What Do Record Labels Look For When Signing a Band?


Back in issue 11 of Sick Drummer Magazine we interviewed 3 top "metal" labels and asked them what they look for when signing a band. Here is what they had to say…
SDM: Should a band approach only labels who specialize in their genre of metal music, and have a roster similar-genre bands?
Label A: As long as they're metal, I think they should try to give it a shot.  Labels shift directions over the years so you never know what they might be into or what a new change in staff might bring.
Label B: Yes and no.  You need to work with a label that is genuinely passionate about your music and understands what you want to achieve as a band, no matter what the genre.  But, for example, if you're a band looking for an active rock radio hit, then an underground label is probably not where you want to be.
Label C: It helps, but it doesn't hurt to take a chance. One never knows when a label will want to change direction and diversify.  If you're a hip hop artist calling us up (as has happens often), you're simply not doing your research.  However years ago, some of the bands we have on our current roster would have never been on our label, which shows how much things can change over time.
SDM: What exactly does a label look for in a press kit?  What is too little?  What is too much?  What is just right?
Label A: A bio and a CD of a few of your best songs is enough.  If we're interested off of that, we'll do our homework and go to the MySpace and websites, et cetera.  Your entire back catalog is not needed and neither is your swag.
Label B: Tour dates, tour dates, tour dates.  If a band isn't touring and hasn't toured, than it can be a big red flag.  It takes touring for a band to really grow together as a unit.  Many a label have signed a band, put them on tour for the first time, just to watch them implode because they all found out they hated each other after living in a van for a week.
Another obvious one — CONTACT INFO!  I cannot tell you how many press kits have been opened that had neither an e-mail, phone number, or even a website URL.  We accept press kits with as little as a MySpace link.  In all reality, these days a MySpace page IS a press kit.  It's fairly easy to tell if a band has their act together based on a MySpace page and its content.  Though there are ALWAYS exceptions.
A label doesn't need a fifteen page booklet about the band, because it won't get read.  One page with a bit of a bio, contact info, a photo, and press quotes (if you have them) is more than enough.
Label C: We find that the flashiest, most well made press kits come from the bands that suck the hardest. They either think they're hot shit, have lots of money to burn or are trying to over-compensate for how terrible their songs are.  A brief bio, a picture, tour dates and a shitty, handwritten cd-r works just fine.
SDM: What level of recording should a band have before approaching a label?  Does it need to be mixed and mastered?
Label A: Sometimes labels have very little imagination, I think.  If you send in a recording of a rehearsal, don't expect us to imagine what you would sound like with a great production.  Take some initiative to record a great sounding demo in a home or proper recording studio.  It will show that you're serious and take the initiative to do things properly yourself.
Label B: The level of recording doesn't matter.  But, they should show that they know how to put out a decent product on a shoe-string budget.  Recording is easier and cheaper than ever before and a band that is able to record a quality DIY album has a leg up on the competition.  In the end, however, it IS the quality of the songs and not the quality of the recording, even though there is a strong correlation between quality songs and quality recordings.
Label C: It should have some level of professionalism about it, but at the end of the day a demo is a demo.  It's not meant to sound like it should be bought at BestBuy, but it should sound "good".  If it sounds like it was recorded off of a boombox in someone's garage, it gets trashed immediately.
SDM: If a band sends you a home printed CD and J-card, is that an automatic rejection?
Label A: No, but if it looks better than that, it has a higher chance of being listened to sooner.
Label B: Never.  You have to start somewhere.  Some of the best demos we've received have been from someone's CD burner.  Of course, so have some of the worst!
Label C: No, but if it comes to us sealed, we will trash it instantly.
SDM: What types of self-promotion should bands be concentrating on, and which of the following social outlets have you found to be most effective: MySpace, YouTube, iTunes, last.fm, Twitter, or Facebook?
Label A: MySpace still seems like the main outlet for bands, although I think most people that aren't in bands concentrate most on Facebook these days.  I get so much spam from bands on MySpace that I delete every mail I get from a band without looking at it these days. It's not as effective as it once was for some reason but it's still the place to go to check out a new band you've been hearing about.  Having great footage on YouTube with your fans going nuts definitely helps when the label is researching your band.  I'm sure Twitter helps bring fans out to shows that actually can afford an iPhone or signed a fifty year contract with some Satanic sect of AT&T.
Label B: Obviously, touring.  Make friends with other regional bands, trade shows with bands in other cities (you know how/where to set up a show in your town, right?!) and continue to spiral outward from there.  The most important networking sites to have under your control are MySpace, YouTube, iTunes, Twitter, and Facebook.  Having a real .com doesn't hurt either.  Also, having an online webstore screams "we have our ducks in a row".
Label C: MySpace is the music king and youtube helps a lot too. Concentrate on touring. Touring, touring, touring!
SDM: What about file-sharing software like: Soulseek, Limewire, or Bearshare?
Label A: It's probably a good idea to just give away your music in the beginning for free on these networks if you're getting the name out there.  Metallica got their name initially through tape trading back in the day and I'd say file-sharing is today's equivalent.
