How to Land a Record Deal
So You Want to Get Signed
If you're an independent musician and want to land a record deal, you need to do more than make your fans happy. You want to make sure you have a career that appeals to labels before you start sending out actual demo submissions. What many artists don't realize is that you need to become your own record label before you can attract a record label.
To build a successful career in music that will interest both indie labels and major labels alike, you need to ask yourself, "What Does a Record Label Do?" Then start applying that process yourself. Be ready to show "Proof of Concept" - a track record in the music business that demonstrates you are a worthwhile investment. Here are some steps you can take to get yourself ready to sign.
Step 1: Have a Plan for Your Music Career
A record label wants to see that you have the self-discipline and drive it takes to launch a successful career. This will be important even if you're wanting to apply for a distributor that offers label services, like AWAL, Symphonic Distribution or SoundCloud Repost.
As an independent artist, chances are you don't have a manager or any external deadlines dictating your moves or day-to-day tasks. That means you'll need to put limitations on yourself so that you can have focus. No one is making the plan for you, so it's time to buckle down and get that plan into place.
1. Set Your Own Creative Output Goals
The first step in your plan is to decide how many songs to release in a year. Remember, these output goals are INTERNAL goals to help you release music on schedule - so don’t announce these to your audience. You may not hit your goals every time, but setting these goals will give you a framework for your releases.
Ask yourself these questions: How often do you want to release an original song? Every month? Every other month? Are you releasing a studio album? Then write it down. This will help you build consistency with your releases and show labels you set these goals for yourself.
2. Create a Spending Plan
A record label, of course, sets a budget for their artists. That means you'll want to set a budget for yourself as an indie to help you stay on track and spend your money wisely. You can set an overall budget, and then determine the areas that need to be prioritized based on your situation. Here are three components of your budget that you need to be thinking about.
Artist Budget Breakdown:
How much does it cost to make a record?
Whether you're recording your songs in your home studio and playing the instruments yourself or getting outside help, making music takes money. You might need to pay for studio time, gear, hiring musicians, mixing or mastering. When you know how much you have to spend for these things, you have a clearer picture of how many songs you can release from a financial standpoint.
How much should you spend on marketing?
When it comes to marketing, ask yourself: How much do you have? What are your goals, and how much can you allocate to each goal based on what you have? Maybe you need to fundraise for certain marketing goals, and if so then how much?
Which brings us to the next part of your plan.
Begin Profit Planning
How much do you want to make? If you don't plan to make money, it will be hard to set up your business (your artist career) in a profitable way. Be sure you set a goal that is achievable. Utilize the SMART goal-making method. Be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.
You also need to set income goals. How much do you need to replace your last job or start earning as a side hustle? You can then work backwards and come up with a product or launch your Patreon (more on Patreon later).
For more on setting goals and figuring out your potential income, check out this video:
2. Make a Brand Awareness Plan
We all know that social media plays a role in marketing these days. You need to decide how much of a presence you want to have (or not) on social media platforms. What channels do you want to post on? Which are important? Which ones do you want to ignore?
This depends on your preferences, but also on the style of music you make and whether you have active audiences on any of your existing social media profiles. Knowing your strategy for getting exposure to fans will help you determine the kind of content you create.
3. Have a Plan for Creating Content
It's important to remember that a label won’t make content for you, even if you’re signed. Content creation is a prerequisite to being a successful artist in the new music industry, so you'll want to show proof that you can do it. Being able to create great music and great content will make you a valuable asset.
Here are 3 areas of content creation to focus on:
Music - Singles & Albums
You'll not only want to make sure you have your songwriting down, but also the ability to make a master recording to give to the label. This brings us back to the budget aspect of your plan. Where do you plan on recording your music? Do you currently have a home studio? Do you need to invest in a space or a setup for getting radio quality recordings?
You also want to have your team in place. Unless you plan to DIY the process, you'll want your go-to team with a producer or other people in the industry that you found either on an online platform or in your local community.
Record labels like to see when you have regular releases, like consistent single releases or an album release every year or every other other. It gives them a sign that you have a high creative output - which is attractive because they know you can generate content.
There are tons of options for creating a music video, from lyric videos to a full-production storyline video. When artists think about needing a music video, they often think of the cinematic, multi-location video that requires a larger budget. But there are simpler options that are also important.
