Published on January 13th, 2010 | by Hugh Hession5
How do I get a record contract?
Note: This post is part of makingitinmusic’s MusicBiz101, a category that was created to answer common questions about the business of music. This article has been edited as of October 1, 2012 to reflect the change in record labels from the big four, to the big three. EMI has since been acquired by Universal.
Getting a recording contract is by far the most common topic I deal with when talking to people starting out in music. How can I get my music heard by people who matter? Are there ways that can improve my chances? Do you know anyone who can hook me up? Whoa. Back up a sec.
Before we get into this, it’s essential to clear the air with a dose of reality that to many, is common or obvious knowledge. However, to the majority starting out, it’s not so evident.
With that in mind, here is what a record contract isn’t:
1) a guarantee that you will become famous
2) a guarantee that you’ve finally made it
3) a guarantee you will become rich
Don’t feel bad. Looking back on my early teenage years, I bought into these three misconceptions, mainly because I just didn’t know any better and also, because the idea of being a rock star meant having a lot of girls around me. To an off-the-chain, hormonal 14-year old kid…that was motivation at its finest
When talking about stuff like this, I often like to take a step back into history to give kind of a “then and now” approach. So let’s step into the past, shall we?
The old days: How record companies discovered talent
The old days of the music business are often romanticized due to how simplistic its ways were. You have to realize that this was before the huge conglomerates that we have today. Most companies in those days were independents and far more free-spirited (Business meetings with bands like The Grateful Dead were often done under the influence of LSD, which I would imagine, made it highly difficult to negotiate anything). Like today, talent came from the streets, but the competition wasn’t near as extreme. Record companies had much more of an “open door” policy, as each company was scrambling to capitalize on the newest craze: Rock-n-Roll.
In the late 60’s, labels like Warner Brothers and Columbia took to the streets. This was the beginning of the underground rock movement which was really shaking things up. The Beatnik scene at the North Beach district in San Francisco was crazy popular. Haight-Ashbury was becoming the hot spot with jam bands like the Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead supporting its culture. Writer Stan Cornyn, who worked closely with Warner Brothers in those days, mentions that “Mo and Joe had nothing to lose by signing acts. Acts were fairly cheap and they knew they didn’t want to compete with the established labels. So they scrounged around and took risks. Not because they necessarily had an artistic philosophy, but because it was what you could get.” Cornyn was referring to record industry pioneers Mo Ostin and Joe Smith. –taken from The Mansion on the Hill by Fred Goodman. 1997 Random House.
In these days, it wasn’t unheard of for a band or singer/songwriter to audition in front of a record label president, in his own office! Columbia records head Clive Davis (who most know from his guest appearances on American Idol) would sometimes host such auditions. Bands would actually get signed this way. You can see why the old way of doing business is so romanticized.
About 1/2 hour North from where I live is a medium sized city called Macon (Georgia). In the 60’s, music mogul Phil Walden built his recording empire in Macon. He capped a distribution deal with Atlantic and Capricorn Records became a reality. His flagship artists included The Allman Brothers and The Marshall Tucker Band.
Everyone flocked to Macon in those days in hopes of getting a record deal. If you were good you actually had somewhat of chance.
Some of my friends, including guitarist Larry Howard and Rob Walker were among those who did. Howard played with the Southern Blues band Grinderswitch and used to play stadium tours with both the Allman Brothers and Marshall Tucker. Walker’s band Stillwater was signed in the late 70’s (Mindbender was one of their hits) but unfortunately, Capricorn went bankrupt and Stillwater never got their due. Cameron Crowe heard Stillwater at one of the legendary annual Capricorn picnics and years later used the band name in his movie Almost Famous.
When there is money to be made, someone is going to capitalize. And that is exactly what happened to the record business. It grew up and became an industry! All the great independents that were known for breaking talent (and taking chances) were consumed by conglomerate companies. Within each of these separate conglomerates are three distinct label “parents” that are the “umbrella” companies for the many labels underneath (the ones you are familiar with, such as Epic, Interscope, La Face etc). They are known as the Big Three: Sony, Universal and Warner Music Group.