Label B: Music is incredibly devalued these days — people feel entitled to free music.  I'd suggest not putting your music up on these sites.  If you've released an album, your music is probably up for grabs anyway.  Go to tunecore.com and pay $40 to get your album up on iTunes, Amazon digital, et cetera, and promote to your fans that your album is for sale digitally for cheap.  Of course, that's assuming your album is worth shelling out $6-$9 for.  Keep track of all of your sales: physical and digital.  When talking to a label, they WILL ask you how many you've sold.
Label C: Non-factors.
SDM: What advice can you give bands about being copyrighted?
Label A: If you want to do it and spend the money.  As I understand it, if you can prove you did something first it shouldn't be a problem.  But whoever has the biggest wallet will probably win in the end in all reality.  Just look at the death metal band Incubus that was forced to change their name when the alternative rock band made it big.  They were around for years before but never copyrighted the name as I understand it, but don't quote me on that.
Label B: If you write and record something, it is technically your intellectual property.  One DIY way to prove this is to mail yourself a copy of your own recording and don't open the package.  The stamps from the post office have dates on them and this type of proof will hold up in court.  This is called the poor man's copyright.  Also, pick an original name.  If you think someone may already have used that band name, run a trademark search (hit up Google for more info on that).  Check the usual sites — Facebook, MySpace, Google, PureVolume, and so on for similarly named bands.
Label C: Doesn't hurt.
SDM: How important is it for a band to have their own manager, and what management duties would become the duty of a label upon signing a deal?
Label A: If you have a manager that doesn't know shit about the business side of things and they don't have great connections they'll only get in the way.  A record label is not a manager so don't expect them to do that automatically for you, either.  BUT a really great A&R person at a label should have relationships that should be able to help the band get on tours, et cetera.  It's best to be self-managed if you can't find a significant manager, at least in the beginning, since the band is making little to no money.
Label B: Unsigned bands with managers can be a red flag for labels.  Sometimes managers for unsigned bands can do more harm than good.  More often than not, those managers are just friends of the band or someone looking for a pay day from a label.  That's not to say that's always the case, there are some GREAT DIY managers out there, but we've also seen our fair share of bad ones.  Also, if you're a band that's being signed to a good label, that label will sometimes pitch you to managers they already know and work with.  Generally those managers have connections with booking agents, merch companies, et cetera.  If you're a band that is already managed by someone, it is a bad business practice for the label to pitch you to other managers.  To summarize: unsigned bands should never work with a manager unless that person can do something for them that they can't do for themselves — why pay someone when you can just do it yourself?
A list of manager's duties: dealing with booking agents, merch orders, tour contracts, passports/work VISAs for overseas shows — in general, the day-to-day issues that a band faces.  Labels are responsible for marketing and sale of albums.  Anything they do beyond that is extra, though indie labels do generally help out a hell of a lot, especially with bands that don't have managers.
Label C: Not important. In fact, unless the band is blowing up in a big way, we encourage the members to learn the business first-hand, before they hand off the duties to a professional with deeper contacts and such.
SDM: Is the length of time a band has been together with the same members a major aspect of label review for signing?
Label A: It's a major plus.  That means that the label's investment isn't going to break up six months after their record is out because they can't stand each other.
Label B: A stable lineup is a great sign.  Fans relate more to bands with stable lineups and those bands are always easier to work with.  Like any business, a high turnover rate hurts productivity.  A group of people working together for a long period of time generally work better.
Label C: Yes and no. We like young bands, but unlike a host of other labels, as long as we think they're good and there's money to be made, we won't shy away.
SDM: Do you look at how many endorsements a band has when considering signing them?  Would a band with five have a better chance at a deal, over a band with one or none?
Label A: That really isn't a factor so much, but it does show initiative on the band's own part, which is good.
Label B: Never; endorsements are not an issue.  If you're an unsigned band with endorsements, that is awesome and you should be stoked that the gear companies believe in you.  If you're in a band that's signed to a label and that actively tours, endorsements will generally happen over time.
Label C: Doesn't matter one bit.
SDM: Would existing distribution deals remain intact upon signing, or is that all handled by the label?
Label A: If we're putting out a new record with a new master, we'd be the ones handling the distribution.
Label B: It depends on the band and the deal.  There have been cases where bands released previous albums on other labels where we have purchased the rights to the previous album.  Sometimes the old label doesn't want to sell the rights, which is fine, of course, that's their choice.  It varies from band to band, but this is something where deals don't happen unless all parties involved come to some sort of agreement.
Label C: It would be handled by us.
SDM: Do labels these days require involvement in providing and selling band merchandise, or can that be totally left to the band?
Label A: That's all negotiated between the band and label.  Every label worth a damn wants some sort of merch rights though, now, with dwindling record sales.
Label B: As CD sales dwindle, labels are getting more involved in merch.  Some labels do 360 deals, where they take a percentage of touring and merchandise in addition to what is received from CD sales.  Other labels instead will simply work as merch fulfillment for the band — they handle their merch orders just like they would CD orders from the band.  In this case, the band keeps all shirt profits, but does buy the shirts from the label, or whomever their manufacturer may be.  In all cases, this is something that both the band and label come to an agreement on.
