Tech Tip:5 Reasons Deals Aren't Signed
After struggling for years to land a record deal formyself and later for the artists I've come to represent, I've made up a list of reasons why I think most artists don't get signed. Although this list first started out with about 20 reasons, I've since narrowed it down based upon my conversations with A&R reps, other band managers, and my own first-hand experiences in this business. Some are entirely independent of each other and some work closely together, but all, in my opinion, are equally important. See if you agree:
Out of all the reasons why you're still not signed, this one is the most controversial and subjective and could get me into lots of trouble. But the truth is the truth so let me rant on, please!
Let's face it, all of us at one time or another have heard a new artist on the radio or MTV and wondered, "Why the hell are they signed and I'm not? They suck!" But when it all comes down to it, more often than not, that artist was signed because of their incredible skills in either the musicianship category (see Yngwie Malmsteen) or because they write memorable, catchy pop songs (see Matchbox 20). It's easy to lash out against bands that have made it before you, but stop and think before you criticize. Are your songs memorable like theirs? Can you write a song that lasts no longer than 3 minutes (remember, the Beatles were masters at the 2-minute pop classic)? Do you really know your instrument? Have you played it longer than 2 years? Are you serious about your craft? Do you know what a hook is?
These kinds of questions are difficult to ask but are important in helping you assess the real reason why you're still not signed--even when you've done everything else there is to do to get noticed.
Take a songwriting course at your local community college; buy as many "How-To" books as you can; network with other songwriters and partner with them (you'll learn a lot from your fellow songwriters); listen to as much current music as possible and fine-tune your hooks to reflect current musical trends; join a listening service like TAXI and get valuable feedback from their A&R staff (I'd highly recommend this); and most importantly: Play, Practice, Play, Practice... you'll only get better at what you're doing and eventually the right people will take notice. Trust me on this one.
Yep, it still happens today. Musicians still get signed because of pure Luck (but obviously the talent aspect is already in place for the artist)--being in the right place at the right time. Even with all the hard work you've put into your music, your chances of getting signed are still pretty small and something like Luck, which is totally out of your control (but maybe not--read on), plays a big part in getting noticed.
But here's where I think you can take control of Fate and use it to your advantage. Place yourself in Luck's way. Go to places and events that you know will be magnets for industry contacts and network. Have that super-duper polished, clearly labelled demo-tape (don't forget to put your name and number on the outside of the tape case) ready to be passed on to them in case the opportunity arises. Create the opportunity. Do what it takes to get noticed. Re-locate to a major metropolitan area if you have to--this isn't necessary, but don't let anyone fool you, it helps! Go where there are going to be people in a position to check your act out first-hand and sign you. Places like Los Angeles, New York, Nashville, Atlanta, Toronto and London are teaming with A&R scouts and record label executives eager to find the "Next Big Thing." Who knows, you could be that next big thing and chances are better if you go where the action is and create the opportunity for Luck.
This area covers promotional-materials presentation and band image presentation. Both, in my opinion, are just as important and crucial to getting noticed and both are often neglected by unsigned musicians.
I've seen a lot of press-kits in my day. Some good, but most of them bad. I'm still amazed at how many bands feel that presentation shouldn't be too high on their priority lists. They believe that their music will just speak for itself. Big mistake.
Remember the old saying about first impressions? A press kit sent off to some far-away A&R office is as good an introduction to your band as a face-to-face handshake with the rep. If you present yourelf in a sloppy, haphazard, you-don't-really-give-a-shit way, then you can bet (depending on just how bad the envelope or package looks) your press kit won't even be opened. Addressing the package to: ATTN: A&R, is another surefire way to get your hard-earned work thrown in the garbage. Spend some money. Buy laser-printer compatible labels and research who you will be sending the package to (it's also a good idea to actually call that person and get permission first to send your press-kit); go to an office supply store and stock up on insulated large envelopes; spend some money on a nice 8"x10" glossy; have someone at your local college's art department design a computer-generated logo for you (crisp black & white line-art is recommended); and here's a BIG TIP: create a logo for your make-believe management company (obviously this one's only for those without formal management representation) and put this on the letterhead of the typewritten note you'll enclose with your press kit. Your cred-factor has just scored major points and you just might get that left foot in the door.
And finally, your Band Image (or your image if it's a solo gig). Whether you want to believe this one or not, it's true that bands with a unique and identifiable look combined with talent and charisma will stand out to A&R reps (and yep, you guessed it, will be more likely to get signed, too). I've just heard a story from a reliable source who says that Sugar Ray initially got their foot in the door at Atlantic because someone there had seen a promotional video of theirs and thought they deserved a demo deal just based off of their image. Now obviously, they've gone on to a much bigger deal that was probably more based on their talent, but it just goes to show you that even during this time of alterna-rock, Image is Everything!
I ran into a friend of mine the other day who had just started managing and up-and-coming local guitar virtuouso. My friend believes he can get this artist signed to a major label based off of his abilities and abilities alone. Too bad the artist only plays neo-classical instrumental pieces (Hello! It's 1999! McFly!). I respectfully told my friend not to hold his breath.
