I am a big believer in doing as much legwork on your own as you possibly can before reaching out to music industry executives. That being said, there comes a time in every artist’s career where you’re going to have to approach someone in the industry to get to that proverbial "next level." Let me assure you that there is a right way of doing this and several wrong ways of doing this. Sadly, many artists repeatedly write emails that go right into the trash because of very basic mistakes that can be easily avoided.
Obviously the first and most basic rule of the approach is "Don’t approach someone with a cold email if you can avoid it." Knowing someone who knows the person you are trying to get in touch with can help a great deal. However, I realize that going in with a strong referral isn’t always an option. Consider the five suggestions below when you’re putting together your next cold email.
1) Form Letters
Sure, you may be able to get your message out to hundreds or even thousands of people. But if people feel like you are sending them a form letter (don’t confuse this with a newsletter – that’s a whole other blog post) about a specific need or a desired business relationship, then it’s over. No one likes to feel like they are just a name on a list. And speaking of names on a list, sending an email to yourself and cc-ing rather than bcc-ing everyone won’t win you any favors from people who hold positions where both bot-generated and musician-generated spam mail comes with the territory.
It is perfectly acceptable to cut and paste part of a letter to a certain type of executive, but at least take the time to customize the first few sentences and address them by name. Also, let the person you are contacting know specifically why you are contacting them. What makes you think you are a good fit for what they do and why? Let’s just say you are looking to approach a blogger. Saying something like, "I just read your story on this other artist and I really like the way it was written. I thought that since you liked what they do you might appreciate my new single…" is much more likely to get a response than a press release about your new product addressed to no one in particular.
2) Poor Presentation
This is so common it boggles the mind. I often get emails from people in which their names are not obvious from the email address and not included in the "from" field by their email program. On top of that, they don’t bother to introduce themselves or put any kind of signature indicating who they are or where they are from. From my vantage point, I am getting a message from SlappyMcJellyPants@Yahoo.com. The rest of the email had better be stellar (or at least very funny) for me to consider responding.
As a side note, I’m easy to get a hold of. I am in the business of selling music marketing services, so it is part of my job to be as accessible as possible. That said, it isn’t hard to tell, simply from presentation, who is taking their career and image seriously and who is not. If there are people out there who are having trouble getting a hold of me, then they can forget about people who are really difficult to contact cold like A&R people, music supervisors, and music journalists.
Another huge issue in presentation is spelling and grammar. Look, I’m no grammar Nazi and I would be completely lost without spell check, but reaching out to a stranger for help and then sending them what looks more like a text to your girlfriend is probably not a great idea. This all might sound silly, but I have found a huge correlation between the way people present themselves in email and how together their career is, and I respond to emails in order of the likelihood that I am dealing with someone who is serious (and willing to work!)
Lastly on the presentation front: saying you have talent is meaningless. Executives hear this all day long. The best thing you can do to get someone’s attention is to make a concentrated effort on your pitch prior to crafting any email and running it by friends and peers that can be honest with you. What turns my head is not when people talk about their talent, but when they describe the achievements that they have earned with their talent. Are you drawing well or playing with more established artists? Are you working with anyone who has great credits? Did you win a local contest? Do you have a ton of social media followers and an obvious dialogue with fans online? Do you have a mailing list with a ton of people on it? These are the things that will get people’s attention.
3) Lack of Research
You can much more easily begin a personal relationship with someone when you have specifics about their job function and their professional history. With blogs, LinkedIn, and any of the other resources available online these days, there is no excuse not to have a good understanding of what people have done in the past and on which projects they have worked. Knowing these things can go a long way in adding a personal touch to the email you are sending someone. I am always flattered that people took the time to read about me before reaching out. Admittedly I’m usually annoyed when people don’t bother to read anything and just ask for help without knowing who I am or what I do. And in my case, all that information is provided in a link right next to the contact link. I get intoxicated calls on my Google Voicemail at 3am on a Sunday from people wanting a record deal (from me … even though I don’t run a label) or want me to manage them (I don’t manage artists). My favorite call to date was someone asking for Jay-Z’s phone number (which I still don’t have) and then offering me 50% of the guaranteed collaboration that would result from me giving it to him.
