How to Sell Out Properly pt. 1

Derek is an MBA in entrepreneurship, painter, and bassist for Onward We March, a local progressive metal band. He teaches business skills to artists and writes weekly music business advice for his blog Derek Thinks Music. Got a business question about your art? Shoot him an email at derekmiller5@gmail.com

So you’ve got it in your head that you must be signed to be happy. As you know, I am very much against labels as they are 95% of the time a terrible financial decision.

However, you don’t care.

Cool, let’s work with that. Join the party!

Since you’ve got your heart set on getting signed, let’s get our heads around how to look sexy for a label. As I’ve mentioned before, getting signed and getting bought out are exactly the same thing. A larger entity with lots of cash is willing to supply you with some sweet, sweet cash money in exchange for future profits and oversight. Not all of these investments (bands) will return as much cash, so a venture capital firm (label) will have a diverse portfolio (artist roster) in the hopes that a few investments (bands) will make enough money to cover the losses for all the failures.

The label’s interest in you is contingent upon how your band performs as a financial instrument. An advance is essentially the label loaning you money for a set period of time with the expectation that you’ll be able to repay the loan plus interest, thus making the label a Return On Investment (ROI).

If you’re making the label less money then they’re spending on you, consider yourself on the short list to get dropped. At this point they may suggest you change your look, sound, or direction. It’s not really a suggestion. Once a label has thrown cash at your band, it’s your duty to help them recoup their cost. Often, a band is given an advance to record an album with the stipulation that the band will not receive any additional compensation until the label makes enough cash to cover the advance. After that thresh hold is met, you’ll still earn only a percentage of profit from each sale. You have to make them that skrillah or you’re gone.

So if you really want to be signed, you want to position your band in a way that signals to labels that “this band is a solid investment.”

Let’s talk about some ways to preen your band for getting signed.

1. Study the Labels You Want To Get Signed On: Each label has a distinct personality, and your band needs to be careful about who they choose to do business with. (Death Row Records was affiliated with The Bloods and hired crooked cops/gang members!)

 Pay attention to the sounds of artists already on the label. Do they already have forty bands that sound like you? Or do you think you’d be a good way to round out their lineup? Remember, it’s about portfolio diversification.

 Pay attention to the marketing and tone of communications the label uses. Do they like proper press releases with careful wording, or are they more punk rock-ish? This will help you determine if the personality of your band would be a good fit.

 Pay attention to how satisfied artists are with the label. Does the label actually listen to the artist, or do they chew bands up and spit them out on a regular basis? (See the Victory Records Hawthorne Heights lawsuit)

 Pick out a list of a possible labels in your genre that might be a good fit for your band. Tailor your band’s “pitch” to fit each label’s personality, and you’re more likely to catch their attention.

 2. Find an “In”: Getting a label interested is infinitely easier if you can find an actual person to listen to you, as opposed to sending in a demo EP in the mail. Look around the label website, music publications, blogs, and local music industry directories to see if you can get a name.

In most cases, phone will tend to be ideal since emails and physical mail are much easier to ignore. Better still would be having a friend introduce you. Be polite and to the point with your pitch.

3. Pitch: Label or no, you need to know how to describe your music in under 10 seconds with a solid pitch. The goal of a pitch is to only get the “main ideas” of your art across and interest the listener enough to have them say “Hmm, ok. Tell me more.”

This is good: “We’re The Wigglin’ Waggles, a danceable Nirvana-sounding band from Dallas. We’d like to ask your permission to send a demo CD so we can talk further about possibly signing with your label.”

This is bad: “Hey, dude. Where do I send our demo?”

Expect more posts on building an effective pitch in the future. This is a BIG topic.

4. Get a High-Quality Demo: Your music needs to be its best to get someone to pay attention. If you have to apologize for your sound recording (It’s just a demo, man, so ignore the skipping sound), you need a new recording. End of story.

5. Minimize “Distasteful Behaviors”: Pure-bred businesspeople are uncomfortable going too far outside the norm. Musicians and artists live to push the boundaries, as that’s where artistic growth comes from.

But be aware of this disconnect.

There’s an limited amount of ‘edgy’ that a firm will be willing to tolerate before you cross a psychological thresh hold where people become uncomfortable. the ‘edginess’ works against you. Venture capital firms are less likely to help fund totally new enterprises in wholly unproven markets, as they have to defend their decision to their bosses. It’s much easier to defend investing $10 million when “the market for all-natural pet nutrition has been growing at 12% yearly, and this young company is perfectly positioned to take advantage of this growth.” It wasn’t until after Nirvana and Pearl Jam blew up that it became incredibly easy for a grunge band to get signed.

This thresh hold exists even in corporate life. Even if the official company policy says “tattoos and piercings are ok”, having ostentatious sleeves and plugs will permanently stunt your career at a corporation. We (humans) like those that look like us. We identify and help those that look more like us, consciously AND unconsciously. Being “too far out” makes others uncomfortable with you AND themselves. Just the same as if you were wearing a full suit to a punk rock show, looking like a punk rocker in a cubicle is asking for others to distrust you. Don’t.

So how do we apply this knowledge? First, cut the songs you have called “I’m Going To Punch Your Mom In The Face”. That’s not mass-market material. You can still keep some swearing and vulgar material in your songs because, hey, it’s rock and roll. But you don’t want to get too avant-garde with your performance or too offensive in your lyrics that your songs would not be playable on radio.

You don’t have to water down yourself completely, but be aware that you’ll want to polish your rough edges so that an A&R rep will spend her time selling you instead of explaining/defending you. And ditch hard drugs. Drugs signal unreliabile people which makes it difficult for a label to trust that dropping $20k on an album won’t end with someone in the band freaking out and ending up in rehab. Don’t be stupid.

To be continued next month.

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One Response to “How to Sell Out Properly pt. 1”

  1. I love your column.

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