A Guide To Getting Signed to a Record Label

MMaking it in the music industry is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes a long period of practice, a lot of effort, and many failures before you make it to the finish line (whatever that means to you). In particular, getting signed to a label is a goal for many artists and bands out there. Thanks to the internet and social media, the industry is more complex than ever — your music alone will no longer just get you signed. You need to adapt to the changing landscape. In this article, we’ll cover all the steps to pitching your demo to labels and then getting signed.

Let’s start with the basics:

Make Exceptional Music

As a band or solo artist, the primary foundational thing to focus on is: making your music exceptional. This can mean different things based on your formal musical education (or lack thereof), the genre you create, whether you’re working alone or with an established producer, and so on. What it also means is that you likely need to spend years honing your craft, getting feedback, exploring new creative avenues, and improving your work.

Labels aren’t looking for good songs, they’re looking for music that’s extraordinary, original, yet easily marketable to their audiences. If you started taking your music seriously for only a few months or a year or so, even if you’re really talented, it most likely means that you still lack the skills and practice to create exceptional music.

To make your music appealing enough to labels, you should practice creating your music regularly, send it for feedback using platforms like Submithub, Fluence, or CrowdReview, collaborate with other artists, and then try to get your music professionally mixed and mastered.

Write a Solid Bio

Many artists overlook this, but you have to have a well-written, mistake-free, descriptive biography. Your artist bio should ideally include: where you are based, what genre your music is, a little bit of your background, and what you have planned next. Let’s break down these four elements:

  • Where you are based

Although music has become more international than ever thanks to streaming and social media, more often than not, you will kick off your music career locally. You will reach out to labels based in the closest big city next to you (more on that later). Labels should be able to quickly glance at your bio or social media and immediately know where you are from.

  • Your music genre

Similarly, you want your genre to be clearly written in your bio for both labels and potential fans to see. If an A&R manager or a potential fan stumbles upon your Spotify page or one of your social media profiles, they should be able to quickly know what your music genre is without having to listen to one of your songs. If your genre fits into what they’re looking for, then they’ll be more likely to listen to your music. Sometimes,a genre won’t be descriptive of your music enough, so it’s worth adding a few sentences to characterize it further. This can include elements such as the overall vibe, the themes your lyrics cover, the type of activities best suited to accompany your music, and so on. 

  • Your Background

If you have any formal training in music, you can mention that here. If you’ve worked with any artists that are somewhat more popular than you, you can also include that. This also applies for any producers or other technical people you may have either collaborated with or hired to help with your music. If you’ve won any notable music awards, however small, this is also a good place to mention them. If certain life events shaped you as an artist, you can mention that here, too. Don’t overdo this part. We don’t need to know that you were part of the theatre club in high school, or too much of your artistic process. Keep it simple but relevant.

  • What you have planned next

This can just be a short paragraph of two or three sentences that describe your upcoming music releases, what inspired them, what they sound like, and when you’d like to release them. This is a good place to show some growth or evolution in your artistic development.

Make sure you look professional online

A&R managers, much like potential future fans, shouldn’t need to fish around for your links. Your latest releases should have visible links (SmartLinks can help) to your social media profiles, your bio should be updated and consistent across all platforms, your social media links should be under each new YouTube video, your website shouldn’t have any dead links, etc. Basically, make sure everything works and that everything is easily accessible. Indie label owners, like most business owners, are busy people. If they stumble on your profile, and need to look for your music, they will easily lose interest and move on to the next thing. 

Whatever you post online should look professional. If you have a lot of controversial opinions that you tweet about, that might be too risky for labels to want to take on. Posting selfies and lifestyle pics is fine, but make sure the photos are of good quality. It’s also practical to be consistent with your social media handles. You can use websites like namecheckr.com to check before picking an artist name that would be the same on all platforms. And if you don’t have social media profiles on all platforms, claim them right away, they might be useful later on. Your website should be updated and functional, too. And look for ways to optimize your Artist page on Spotify

Start releasing your music independently

It’s never been easier to distribute your own music, thanks to the likes of distribution platforms such as DistroKid, CD Baby, Symphonic Distribution, and the many others out there. They all have advantages and shortcomings, so make sure you find a distributor that works for you.

