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On how to get signed to a Record Label

From time to time I receive emails from musicians asking me to advise them on the best way to get signed to a record label, implying a major record company rather than an independent. After replying briefly to each of them I decided to write a more extensive letter to the latest inquirer and use it as the basis for a blog to which I can point others in the future; the opinions expressed are solely mine of course.

[...the] process by which an artist is signed to a record Label is often misunderstood. Speaking generally, the hard truth is that for a Label to 'sign' you implies they are prepared, as a business, to invest large amounts of money in your career, essentially giving you a loan. For them to do that they need to be convinced they will recover their loan and make substantial profit from that loan, not that different in principal to a bank lending you money.

You, as the artist, therefore need to do most of the initial hard work yourself, ie you need to prove to them that you already have a substantial, devoted fan-base who is buying volumes of your music and also attending, in large numbers, your live shows. You, as the artist, need to convince the Label that investment in your career will not be a financial risk to themselves. Basically, THEY need to hear about you through word of mouth well before you approach them.

Approaching a Label 'cold' without any supporting evidence of a large, 'ready to spend money on you' fan-base, will generally not get you far. Remember, there are thousands & millions of other people, globally, with the same hopes & dreams doing exactly the same thing. Your music, in and of itself, is not going to shift the balance of probabilities of being signed in your favour, regardless of how good you may think it is.

The costs of breaking an artist in a major market remain substantial at up to US$1.4 million. The cost typically breaks down as payment of an advance (US$200,000), recording costs (US$200,000-300,000), video production costs (US$50,000-300,000), tour support (US$100,000) and marketing and promotional costs (US$200,000-500,000).
[Nov 2012 reproduced from the IFPI website ]

As you can see from the above figures, we are talking big money with a massive competing global pool of people wishing to be amongst the chosen few that get signed. Record companies are businesses first and foremost and as with all businesses their interest is in the profits, not the desire to finance the arts.

Some people do manage to succeed outside the basic model I've outlined in this blog but they are, comparatively, a miniscule minority. Believing you too may be as fortunate is tantamount to hoping your weekly lottery ticket will tranform you into an overnight millionaire; it does happen but it's really not a career path. In truth there is no magic shortcut and no major Label is going to blindly throw substantial sums of money at every person who considers themself worthy of being signed; as much as you may deserve it.

I invite people's comments on this subject.

Comments Section

Thanks George Another insightful article, the trick is I guess to remain positive despite what look like daunting odds. It may also be I guess that a major label is not for every one, perhaps working with smaller independent labels can be a way to move forward where budgets are much smaller but perhaps there is a greater likely hood of getting signed. It is a rather grounding set of statistics you've put forward there, perhaps another way of looking at it is every skyscraper has a first floor, and the view from the tenth or fifteenth floor although not as lofty as the 101st may still be pretty good. I Wish every one every success with their music, and something important here too is "success" is subjective isn't it. There are many ways of looking at it. And quite likely some good arguments for staying Indie. With that amount of investment in you as an artist the record label will probably want quite a bit of a say on what you produce and how and when. All points to consider I guess. Cheers Andreas
my name is Jason Owen, my music project name is visco 242, I've been labeled the phantom of the opera on YouTube. my stuff that's really good online does anybody have any advice on what I need to do to get signed by a major label

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