Getting a record deal gets harder every year. The days of record impresarios like Phil Spector discovering a group, taking them into the studio and making them famous overnight are long gone.
These days, the music business is sometimes more about the business than it is about the music. While record companies and music publishers still rely on hit songs falling from the lips of superstars to make their profits, the way they find their talent has changed a lot from the past.
There actually was a time that an artist, band or songwriter could send their demo tape in to a record company as “unsolicited” material – meaning that nobody from the record company had requested the material. It was somebody’s job to open the tapes and give them a spin with the hope they would find a winner.
As more and more people began making demos, the task of listening to unsolicited tapes became too formidable for the average label. The labels also became aware of the legal ramifications involved in listening to tapes that came in from the general public because of copyright infringement suits that often landed them in court.
Eventually, labels and publishers would only accept tapes from music attorneys who were well-connected or managers who had a reputation in the business for aligning themselves with “hit makers.”
While it may seem like a daunting task for someone in middle America to find themselves an “Angel” who can get them through the pearly gates, it’s not impossible.
One sure way to get your band noticed is to become more businesslike yourself. Everybody loves a winner – especially a record company. Take Hootie and The Blowfish for example. Hootie couldn’t get arrested by any of the major labels. They had all heard the demo, and passed on the group. It took a 22 year-old researcher at Atlantic Records in New York to get the band a deal. How? Simple. His weapon of choice was a telephone.
The researcher made it his business to call small town record stores to see if any local groups were selling any product in their own “backyard.” When the diligent young man found out that Hootie had sold a whopping number of CD’s in Columbia, SC, he immediately went to Atlantic’s vice-president of A&R. The V.P. told the kid to take a hike.
That didn’t stop him. He went to the chairman of the board of Atlantic, who, as the story is told, went to the V.P. of A&R and mandated that Hootie and the Blowfish be signed immediately. The moral of the story is that if you can’t find a heavy-weight lawyer or manager to stand in your corner, you can still get the big guns to come to you by doing the right kind of self-promotion.
But don’t let me mislead you. It takes serious planning and execution to sell enough CD’s to get the labels crawling to you. Rumor has it that our finned friends from Columbia, S.C. sold between 50,000 and 100,000 units. That’s a lot of CD’s for a group to sell on their own.
To perform such a feat, you need a few tools. The first of course is an incredibly good record. “As good as” isn’t really good enough. You need to sound unique and have incredibly catchy tunes. Great timing doesn’t hurt either, and letting the public know who you are on a regular basis is crucial. By that I mean touring.
Touring can start out small and grow. I recommend playing gigs within your general area and once you begin to reach saturation in those clubs, start widening your circle. Play clubs within a hundred mile radius. Then 200 miles, then 300 and so on. If you get press in those towns, send an advance person to hang posters in every conceivable place and work with local radio stations to promote your shows, you might get lucky enough to draw some serious crowds which will in turn allow you to sell a lot of CD’s.
One mistake I definitely don’t recommend making is to press up a thousand CD’s without having a marketing plan firmly in place which outlines how and to whom you will sell them.
When planning your tour, remember to start out small and grow. Keep your day job and just do as many gigs as you can find that are within a three hour drive of your home base. Once you hit the saturation point with those weekend gigs, start thinking of creative ways to take Fridays off of work so you can plan longer trips.
When you start making enough money from your gigs (which is pretty hard considering most clubs pay peanuts for original music), you can start to think about quitting your day job. But don’t act too hastily. First do the math. Total up the cost of gas, van maintenance, road food and flea bag motels before you take the leap. You may even want to think about sleeping in your van. Ahhh, the glamour of rock and roll. Oh yeah, don’t forget, you’ll need to pay the rent back home. And the phone bill. And the cable bill. And your Mastercard monthly payment . . . you get the idea.
My point: It’s still a business. It takes a good business head to make enough noise for a major label to find you instead of you getting frustrated trying to get to them. Hey, if it was easy, everybody would be a rock star.
During Michael Laskow‘s 20-year tenure as an engineer/producer, he worked with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Eric Clapton, Cheap Trick and countless others. He continues to write articles for magazines like Recording and Electronic Musician. He’s also the founder of TAXI, an independent A&R company that links record labels with unsigned artists and songwriters.