I'm going to be blunt about this one. If you're still doing a genre that's considered old and non-trendy and doesn't sell a lot of records these days by industry standards (and especially one that's been the butt of industry jokes over the past 7 years) than you can bet that A&R rep won't listen past the first 10 seconds of your demo tape (in just enough time to hear your 4 octave banshee scream over dive-bombing tremolo guitar antics). That doesn't mean it's out of the question, it just means... well, good luck! (see #2)
Now, I'm not advocating you should "sell-out" to get signed. What I am saying is that your chances of getting signed will become greater if you pay attention to current musical trends and try to stay one step ahead of them. Wearing spandex pants and spiked hair-weaves and writing songs about "shagging chicks in an elevator" will only get you laughed at today. The same could be true if you still wear flannel and your riffs sound suspiciously Nirvana-ish. And also, avoid putting time-based references and slang in your lyrics--they'll only sound stupid 5 years from now. For example, if you're still sending labels demo tapes with "fly" and "dope" references in your songs, you should probably go back and re-record them without the slang.
Also, something as simple as paying attention to current music production trends can score you big points when you send your demo tape out to labels. For example, 20 years ago, the thing to do with recorded rock drums was to make them sound as dull, compressed and dry as possible. Ten years ago, rock drums were dripping in hall-type reverbs and now it's pretty hip to capture that distinctive "ping" of a piccolo snare with just a hint of room reverb. Sometimes by just applying current production techniques to your demo, you can even make a "shagging" tune sound more... current. Maybe even a little trendy.
How large is your following? How many people have bought your most recent CD? How much press has your music received? How many shows did you play last year? How many people visit your website each day? All of these questions figure into the Buzz Factor.
Although I mentioned that re-locating to a major market helps, it's not entirely necessary if you create a Buzz in your region. Labels will hear about you in a smaller market (but not too small--see number #8) if you've effectively created a Buzz.
Suppose you play constantly throughout the Midwest and areas outside your local market. Suppose that with each stop and each new city you sell a lot of copies of your new CD, and even better, you build a loyal fan-base in those cities that will continue to come to your shows and buy your new releases with each and every visit you make there. Labels will take note of this fast. They're not stupid. They'll want a piece of that action and if you've created a Buzz like this to tip them off (A&R scouts reside in a number of major markets--and some small ones, too--and they do hear about what's going on locally), they'll start coming to your shows with contracts in hand. Guaranteed.
So, send your CD to local and national press for review and stick the positive reviews in your visually-appealing press kit (see number #3). Book as many shows as you can outside your local market and build a strong fan-base. You'll be suprised at who starts calling you back and who shows up at your gigs.
A good manager and music attorney is worth his or her's weight in gold in this business. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Now more than ever it's so important for a band to be represented by someone who is known within the industry and someone who can personally have a demo seriously listened to by a label. Sure, even some majors accept unsolicited tapes every so often, but more times than not, they won't and this is why it's so crucial to establish a relationship with a manager or attorney (or even both concurrently) who can shop your demo to the big boys. There are many ways an unsigned artist can find good representation including business directories like The Music Attorney Registry, The Recording Industry Sourcebook, and the Songwriter's Directory 2000. Check them out but remember, the best attorneys and managers are picky about who they take on so be prepared, polish that demo and make sure they'll even accept your demo unsolicited! These directories will usually indicate who takes unsolicited tapes and who doesn't.
This one might sound like a "no-brainer" but you'd be suprised at just how many artists aren't willing to fully commit to the challenge of getting signed--but yet, they still bitch about other artists getting record deals before them. You know, the artists they yell at on MTV that "suck."
Are you prepared for rejection, hard work, long hours, low wage, minimal recognition, and more rejection? Well, that's what you can expect living the life of an unsigned musician endlessly shopping your music. But don't get me wrong, the rewards are great if you do break through.
But if you're not willing to work hard and make a lot of sacrifices first, don't expect a deal to just fall in your lap later (unless number #2 occurs). Because somewhere down the line, you're going to have to compromise, conform, starve and beg to get your music heard by the right people. It's not easy getting signed and you have to be totally prepared and committed to the struggle in order to make it any easier.
Now I know way back in #2 I said it wasn't entirely necessary to re-locate to a major music market. But remember I also said it definitely helps. And I really do believe that. If you're located in a small town, my strong advice to you is to at least play out often in the nearest major city near you and consider it your "home-base." You're going to sell a hell of a lot more of your CDs, build a mucher bigger fan-base, and attract much bigger press coverage than the small town you currently call home (you know, the town with one bar/tavern/pub that will only spotlight live music of a different genre than what you're doing).
And like I said before, when you create a buzz in a market with enough people around to buy massive quantities of your CD (a figure as low as 5-10,000 units independently sold will start inducing serious label offers), the labels will start showing up at your gigs. Remember, they want what's selling.