Gone are the office auditions, lavish spending and artist development. Record labels are now about “what have you done for me lately.” And, simply put, if you haven’t done anything (say in the last year), then you are history. The new record business is about balance sheets and stockholder equity. Nothing more, nothing less.
Record companies today: distribution is the key
Fortunately, independent labels are still very much a reality, even today. However what defines the effectiveness of an independent label (or any label for that matter) is it’s distribution arm.
Let’s face it. You can form a record label…anyone could (and they do). It’s not difficult. However, what measures a record company’s effectiveness is their marketing and distribution ability; not the record company itself. That is just a business license, in most cases.
An effective distribution arm is one that can get your music to a wide array of regional and/or national music retailers. This has to work hand in hand with marketing and to do this right, a company has to have the financial capability to push your music to the forefront (dollars=visibility). This is why major record companies are still around. Though the system is broken as we once knew it, they still have the muscle to push commercial music.
Independent labels explained
Indie labels come in many shapes and sizes. A true indie has no tie to a major label. They could be in the shape of a talent house for a local recording studio, or a regionally known independent that has indie distribution. Some so called “indie” labels are not actually a major, but have major label distribution. If a label approaches you or an opportunity does come your way to sign to an indie label, you have to do your research and figure out which one you are dealing with.
Indies can be a great outlet for niche music – jam bands, Americana – the stuff the majors typically won’t touch. Niche music can be lucrative, and fans can be some of the most loyal.
You would think that indie labels would take more chances and accordingly, you have more of chance of getting signed. True that indies take more chances, but they also have limited funds to promote. So, they are not so gung ho as you might think. In fact, indie labels can often be more particular about who they sign.
Major labels explained
Major record companies are all part of the big three that I spoke of earlier. They are global companies that have the financial means to properly release and promote your music to a worldwide audience. They do this through their “built-in” distribution companies.
Major labels are the least accessible. To gain entry, your music has to go through someone who is known and respected in the industry. These people are commonly entertainment attorneys, managers, agents, promoters and the girl that you think is really hot, who is the daughter of a prominent producer.
Such people are also very selective about who they pitch. Reputation is everything. Once you lose it, it can be difficult to get back.
Major’s cater to commercial music – the kind of music that has mass appeal. Only a fraction of the artists signed to all the major’s combined give the industry any type of return on their money. As of now, the big three are in a state of transition as a result of the digital age. They saw it coming towards the late nineties and things haven’t been the same since.
Focus on your music, not a record deal
Talent scouts for the music industry are known as A&R (Artist and Repertoire). Though you’re not going to see them show up at the local VFW anymore, they do have their ear to the street (and nowadays, their eyes on the computer) and are typically comprised of younger individuals, mainly because record companies want people who are in tune with the tastes of the current generation.
A&R want to come looking for you, not the other way around. They want to be able to say they discovered you. Going after a major label deal from your perspective will not yield tremendous results, unless you know someone. And, even then it doesn’t guarantee anything. To make it on a major label, a band has to have tremendous appeal and have commercial viability. Your goal is to last in music, not to be a casualty.
Focus on building your career. You need to get out there and get exposure and experience. Ask any major artist that has been dropped from their record company, what the most important aspect of their career is. Trust me, it’ not the record deal – it’s their fans. After the deal is done and over (the majority are short-lived) it’s your fans that put the food on the table and stand beside you, deal or no deal.
The bottom line
Searching for a record contract is putting the cart before the horse. Labels won’t give you the time of day if you haven’t proven yourself. Even if you had a contact in the industry that gave you access, you are at a great disadvantage in terms of what kind of deal you get, as it will more than likely be a typical, standard, one-sided agreement (called “form agreements”). The subject of record contracts covers a lot of territory, all of which I can’t possibly place into one post!
If you get out there and record, perform and build your fan base, you begin to create a story that might get you noticed. If you start to catch on, the majors will have their lens on you. Until then, get out there and shake it up!