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How To Sell Out Properly

Continued from last week's discussion on Cash vs. Control

So you've got it in your head that you must be signed to be happy. As you know, I am very much against labels as they are 95% of the time a terrible financial decision.

However, you don't care.

Cool, let's work with that.

Since you've got your heart set on getting signed, let's get our heads around how to look sexy for a label. As I've mentioned before, getting signed and getting bought out are exactly the same thing. A larger entity with lots of cash is willing to supply you with some sweet, sweet cash money in exchange for future profits and oversight. Not all of these investments (bands) will return as much cash, so a venture capital firm (label) will have a diverse portfolio (artist roster) in the hopes that a few investments (bands) will make enough money to cover the losses for all the failures.

The label's interest in you is contingent upon how your band performs as a financial instrument. An advance is essentially the label loaning you money for a set period of time with the expectation that you'll be able to repay the loan plus interest, thus making the label a Return On Investment (ROI).
If you're making the label less money than they're spending on you, consider yourself on the short list to get dropped. At this point they may suggest you change your look, sound, or direction. It's not really a suggestion. Once a label has thrown cash at your band, it's your duty to help them recoup their cost. Often, a band is given an advance to record an album with the stipulation that the band will not receive any additional compensation until the label makes enough cash to cover the advance. After that thresh hold is met, you'll still earn only a percentage of profit from each sale. You have to make them that skrillah or you're gone.
So if you really want to be signed, you want to position your band in a way that signals to labels that "this band is a solid investment."

Let's talk about some ways to preen your band for getting signed.

1. Study the Labels You Want To Get Signed On: Each label has a distinct personality, and your band needs to be careful about who they choose to do business with. (Death Row Records was affiliated with The Bloods and hired crooked cops/gang members!)

Pay attention to the sounds of artists already on the label. Do they already have forty bands that sound like you? Or do you think you'd be a good way to round out their lineup? Remember, it's about portfolio diversification.

Pay attention to the marketing and tone of communications the label uses. Do they like proper press releases with careful wording, or are they more punk rock-ish? This will help you determine if the personality of your band would be a good fit.

Pay attention to how satisfied artists are with the label. Does the label actually listen to the artist, or do they chew bands up and spit them out on a regular basis? (See the Victory Records Hawthorne Heights lawsuit)

Pick out a list of a possible labels in your genre that might be a good fit for your band. Tailor your band's "pitch" to fit each label's personality, and you're more likely to catch their attention.

2. Find an "In": Getting a label interested is infinitely easier if you can find an actual person to listen to you, as opposed to sending in a demo EP in the mail. Look around the label website, music publications, blogs, and local music industry directories to see if you can get a name.

In most cases, phone will tend to be ideal since emails and physical mail are much easier to ignore. Better still would be having a friend introduce you. Be polite and to the point with your pitch.

3. Pitch: Label or no, you need to know how to describe your music in under 10 seconds with a solid pitch. The goal of a pitch is to only get the "main ideas" of your art across and interest the listener enough to have them say "Hmm, ok. Tell me more."

This is good: "We're The Wigglin' Waggles, a danceable Nirvana-sounding band from Dallas. We'd like to ask your permission to send a demo CD so we can talk further about possibly signing with your label."

This is bad: "Hey, dude. Where do I send our demo?"

Expect more posts on building an effective pitch in the future. This is a BIG topic.

4. Get a High-Quality Demo: Your music needs to be its best to get someone to pay attention. If you have to apologize for your sound recording (It's just a demo, man, so ignore the skipping sound), you need a new recording. End of story.

5. Minimize "Distasteful Behaviors": Pure-bred businesspeople are uncomfortable going too far outside the norm. Musicians and artists live to push the boundaries, as that's where artistic growth comes from.

But be aware of this disconnect.

There's an limited amount of 'edgy' that a firm will be willing to tolerate before you cross a psychological thresh hold where people become uncomfortable. the 'edginess' works against you. Venture capital firms are less likely to help fund totally new enterprises in wholly unproven markets, as they have to defend their decision to their bosses. It's much easier to defend investing $10 million when "the market for all-natural pet nutrition has been growing at 12% yearly, and this young company is perfectly positioned to take advantage of this growth." It wasn't until after Nirvana and Pearl Jam blew up that it became incredibly easy for a grunge band to get signed.

