How To Get A Record Deal and Attract A&R Scouts
If you want to know how to get a record deal you’ve come to the right place. There has been a lot of discussion about the relevance of record labels, but getting signed is still a top focus for musicians and bands. I’ve personally signed a record deal, and I’ve been on the label side of a few hundred during my years as GM of Fearless Records and at Sony Music. In this post I’ll share my point of view and explain how to approach this the right way. My goal is to share my thought process and provide musicians the knowledge and tools to build and sustain a successful career in the music business.
If Only We Had The Contacts, We Could Get Signed
Many unsigned bands are trying to get their hands on lists of record label contacts. I admit, when I was playing in a band in high school, I bought a list of music industry contacts. It had all sorts of companies in the music business, but we only focused on the record labels. You see where I’m going with this. It was too early. We were skipping steps. There is so much more to it than having a contact list. 99% of artists that blindly send their music to record labels too early – only get no reply or some sort of automated reply.
Don’t send anymore music or contact anybody else in the music business with your music until you read this entire article.
When Is The Right Time To Send My Demo To Industry Contacts?
Before you start contacting people with your music, you need to have momentum and a little buzz building. You should have a mini hit on your hands. The track should be getting thousands of streams a week on various platforms. It should be clear that people really like the song. A&R need social proof, so fans should be sharing the song and really become fans of your band.
Most Common Mistake
Don’t quickly seek and obtain a record deal and think that your career will take on a new life of it’s own as soon as you are signed. Your first record will determine how involved the label is in the second (or if at all). If you get signed, be ready to deliver.
What you need to know about Record Labels
First let’s consider a record label’s function. Record labels aim to own the master recordings, and other rights from musicians, and exploit those products through music distribution and promotional channels. They also have money to invest in promotion and advertising. Both major record labels and Independent labels offer artists strong pipelines for promotion and can present opportunities to expose your music to large active audiences.
What Record Labels Do Not Do
The record label does not manage your business. You do. A label doesn’t look after your day to day business or prioritize your music 12 months a year. But you should. It’s in the labels interest to help your band along, present opportunities, and achieve success. You win together, you fail together.
Once an artist is signed, it doesn’t mean that everything will be handled. Be an active partner every step of the way, and own the responsibility for growing a fanbase. Even though labels help you build a fanbase with promotion and advertising, a record label doesn’t typically earn on your ticket sales, publishing, merchandise, sponsorships, and other non master recording related revenue.
Record Labels & Distribution
There are three major label groups – defined by those that own their own distribution. Within the three groups there are other “major labels” that are owned by the group. Each major label group has a separate Publishing company, and specialty labels such as Nashville, Classical, Latin, and Christian. They also have global offices. Independent labels typically use a major for distribution, or an independent distributor with major ties.
I’ve created a helpful Infographic that outlines all major and independent labels that work with rock music, and a list of distributors too.
Major Label Vs. Indie Label?
I’ve worked for both kinds. I don’t recall where I heard this, but I want to share it with you because it simplifies the question, and there is truth in it. “Indie labels are great at taking a band from 1 to 20. Major labels are great at taking a band from 20 to 100”. Now XL Records, an indie from the UK, had the best selling album of the 21st century with Adele. So to say that indies don’t go to 100 is wrong. Adele went to 120, and many indies on my list have done the same, and had multiple #1’s.
On the other side of the coin, major labels struggle at developing an artist from the ground up. There are plenty of exceptions here as well. In rock music, most successful rock bands started on an independent label before going to a major. Choosing one or the other depends on your goals. I’m being very general – but if you are confident that you write hits songs for a wide audience, a major label is probably the way to go. Major labels are in the hit business. If you’re not comfortable playing the “hit” game, sign with an indie.
Mainstream media and TV dumb down the definition of A&R so that mainstream audiences understand it. I’ve seen so many bad definitions of A&R, and it’s just confusing for everybody. Artist & Repertoire is a useless phrase even if you break it down to what it means. I think what many of you are searching for are “Scouts”.
