Helpful Tips on How to Get a Record Deal

1. A&R IS LEANER & MEANERThe music business has been in a whirlwind. Mergers, acquisitions and corporate consolidations have hit the majors hard, while an erratic marketplace has distressed the industry. As a result, both major and indie labels are now leaner and meaner. That may bode well for the biz’s recovery prospects in general, but it’s tough on those who’ve lost their jobs and artists who are looking for a break. These changes have caused a major shift in priorities as labels struggle for market share and A&R reps try to survive cutbacks. It’s survival of the fittest as industry and artists search for stability. Meanwhile, acts are dropped from rosters, budgets are cut to the bone, label personnel are let go, and fewer new acts are being signed. Indeed, these are anxious times, and the competition has gotten greater –– especially for artists seeking a record deal.


Just a few years ago, strong songs and a great live show was enough to get a band signed, and that still does get A&R’s attention. But a story –– a marketable, hype-able history of you or your band, something unique that can stir people’s imagination –– will get you a deal. Tim Devine (..:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Columbia) explains, “We’re in a cycle where establishing a fan base and successfully marketing yourself are critical in getting a label deal. We want acts that have proven their mettle.” Devine contends,” Today, anyone can make a record, but only a few artists know what to do with it. We look for acts that have it all together, so we have something to build on. In fact, if they don’t have a story yet, maybe they’re not ready for a deal.”

• Build Your Career

Scott Austin (Maverick) concurs, “The bar has been raised on new signings. Vocals and songs are still kings for me, but the more an artist brings to the table the better.” Austin points out that getting a record deal is NOT the starting point – building your career is. He insists, “Artists have to think of a record deal as a long term goal – not their only goal. They need to work on their careers first.”

• Be Self-Sufficient

This perspective has also taken hold at indie labels. Though indies have a reputation of nurturing new acts, well placed indies want their artists more developed. Smaller labels may still sign a baby band and work with them, but Patrick Arn (Gotham Records) reflects, “The days when a good band with great music could think of a label as their savior are over.” Arn maintains that, now, most indies want self-sustaining entities –– acts that have accomplished something on their own. “Look,” he says” there’s much more competition today, and it’s not just about the music anymore. I wish it wasn’t like that, but it is. Today, you have to achieve a certain level of success before you even think about a record deal.”


Attorney Scott Harrington confirms that assessment. “A&R used to love to discover new artists before anyone else did. “Now,” he states, “they want something that’s proven and that everyone already knows about.” In fact, Harrington believes that if A&R are not aware of you already, your chances for a deal are dramatically reduced, because he informs, “You can be sure they’re looking at acts that have a buzz and track record.” As such, Harrington advises, “To get industry attention today you have to create such a strong buzz that they have to check you out.” According to Harrington that’s probably the biggest change of all. “Not only do artists have to be successful on their own, they really have to stand out.”

4. A&R WANT READY ARTISTS In today’s environment, the biggest mistake artists and their reps can make is to shop too soon. Today, more than ever, artists must be ready for A&R attention. Judith Fontaine (Fontaine Music) suggests, “Before artists even think about labels, they should invite other industry (like managers, producers, the media or retired A&R) to a showcase and get their opinions.” Fontaine proposes, “If you don’t know anyone, ask.

• Get Expert Opinions

David Wilkes (Koch) thinks that’s an excellent approach. “Artists should get as many opinions as possible before contacting A&R.” Wilkes says, “In the past we did traditional A&R work and new artists were an exciting find. Now,” he reveals, “it’s also a marketing decision. We have to consider how we’re going to sell the artist, and where they’re at in their development determines that.” Additionally, since most labels look for a quick payoff, artists must be well developed if they want to get signed –– and stay on the roster.

• Be Honest With Yourself

Because everyone’s so tightly wound and there are fewer A&R to go around, the consequences of shopping too early can be drastic. Indeed, if A&R passes it may be a long time before you can go back to that label. Judith Fontaine (Fontaine Music) contends, “After a pass, you can’t go back –– the competition is too great. Your best bet is to be honest with yourself and determine if you’re really ready. If you’re sure you are, move on and try elsewhere.”


In the midst of this demanding atmosphere, hits still rule and a few A&R believe that it’s about the music. But, unlike the old days when one or two hit songs would do it — that’s not the case anymore. “It is great songs first,” cites Brendon Mendoza (American Recordings). “If an act are really talented and have great material then it’s not a turn off if they don’t have a story.” Mollie Moore (RCA) affirms, “Strong songs are important –– but the more the better.” In fact, Moore believes artists should have a full album of great songs. “If you only have one hit, it’s not enough,” she says. “Because after it’s downloaded –– that’s it.”