This thresh hold exists even in corporate life. Even if the official company policy says "tattoos and piercings are ok", having ostentatious sleeves and plugs will permanently stunt your career at a corporation. We (humans) like those that look like us. We identify and help those that look more like us, consciously AND unconsciously. Being "too far out" makes others uncomfortable with you AND themselves. Just the same as if you were wearing a full suit to a punk rock show, looking like a punk rocker in a cubicle is asking for others to distrust you. Don't.

So how do we apply this knowledge? First, cut the songs you have called "The AzzHol Commandoz" and "Shoot Heroin Into My Eyes". That's not mass-market material. You can still keep some swearing and vulgar material in your songs because, hey, it's rock and roll. But you don't want to get too avant-garde with your performance or too offensive in your lyrics that your songs would not be playable on radio.

You don't have to water down yourself completely, but be aware that you'll want to polish your rough edges so that an A&R rep will spend her time selling you instead of explaining/defending you. And ditch hard drugs. Drugs signal unreliabile people which makes it difficult for a label to trust that dropping $20k on an album won't end with someone in the band freaking out and ending up in rehab. Don't be stupid.

6. Maximize Your Draw: Adding a band/company to your portfolio is risky. The larger an initial market you can show your investors, the easier it is for them to justify signing you up for a few albums.

Put yourself in the A&R rep's shoes. Even if you loved this new band you saw, how would you defend your decision to sign the band if the only people in attendance at the show are the band's significant others?

Same decision, now assume the band can regularly pull 60 people at regional shows.

Get your pull up. Don't assume that a label will "discover" your no-name band at an open-mic night. Get a big enough fan base and buzz that the label hears about your music and have to check it out themselves.

7. Already Be Making Money: Less risk for investors. Same as above.

8. Take Any Contract to Your Lawyer Before Signing: Yes, lawyers are expensive. But so is being trapped in a crappy contract for five albums. If you're not finished with or currently working on a law degree, you'll save yourself years of heartache by having a professional review the contract to make sure you're getting a fair deal.

Labels assume (correctly) that most musicians don't know about or care to know about contracts. While there are benevolent labels out there, there's also malevolent labels out there. Protect your band so you don't become trapped in a terrible marriage.

9. Know Your Band Member's Intentions: Have a serious, sit-down talk with everyone in the band to work out all the details you can think of before you sign anything.

   -Does everyone want to get signed?
   -Is everyone willing to relocate?
   -What is the minimum offer we would accept?
   -What is our goal for getting signed?
   -Where does everyone want the creative direction of the band to go?
   -What would make everyone happy?
   -How much control will we give up?
   -Will everyone be able to work around getting signed, or will some have to quit their jobs?
   -Would the band member's spouses approve?
   -Would each band member be able to take care of their dependents?
   -How much touring is everyone willing to tolerate?
   -What would cause someone to want to quit the band?
   -Are there any current issues with/between people that must be taken care of? (Skipping practice, not paying rent, fights, medical issues)

10. Be Respectful: You'll get turned down.

A lot.

The Beatles were turned down by Decca, HMV and Columbia because "Guitar groups are on the way out." It happened to them, and odds are your band isn't the next Beatles.

That's perfectly ok.

Deal with rejections gracefully. Say thanks, and scurry off. Don't get mad, don't act crazy, and don't bad mouth the label; the industry is all connected. If word spreads you're jerks, it'll be much harder to gain an audience with already-overloaded label professionals.

There's millions of other considerations to make, but these are the red-flags you need to take care of before earnestly pursuing a label. Anything else you think should be added to the list?

P.S.: Are you noticing how improving your band in order to get signed sounds awfully similar to how you build a career as a DIY artist?

I thought so.

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  1. Derek,
    I am using some quotes from your blog for my final in English, and I noticed a wrong word in your blog. "If you're making the label less money then they're spending on you, consider yourself on the short list to get dropped." then should be than. I really enjoyed the blog though, enough so that I asked for special permission to quote you.
    -Lilin Demon

  2. Thanks for the heads up Lilin. It's fixed.

    Sounds great, quote away! Just please add a link to the site in your bibliography. Thanks!