Record Labels

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Let’s be honest: affiliation with a record label is one of the most glamorous-sounding aspects of the musician lifestyle.  How many times have you heard a music writer (or perhaps even one of your friends) gush about how So-and-So “got signed”?  While some artists prefer to remain staunchly indie, record labels still wield power over our imaginations.  Culturally, we’ve even come to interpret the union of artist and label as a declaration of legitimacy and success.  But how do record labels work?  How can they help musicians advance their careers?  And, maybe most importantly — is getting signed a worthwhile goal?

What Record Labels Do

Interscope.  Geffen.  Def Jam.  Death Row.  Whether they’re associated with easy-listening crooners, black metal screamers, or a grab-bag of styles, record labels are considered the “home” of the musicians who are signed to them.  The competition to make it onto a label is fierce, and for many musicians, it’s one of the greatest professional goals of their careers.

So why are labels so revered?  British producer Jake Gosling sums it up nicely in a 2012 interview with the Guardian: “…they’ve got marketing teams, press teams, radio pluggers, accounts departments and when you get bigger you need help with that stuff.  You need a good team around you… You can be really creative but not very good at business and marketing.  For example, I don’t know what Leonard Cohen’s business acumen was like.”

Neil Young also has a positive review for record labels as an institution in the business.  “What I like about record companies is that they present and nurture artists,” Young says.  “That doesn’t exist on iTunes, it doesn’t exist on Amazon.  That’s what a record company does, and that’s why I like my record company.”

Record labels are a multifaceted support network for their musicians.  Whether indie or major, labels can provide promotion, arrange interviews with radio stations, manage bookkeeping and finances, coordinate sales and publicity, bolster an internet presence, manage contracts and other legal issues (such as any nasty lawsuits that might crop up), find producers, and develop the artistic look of an album.

A&R: The Label Gatekeepers

Reading up on what record labels do is simple enough, but when it comes to actually getting signed to a label, it’s a case of “easier said than done.”  What does it take?

First, the record label needs to be aware that the band exists.  Much like sports teams send recruiters to eyeball the fresh talent at high school games, record labels have their own representatives whose job is to discover acts that the label might want to sign.  These people are called A&R (Artists and Repertoire) reps, and they function as gatekeepers to the label.  However, while A&R reps are in charge of discovery, they don’t have any actual signing power themselves.  If a person from A&R likes what they see in the band, they then have to convince the president of the label that the band would be a good fit (and a good investment).

Impressing A&R in the first place is tough.  It generally isn’t enough to have one strong point alone.  They look for acts they think can provide the whole package.  Factors A&R reps consider include:

  • Longevity.  How young is the band? Do they have potential to be more than a one-hit wonder?
  • Work ethic.  The artist is talented, but what if they’re lazy?
  • Tour potential.  Do they have the energy to sustain touring?  Will they be able to part from family or other obligations?

A&R is constantly on the lookout for new talent, and they scour a variety of sources.  They might be listening to college radio, digging through the bins at a small music retailer, watching a performance at a club, surfing the internet for songs, or attending a music conference.

Getting Signed

First of all, it’s important to realize the distinction between major labels, and independent labels.  The comparison is similar to commercial VS. non-commercial radio.  Major labels reach larger audiences, have more money to devote to their signed acts, and are generally less willing to take a chance on a band with an unusual sound.  Independent labels aren’t typically as well-known as their big-business counterparts, nor do they typically have quite as much money to pump into promotional efforts, marketing, etc.  However, if you don’t already have a devoted following and a famous name, an indie label may be a more realistic starting point.  It isn’t impossible to break into major labels, but it’s unquestionably the path of greater resistance.

That said, there are things you can do to help your chances of being signed, whatever size label you might be chasing.  For example:

  • Help yourself.  Do everything in your power to promote, promote, promote.  Keep up an active presence on social media sites.  Put up flyers for your gigs.  Have physical demo recordings ready to go.
  • Get outside help.  Could your music benefit from an association with a talent or booking agency?  Do you have any industry connections that could potentially be utilized?
  • Play often.  The first and foremost task of any musician is to play music.  Seize every gig opportunity you can get, no matter how small.  You never know when a friend of a friend of a friend might be in attendance.

Getting signed to a label isn’t easy, and labels themselves have their drawbacks.  But with the right mixture of persistence, talent, luck, research, and effort, you just might accomplish your goal.