The first thing I want you to understand is that there are A&R people at record labels, and there are “scouts”. Scouts are often mistaken for A&R. At indie labels, it’s usually the same person. Discovering new artists is part of an A&R’s job duties, but there is much more to it. They spend a lot of time “making” records. A&R make connections to put the band in the right studio, at the right budget, with the right producer. And sometimes they pair the artist with co-writers. An A&R person also works within the record label to educate staff about the artist’s mission, and represent their artistic vision. They can act as your cheerleader within the label. Furthermore, some A&R act as mentors for their artists, and even get involved in the creative process, writing, playing, or producing.
Where are the scouts?
Now onto scouts. They have a very important role to play and can be especially important for you. You may only get one chance to make a first impression on them. Scouts are who you are targeting at this point in your career. When it comes to scouts, think outside of the record label box. Scouts exist everywhere across the business. Music publishers have A&R and scouts just like record labels. Lawyers, artist managers, promoters, and booking agents are all “scouts”. Brands, video game companies, movie studios, and even Spotify have scouts. I want musicians to ask how to get the attention of scouts at all of these places, not just record labels.
Think like an A&R / Scout
This is where psychology comes in. What do they want and what do they need? Scouts need to discover the next great voice, song, or the next big thing in their niche. They take pride in discovering new artists first, and before their competition. Before considering working with an artist, scouts want to know an artist can tick most of the boxes on their mental list of signable traits.
Outstanding vocals (usually highest on the list). Memorable lyrics, image (not as in beauty, but does the look fit the music in a commercial sense)? Is there a following already, a human interest story to tell, clean history, mental stability? Even in the rock genre, new signings need to either be an improvement on what’s currently popular, or very original sounding. Either will do, but originality always cuts above. A&R work on a team of other label staff. They need to keep the staff’s trust – that they are bringing the label a winning project.
Can you give us some feedback on our songs?
A&R and scouts are not really in the business of advice. It might seem like a good ice breaker. But what you’re really saying is you don’t have confidence in your music, and it’s not ready – so how do we improve. That’s not their function. Test your music in other forums. Reddit is helpful for this. Facebook groups and forums are another place where you can get peer to peer advice. There are plenty of options for this.
Who do you know?
To increase your chances of being discovered constantly network and build relationships. It’s helpful to have a team of people doing this for you, but I recommend forming your own relationships. In time, after you’ve built up a following, you can add to your team. A publicist, a manager, an agent, or an attorney. Just like you have a network of contacts, scouts do too. A&R and scouts lean heavily on their network to help them filter out the hundreds of bands they are scouting. If Joe likes it, Kim likes it, and I like it – we must be onto something.
WHAT YOU NEED BEFORE SENDING MUSIC
Here is a list of things you need to have before sending links to music:
- Solidify your band identity and brand
- Have great photos
- Optimize your website and social media profiles.
- Have fans on social media commenting on your posts
- Your live show should be dialed in, and audience growing from show to show.
- A plan. Other than let the record label or publisher take it from here.
Make It Easy To Learn More About Your Band
Think of ways to make it easier to find your band. For instance you can seek these people out social media and follow them. Most people check into who is following them. When they click over to your profile, make sure there is a quick link to your website or a place they can stream your music quickly. Your social media profiles essentially become your press kit. It’s the easiest way for A&R to quickly find what they are looking for. If you want to have an electronic press kit that’s fine. But A&R people care more about what the public say about your band than anything else. If you think you have a unique story that makes you stand above the competition, by all means make sure that bio is very visible.
Have Great Photos
Many signed bands struggle with press photos. I’ve seen entire photo shoots, the expensive kind, buried on a file server, never to see the light of day. You should never put a bad photo of your band out there. Even the biggest acts in the business make this mistake. Do an audit on your Facebook, Website and other social media to make sure you delete or hide bad photos of your band. When scheduling your next photo shoot, find great press photos of other bands in your genre and make sure the photographer you hire achieves the same look.
The Fans Decide What Your Best Song Is
Above all, you have to have that magic song. If one of the four demos is a hit, scouts think there is more where that came from. Typically when anyone visits your page for the first time, they are drawn in with imagery and not music. But make no mistake, music is the most important part of your presentation. Make sure you are putting your “best” track first.
Always lead with your best stuff. Test your tracks with fans before presenting them to A&R as your best tracks. They might not always be your newest tracks or the ones you think are the best. If you have an old song that has stood the test of time, re-mix and master it with the best of your new tracks on your demo.
