We are living in an amazing age for music. No longer does a talented singer or band need a record deal to enter a studio and make an album that’s of competitive quality. However, with the levelling of the playing field comes over-saturation of the market. There is a lot of really good music released by unsigned (also known as independent) artists all the time, and it’s become hard to stand out in the eyes of industry people.
I’d like to preface this article by clearing the air about my philosophy. For all my jokes and snide remarks about big music companies, I’m not against record labels. Heck, I worked for one when I was 19. My main audience on this blog are unsigned musicians, and some of them happen to be independent because they hate the idea of being controlled. However, I just believe that labels are a great way to take one’s art to the “next level” once the artist has established themselves on their own first. If you have a clear sense of self and knowledge of the demographics of your fans, you’re not as likely to have your image “made-over” or seen as easily fireable.
Today I want to focus on, from my experience and the way the industry is going, what good managers, labels and others are looking for in artists in 2017.
It might seem obvious, but your music needs to be of competitive quality with the biggest artists in your genre before you try and get signed to the same label they’re on. Thankfully, it’s easier to improve one’s technical ability than some other things on this list.
Your piano playing isn’t as amazing as your voice? Practice harder, and see if you can sign up for lessons! Lyricism is your one weakness? There are quite a few young songwriters out there who don’t want to sing. Go connect with them. Got the whole package, but the recording quality is dragging you down? Raise some money and hire a recording engineer and producer. Have a rock-solid foundation.
A Jaw-Dropping Live Show
Most money these days comes from concerts. In fact, the latest stats are counting that over 50% of money from consumers in the music industry is spent on and at concerts – and let’s face it, no matter how much managers, labels, booking agents and promoters love your music, they are also looking at the bottom line. Creating an experience where concert goers feel connected to you and your art will make it easier to sell merch, your EP, earn email list subscribers, and have them come back (with their friends)! Here are a couple of ideas to try at your next live show:
If you’re in a band, create some choreography during practice. I’m not necessarily talking about pop star dance routines, I mean knowing where to stand and creating some interplay between you all during the set.
Practice what you say in between songs. Don’t just turn the mic on and hope you’ll say something amazing. You don’t improvise all your songs onstage, do you? Rehearse a joke or how you’ll tell the story behind the song.
Make them cry. Make them laugh. Make them feel. The more emotionally invested the crowd is with your story and art, the bigger fans they will become.
Build a reputation (both inside the industry and with fans) as the act who puts on a great concert. Ask a friend to videotape your next show. Watch it and dissect the crowd’s reaction to what you did. Always strive to improve.
A Clear Brand And Image
Ari Herstand (of the music business blog Ari’s Take) recently gave a speech at Berklee College where he talked a little about artist branding (the video replay was 1:20 long). He strained the fact that the music and the image need to line up and make sense, and he’s right. If you see a black gig poster with a menacing skull and crossbones design, your first thought isn’t usually “it’s a children’s church choir, duh!” Extreme example, but you get the idea, right?
If you can clearly spell out what you sound like and point to a detailed description of who your target audience is, you’re doing well, and chances are you’ll be able to keep your niche as long as you want to.
A Moderately Large Social Media Presence + Engaged Fanbase
This may seem to counter the title of the article, but you’re immediate goal in the music industry should not be to get signed. A newbie musician desperately chasing one is going to attract wolves who promise the stars, but only by crawling into their den – you first, of course.
In 2017, it’s very rare that musicians with no following are plucked out of their first open mic night and handed a record deal. There isn’t enough reckless money in the industry to go around anymore, so companies are careful about who they choose. Basically, you are an investment they want to make back several times over, albeit a talented one. The easiest way for them to be convinced they’ll more than make their money back is for you to already have a fanbase, AKA, people who are almost guaranteed to buy your next album, your concert tickets, your merch.
I won’t lie; when industry folks take a liking and start to consider working with you, one of the first things they do after admiring your professional-looking website (you do have a website, right?) is check your social media numbers to gauge how popular you are. Taylor Swift told a story once about her actress friend not getting chosen for a movie role, because the one they did choose had more Twitter followers (therefore, more people to go see the movie).
Us industry folks quickly look at two things on a public social media profile: Horizontal and Vertical, the latter of which is the most important.
Horizontal is the basics; the bar across the top with how many likes/followers/views you have. While a large number or an uneven ratio might seem impressive, those things aren’t as important as the Vertical, which are the signs of engagement. How many individual post likes/hearts, comments and such do you create on average? Followers can by bought, genuine engagement cannot. Having a slightly smaller fanbase who adores you means a lot more that a large one who doesn’t pay you any attention.
Some Business Knowledge
It’s been a trend over the last couple of years; good companies want to work with business-knowledgeable artists [link to Megaphono article here]. You might not be able to negotiate a 200 page legal contract without a lawyer (don’t), but knowing how the industry works will make you be seen as much more intelligent and to be taken seriously. It can even be as simple as knowing how to shake hands or that swooning in front of industry execs makes you look amateur.
This one applies mostly to managers. As the going industry rate for a manager is around 15% of whatever an artist makes (you then split the remaining money amongst the rest of your band), you’re going to have to be making enough for them to see you as worth all the effort you put in. If they’re managing multiple artists, you don’t want to be one who signs on, then gets almost ignored in favour of higher earning bands.
A Good Attitude
Music companies like to have a “courting” period before they officially commit to signing a binding contract with an artist. During this time, they carefully evaluate the musician’s reactions to different situations. Here are a few little examples of things they check:
Is the artist willing to take directions and constructive feedback from people in the industry? How does the artist react if something goes wrong at a gig (sound issues, hecklers…)? Is the artist willing to learn more about what they don’t know (technical playing, business, people skills…)? Will the artist wake up at 4am to warm up their voice before a radio interview on the morning drive show? How does the artist handle bad press/criticism/internet haters? What are the artist’s goals in their music career? Are they achievable? Is the artist willing to work for them?
At the end of the day, a lot of industry people I’ve talked to would rather work with an artist who’s a little rough around the edges, but is willing to learn and grow, than an arrogant prodigy who gives up as soon as something doesn’t come easily to them.
To conclude, these seven characteristics point to the school of thought that an act should be successful on their own first, before deciding if adding to their team is right for them. The aim of a new artist in the music industry should not be to get signed immediately by chasing companies. Get popular, create buzz, and they will come to you.