always keep it simple, you can never go wrong with “[Labelname Submission]: Artistname – Trackname.”

There’s a whole science to appropriate, non-spammy follow-ups but you should always be patient. If you don’t have a response after a week, it’s alright to send a reminder. If you’re talking frequently over FB or Twitter, then it’s cool to ask about it there. If not, send a follow-up email.

The message should be short and sweet. Something like “Hey A&R, just following up here” will do. For every week that passes and you hear nothing, send another reminder. If you’ve sent two follow-ups (usually in a 2-3 week span) you’ll want to just move on from there. More on follow-ups and even email pitch templates here.

Hopefully, you now scored yourself a deal. In that case, the label should be following up with more information and drafting up a contract. Possibly you’d even be invited to a meeting. If not, you might have been turned down, or just heard nothing. If they’ve given you any feedback, you’d be smart to listen to it. See if you have room to improve. Then, it’s time to move on.

If you didn’t score with the label that was first on your list, it’s time to move on to the next one. Repeat the submission process above, wait, remind and repeat. Hopefully you’ll get lucky, if not, have at it again.

If none of the labels responded you might want to ake a moment to think. If could have been a streak of bad luck but chances are that if you got a negative response from all of those labels, that you have some improving to do.

Is your music as good as it could be? Does it match the quality of your target label’s releases? Did you build a strong enough relationship with its people? Think about it.

If you are absolutely certain that the fault wasn’t yours, then I suggest that you expand your label list from a top 5 to a top 10. Add five more labels you love and repeat the whole process with them. If it doesn’t work out with all of those either, then you really need to go back to the drawing board.

This is it people. All there is to it.

Getting signed really isn’t that hard. It just requires a combination of things: great music and presentation, some friends, a lot of communication and persistence. If you can figure those things out, it will happen for you.

To help you get the job done, I have made a checklist that will run you through all the steps of this process. Download it below.

(Editorial note: We’ve published a guide about negotiating record deals, that you can review when you actually get offered a deal.)

Enjoyed these strategies? Check out my book The SoundCloud Bible, now in its second edition. It is packed with exclusive marketing strategies and ways to get heard.

Have any questions or comments? Leave them below!

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