For decades, aspiring musicians everywhere have dreamed of signing their own record deal. After all, having the power of a record label behind you means more exposure for your music, a chance at a large adoring fanbase, lots of touring and press opportunities, and the opportunity to make money and your mark in music history.

But how do you get there from where you are now? Read on to learn about how record labels work and what you need to do to get their attention.

History of The Record Industry

Sound recordings were invented in 1877 and stored on wax cylinders. Around the turn of the century, we saw the commercial production of the cylinders, the creation of the first record label companies, and a significant increase in records sales. By the time the First World War began, the industry was well-established, though it suffered some decline during both wars.

By 1941, three labels reigned the industry: Columbia, RCA-Victor, and Decca. Other competitors popped up soon after, like Capitol Records in 1942. Smaller independent record labels started appearing around then, too, finding their success by targeting less popular genres of music, or those ignored by the major labels. These labels fought for dominance throughout the next few decades and prevailed through changes in record sizes and playback speeds.

By the late eighties and early nineties, there were six major labels: Warner, EMI, Sony, Universal, and BMG. In 1999, Sony and BMG merged, leaving only five. By 2012, after mergers and absorptions, and sell-offs, there were just three left: Universal, Sony, and Warner.

The major labels have caught a lot of attention over the years for their controlling approach to bands and their music. Specifically, they’ve been criticized heavily for sapping the creativity out of artists’ projects, in an effort to make them appeal to the public. Even so, artists seek their approval because of their gigantic reach and their consistent ability to make hits.

Independent labels have held their own for the most part but have experienced increased attention  in recent years. Musicians signing with them appear less corporate than their major-label counterparts, but still enjoy impressive distribution and success. Independent labels are known for being less controlling over their artists and bands, allowing them to stick more closely to their artistic visions and better maintain their core audience. It is also easier to get the attention of an independent label, especially since they usually focus on one or two genres only.

So before you start contacting every label you can think of, first decide what you truly want from the experience. Do you want to make your music and have the opportunity to share it with the world? Or are you more concerned with fame, money, and mass appeal? Are you wanting to initially sign to an independent label, then aim for a deal with a major label later down the road? Figuring out your goals here will help you decide where to aim your efforts and how to best shape them.

How Has The Process of Getting Signed Changed Over the Years?

Getting signed to a record label is quite the process. It has always required serious dedication: from creating quality music to finding regular performance and press opportunities to cultivating followers.

Traditionally, if you caught the eye of some executive at a major label, you’d get a contract handed to you and you’d sign it graciously. In many cases, these contracts favored the label over the artist in every way, netting more money and benefits for them and requiring more from the musician in return. These contracts could make or break a band. But, the more successful an artist got, the more they were able to negotiate their contracts in their favor. Today, with so many more labels out there, artists have a better chance at finding a label that best suits their music and their needs, instead of the other way around.

But the one major difference between the process today and what it was back in the day is this: since it has become so easy to make and produce music digitally and even find distribution options outside of independent labels, record labels are receiving more hopeful submissions than ever. They receive hundreds if not thousands of demos and EPKs each day, and it is increasingly difficult to sift through them, which can be discouraging for artists and labels alike.

How Have Famous Artists Gotten Discovered and Signed?

An increasingly common way that bands are getting discovered and signed nowadays is through YouTube. It’s how Justin Bieber, The Weeknd, and Alessia Cara got noticed. But it wasn’t always so easy.

Stars like Usher and Beyonce got noticed through Star Search. Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, The Jonas Brothers, Justin Timberlake, and Britney Spears found their fame because of Disney. Mariah Carey made her debut on “The Arsenio Hall Show,” Kelly Clarkson on American Idol. The legendary Bob Dylan was likely discovered playing a club in Greenwich Village. These stars got lucky getting such shots at exposure, and it helped them get discovered and signed.

But before the advent of the internet, or television, there were other ways of getting discovered as well. There were the occasional talent shows and contests, but usually music label scouts  actively searched at bars, concerts, state fairs, and similar types of events for their next big names. While this may still be the case today, the internet is where most people head to launch their careers.

What Steps Do I Need to Take to Get Signed?

Keep in mind that, above all else, a record label is a business. All businesses want to make money, not lose it. No record label wants to sink thousands of dollars into a band to help them learn how to write music, discover their brand, or grow their audience; they want someone who has already done it so they can sign them and immediately start cranking out hits and collecting revenue.

