Each aspiring and upcoming music artist dreams to share their music with people and be heard all over the world. In order to make this dream come true here comes major labels, which provide an artist with everything they need – music production team, equipment, the music industry connections, money, promotion, and whatever they need to make an artist focus on creating music only. However, even though it sounds like a perfect fairytale, there is a certain barrier for an artist to be signed by a major.
Fortunately (or not), nowadays, it is not enough for an artist to just have talent - in fact, they need much more than that. Every time a label signs an artist, they are sure that the money they invested in a new act will be returned with interest. Therefore, a few unspeakable standards were formed for an artist to get a record deal. Some people argue that the standards have changed due to the existence of the Internet and social media, however, some people think everything stayed the same way, except the approach.
In order to get signed by a big label, an artist should have next:
* Professional documents: EPK, press photos, bio
Being a professional music artist is a job. And to apply for a job it is required to have certain professional documents. In the music industry, in order to represent themselves, an artist should have these which are equal to a traditional resume and portfolio: Electronic Press Kit (EPK), press photos, and bio (which is included in EPK). Record labels do not work with those who take music as a “hobby” – they invest in professional musicians, whose whole life depends on the music. Therefore, these documents are a must-have for an artist to be perceived as someone who is ready to work on an international level.
* Working music, more demos
The more music an artist has, the better. In that case, label scouts will have what to choose from, as well as it will show how experienced an artist is. It is not always about having original songs though – covers work too, as long as it has a good sound and is professionally recorded. Having high-quality records shows that an artist is invested in what he or she does and believes that it is actually worth it. Again, executives from every industry hire those, who are focused on doing their tasks as perfectly as possible and go above and beyond for it. If an artist wants to be signed by a big record label – then she or he has to make it sound as good as the music of the artists from this label.
* Active social media presence (at least one platform with a solid fan base following)
Since 55% of people all over the world (4.33 billion) use social media, it is the best way for an artist to grow its fanbase and show a record label that they have enough supporters who are ready to pay for show tickets and music. Before the Internet and social media existed, A&R scouts could find out how famous an artist is only in one way – attending artists’ concerts and looking at how big a crowd is. Nowadays, it is enough to open a phone and see how popular an artist is on any of the main social media: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, SoundCloud or TikTok. Some people claim that if an artist is really talented and does the best he can to achieve his dream, he will find out how to grow his audience. Whether it is true or not, there is one thing for sure – by having at least 10,000 real followers (a broad number, everything depends on fan’s activity and engagement) it is enough for a label to see that there is potential in the artist’s success.
* Shows, list of previous gigs
Having a list of shows brings an upcoming artist to another level in the eyes of record label scouts. It shows a commitment, determination, and belief in a dream from an artist’s side and potential opportunity for profit from a label’s side. If an artist plays shows, it means he or she masters their skills of performing and emotionally training themselves in front of the crowd, not to mention putting themselves out there, attracting new listeners. It also means that an artist is actually able to fill a venue and sell tickets, which is an essential point for a label. If there is a potential to make money, a big label won’t pass on it.
* Industry connections and visibility
To be successful in any field, it is necessary to have connections and know-how to network and the music industry is not different from that. It will make more “noise” around an artist’s name for a record label if he or she will be deemed to have a relationship with people from the industry – collaborations with artists, mentions in press, interviews, previous/current work with managers, etc. Not only it highlights that an artist is far away from being a “beginner”, but it also improves their reputation and image, which is another reason for a record label to offer a deal.
* Momentum and breakthrough
This might be something that artists cannot control and are not able to affect in any way. If in all previous points everything depends on an artist and his or her actions, here they will never know when these “breakthrough “, and “momentum” will actually happen. Moreover, only this can cross out if an artist does not have everything else – as long as an audience goes crazy about this suddenly discovered talent and does not let them go, a label can take it into its own hands and offer a record deal working on anything else.
* Money to invest in music
After all, everything that was mentioned above comes to one point – money. An artist can whether have a lot of followers and previous gigs (which shows potential revenue for an artist), industry connections and visibility (means others see a potential for money), working music and more demos (more music – more streams – more profit), momentum and breakthrough (which is a sudden leak of money) or whether simply have actual money to invest in themselves as well. There is no doubt that it will be much easier to get a deal from a record label if they see that an artist can invest money in their work as well as they do.