Lyric videos are a good option for engagement and advertising on Facebook. You can also make a simple, acoustic version of your song. Live performances are another great option that help show your talent and stage presence to interested labels. Bonus if they get to see fan engagement from a live performance in front of an actual audience. Ultimately, you want to have a variety of music videos to highlight different aspects of your career.
You see these a lot for signed artists, but not as much with independent ones. Even if you’re sharing about your life and your music on social media, going behind the scenes or telling a story behind your songwriting in a mini-documentary does more for your branding than a bio or a website. Making these 3-4 minute videos will help you stand out from other aspiring artists.
You want to take some time to work on it, but this video will stick around for months or even years and bring attention to your brand. This type of content also evokes an emotional response in your audience and in the person looking at your music on behalf of a label.
Step 2: Know How to Generate Income
There's something you need to realize about getting signed: a label wants to make money off you as an artist. They want to see that you can generate income so they'll get a return on their investment. In order to attract their attention, you need to become a multi-source income generator and build up FOMO (fear of missing out). You have something they want to be a part of and not miss.
How Do You Make Money as an Artist?
Products can be very simple. There are the typical items that first come to mind - shirts, hats, beanies, stickers, physical CDs. But you can also think outside the box and come up with digital products or membership offers, like Patreon. You can even make homemade products that are sold at a higher price.
It's not enough just to have the products, though. You need to learn how to sell the products directly to your mailing list. Again, this shows proof of concept - that your fanbase is loyal, you can sell, and you have a strong brand.
If you don't have a mailing list, check out this video:
Next step to becoming a multi-source income generating machine is getting brand endorsements. If you have loyal social media followers or an audience with your mailing list, consider starting with some low level and easy to maintain brand endorsements.
Maybe it sounds off-the-wall at first, but we've all seen this. Top artists all have brand endorsements. Even sports and film stars endorse brands. Don't think you need to post all the time with major brand endorsements, though. You can start with products you already use to help you build the skill of affiliate selling. This will show a label that you have selling abilities to generate an income beyond the music you make.
3. Music Royalties
Another important aspect of building your income is properly collecting your music royalties. You need to have this under control - not only so you don't miss out on royalties from streaming platforms like Spotify, YouTube views and downloads on iTunes, but also because it shows that you have a good understanding of the music industry. When labels are looking at you as a potential artist, you'll look amateur without having your royalties on lockdown.
If you're not sure about whether you're earning all your royalties, don't worry. We have lots of step-by-step training available to help you get it figured out, like the Music Royalty Map and the 8020 Music Business Crash Course.
Having a good understanding of your income from royalties will also be helpful when the time comes for contract negotiations with a label. You don't want to sign an unfair deal or give over your songwriting credit. It might even be good to have a music lawyer on hand to help you understand the contract you're being presented.
Watch this video to help you know what to expect:
When talking about investors, we don't mean what you see in typical businesses. For musicians, starting a Patreon is a great way to get people behind your music financially. It can make the difference between a starving artist and one that is making a living and able to focus on their artist career.
How to Grow Your Patreon in a Smart Way
This sounds exciting, and you might want to jump all in. Don’t quit your day job right away, though. Build up your membership while working your day job. This way you're utilizing the parallel train cars analogy: Imagine you have two trains running parallel, and you want to jump from one train to the other. You don't want to make the jump when one train is going faster than the other because you're bound to fall and, say, break your ankles. In this analogy, the fast moving train is your day job, your consistent form of income. The slower car is your Patreon with just a couple of members, so it's not giving you enough of a consistent income to take the leap. Work on both at the same time. That way you let the trains get close to the same speed so you can jump from one to the other and catch your balance from the transition.
When you structure your Patreon memberships, you want to make sure that you don't create more work than it’s worth. You still want the freedom to focus on your music and career, so you don't want to end up just creating a second job for yourself. If you want some help figuring out how to set up your Patreon, check out the 8020 Music Business Crash Course that walks you through setting this up in a good way.
Who knows, after growing your fanbase and building your income-generating platforms and products, you might even get to the point that you won't need to get signed anymore because you're earning a consistent income from your artist career.
