For many bedroom producers leaping into the big time feels like jumping blind across a yawning canyon. On one side, you stand with your music, ready to cross the abyss below. On the other, the success you desire awaits you. And while in the digital age, there are plenty of new ways to make it, record labels remain crucial in carrying you onwards.
“Some people believe that labels are dead,” says author and former promoter Pietro Licini. “I think they’re very wrong, especially when it comes to emerging artists. Music labels have surely seen their power reduced by the advent of the Internet, but they still play a major role in scouting and bringing new faces to light.”
That isn’t to say signing with a label guarantees success. In his book, Underground: A guide for emerging DJs and producers, which details the many steps underground dance music artists need to take to break through, Licini says above all, talent matters. But the promotional tools a solid record label can give you can hardly be understated.
“A label still gives a certain endorsement and authenticity to an artist,” says Wez Saunders, Managing Director at Defected Records. With 20 years of experience, and the networks and relationships that come along with it, Defected has the ability to get an artist’s song into the right hands in countries around the world. They have an in-house PR team dedicated to getting your music to the press, which increases exposure and brings more fans to your gigs. Not every label has the resources of Defected, of course, but even a smaller label worth its salt will still give any artist, new or not, a big advantage over going it alone. But there are countless record labels out there — thousands that deal in just techno alone. So how do you find the right one?
“I would say there are three crucial steps,” Licini says. “First, find your own sound. Before finding a label, you need to know who you are — at least musically. Second, listen to a lot of music, and find labels that excite you profoundly, to the point that you really feel you understand what the label is all about. Third, make music that you love, but that is also a balanced between your sound and the label’s identity. It needs to be that magic spot for which you’re not too similar, but not too distant. Innervisions boss Dixon told me once, ‘don’t look back at what the label already released, try to look forward to what is coming next.’”
It should be noted that following these three steps won’t ensure your music gets signed by the label you’re chasing. Sometimes a label, especially if it’s smaller, will have taken on a new artist before you got in touch, and won’t have the resources to bring on another one. Some labels also want new artists to have certain amount of exposure already. Taking on a new artist is a gamble, and signing one with a built in fan-base helps mitigate some of that potential risk. So don’t underestimate the importance of social media. But remember, it’s not always a numbers game.
“Social media has become very important, but I think reach is being overtaken by authenticity and creativity,” Mark Lawrence says. As the former CEO of the Association For Electronic Music, Lawrence has a lengthy history in the music industry, and currently is the A&R for Black Rock Records, along with duties as a publisher and label manager.
Lawrence says algorithms have also begun playing a larger part in risk mitigation, which means the traditional role of an A&R has shifted somewhat in the Spotify age. “There has been a change driven by the algorithms, as the ‘maths’ have taken over and driven a more formulaic approach to commercial success, reducing the human element of creative risk,” he says. “Successful accidents are harder to come by, unless you have clout and courage, perhaps.”
Even good A&Rs still need to have an “ear on current and future sounds,” Lawrence says, and “apply that ear to the music received from current and emerging artists with a view to creating commercial success through creative risk.”
For Vice President of A&R and Artist Development at Atlantic Records, Riggs Morales, that means checking out live shows for any potential act he may sign. “It’s very important, because I have to see if you’re able to entertain a crowd of three, a crowd of a hundred or a crowd of a thousand,” he said.
His colleague at Atlantic, EVP & Head of A&R, Pete Ganbarg, agrees. “The most important thing is to work on developing a strong live show,” he said.
If the A&R has never heard of you, having a strong live show will only get you so far, especially if your goal is getting signed by a major label like Atlantic. So, how do you get a label’s attention? Well, it depends on who you’re trying to reach.
“The first step is to find out who the people are who matter behind a label and find possible connections with them,” Licini says. You don’t necessarily need to try and befriend a label A&R, but tracking down an email address for someone working at the label, as opposed to a generic “email@example.com,” will give you an advantage, Licni says.