Why should you start releasing your music when you ultimately want a label? There are a few reasons for this. First, you won’t really know your audience until you actually get your music heard by different people. You might think that your pop rock would be well received by 20-year-old men, but find yourself surprised when in fact it’s 30 to 50-year-old women that really dig your stuff. That information is important when looking for a label, and we’ll get into that later. Another reason you want to be releasing your music is to see what works and what doesn’t with different audiences. This feedback can help you with future music endeavors. And finally, it’s good to show interested labels that you have some understanding of how distribution and royalties work, and that you’re capable of handling music releases without any help. Even if you think that your first single or album is THE release that labels should be the one picked up by labels, it’s more likely that you need a few releases to learn from first because you will then hone in on the sound and musical mastery that will attract labels.

With how fast-paced the internet and the music scene is, with 60,000 to 100,000 songs being released on Spotify every day, don’t just release a song or two and then sit back and wait to get picked up by a label. Be consistent with your release. Release every month or two, or three. Don’t worry about releasing a full album just yet if you don’t have much out there, focus on just releasing singles and concentrating your promotion efforts on one single at a time.

If you’re not releasing regularly, at least post on social media regularly. Which brings us to our next point…

Have a growing, active and engaged social media presence

The bottom line when it comes to record labels is that they’re a business, and businesses need sustainable revenue to survive. Signing a new artist carries a high level of risk for labels, just as any new relationship, business or otherwise. One way to mitigate that risk for imprints is for them to see that you already have a following. This signals to the label that if you release music, you will already have a foundation of supporters that will help both you and the label increase the amount of plays and reach of your music.

Posting regularly is of prime importance, especially in between releases. Social media is an inconceivably fast-moving space. If you go quiet for a while (say, in between single releases), people will forget about you, and move on to the next thing. When that happens, you have to start again, almost from scratch, to first warm up your followers, show them that you’re still around and active, tease your release, and then get them interested in you once you do release. Again, be consistent. If you’re not releasing music regularly, post regularly. By being active online, you should be able to keep growing your following, however slowly. That growth sends a positive message to labels, who will likely be monitoring your growth for some time through platforms that track these kinds of things. 

Engagement is often a key metric when it comes to social media. You’ve surely seen artists post on Facebook and get one or two likes per post, often by the same guy. Similarly, you’ve likely seen artists post on Instagram and then get a couple of dozen likes, and almost no comments. Worst of all, are artists that get hundreds, or thousands of likes, and no comments at all, or always the same type of “🔥🔥” comments for each post. This often indicates fake followers or fake likes. Heed this warning: Shortcuts like fake plays and followers will slow down your music career development in the long run. Labels easily see through gimmicks like those and it will make them run the other way. Algorithms also pick up on fake followers and likes on your profiles. Facebook knows when you’re trying to cheat its system and will punish you for it. As soon as your fake service stops working, you will see a huge drop in engagement and that signals to the social media platform that your content is no longer good, and it will be a deep hole to try to dig yourself out of. This is equally true for fake plays on Spotify. There are platforms out there that will get you 1,000 spins for $10 or so, and if that’s all you want, to get 1,000 plays to show off to your friends, then knock yourself out. But if you want to build a sustainable music career, those tricks won’t work, and, again, will be picked up by the platform and your profile will be punished for it in some form or another. Moreover, fake followers cannot buy merch or concert tickets, so it’s better to have a dozen real fans rather than a thousand fake ones.

A lot of artists are hesitant in terms of committing to social media, and building an engaged following, however small, can take months if not years. Setting up a daily routine can help develop a habit and make it easier to be active online. If you definitely don’t want to do that and would rather focus on your music, hire a music marketing agency (in this case, our very own) to help you be active and help grow your numbers. You don’t need to be active on all social media platforms. Ideally, pick two or three that you’re comfortable with and focus on those.

While Instagram works well for artists and music promotion, being on TikTok is becoming increasingly unavoidable. It has grown tremendously in popularity in the last year and has served as a launching pad for many artists this past year. 