Obviously, an artist might not be able to have everything that was mentioned above, however - the more, the better. However, it is in the artist’s power to make documents, record demos, build a fanbase and industry connections, as well as apply for gigs and opportunities to perform. But most importantly, they need to stay passionate, patient, and have tempered expectations since the road to fame and success isn’t that easy.
Such artists as Lady Gaga, The Weeknd, Drake, and Halsey are proof that these points work, according to the stories of their “breakthrough.”
For example, Lady Gaga – has never had a need for money since her family was able to afford to send her to a private school where she studied with people like Paris Hilton. Moreover, as Grazia states, she and her dad had an agreement – he proposed to financially support her for a year while she tries to break through in the music industry and if she wasn’t able to do it, after a year she would be on her own. And this is how she made it – through constant performances in clubs for small crowds, she connected with people from the industry which led her to the producer Rob Fusari, who was known as a hit-maker, working with Whitney Houston and Destiny’s Child. Even though he helped her to grow and one of her songs was heard by Island Def Jam which eventually signed her, it wasn’t the big beginning of her career and final destination. Island Def Jam broke the contract with Gaga, but she and her producers didn’t take “no” for an answer, later on, found herself at Interscope Records, writing songs for such acts as Britney Spears and the Pussycat Dolls. Consequently, evolving into a polished star that is ready to be presented to the world, the label agreed to sign her as a singer and release her debut album “Fame”, which can be considered as the beginning of her success. This example shows that Lady Gaga covered such points as a list of shows, industry connections and visibility, working music and money to invest in music.
While Lady Gaga was such a tremendous “find” in 2008, The Weeknd made his name in 2011. Being a homeless person, The Weeknd’s career success comes from the importance of social media usage – uploading three of his songs on YouTube on February 24, 2011, he grabbed users’ attention by his music, miraculous persona without face and real name (his username was “xoxxxoooxo” and didn’t have any face photos) which made Pitchfork notice him and mention on the website in “Best New Track”. After releasing his first mixtape “House of Balloons’, he received support from Drake which led to their future connection and collaborations. Later, The Weeknd showed his face by starting to have live performances which brought him to the point of having a show at Coachella in 2012 and the beginning of his interviews. The same year in September, he was signed to Universal Music Group, with an agreement to re-release his three mixtapes into the compilation “Trilogy” and future full LP albums. The Weeknd’s story combines such points mentioned above as Working Music, Active Social Media Presence, List of Shows, Industry Connections and Visibility (before being signed to Universal he already had two managers, not mentioning other connections).
Last but not least, Halsey’s success story proves that as long as you have momentum, nothing else can matter for a major label. Halsey didn’t have money (in fact, she didn’t even have a home), neither a list of shows, or a catalogue of recorded music. She started writing songs when she was 17, also having an ability to play 8 different instruments, but she has never tried to promote it and show it to the world. However, she wasn’t a stranger on the Internet – her Tumblr account se7enteenblack had a decent number of followers for different reasons, including her perfect style of “a tumblr girl” at the moment and funny parody of Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble”. Even though she was noticed by the Tumblr community, it had nothing to do with her music career. As Halsey told to Rolling Stone, her path to success started when she decided to attend a party where she could sleep at a normal bed, but eventually met a music guy whose friend invited her to make music together - this is how the song “Ghost” was created. A few weeks later, she uploaded it on SoundCloud at 10 PM, which went absolutely viral, and got contacted by five different labels by 3AM, having her song charted on the radio later in the morning. Eventually, Halsey signed a contract with Astralwerks (distributed by Universal Music Group), later releasing her first EP “Room 93’, being an opening act for Imagine Dragon’s tour in North America and producing debut album “Badlands”. This story is a phenomenal example of how sometimes this one “momentum” can overweight everything else in an artist’s portfolio. However, it is definitely something that is not possible to rely on.
As it can be seen, every artist has a different story and a way to their success. However, there is a common formula that can help to lead the way to a major label, as long as it is what an artist really wants to do. Use it wisely, stay committed, and don’t take “no” for an answer.
Anderson, T. (2020, March 31). A Timeline of The Weeknd's Career, From Drake's Co-Sign to 'After Hours' Domination. In Billboard. Retrieved from https://www.billboard.com/photos/9347524/weeknd-career-timeline
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