Let’s face it, all artists believe they write hits. However, if your “hits” sound exactly like something on the radio, it could be a double-edged sword. American Recordings’ Mendoza recognizes, “Everyone has his or her influences, but we in A&R don’t want to hear the same old thing –– we want a fresh interpretation –– a sound that excites us and gets our attention.” Mendoza suggests that artists be true to themselves and find their uniqueness.


One way to create excitement and avoid being generic is to find your own sound. Debbie Fontaine (Fontaine Music) maintains, “If your music lacks originality, you’re hurting your chances. A&R don’t sign clones anymore.” Fontaine says, “Be creative –– find your signature sound and make sure it’s current. And remember, she says, “that a dated or derivative sound will lose A&R’s interest. They want something new –– they don’t want to sign yesterday’s news.”


With all the restructuring going on, you have to keep current with who’s hired, who’s fired and where they’re doing business. A&R frequently move from label to label, and according to Dito Godwin (BGO Entertainment), “Putting the wrong name on a package will almost certainly get it rejected.”

• Target A&R

Sending your package to the right A&R rep is just as crucial as using the right name. A&R have personal tastes like everyone else. Accordingly, attorney Ben McLane advises, “Target your submissions –– send packages to A&R who work with your style of music.” McLane suggests, “Read liner notes and find out who does what.” He learned this lesson first-hand. “I sent a package to an A&R rep who asked for it –– but after he got it he called me and shouted, ‘Why did you send me this?'”

• Follow Up & Move On

It’s easy to overlook things in the busy A&R world, and responses to submissions are not a high priority. But, attorney Ben McLane says, “If A&R love your music they’ll immediately respond.” Nonetheless, he suggests, “following up once or twice to see if they got your package is fine, as long as you’re polite.” If you haven’t heard anything after a month, though, move on. You can always send them something different later, if you want to give it another shot.


A&R generally handle several acts on a label’s roster; and, with fewer personnel to assist them, their days are full. Most would love to find new acts, they just don’t have much time to look for them. A&R get hundreds of packages a week and, at most, can devote only a few minutes to each submission. So, it’s no surprise that Marshall Altman (Columbia) asks artists to keep it simple. He implores, “Don’t make us jump through hoops to open your package and get to the CD. Besides, fancy packaging often overcompensates for a lack of quality and, sometimes, it’s scary.” Indeed, Altman relates, “If we don’t like the music, all the embellishments in the world won’t change our minds.”

10. A&R WANT YOUR BEST SONGS Too many artists do not know what a demo is. A demo is a sales tool –– not an album. Conventional wisdom used to recommend three to four songs per demo. “But that’s not the case anymore,” notes Brent Harvey (KBH Entertainment). According to Harvey, less is more. “A&R don’t have time to listen to a full album. Two songs are plenty,” he says. “Remember, the purpose of a demo is to pique A&R’s interest. Give them more songs, and all you’re doing is giving them more reasons to say NO.”


When A&R hear a great song, they want to learn more about the artist. It’s like looking for hidden treasure. In that regard, Brent Harvey suggests, “Submissions are like a chess game where you want A&R to respond.” Harvey recommends not giving out too much information –– make A&R want to find out more. “Don’t tell them everything at once. Give them a reason to visit your Web site and contact you. If they’re interested, they’ll call.”


Relationships are critical in this business. As such, attorney Ben McLane advises artists to meet A&R reps at music conferences or establish a relationship with someone who knows them. “A&R prefer to hear from people they know,” he says. McLane is not talking about schmoozing, but rather making a real connection. “Get to know them, and let them know you. That way,” he contends, “your music will get a fair hearing.”


It’s not easy to get to A&R. In fact, you’ll probably hook up with their scouts and assistants much more than you will with them. And when you do, it’s important to establish a bond. Brent Harvey (KBH Entertainment) proposes, “Ask for their opinion. Tell them your demo is ‘for their ears only’ –– not for their boss’. If they like the music, they’ll be on your team – with an inside track.”


Just three to four years ago, A&R reps did not pay that much attention to artist Web sites. Today, however, artist sites are critical in A&R’s decision making process. If they want to find out about you, they WILL visit your site. In fact, Tony Ferguson (Interscope) reveals, “We check out artist sites all the time.” Ferguson likes sites that are easy to navigate and reflect what the act is doing. “I want to hear MP3s, see photos and learn something about the artist.” But, he cautions, “We’re not interested in long bios. Let us know what’s important.” Patrick Arn (Gotham Records) adds, “There should also be news, reviews and a show schedule. We need to know if an act is currently active.”

• Use The Web Wisely

With the Internet, artists have an important tool that gives them more avenues for their music, and A&R expect artists to use it. Mollie Moore (RCA) asserts, “With all of the music sites there are, it’s easy for artists to get their music out there. And, it’s great for A&R because we can cross-reference acts, see how many sites they’re on, and filter by genre. ” Today, the Net should be thought of as an extension of your promo kit.


