Submitting to record labels

5 Mistakes You’re Making When You Contact Record Labels

For many artists, landing a record deal is the ultimate goal. Once your band gets signed, you’ll benefit from the label’s distribution networks, promotions team, industry expertise, and connections to Music Journalists and Booking Agents. But with so many artists out there, all assured of their own inherent greatness, what are the chances of getting signed? How can you stand out from the pack and let label executives know you’re ready to take your career to the next level?

Obviously you’re undertaking a Herculean task in trying to get label attention, but here’s some insider knowledge that should help you feel a little better: lots of artists have no idea what they’re doing and make a total mess out of their dealings with labels. Don’t be one of those well-meaning, big-dreaming but completely clueless individuals. Get informed. Know what record companies are looking for, and present yourself as the missing piece of the puzzle. Read on to catch some of the biggest mistakes bands make when contacting record labels, and to learn what you can do to set yourself up as the type of artist labels dream of signing.

1. Not Doing Your Research

This is the cardinal sin in contacting record labels! You wouldn’t believe how many people blindly send their demos out with little regard to whether the label they’re contacting is a death metal label, Christian label or even a record label at all. (Yes, this happens. People send their music to businesses with absolutely nothing to do with the record industry.) Do some research on the artists you love, with a similar sound to you, and find out who has released their records over the course of their careers. If an artist you like is on a major label, look up their discography online and see where they started out. Imagine this scenario: your music has a similar vibe to a hypothetical rapper with a lot of underground buzz, who just signed to Def Jam or a big indie like Rhymesayers. Who put out this rapper’s early stuff? Is there a hole in their artist roster where this artist used to be — a hole you could fill? Sure, submit your demo to the bigger name labels, but investigate the smaller ones, too. Obviously those ultra indie labels are already on the big labels’ radar, or they wouldn’t be scouting their artists. Plus a smaller label might be the better fit for your music, your artistic world view, and your fanbase.

Another key part of doing your research is finding out the names of the people at the label you’re targeting. Who’s the A&R Coordinator at the label? You can find contact info for pretty much every label you can think of via the A&R Registry. This will save you a lot of online search time, although you can also try to find this info on the label website, by sleuthing around LinkedIn or Twitter, or by doing a bit of Googling. Addressing these people by name will show you really care about the label and what they have to offer, and you’ve taken the time to get to know them — isn’t this what you’d want from your potential label, too? On an even more basic level, addressing your email or physical mail submission to an actual person at the label gives you a higher chance of them at least opening it. If it looks like you’re just doing an impersonal mass mailing to fifty randomly-selected labels, people are going to be much less likely to read your email or put your CD on.

A couple more tips: if it says “no unsolicited recordings” on their website, they mean it. Find another way in. Do you have any form of personal or business connection to anyone at the label? Can you make a connection? Creating a spreadsheet can help in properly targeting your submissions, and in keeping track of who you contacted, when, and if they replied or not.

Imagine reading your demo submission from a record label employee’s point of view. Most people work at labels because they genuinely love the music, but as we all know, love doesn’t pay the bills.

2. Submitting in the Wrong Format

Before you send anything, find out how your potential label partner likes to be approached. Some websites will list a PO Box for physical CD submissions. Others will prefer links to your Soundcloud or Bandcamp, which is pretty much the industry standard these days. If you send a streaming link to your demo, it’s just so much easier for someone to click it than go through the process of finding a CD player, opening the packaging, slipping the CD in, and so on.

Don’t attach MP3 files to your submission either. Sometimes, for security purposes, labels delete emails with attachments right off the bat —if they don’t end up caught in the Spam folder first. MP3 files can also take too long to download and can seem suspicious. Would you open an attachment from someone you don’t know? Probably not.

3. Not Putting Your Best Foot Forward

Imagine reading your demo submission from a record label employee’s point of view. Most people work at labels because they genuinely love the music, but as we all know, love doesn’t pay the bills. When approaching a label, you’ve got to have killer tunes, but you’ve also got to prove you’re committed to progressing in your career. How can you show labels you’re serious?

