Why don't you have a record deal? Let's face it, this is the ultimate question that everyone gets asked. As an artist, your goal is to secure a record deal in whatever way possible, so that you can have the security that comes in order to free yourself to make music. The following is a list of reasons why record execs may be giving you the cold shoulder, and things you can do to help solve this: in short, this is how to make your band look very attractive to a record company.
Remember when you're talking with music execs that your band is like a company. You have to convince them that you are worth investing in, and you do that by talking in business terms. Any executive is going to be impressed by someone who knows what the record label is looking for and possesses it in abundance.
1. Your music doesn't mesh with this record company
The structure of a record company is actually a funny thing; even though we think of record labels as being huge, monolithic structures, they aren't quite that. When people talk of getting signed to a major label record deal, they usually aren't specifically referring to one of these labels (EMI, Sony, Warner, Universal). What they are usually referring to is a contract with one of the sub-labels that the major owns.
Major labels operate in such a way that that the chief label is usually more of a holding group than anything else. They have various kinds of labels underneath them, to specialize in certain types of music. Most major labels have smaller labels that specialize in rap, R&B, country, and rock. Your job is to find a label that focuses on your own musical direction. Do a little research. If you're a death metal act, send your demo in to a label that specializes in metal. Match your strengths with theirs, and you become more attractive to the company. There's also the added advantage of fewer levels of bureaucracy to wade through at a smaller label.
2. You don't have a distinct identity
Who are you exactly? What do you play? What kind of people do you appeal to? These are the types of questions that you have to answer to appeal to record labels. If you're torn between metal and acoustic folk music, you're obviously going to alienate fans who would be drawn in by one or the other, but it doesn't necessarily have to be this obvious. If you switch the type of music you play from one night to the next, you run the risk of driving away fans, even if it's something as simple as focusing on crazy instrumental solos one night and focusing on simple, understated lyrics the next.
This isn't to say that you can't be an artist and combine your influences: going back to the example of folk and death metal, you can combine the two to form a cohesive whole, and attract fans to the music that that produces. You have to have your priorities straight: are you a pop band that has solos, or are you an instrumental improvisational band that has some pop melodies? Without a distinct identity you can't sell yourself to your fans or the music company.
3. You don't have a vision
This is strongly linked with the last point. Where do you want to see yourself in four years? Give yourself an achievable goal, high, but within the realm of possibility. Do you want to hear yourself on the radio, or do you want to tour non-stop? Your vision of the band is going to decide what it grows into and where it grows to. If your focus is on touring, you need to focus your energy in that arena and partner with a record label whose emphasis is on high-touring groups and whose strengths match your desires. If, on the other hand, your desire is to chart on the Billboard Hot 100, you want to push your music and energy towards that goal. Think about what you want to do when you're creating your music and looking for a label-your music should match where you want to go.
4. You don't have any contacts with the music business
This is a relatively easy thing to accomplish, compared to all the soul-searching that the previous points would take. When you know of the sublabel that you want to recruit, find out who the people are. Look them up on Facebook, LinkedIn, or any networking site. If you're friends-of-a-friend, you're in luck. Make friends with promoters in your area. Talk with the people who run the concert venues; they can connect you with touring bands, their managers, and perhaps even minor label workers. Make 50 e-mail addresses and write 50 different sets of e-mails to employees of the sublabel. Be creative. Woo your contacts.
5. Your stage show sucks
This point seems rather obvious, but some musicians simply don't realize what their stage show fails to produce. Pantera labeled for years and were dismissed as crap because of faults in their live show. After they got together with Phil Anselmo they cleaned up their live show and signed to a major label, with tremendous success. Live shows are often the first point of direct contact for a major label interested in a band. Make your shows interesting: liven things up. There are already myriads of articles on this topic; there are so many things you can do to improve your performance from crowd interaction and style of playing to lights and special effects.
6. Your demos are crap
Besides stage shows, this is the other point of first contact with labels. Sometimes bands will actually cut a few songs and send them in without objectively looking at the results (something that hurt Lynyrd Skynyrd in their career). A crappy demo tape will sink any chances you'll have with a label. In the same vein, a demo can also lose a lot of what it is that makes your band unique. Whenever you're cutting a demo, be sure that it captures your identity and vision from points 2 and 3. Even if your live show and your songs themselves capture you as a band, your demo may need some tweaking to show that to the label workers. It may even be something as simple as tweaking the levelsdouble-checking your work is worth your while.
7. You aren't popular enough you don't have enough fans
This may seem like a duh idea to most people, but it's not quite as cut and dried as it may seem. Panic! at the Disco was able to sign with a label before they ever played a live show. You may also be in a town where there aren't as many people as a city, so you can't acquire the volume of fans that other bands can. In this case you have to show the label that you have the ability to draw in a high percentage of the people around you. A band from nowhere with 500 fans is more attractive to a label than a big city band with the same amount.
Make your case with the label executives: tell them about your drawing power. It's a principle to start small before you expand on a much larger scale, and if you can make the case that you succeeded on at your own small local level, it can be very persuasive to the executives. But this doesn't mean that you should content yourselves with the fans you already have. As a musician you should constantly be trying to reach out to fans in any way you can, through myspace, by posting videos on youtube, giving free concerts, playing at fans' birthdays, writing thank you songs, etc. Again, there's a wealth of material written on how to connect with fans.
8. Your music's good, but I fell asleep when I was talking to you
Somewhat linked to stage presence, this deals with the fact that some people can play guitar like gods but are incredibly boring to talk to. They lack any charm or charisma when they're involved in a one-on-one conversation, and this is a kiss of death for any major aspirations for success. If you lack this skill, that puts a cap on the top end of your success, which decreases your value in the eyes of the music industry. Improve your personal skills. Act confidently. Reading up on how to handle interviews will help you out in this area.
9. It's the Recession, sorry
This is the dumbest excuse on the list. This is simply an excuse for something else. If you are attractive to a company, they will sign you. This just means that you've got to work more on the other items of this list than you would otherwise. Sell yourself to the company, use items 1-8 to prove to them that you're well worth the investment. You've just got to be more persistent and make them see the incredible opportunity they have to invest in you as an artist.
10. You're from the middle of nowhere
This is a point that's been made easier to overcome through the digital revolution, but is still one that can handicap your desirability to record companies. The obvious answers to this are to move somewhere else and to tour frequently in larger cities to put yourself in front of a large group of fans and record executives. You can also help to overcome the obscurity of your origins by pushing a lot of your music on the internet and promoting things that way, but this alone probably won't cut it.
If you want to strike it big, you're going to have to have a decent-sized fanbase in a city to prove yourself to a major label, but you can also go through the stepping stone model by signing to an indie, using that label to help you out touring and recording, and then once you've established a large enough base, signing with a major label.
These are ten of the most important reasons that record labels will reject you. If you can successfully work each of these factors to improve your position, you can make yourself very attractive to a record label. Good luck remember to use knowledge about the labels to your own advantage.
Ben Histand is a fourth-year Business student with an interest in finding out how pop culture works, and has spent entirely too much time finding out how Marvin Gaye is the same as Led Zeppelin, and why Led Zeppelin sold a whole lot more albums.
Dotted Music 2010