This is it. This is the real deal on how to get and keep a record deal.
I am not saying this is the only was to get a record deal but it is a proven successful route that has been travelled by many artists before you. Having disclosed how you do it too many artists put this in the too hard basket and look for short cuts. "I am not going to bother with small gigs. I am just going to get my fans on Facebook." is something I have heard way too often. Too many musicians quickly discover Facebook friends don't easily translate into people at gigs or iTunes sales.
The TV talent quest shows like Australian Idol or The Voice will provide a few people with an entry to the music business at a national level. If they could win one of the competitions, or even make the top 10, I would advise most musicians to do it. However, if you are not ready for that success it could lead to quick failure, as it has with so many of the talent show winners. There is nothing like years of successful live work to prepare you to make the most of the opportunity.
Getting "discovered", getting a record deal and being transformed from a waiter with a demo to a star with money to burn is nothing but a total fantasy, especially in the current industry. It might have happened a few times but you have a better chance of winning the lottery twice.
Many musicians think "their music" is very good and all they need is the exposure that a record deal will provide for them to become stars. Just listen to artists on the ReverbNation.com web site, how many of them had you going to iTunes to buy the material and looking for tickets to their gigs? The reality is, if you have been out giging your act for a couple of years and can't fill a bar with paying customers wanting to see you act then no amount of record company promotion is going to help you fill a stadium.
Getting a record is not a Disneyland future. Record companies don't have a magic way to make your band sound better or attract fans; you still have to go out and earn fans one at a time. What the record deal does, is allow you to do what you are doing today on a bigger scale.
Once you get a deal you are not going to have total artistic control. You are going to have to work with the company on their production and marketing schedules. There will never be enough budget or time to do the job as well as it could be. Being new to the label you will find their established acts take priority and many of the company's resources. You have to be a team player who can fit in to the company's agenda and marketing plans. Difficult and demanding artists will see themselves axed quickly.
Start at Level 1 at the bottom of the ladder and work up.
This contains as much detail as I can fit into a short article and it is directed to people who are early in their careers so it is light on detail in Levels 4 and 5. These levels will be far to specific for general advice such as you will find on a web site.
Below is a table dividing a music career into 5 levels. It is to help people understand were they are, what the next level is and what has to happen to get there.
LEVEL 1 - PLANNING
If you are going to make it in the music business you are going to have to develop a product that people want to buy. If you get it wrong, you are doomed from the start, like if you do Christian death metal or Ghetto rap to jangly country music rhythms you might have trouble finding an audience.
If want a hint on what often works well; do music women can dance to with great lead vocals and lush vocal harmonies. This description can apply to many styles of music but could be a good think to keep in mind while writing your songs. Think what your target audience has as an aspirational self image or aspirational boyfriend/girlfriend. When planning your image the audience will either want to be you or "date" you. Your image should be what they aspire to be or "date". Hint: it is not a 25 year old Ferrari driving billionaire with a mansion and servants. This is just not in most people's reality.
Plan what your show is going to look like. Where are you going to play? What is the best line-up for your style of music? One guitarist or two, do you need a sax player or can the keyboards player do it with a sax patch? Or should the rhythm guitarist learn to play sax. What size line-up will be economic? What costumes are you going to wear on stage? Does a flannelette shirt and thongs cut it on stage? What should the gender mix of the band be? What colour themes? Does your clothing, image etc. fit your style of music?
Line-up is critical to success. Does the band have a leader and are the other members happy to play their roles within this structure? Does everyone in the band have realistic ideas about how much work this is going to be required in second rate venues before you start to see paid gigs? Are you all on the same page and willing to do the work? Are you financially free enough to do this or are members of the band married with 3 children and a mortgage?
You should have a viable business plan that you may need help to write. Most musicians just have their business plan in their heads that may or may not be viable and often changes as they go along. I recommend writing it down and seeking advice on it. It could be very useful to find a working music business manager willing to spend a couple of hours reviewing your business plan and giving you advice. An example of a good person to get some independent advice from could include a successful business man/woman that works in an industry that relies on public taste. eg. the man or woman who owns a chain of clothing stores.