Promo shots are just as critical as your music nowadays. And, that includes those candid shots you put on your Web site. Today more than ever before, “image” can make or break you. An A&R rep (who asked to remain anonymous) relates, “If the photo’s bad, I won’t even listen to the demo. Image is very important today and a bad image won’t sell music.” Brent Harvey (KBH Entertainment) suggests, ” Avoid shots that are too ‘artsy’ or in soft focus. Make them clear and sharp and try to have them reflect your style of music.”


ýA live performance video Ж one or two songs –– is an effective marketing tool. It’s difficult to get A&R to your show, right? But give them a video they can watch at their leisure, and you’ve accomplished two purposes: they’ll see you play live and, best of all, you control what they see. Dito Godwin (BGO Entertainment) relates, “Videos cut the need to showcase in half. And,” he says, “if A&R want to see you after viewing it, you’re one step closer to a decision.” Godwin also points out that videos are useful for agents and promoters. Interscope’s Ferguson chimes in,” Put the video on your Web site, too. I always look for one.”


Patrick Arn (Gotham Records) caught a band at a club and approached the lead singer to discuss a possible deal. But, the singer was arrogant and rude. He didn’t know that Arn was president of a label. “There was no reason for him to act like that,” Arn reflects. “I wanted to work with them, but he blew it.” Arn strongly advises, “Artists should always act professionally and treat people with respect –– especially if they’re at your show.”


Since most A&R want it all given to them on a platter, you have to do a few things yourself. Attorney LaPolt affirms, “A&R are attracted to successful acts. She therefore recommends that artists make a list – such as, touring, playing music conferences, placing songs, boosting their Internet presence, getting radio play and, most of all, selling CDs. “The more you do,” she maintains, “the more A&R will be interested.”


Many acts today record full albums and, according to attorney Scott Harrington, that’s not a bad idea. “Indie labels often like to have a complete album to deal with,” he says, “and you can always sell it at your shows.” But, he warns, “it’s important to keep recordings current. If it’s over two years old, it could make A&R think you’re not very prolific.”


Tony Ferguson (Interscope) sighs, “Artists still do not put contact information on everything. It should be on every piece in a package (including the CD) and easy to access on a Web site.” That means keeping having a CONTACT page on your site. If all you have is a newsletter signup or fan mailing list –– redesign the site.


There are several reasons why A&R will pass on your music, and it doesn’t always mean that you’re not worthy of being signed. Attorney Ben McLane points out, “Everyone gets passed on –– even the Beatles were rejected. Artists should understand that most A&R do NOT sign new acts every year –– that isn’t their primary function. So, don’t take a pass personally.”

• If They Pass – Ask For A Lead

“Even if you’re passed on,” Dito Godwin (BGO Entertainment) advises, “ask if they know someone who might be interested.” Godwin contends, “If your music meets their standards, they’ll generally help by leading you to someone else.”

• Know Something About Deals

Attorney Dina LaPolt believes, “Artists should have a general knowledge about record deals.” Why? “Because, today, there are many different types of deals. ‘Upstreaming’ is very popular at the moment,” she explains. “That’s where an indie develops an act to a certain level (usually sales) and then a major takes over.” Complications arise, according to LaPolt, when you have to negotiate the contract. “Essentially, you’re dealing with two contracts,” she says, “one indie and one major. You must protect your rights in each one.”

• Know An Indie From A Major

Because “upstreaming” is so popular today, it’s important to determine “whom” you’re dealing with. According to attorney LaPolt, “Artists may think they’re dealing with an indie, but the indie may be contracted to a major. If that’s the case, terms –– like the advance –– could be significantly different.” LaPolt believes upstreaming is good for artist development, but may mislead some artists into thinking that they’re signing with an indie, when actually a major is behind them.

• Consider Your Options

There’s more to life than a major record deal. Indies are stronger than ever, and new business models are emerging. One new development is the e-label. Dean Sciarra operates where age is no factor and a “story” doesn’t matter. “We’ve been online for five years, and don’t even bother with brick and mortar distribution,” he says. “We believe consumers will eventually get all their music online.” Sciarra’s chief requirement is quality: “We don’t accept everyone.” The label services about 50 music sites, and Sciarra maintains, “An artist can make a good living by selling a few hundred downloads per quarter.”

• Just Do What You Love

Many artists and industry complain about the state of music today. But Mollie Moore (RCA) believes musicians (and A&R) need to get their priorities straight. “Let’s just do what we all love,” she says. “That’s what we’re in this business for. It’s ridiculous how down everyone gets about the music scene.” Moore contends that there’s a lot of new music to get excited about. “New acts are making their mark every day.”

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