“Of course, you also need to be able to catch your addressee’s attention, and sending a copy-and-paste email to thirty different labels will surely fail you,” Licini continues. “Make it personal. Make it real. Be respectful and passionate through your message. Make it like a short story – say who you are, why you fell in love with the label. Mention that epic party when you heard that sound for the first time. By doing so you’ll make sure your message won’t end up in the trash straight away.”
Lawrence agrees. “In the main, a well-researched demo to a personal email without others on copy is key — make it personal, make sure the sounds fit. A demo is a job interview through an email, without a chance to correct yourself.”
Despite how many demos Defected receives, Saunders says “we do listen to about 90 percent of them.” But if you’re thinking of firing off your new tune today, Saunders has some advice for what not to do. “Don’t follow up a demo with another demo. Lots of people do this. They send you one record, you listen to it, they send you another immediately. My thought process is, I assume the first record you sent me was gonna be the best record you could have sent. So if you have another one that follows immediately, I already feel like you’re not sending me your best work.
Don’t rush into it. Take your time. listen to the feedback on why the record isn’t right, because we’ll be honest. If the sound is not right, the quality isn’t quite there, you need to change the drums, the bassline is clashing — whatever it is, listen to what we’re saying and come back to us. Don’t just fire another record immediately.”
As far as what to do, Saunders says you should “always have a streamable link, always enable the track to be downloadable, always mark the tracks correctly, with artist name, track name and email address in the title of the track. Often, I’ll be listening to demos on the move and I’ll go to look at who it is and won’t know who it’s from.” He also says that if you’re a DJ or performer, make sure you road test your music first. “See what the crowd reaction is, try it before you send it,” he says. If you don’t have any gigs coming up, “connect with a DJ you think might play it,” he says. “Send it to Sam Divine, or Dennis Ferrer — whoever it is, see if they’re interested. And then if you do get a bite, tell us who is supporting the record when you send it to us.”
But major labels like Sony, Universal and Warner Music Group (which owns Atlantic), don’t accept demos, so keep in mind that Saunders’ and Lawrence’s advice is only for smaller, independent labels. If you want to reach the majors, there are a few ways of doing so. For instance, Universal points unsigned artists to Spinnup, a digital distribution service that’s often scouted by Universal Music Group’s network of labels. But there’s also another way — virality.
While indie labels may value authenticity, the three major labels and their offshots are often far more risk averse. Signing a viral star all but ensures sales and profits, at least in the short term. But going viral doesn’t always mean the same thing for the same artist — not everyone needs to be like Atlantic’s Bhad Bhabie (you may know her as the Cash Me Outside girl).
Take Billie Eilish. The 17-year-old phenom recently played Coachella. But her rise to fame is largely due to the virality of her first song, “Ocean Eyes.” Written by her brother Finneas O’Connell in 2015, Eilish recorded the song for her dance teacher to choreograph a dance to. She later uploaded the song to SoundCloud, thinking very little of it. The track blew up, getting shared first by music discovery website Hillydilly, amassing 17.5 million plays at time of writing. She was soon approached by Interscope Records (which is owned by Universal Music Group), who released “Ocean Eyes” worldwide in November of 2016. It caught fire in the press, with Chris DeVille of Stereogum saying he could “imagine it becoming a major hit.” He was correct. And her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, was pre-added 800,000 times on Apple Music, the most of any artist to date, helping make Eilish the first artist born in the 2000s to have a number one album.
The road to fame is paved with very few stories like hers. Finding the majors often means first finding an indie willing to take a risk. “The majors tend to tap into a network of indies, managers and tastemakers where they can see tracks and artists already building steam, whereas smaller indies take risks on new artists and different styles,” Lawrence says.
This is where Licini’s advice comes back into play: do your research, find the labels that funnel upwards to the majors, and start sending those emails.
Signing with a label comes with its own set of challenges. Once the contract comes out, Lawrence says you should “be aware of low royalty percentages, high costs deducted against artist share, publishing clauses hidden within the record contract, and no audit clauses.” And when in doubt, ask for help. “Ask an experienced artists, your publisher, a manager or a lawyer to help you with your first steps.”
With these tools in your pocket, you’ll be on the other side of the canyon and on the way to success in no time.