If you can demonstrate you are smart and willing to make the most of the advice you are given then you will find quite a few senior people will take the time to mentor you, review a business plan and talk to you. In preparing the business plan there are many books on how to write a business plan that you may find helpful.
LEVEL 2 - BUILDING AN AUDIENCE
The is the essence of the music industry. Most of all as a musician you need an audience of people who want to consume your music in both live and recorded form. What people need to become interested in your music is several positive experiences of your music, and then they need you to get back to them to remind them of you and your music. The best advertising you can get is word of mouth when one fan tells a friend to "check this band out".
A guy goes out and meets a girl at a bar. They both like each other but at the end of the night the just leave with "I will see you around..." Unless they live in a very small town they are not likely to hook up again any time soon. But if he gets her phone number and e-mail address then the relationship has a chance to develop. Same thing with people seeing a band in a big city. The punter might like your band but if you don't get the new fan's contact details what are the chance of them ever catching up with your band again, or even remembering your name a month later? The moral of the story is get your new fan's contact details and let them know about future music releases and gigs.
One of the most effective promotional things you can do here is use the power of the Internet to build a database of fans. The 4 pieces of information you want to collect from each fan is:
Collect the same information at gigs. Use a clip board and ask: "Do you want to join our mailing list to find out about future gigs?" and have them write their details down.
You might want to play gigs in unconventional places like performance stages in major shopping centres. This can give you lots of exposure to a wide range of people, including under age people, who can be hard to reach live but can be very loyal fans. Talk to your local Councils about access to these stages.
Talk to local Councils about performing at various community festivals they run. These provide lots of exposure and you can build your database with people in your area. Always have good signage with your band name and web site address on it. Give people a reason to go to your web site and join your mailing list.
Another promotional thing that works well is doing supports for other bands. As an artist you contact the artist you want to support, send him or her a CD and a letter saying how much you would love to work together and why your music would be a good support for his/hers. Then get your manager to contact their manager asking for the same thing. Working artist-to-artist and manager-to-manager can be very effective.
Use YouTube, Reverb Nation, Facebook and Twitter as they can be useful tools but the centre of your digital world is your own web site. One of the dangers with being too reliant on the Internet is your fan base can be too geographically dispersed to be able to do a gig anywhere. Having 10,000 fans split across 100 different cities around the world could mean that you don't have sufficient density of fans to fill a venue anywhere.
THE CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT CYCLE
The music business is the ultimate free market and only the fittest survive. This is how acts become fit enough to survive in the industry. The law of the concrete jungle is: Survival of the fittest.
If you Google the words Continuous Improvement Cycle you will find there is a whole management methodology around this. It is worth learning a bit about this methodology.
This is the process whereby you drag yourself up from being an amateur band to a professional standard act. You will find out what works with your audience and what does not. No one walks out of the bedroom ready to take on the world.
Reliable feedback is an essential part of the improvement cycle. There are many ways to get feedback on your performances some of these include:
Now you have the feedback how do you do more of the good stuff and less of the bad? You have to think about this creatively, remember you are in this business because you are a creative person.
Having made your act better, test it out on audiences and see how well the changes are received by the audience. Get more feedback and do more of what is working and less of what is not. A good question to ask people can be: "Have you got any thoughts on how we can improve the show?"
Alas many bands keep on doing the same old things and never seek to improve, or put suggestions like "Every member of the band should sing." in the too hard basket.
LEVEL 3 - LOCAL SUCCESS
This is the point where people want to buy your music and come to you gigs. Most bands never get to this point because it is not easy. If you can't fill a venue with paying customers is no record deal, advertising, promotion or radio play that will make that happen. This is both the hard fact and the great opportunity of the music business. You get to this level relying on nobody but yourselves and once you succeed here, the industry will love you and you are well on the way to the rock star life.
The music business is special because you can do this yourself. You don't need a casting director to give you the gig. The are no gatekeepers to get to this level. It is just you and the audience you build and once this relationship is strong there are unlimited paid (door deal) gigs waiting for you.