Beyond the research on any one individual, it is important that you also research understand the mindset of a person who is the gatekeeper (music supervisors, A&R people, publishers, major journalists etc.) of big opportunities. Firstly, they can’t possibly return all the correspondences or listen to all of the music they get. Second – and this is especially true with big organizations – virtually no single executive makes 100% of the decisions about a song getting placed in a movie, getting a major write up in a big magazine, or getting someone signed to a record label or publisher.
Damn near every executive these days has a boss, a client, or someone else who guards the purse strings to contend with before pulling the trigger on a decision that could really help your career as an artist. The second part of the job is important to note also, because the easiest part of a gatekeeper’s job is getting in a steady flow of music to pick from. The hardest part of a gatekeeper’s job is keeping a gatekeeper job. It’s easy to think of these people as people who sit around listening to music all day on a pedestal and then giving a Ceasar-esque thumbs up or thumbs down. The politics and juggling involved with keeping everyone happy internally and making sure your external relationships are sound in case you are out of a gig (there is a high turnover rate with creative jobs like this) are almost full-time jobs in and of themselves. Long story short, like these people or hate them, it’s important to know before you approach them that they are often pretty stressed out.
4) Unreasonable Expectations
The next time you go out on a first date… or hell, the next time you encounter someone attractive from a distance, you should briskly walk up to them, say "Hello my name is _____," and while heading towards them at an uncomfortable pace (preferably without letting them reply to your hello), you should attempt to French kiss them. This is actually best done when starting with your tongue fully extended from a distance of 20 yards or more at a full sprint.
Actually, don’t try this. I am not responsible for the whiplash, broken jaw, or harassment suits that may follow if you do.
Now you might be thinking, "Wow that was unexpected/inappropriate/ scary…" Yes, indeed. It is. My point? Well, my point is that bluntly asking for a huge favor, a contract, a partnership, a record deal, or any other lasting business relationship from a stranger in a first email is equally inappropriate (though considerably less creepy). I can’t tell you how many emails I get without any information, background, or even someone’s name that say something to the effect of "Help! I am really talented and I need you to manage me." Not that I manage people, but if I did, I would I want to partner with someone who was willing to blindly decide that I was the one to guide their career without having met me or had a phone call? Boundaries, people!
5) Undefined Goals
Vague emails are really hard to respond to. A very common request I get (and I’m sorry, I know I reference this a great deal) is about "getting to the next level." Do I understand in a general way what it means? Sure. Do I know specifically what people mean by that and what they need or if I am a good fit for getting these people to said next level? No, I don’t have a clue.
Before asking someone else, make sure that you have clearly defined your goals. Many people respond with knee-jerk responses like, "I want a publishing deal," or "I need a booking agent." It’s important to break down these wants into what most people actually mean. What people forget is that for every brilliant partnership, there are plenty of lousy ones. And many of the lousy ones result from people not taking the time to really think through their needs and desires.
When you say, "I need a publishing deal," don’t you really mean, "I want someone to help me get my music placed in film and TV and arrange collaborations and co-writes with other artists I like and respect?" Maybe it means something else to you. But whatever it means to you, write it out for yourself. Be specific without making a plan that hinges on the participation of a person or a business to which you don’t have access.
Of course, it need not apply to only publishing deals; it can be for whichever goals you have for yourself. One of the most encouraging things you can do in the eyes of a gatekeeper is to demonstrate that with or without their help, you are making progress in getting where you want to go.
I realize I am no longer a gatekeeper but I certainly sat behind a desk where dreams went to die for many years. Still – if you would like to check out a more current A&R person’s vantage point on the approach check out my interview with Jason Jordan VP of A&R at Hollywood Records.
Rick Goetz is a music consultant and musician coach by way of a fifteen year career at major record labels and various online and television projects. For more articles like this you can visit his site, musiciancoaching.com.