In the era of virality, the tables have turned in favor of indie artists. With TikTok becoming an incredibly fast-growing social media platform, there’s never been a better time to go viral easily and then use that virality as leverage against label deals. Historically, labels provided an advance to the artist for the full rights to the song, and kept over 80% of the royalties. Afterwards, the artist needed to pay back that advance over time with their little remaining royalties. However, things have been changing in the last couple of years, mainly thanks to TikTok. Many artists have managed to get their music to go viral, which in turn has caught the attention of labels, often major labels who are looking to capitalize on the new track prior to its forthcoming popularity on Spotify. As such, labels are asking for a smaller cut of the royalty as well as only licensing rights instead. 

See how it’s changed the relationship between indie artists and major labels in this video by Vox:

Build a community

If you have an engaged social media following, now is the time to level up: building a community is “be active on social media” but 2.0. What exactly is a community? Well, it can take several forms depending on your genre, niche interests outside of music, age group, the equipment you use, and so on. Essentially, you’re looking to build a space where a group of people, however small, can discuss topics that are about, but not exclusively, your music, with some involvement from you. In other words, these people should be able to have conversations without you being too frequently involved, about topics that can include your music releases but also analogous topics like themes from your lyrics, but also unrelated things like hobbies, books or current events.

Social media can ironically, but not surprisingly, lead to feelings of social isolation. A community is the antidote to that. People are always looking to connect with others about random topics they have in common. This common point can start as your music, but it can also branch off into topics that your community happens to have in common. If you’re an acoustic indie country rock artist that sings about nature sometimes, this can include hiking or gardening. If you’re a modular EDM artist, this can be about modular synth equipment, and so on. Your role here is to bring the community together, create and maintain a platform for communication, and help sustain that communication. It requires a lot of work, but it’s also rewarding and record labels will definitely make note of it. An active community can be worth a hundredfold the same number of followers on social media. 

In terms of platforms, find what works for your community, ideally something they might already be familiar with. This can include a Facebook group, a Discord channel, a Slack channel, a dedicated subreddit, etc. For resources and advice on community-building, check out rosie.land.

Okay, now that you have the basics covered…

How to pitch to labels

If you skipped the previous points and just jumped to this section on how to pitch your music to labels, then either you’ve already figured all that stuff out (great!) or you’re looking for a shortcut. Except there are no shortcuts! There’s no quick way to land a record deal without putting in a ton of work and time and energy first. And if you read about whatever young artist who got picked up and made it big, remember that either they’ve been working hard for years, know people and have connections in the industry and, or got one-in-ten-million lottery-winning level lucky with a great song that made it to the right ears at the right time. Often it’s a combination of these factors. For almost everyone else, it’s the slow and steady approach that is the only viable route. 

Figure out what you want from a label before contacting them.

Knowing what you want from the record label is the first step to take. You don’t want to start a conversation and hope that they offer you everything or anything that you’d be interested in. It only makes sense for you to show up to a business meeting with certain expectations, knowledge, and preferences.

If you’re just looking for a quick paycheck and think that getting signed to a label will do that for you, think again. As challenging as it’s been for indie artists to make decent revenue from their music in the age of $0.002 streaming payouts, it’s been all the harder on indie labels whose business models have relied on music sales.

Figure out what you can manage yourself already and what you need help with. Is it playlist placements, marketing, recording, or booking? Most indie labels can’t and won’t do it all, especially when they first sign an artist. If you’re expecting a turnkey, one-size-fits-all solution, you’ll be disappointed. Figure out realistic goals that you think a label can help you achieve and bring that to the table. If your goals are lined up with the interests of the label, then that will be a lot more interesting to them rather than you just showing up with music. If you don’t know what you want, you’re doing yourself a disservice along with the labels whose time you will be wasting.

Getting signed to a label is essentially a business partnership of sorts where both parties have something to offer that will benefit the other party. With all that in mind, you can move on to the next point.

Start your research and create a list of labels 

Start a spreadsheet of different labels with artists on their rosters that make similar music as you. Write down where they’re located, what their submission process is if it’s indicated on their website, the genres they cover, if they have any Spotify playlists, and any other information you might find handy including how to contact them. Also include a column for when you first reached out to them, and two or three other columns for follow-ups you’ll send if you don’t hear back.

