The definition1 of the phrase “record label” is simple: “a company that produces and sells records, CDs, and recordings.” Adding the word “major” to that is pretty self-explanatory. Explaining in greater detail what exactly one of these companies, let alone one of the biggest examples of one does, is not.
At its most basic, major record labels find Singers and musicians, sign them to exclusive contracts, and release the music they create in order to make both the company and the artists money. Of course, doing so successfully involves a lot of people with different jobs, and the largest firms can have thousands of employees worldwide.
Major record labels are always on the hunt for rising talents, and while they used to search for them in small nightclubs, these days many new signees are discovered on social media or on platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, or YouTube, where anyone who is going viral with a clip or a song instantly becomes a must-have for the biggest players in the space.
After a contract is signed, major record labels can help pair musicians with Producers, Writers, Engineers and Mixers, all of whom come together to create songs and albums. The company then creates promotion plans, distributes the music via digital platforms (streaming sites and download stores like iTunes) and manufactures CDs and vinyl, then ships them out to stores.
Major record labels can then help promote the music, via traditional publicity routes (magazines, blogs, TV, advertising), radio, and marketing (which can involve everything from the cover art to selling the tunes themselves). They also help develop musicians, both new and established, helping them find new sounds and creative outlets.
It’s worth noting that while major record labels will have their hand in all of these activities for all of their artists, the company itself doesn’t always do them. For example, the major record labels have publicity and radio divisions, but that doesn’t mean they work every project themselves. Sometimes the Managers of artists and bands will work out a deal to do PR/marketing/radio themselves or perhaps hire another outside firm.
How do artists get signed to labels?
There’s no one answer to that. There are many different paths to getting signed. The old school, traditional way is that an A&R goes out and scouts artists. The romanticized idea of it is they go out to bars and clubs and see a band, they have a vision for the band, “this is gonna be the next Rolling Stones or Nirvana or whoever,” and they bring it back to the label.
They get the label all excited about it, they do a deal, then they develop. That’s the old way, that rarely ever happens.
Now, more and more artists are doing it without the labels. The artist and their team are the ones doing the development side of things. Labels now have the tools to be much more research-based, more data-centric, where we can see that an artist is bubbling on TikTok, for instance. Several years ago it was SoundCloud. A few years before that it was in the blogosphere. An artist just getting the right attention from the consumer directly: that’s the model that’s been built in the last ten to fifteen years.
When a label and A&R can see that there’s an audience in demand of something, that’s a huge advantage. It’s never been clearer than it is nowadays with things like social media, Instagram, back to TikTok, and streaming that show pretty much to the minute where people are tuning in and finding artists and really getting the experience of what an artist’s life is like. They’re much more exposed than they were twenty or thirty years ago.
There are different ways. I grew up around a time where, in the ‘90s, you’d read up on people getting signed, as I said, from an elevator, or L.A. Reid locking you into a room and pretty much not letting you leave because he wanted to sign you. Reading all those stories … that was super exciting to me.
Nowadays, it’s not like that. But I do believe some labels still have that old-school mentality and a way of being like, “Hey, you’re gonna sign today. But let’s put Lawyers, let’s put Managers, Executives, CEOs on the phone. Let’s figure this deal out.” I believe that still happens because it’s so competitive now.
Anything can just go up in streams within a day, within a few hours. Every label is looking at the same thing. A lot of labels are either looking at the same thing on a competitive route or looking at things that they can actually bring in and do artist development with.
The way of getting people signed is, of course, you get in contact with the A&R or the A&R reaches out or just stumbles across you, and then the A&R sets up a meeting. So on that level, you meet the artist, and then from there you report back to your team and let them know the meeting went well. Go to the A&R meeting and play it. Get people buying into it.
Then, depending on the structure of the label and your position, you put an executive into play, or you put people from the team into play to close in the deal. And then from there, you talk to Attorneys, see what the terms are, and it goes back and forth until the negotiation where the artist and team come to terms and sign off.