So, this means that before you can even start thinking about approaching record labels, you need to do some heavy lifting yourself. You’ll need to prove that you have a good sound worth investing in and that you are willing to put in the work. You need to prove to the label that you aren’t a risky investment and that you have already laid the groundwork for them — that is, you ideally already have songs written and an established following.

Remember that it’s important to always appear professional and polished when dealing with a record label representative. Be polite, look neat and clean, make your EPK and other documents look professional, and always graciously accept feedback when it is given.

Create Your Music

Obviously, the first thing you should work on is your music. If you don’t even have five set songs, or if they aren’t complete or don’t sound polished, record labels will be extremely reluctant to work with you. If you aren’t currently making the progress that you would like to see, find a music producer, or find an additional band member who is more knowledgeable about writing music.

Decide what genre you want to play:  if you want lyrics, what the atmosphere of the band is going to be, how many people will be in the band, and so on. Then you need to make the music, and get good at it. Compose, practice, revise, perform, repeat. Write a lot of songs, and get comfortable playing them.

Gain a Following

Once your music style becomes set and your repertoire grows steadily, you should  start performing more and connecting with your audience in person and online. People like good music, but they also love a band that is passionate and personable, so put your heart and soul into your performances. People will pick up on your stage presence and take an interest in your band.

Be sure to give your fans somewhere to connect with you online. Setting up social media accounts on all of the most popular and relevant sites, like Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, is critical, as those are the places where your band will get the most exposure and be most likely to collect followers. And don’t forget to cross-link all of those accounts with the others, so that people can easily follow you wherever you are online, for added exposure. The best way to grow your following and keep your fans engaged is to post regularly, keep your fans updated with news and upcoming performance dates, and provide your fans with somewhere they can listen to or even download your tracks.

Record labels need to see that people are interested in your music and that, even without their help, you are able to connect with people and get them to follow you on social media. Labels will absolutely look at your social stats, which is fair, since stats gauge your popularity, perseverance, and presence within the music industry. The better your numbers are – be it for social media followers or song downloads – the more interested a record label will be.

Get a Manager

Getting someone to manage your band is a big step, especially as you begin to grow a following. Managers take care of everything behind the scenes —  administrative stuff that you may no longer have time to deal with. This gives you and your band plenty of time to focus on writing and playing great music.

Managers can help you land more gigs, better paying gigs, and talk you up to other big wigs within the industry. They can help you manage your calendar, while taking care of everything involved in getting you to an event. They can help set up interviews for your band, get you featured on local or even national music magazines or websites, and get you connected with any type of person within the industry. They can also help you secure endorsements or a contract with a record label.

Having a manager also shows record labels that you are having some success as a band, that you are growing, and that you are serious about keeping busy.

Create an EPK

An EPK, which stands for electronic press kit, acts as a resume for musicians. Your EPK should contain your band information, a bio, links to your best songs, some photos or video of you guys playing, any news or press featuring you, and your contact information. You can set one up online for free using GigFaster.com or you can use a website like Wix, Bandzoogle, or ReverbNation.

EPKs make it easier to connect with a record label, as it allows to get a sense of your band at a glance. Since record labels have so many people trying to land a deal with them every single day, making it easy for them to get a feel for you without taking up much of their time will be appreciated. Plus, having one puts you ahead of everyone else in the industry who doesn’t have one. It’s just one more way to prove that you are serious about music, and capable of thriving even with the backing of a record deal.

How GigFaster Can Help

Growing your band is hard work, without a doubt. Writing songs, keeping band relationships healthy, and performing can take up a lot of energy, leaving you with barely any time left for finding future gigs or trying to find a record label that will sign you.

But with GigFaster, you can get the help you need for all of that. At GigFaster, we have an impressive network of music industry professionals, from music promoters to concert venues that we can connect you with.

Artists who promote their music using GigFaster increase their chances to get more plays on music streaming sites like Spotify and SoundCloud.

For a small monthly fee, you tell us where to pitch and we’ll contact the venues, music blogs and record labels on your behalf and follow up until we get a response for you.

Craig Kelley

About Craig Kelley

Craig helps indie artists book more gigs, promote their music and submit to record labels @ GigFaster. He recently released his 7th album, Not So Blue. His band has supported Grammy artists including Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Rick Derringer, Gary Hoey, Joan Jett, Fuel and many more. http://craigkelley.com He is also the host of The 5 Minute Podcast For Musicians.

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