Your music should sound as close as possible to the recordings being made by the most popular artists in your genre. Try to record with the same engineer or producer that recorded those band’s albums. If you can’t afford to do that – get the best recording you can afford by a local engineer who has credits in your genre and recent commercial releases. Mixing and mastering engineers can work remotely using file transfer. I’ve worked with artists that had such good demos that we released them as an EP after a quick remixing and mastering session.
The Size Of Your Fanbase Is Proportionate To the Quality Of Your Record Deal
Your band needs to have “heat”. People need to be talking about your band and interacting online and at shows. After a scout hears music they like, they dig deeper. They need to like what they find. You have to succeed in building a local following, and regional following. If attendance is not growing from gig to gig, you’re not ready. You should be working daily and weekly on growing social media followers and engagement. Collect as many email addresses as possible. If your fan database is not growing, then you’re not ready. If you think everything will happen once you are signed, you’re not ready for a record deal. The size of your fanbase is proportionate to the quality of your record deal.
Have your live show down
Size it up to the best bands in your genre. If it’s not there, work very hard to get it up to speed. A&R understand if you have less than 50 shows together, you won’t be as tight as a seasoned band with hundreds of shows to their credit. Just make sure you are far above average. Vocals will be 50% of the equation. The other elements are sound and an entertaining performance. So make sure to work this out both in the practice space and at live shows.
Be First – or The First To Get It Right
Set yourself apart from other artists by being the first to do something in music, or in your genre. And if you’re not the “first” in the genre, be the “first to get it right”. Being first in the minds of music fans is huge. Think about your music scene in your genre right now. The best band is actually not on top. But the top band is there because they were the first to sound like that, or the first to get it right. At least in the minds of the fans. It applies in all industries. Tech for example. Think Skype, Paypal, Netflix, iPod, etc. Innovation pays off.
A Toronto based solo artist by the name of Fiver established herself as a storyteller. She wants to be known as the musician who sings about history. She’s not for everybody, but NPR, Vice, and their audience love it. She wrote an album from the point of view of female prisoners at an insane asylum in the 1850’s. She researched historical records for inspiration, and through her music, she tells the story of real people. Story found on NPR here.
Be Successful Locally
If you can’t make a difference in your local community, how can you expect to scale success to the world? It’s always a red flag for A&R when they notice a band with a buzz online, but no draw or sales in their home market. There are some pretty bad conclusions you can draw from that.
Before making contact make sure you have read and understand all the above. Also, keep in mind that the best scenario is you do such a fantastic job that they contact you first. Then you have leverage.
There are so many different scenarios for initial contact. I’ll discuss the most common ones. If your band has been around for a while and have a decent fanbase, it’s best to have somebody else contact A&R. An experienced manager, agent, or attorney will know how to approach an A&R without losing leverage in the negotiation of your terms. Most agents, managers, and attorneys already have relationships with the labels and publishers anyway.
In many cases A&R are doing a good job and getting to bands early in their career, and you don’t need to contact them. They know you and where to find you. It’s a matter of reminding them of big developments and new songs.
Sometimes companies have an email address for submissions on their website or social media accounts. If you have the email contact of an A&R person and you’re ready – go ahead and send them a short email. Let them know you respect their time and how busy they are, and that you would really appreciate them checking out your music. Unless you have a very unique story, skip it, and let your music and presentation do the talking.
Here is a template:
I know how busy you are, and appreciate you taking the time to view this.
Here is some new material from my band (BAND NAME). There are 5 songs in total and they are all originals. In order to save you time I’ve included links to stream or download the demo below.
You can download them (as mp3s) here:
and/or stream them here:
For more info on my band please visit www.artist.website.com
If you like to discuss further please get in touch.
Your Band Name
The lure of a record deal and a labels resources are often too hard to resist. But before skipping steps and signing, consider the wisdom of those artists who have signed a record deal. Even the most successful artists will tell you that how to get a record deal and putting out that first album is the easy part. How to maintain it, and build a sustainable career album to album is the toughest part of being a band/artist. I post articles to help new artists learn how to succeed in the music industry. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me directly.
And please do me a little favor and share this post with others, for there’s a good chance that it will help them with their band.
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