Step 3: Build Strategic Alliances in the Music Industry
The final puzzle piece for getting yourself ready for a record deal is building strategic alliances, and this is really important. Of course, once you get signed, record labels have a built-in access to connections you can take advantage of, from songwriting collaborations to financial access. It's one of the biggest advantages to getting signed. But in the meantime, you need to develop your own connection with other professional musicians, music producers, writers and even influencers.
1. Playlist Influencers & Spotify Playlist Promotion
Playlist influencers are people who have built an audience on streaming platforms, like Spotify. They'll have lots of followers, traffic, and engagement, and if you can end up on one of their playlists then you get access to their audience. That means you'll want to build relationships with people who can get you there.
Why You Should Consider Getting on a Spotify Playlist
One of the most important metrics labels look at are your Spotify numbers: your monthly listeners and Spotify streams. So if you want to build an attractive portfolio, it's important to build relationships with these influencers so you can let their playlist audience boost these numbers for you.
How to Get on an Influencer Playlist
There are two ways you can develop these relationships and get on a playlist.
1. Get in touch with people who already have these connections in place. This will usually be through a music promotion service, like the Organic Spotify Playlist Promotion we offer here at the IMA. These music promotion services have relationships with influencers set in place, and they'll handle the pitching and placement for you.
2. The other option is the long way, where you try to DIY. This involves looking for playlists on the internet or finding influencers that may have posted their contact information online. This option can definitely be hit or miss, because you won't really know what you're getting with the playlist. It might be great, but you might end up on bot playlists that will ruin your analytics.
If you want to learn more about how Spotify Playlist Promotion works, check out our article, Spotify Playlist Promotion for Beginners.
2. Bloggers & Blog Placements
Another hugely important relationship you want to build is with bloggers. Even though blogs won't convert directly into fans or fanbase growth, they'll prepare your brand and give you clout when you're presenting yourself to labels. Blog placements season your brand with references and articles to those on the outside looking at your artist career.
If record execs are looking at you and see features on music blogs, write-ups, recommendations and concert reviews, all from reputable sources, it will be a huge positive in your favor.
How to Get Blog Placements
Getting blog placements is almost it's own form of marketing. You'll have to start at the bottom and work your way up. You won't get into Rolling Stone Magazine right away. We recommend you start now, even with only one or two songs, so that you can land a spot with some smaller blogs first. It's also great to start now because building blog features and these relationships will take time.
3. Getting on Artist Tours
Getting on tour with other artists will be another great way to highlight your career. It shows you can play multiple shows, night after night. It also shows that you’re willing to travel, which offers another proof of concept since the label will want you to tour once you're signed. Plus, going on tour will help your fanbase grow. In a similar way as the playlist influencers, when touring with a bigger artist you are borrowing their fanbase and getting new listeners to your music.
How to Get On Tour with Another Artist
Fair warning, getting on tour is definitely not easy. It takes a lot of networking and strategy of finding artists a little bigger than you with a similar audience, but it's a strategic alliance worth pursuing. These relationships and tours could lead to more performance opportunities like festivals, more tours and shows where you’re the headlining artist.
4. Strategic Collaborations
Lastly, you'll want to set up collaborations with other artists. These can range anywhere from social media posts to YouTube videos, to a cover song you do with another artist. These relationships will do more than boost your chances at getting a record deal. Artists need to be in community with other artists, so you want to have a community surrounding you. This is why the IMA has the Indie Growth Community, so artists can have a place to come together and share their journey.
Wherever you find your community, it's important to connect with other artists and create things with them. It's a similar idea as going on tour as an opening artist. You are getting access to their fanbase and vice versa, so everyone wins. Collaborating isn't just for songs. You can simply make content together, even if it's casual. Think outside the box and share stories or things about your life, like cooking shows or going on a hike. Working with other artists will show both fans and labels your network and community.
How to Collaborate with Other Artists
Try to meet other artists in person. You can go to their shows, support them and then ask for their support. Start from a distance, and close that distance by creating content together once the relationship has been built.
Where to Go Next
Once you lock down these strategies for your artist career, you'll be set up for launching with a record deal or going further as an independent artist. And when you're ready for the demo submission and pitching process, be sure to check out these other articles to make sure you're fully equipped to walk into a potential record deal with the tools and knowledge you need: