record label

What’s a record label looking for?

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These five questions are ones a record label needs answers to if you hope to get attention and a potential deal.

If you missed any of the previous posts or videos in this series exploring the pros and cons of being signed to a label versus remaining independent, you might want to read “Should you sign a record deal or stay independent?” and “The pros and cons of a major-label record deal” or check out the videos on our YouTube channel first.

Today, I want to address two critical questions about signing a deal with an indie or major record label.

Number one: Who, and what, is a label looking for when signing an artist?

Number two: How do you set yourself up to maximize your chances of being approached by a label?

I get emails and messages from artists that go something like, “My music’s great — I’m ready to be on a label. How do I do that?”

You’ve got to make the record label come to you

For as long as there has been a music industry, the odds of getting signed to a label just by submitting a demo are infinitesimally small. What you need to do is to position yourself so that the label will come to you.

OK, but how on Earth do you do that? Well, let’s start by asking the question of what a record label is looking for. And it may not sound romantic or artistic or creative, but since a label is first and foremost a business that needs to make a profit, every label is looking to sign an artist they think can sell and stream enough music to make them a profit.

If you’re really lucky and find a label willing to focus on your development as an artist, they may not even need to make a profit right off the bat on your first album, but they certainly will need to make a profit off your music during the term of your contract.

So, what makes a label think that signing you will make them a profit? Here are five questions a label needs answered in order to be interested in your act.

1. What have you accomplished so far?

For starters, the label is looking at what you’ve already done as an artist and what you have accomplished.

  • How many recordings have you released?
  • How many social media followers do you have?
  • Do you have an active mailing list? How big is it?
  • How many people do you draw to your live performances?
  • How many streams have you racked up?
  • What about YouTube views? How many YouTube subscribers do you have?

Basically, if you’re already successful as an independent artist, they will be interested. If you’ve been toiling alone in the studio, don’t perform live, and just hope they’ll love your great demo, your chances of getting signed are pretty much zero.

You see, the old music industry dream of “record a great demo, submit it, and get signed” was exactly that: it was a dream. It never really existed. Today, every artist has to prove they can create magic on their own and build their own fan base. Only then, when you can prove it with your stats, will the label be interested in you.

2. Do you have any momentum?

Beyond just accomplishment, a label today is looking for artists who have positive forward momentum. It’s not just how big your fanbase is, but how fast it’s growing. If you’re a band with a lot of buzz, labels will want to get in on the action. Which is why, for many artists, it takes several singles and albums to finally get signed. Each subsequent release should drive more streams and sales than the ones before to show you have positive momentum.

3. Got talent?

Of course, having talent is a given, right? Yes, but the label needs to like your music and they need to think you’ve got the goods as an artist. Of course, as we all know, taste is subjective. One A&R rep may not think you’ve got what it takes while another may think you’re just perfect.

4. Are you a fit?

Beyond talent, a label needs to know that you fit in with their existing roster and with their goals. That includes not only the genre of music you play, but also (to touch on a sensitive topic) things like your age. There are lots of older artists who still dream of getting signed, and while that’s not impossible, it does greatly depend on your style of music. I mean, if you’re hoping for pop stardom or hip hop or EDM or any of the big mainstream genres that appeal to young audiences and you’re past your mid-20s, your odds of getting signed are not great. Now, there certainly are some niche genres where age is less of a factor. Blues, jazz, maybe some world rhythms and others, but for traditional, mainstream pop, fair or not, youth is the name of the game.

5. Are you ready to work hard?

All the talent and promise in the world aren’t worth a bucket of warm spit if you’re not prepared to work hard. Whether you’re independent or on a label, you are the one who stands to benefit most from your success. So, you have to be prepared to work for it. Can a label see the hustle you’ve got from your accomplishments so far? Can they see the work that you’ve put in? Have you networked extensively in the industry? Are you actively engaging with your fans on social media? Are the streets papered with your flyers whenever you’re performing? Do you send out regular email updates to your fan list?

6. Do you have a unique angle?

There is a sixth factor that can come into play as a sort of wild card: Do you have a special or unique “angle” that helps get you noticed?

What do I mean? Well, Kiss had their makeup and GWAR had their cartoon-like outfits. Is there anything a little different, a little special, that makes people notice you just a little more? A look, an unusual sound, a compelling story that you can tell, an unusual background — things like that can help drive label interest along with the other five traits mentioned above.

Is getting signed right for you?

What does this all mean for you? When are you actually ready to be signed? Well, there’s no one single formula, but generally, you need to be an artist who has several releases out with an established and growing fan base with good chops — you know, talent — for performing and composing, with a track record of drawing fans into your orbit with an established marketing and social media presence.

Does that mean that if you don’t have all of these things, you’re unsignable? No, of course not. We see lightning strike from time to time with an unknown singer getting a big record deal. But the best, most reliable path to a label contract is to start doing your own music as an indie artist. To market your music, build that fanbase, grow those streams, and get discovered. Of course, at that point, once you’re a successful, established independent artist with your own fanbase that you’re fully monetizing, does it make sense to sign to a label and give up as much as 90 percent of your royalties to someone else?

I’ll leave that for you to ponder.

Watch more great videos on the Disc Makers YouTube channel.


Tony van Veen is the CEO of DIY Media Group, the parent company of Disc Makers and BookBaby. As a college student, he played in indie bands, created his own LPs, cassettes, and t-shirts, and sold them at shows. Today, he collects CDs, vinyl LPs, and concert t-shirts to support the artists he loves.

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