If labels don’t have a submission form, there are a few ways to go about getting in touch with them. First, you can reach out to them via social media and kindly ask them for the email address where you can send a demo. If they don’t reply, follow up once or twice at most. Ideally, you should be following them on social media for some time and engaging with their content beforehand. This way, you’ll show that you’re already familiar with them and you support them before getting in touch. 

You can also connect with them on LinkedIn by searching for people who work at the label. You can also find emails using a Chrome extension like hunter, which finds email addresses based on their website domain name.

Don’t go pitching to every label under the sun, hoping for the best! You will just get ignored, or worse, annoy someone in the industry, which isn’t something you should be doing. Find labels that work with your genre and only reach out to those.

It’s best to start locally. Look for labels that are based in your state or closest major city. These should be the first group of labels you reach out to. Also, start small. This isn’t a sprint, you’re unlikely to get signed right off the bat by the biggest, coolest indie label in your genre. What you’re looking to do (and this will be true for any stage of your music career), is to create contacts and make connections, which, in turn, will help you make new connections with even more people. Getting experience working with a small label today will be worth its weight in gold when you get to the point where you can reach out to bigger labels down the road, partly thanks to the connections you’ve made along the way. Regardless, make sure that the labels are relevant to the music that you make. 

Pitch to labels

When you pitch to labels, there are a few don’ts that are worth going over: first off, you are not the next big thing. And even if you really really think you are, don’t tell anyone that, especially not labels. Instead, tell them you’re working hard to try to advance in the industry and show them how you’ve been doing that. Second, don’t mention that you invented a new genre. That’s not something that just happens like that; genres evolve over time, with the help of multiple, independent parties. Instead, mention the genres that your music does resemble, including very niche ones.

You want your pitch to be succinct and clear, and to contain all the information they might want, including all the links to your social media pages, community if you have one, as well as a short bio. It would be great to discuss some of your recent successes, and also some of your upcoming goals that they could help you with, which we discussed in a point above. Be courteous, professional, and write correctly. This is a business proposition. If you’re not a great writer, make sure to have your pitch proofread by someone who is before sending it out. 

You also don’t want to copy-paste the same pitch to every label. The more personalized your pitch is, the more likely it is it won’t get discarded right away. Don’t tell them that you like their label and that your music would be a good fit for them. Instead, tell them why you like their label, and why you would be a good fit for their roster.

If you’re submitting by email, you shouldn’t include an mp3 (unless they specifically ask for one). If you attach an mp3 to your email, it might get flagged as spam, and even if it doesn’t, it would require them to save a big file on their computer,  find and open said file, then go back and delete it later ⁠— it’s too much of a hassle. Instead, use a Dropbox or private SoundCloud link, or a platform like Byta. The songs you submit to labels should be unreleased and not include any copyrighted material, and they should be easily accessible to the person you send them to. Make it easy and simple for them, make sure your links work, and send only a couple of your tracks (if they like it, they will ask you for more).

Some platforms can help you with the process, notably LabelRadar, which was recently acquired by Beatport, as well as Submithub, through which you can directly pitch to some labels. But doing it the old-fashioned way via email is fine, just make sure your subject line includes your artist name and that it’s a submission.

Be patient and put yourself out there

Many indie record labels are composed of just two or three people handling everything, including the hundreds of demo submissions they receive every week. It’s alright to send a friendly follow-up every few weeks or so, but keep in mind that it will take them a while to answer you. Ultimately, you’re looking to build relationships. May it be with local producers, label marketing directors, music tech startups, whatever. Go to music events, attend music conferences, meet people, add them on social media, interact with them, meet new people through those people and continue the cycle. It’s a lot easier to get your foot in the music industry door when a few people on the other side have already met you a couple of times.

I started the article by comparing the music industry to a marathon, implying that there’s a finish line, but the reality is that there isn’t. There’s no single point that you will ever reach that will make you feel like you’ve made it. There will always be new fans to acquire, new music to release, bigger shows to play. The best way to go about it is to break it down into small, attainable, realistic goals and strive to complete those.

Getting signed to a label can take months or years, and that could be even after you find one that’s interested in you. Be consistent, perseverant and patient, and the rest will follow. 

Frederic Sahyouni.
Frederic is COO and Head Copywriter at the Dotted Music Marketing Agency and Editor of the Dotted Music Blog.

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