Label C: we've begun signing all of our new acts to 360 deals, so yes, we would be involved in merch.
SDM: Typically, how many songs should a band present to the label?  One, three, an entire album?  Is there an "annoyance" factor, as there are probably too many to listen to as it is?
Label A: Four or five songs is fine, I think.  If the first song doesn't grab you or has some long-ass intro, it might be harder to get to the remaining songs, though.
Label B: Honestly, if three songs are up on a MySpace, that will be enough for us to know if it's something we want to work with or not.  If we like two or three songs, we'll ask to hear more and if we don't like the two or three songs, why WOULD we want to hear more?
Label C: We'll know within 30 seconds if we want to keep listening to it,  so as few or many tracks as they want.
SDM: I understand that even though this is an anonymous interview, there are things you can't say.  Can you give us any idea of what kind of money a band can expect to make being signed?  How many albums would it take to start seeing a good return?
Label A: Depends on the band, but new bands barely make money off record deals these days.  Money comes from touring and merch mostly.  You making any sort of money in the future off music depends on how hard you work in the band's formative years.
Label B: This is something that depends on the deal that is struck.  Royalty rates differ and it depends on how much is spent on recording the album.  Unless you're a band that's selling 20-30k plus albums, don't expect many royalty checks, that is unless you recorded your album for really cheap.  Again, depends on royalty rates, amount spent on the album, and number of CDs sold.  These days, bands make most of their money via merch sold on the road and through their merch stores.
Label C: Depends on the band.
SDM: Should a band follow-up with a label after submitting a press kit?  How long should they wait?  Should they not bother at all?
Label A: No follow up is necessary.  If we like it, we'll either contact you or see what you do for a while before we actually approach you.
Label B: Generally not.  Indie labels DO listen to everything, believe it or not.  For better or for worse, we dredge through all digital and physical promos.  We do reach out to bands that we feel may be worth working with.  If that is the case, and the label has reached out to you inquiring about the band, then by all means, follow up.  If you never hear from a label and want to resubmit/follow up, allow a few months to pass and resubmit with either new songs or show that you've been touring.  More often than not, if you're a band that is active and has something going on, then the indie labels know who you are.  When you open for a touring band that is signed, if you're good, and they see you — they tell us about you!  Believe it or not!
Label C: Following up is fine, just don't get annoying about it. Don't start calling up regularly.  If we like it you'll hear from us, not the other way around.
SDM: Do you look at reviews a band has gotten?  Are there any outlets more viable than others when reading reviews?
Label A: Good reviews are helpful.  Since SickDrummerMagazine.com doesn't do album reviews, though, there are no real credible outlets for reviews. [Laughter]
Label B: Sometimes bands submit press quotes and/or review links with their music.  This is never a bad thing; it shows that you are actively working your band and that you have a grasp on the outlets that are covering metal.  There a ton of outlets on the web and in print that cover unsigned artists; if you can get them to cover your band, then you are ahead of the game.  Metalsucks, metalreview, thegauntlet, smnnews, noisecreep, blabbermouth, lambgoat, loudside, and Sick Drummer Magazine are all great places to send your music to.
Label C: we don't look at reviews, however the leading websites and trade mags are obviously more viable than any Joe-Blow metal zine.
SDM: When your bands tour outside the US, are there any special preparations for someone with a criminal record?  What is proper identification? (such as visa, passport)  Are there some places they cannot go?
Label A: If you have a felony and are a US citizen your career in Canada is pretty much fucked.  If you're from Europe and have a criminal record, your North American touring possibilities are pretty much fucked as well.  There might be some ways around certain things, but it's pretty costly to deal with it.
Label B: People with criminal records generally don't make it across borders.  There are steps you can take to get a passport, so if you have a record, get it taken care of as soon as you can.  You don't want to be the guy that stops your band from getting into Canada because you got a DUI two years ago.  Fortunately, I don't generally have to deal with this type of paperwork, but it is time consuming and can be complicated.  This is something (good) managers take care of.
Label C: Don't handle touring… sorry
SDM: Is it better for a band to have their own lawyer through the whole process?
Label A: Labels will usually help with this, so I'm not sure it's necessary.  Depends on the label, I guess.  If you mean negotiating a record deal, though, I'd say a lawyer is a good idea for sure.  A friend that understands contracts is an even better idea.
Label B: Always, always, always have a lawyer that YOU trust review contracts.  I've seen bands sign some terrible deals (with other labels) that they get stuck in for five records.  Never be afraid to ask questions and negotiate.  That's not saying if a label offers you $5,000 you should ask for $20,000, but generally if a label offers you something, that means they're interested.  Be honest with the label about what you need and what works for you and it'll go a long way to making the relationship work.  If you don't trust each other from the beginning, that doesn't bode well for your career and the time you'll spend working with the label.
Label C: It wouldn't hurt.

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