The aim is to be able to go to a small or medium sized venue and say "We can get between 100 and 200 people through the door to our gig." Then deliver on your promise by promoting to your fan base. They turn up paying about $10 per person and the act grosses $1,000 to $2,000 a night. If you are doing this successfully there will be no shortage of gigs. There is a note of warning; if you promise 200 people and get 3 that venue will NEVER have you back. You can burn bridges quickly by overselling yourself. This is important: Never over promise and under deliver.
How do you get the people there? Why do you think you were collecting all those e-mail and mobile numbers for SMS at Level 2. This is the centrepiece of your direct communication with fans that gives you laser sharp, low cost direct marketing. Sure, you will be doing Facebook advertising, cafe posters, venue posters, occasional advertisements in street press, press releases etc. Once you get going you may even hire a publicist. In succeeding at this level you learn how to cost effectively reach your fans.
The buzz you are creating means that an independent CD and iTunes release can be successful. You have reached the point that Triple J wants to play your music.
Having got here you are well on the way to national success.
LEVEL 3 AND A BIT - GET A MAJOR LABEL RECORD DEAL
You are succeeding on Level 3 so getting a major label record deal is easy. If you have done all the work up to this stage properly then record companies will be very interested in talking to you before you are actually ready for them. You have proved you are an attractive act and people will buy you. The only 'demo' a record company really wants is a demonstrated ability to sell music. It hardly matters how good or bad it is so long as it sells.
Just keep doing everything you were doing successfully on Level 3 while recording and going through the release process on your first major label record release. Don't get a big head about having a record deal, just keep doing what you do best: write and record songs, play gigs and enjoy the journey.
LEVEL 4 - NATIONAL SUCCESS
Life does not change much for a while, you are playing bigger venues further from home. You are recording in bigger studios with better producers. After a while you get recognised in the street, people want selfies with you, there are groupies and stalkers.
If you have a major label record deal don't expect to get much money from the record company. You may never recoup the advance. Don't get too upset about this as your money comes from the live gigs you do and merchandise sales at gigs. This is another great reason why you spent years learning to put on a great live show.
Now your regular gigs are large hotels and clubs that have rooms that can fit between 600 and 1,200 people in them. The fans pay $25 to $50 per ticket making the gross income per night between $15,000 and $60,000. Gross takings on a nation wide tour can exceed $1,000,000. Plus you can sell merchandise at the gigs such as t-shirts, caps, mugs etc. Merchandise rights can be licensed to other retailers to sell merchandise in shops.
The day job is ancient history. Your job is practicing, performing, promotional activities, songwriting and recording. Now you are living the dream and the rock star lifestyle.
LEVEL 5 - INTERNATIONAL
Don’t push yourself into this space. Leave this to your management but wait until a serious promoter or your record company asks you to go international. Too many great Australian acts have died in their quest to go international.
By this level you already have a record company and your manager can help the overseas A&R people to discover this proven successful gem of a band playing in Australia. And the good thing is that the record company already owns the material.
When you are established at this level there is good opportunity to make millions out of sponsorship and endorsement deals.
Don't focus too much on the USA initially as they have onerous visa and work restrictions. To get a Visa to the USA can cost $5,000 per person in legal and application fees and there is no refund if the visa is not approved. Grounds for rejection include minor criminal convictions and "not sufficiently notable" as a musician in your own country.
Why don't I just do it all on the Internet?
You don't make any money out of having lots of friends on Facebook. You need a huge number of views on YouTube to make any money our of it. Live music performance is where most artists make the majority of their money (until they hit superstar levels when endorsement deals etc. become very significant.) Remember that the Internet offers some great tools for connecting with fans but they are just tools they are not your product. (with the exception of iTunes music sales which is a product.)
I know gigs are harder to get these days but that is why you have to make your own gigs and make them successful via your own promotions. This is how you stand out from the crowd. This is still compelling: 200 people through the door, each paying $10 and there is $2,000 for the band.
If you can't fill a room with paying customers then you can't a stadium and no amount of marketing push or radio play or advertising will change that fact.
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Copyright © 2014 Mark Ellis