Start by making sure your best track is the first one they’ll hear. If you can’t decide on a best track, get feedback. Which song sticks with your fans? Which song do you find yourself or your friends humming? Has a radio show dedicated to local music played one of your tracks on the air? That’s the song you want to showcase. Seek feedback from people you know involved in the music business, who have an ear for what works. Avoid asking people who are too close to you. It’s probably not the best idea to ask your mom, your girlfriend/boyfriend or your best friend. Even if they mean to be objective, they’ve got too much of a personal connection to you, which means they’re less likely to tell you when a song isn’t working, or when you need to go back to the drawing board and write better songs before submitting to a label. Once you’ve found your best song, find two other good songs. Three songs is the optimal number for a label submission. Most people don’t have the patience or the time to listen past three songs if you haven’t already caught their attention. After all, time is money and people aren’t going to listen to twelve songs in hopes of finding your best one. Finally, make sure the quality of your recordings is good. Don’t let bad sound tarnish your strongest work.

It’s also important to demonstrate a history of playing shows. Let them know you regularly pull in big crowds at your city’s most well-known venue, or you opened for a big act on their Southern California dates. This demonstrates you’re capable of building a fanbase who will support your artistic efforts financially.

You’ll also want to include links to your website and social media presence. This will help the label understand how you see yourself, how you’re marketing your music, and how you interact with your fans.

Know what record companies are looking for, and present yourself as the missing piece of the puzzle.

4. Being Generic

We’ve already discussed the importance of sending individualized emails, but let’s break it down further. When pitching yourself, you want to answer the questions label employees have about your band. Namely, why does your band make sense for their label? Keep it short and simple. Did a member of one of the bands currently on their roster invite you to remix one of their songs? Did you open for a roster artist at a local venue and he or she suggested you reach out to the label?

On a similar note, you want to do everything you can to avoid looking like a spammer. Do not send a generic email with thirty other labels CC’d. Create an interesting subject line. Don’t leave it blank. (Yes, this happens, and most people assume they’re going to get a virus or invited to submit their social security number to a member of a deposed royal family who just needs their help to get their vast wealth out of the country.) Subject lines like “Demo submission” or “Check this out” aren’t necessarily going to get your email opened either. Think up something eye-catching, which gives a succinct idea of who you are. You want a subject line that describes you in a way a stranger would get, such as “MIA Meets Death Grips” or “Atlanta’s Younger, Edgier Kendrick Lamar.”

Keep your cover letter short and sweet. If you have great quotes about your work from another artist or from a media outlet, include them here. Give the label a few facts proving you’ve got an interesting story and you’re taking steps to move your career forward. Labels don’t need a full-on press release: a couple succinct paragraphs will do.

5. Being Unrealistic

Labels get many unsolicited demos every day. Sometimes an A&R Coordinator is listening to them—other items it’s an Intern’s job. Most labels don’t allocate daily time to checking out demos, which means they can stack up. If you don’t get their attention right away, whoever’s listening is either going to tune out or move on. When I interned at a small label in college, we would let demo submissions stack up for MONTHS before anyone had time to listen to them.

You can stand out if you have some connection to the label. Does your cousin intern there? Have you been engaging in a months-long Twitter conversation about the Lakers with the label’s founder? Some labels prefer to sign acts they already know and love, either through seeing them perform live in their hometown, or from hearing about them from the bands on the label. If you’ve got a connection to the label, mention that. Reach out to anyone who can put in a good word for you.

Finally, before you start contacting labels, ask yourself if your band is really ready. Developmental deals are pretty much a thing of the past. With the rise of social media, YouTube, and sites like Bandcamp where artists can sell their own tunes, labels expect you to be able to bring something to the table—your fanbase, a polished image, your well-crafted songs. If you don’t already have fans, you’re adding to their work. Make their lives easier, and it’ll be an easier decision for them to sign you.

Want more advice on contacting record labels? Learn how to tell if a label is accepting demos and figure out how to get tastemakers to listen to your tunes.

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