The world of music is rapidly changing. Listening habits are nothing like they were ten, twenty and thirty years ago. Download sales are down, CD sales are plummeting and vinyl is on the way back up, although still only accounts for a small percentage of physical sales. Streaming is where it's at in 2019. But, if you're in band, you need to cover all bases, to reach the optimum number of listens/sales, to boost your brand and to cast your net as far and wide as possible. Contrary to popular belief, record labels can still help enormously with all of this. They can offer financial and practical support. They can help you with booking tours and hook you up with other like-minded bands under their wing. And they can lend your band a level of credibility that could open other doors for you. So here are a few pointers to help you approach record labels without falling at the first hurdle.
DO YOUR RESEARCH
Finding a suitable label is tough. It could take months, it often takes years. But that shouldn't stop you from trying. The first thing you need to do is research the kind of labels that would be interested in your craft. What do you sound like? Who do you sound like? If you have the doleful indie sensibilities of Joy Division, there's no point sending your demo to, say, heavy imprint, Roadrunner Records. Similarly, if you model yourselves on Cannibal Corpse, best to avoid the likes of Rough Trade Records. That said, cross-pollination is rife right now, with certain indie labels – Holy Roar, Hassle, Truck, Xtra Mile, Big Scary Monsters – proffering a far more eclectic roster of artists.
DO THE PREP
Fork out some good cash to make a solid, professional demo. The better your songs sound, the more likely the labels' interest will be piqued. Not only will the decent production be a better listen for all, it'll show any potential label that you're self-motivated and that you take your music seriously. It doesn't have to be ultra-polished, just something that doesn't sound like it was recorded in a war-zone. Everybody knows somebody with a digital audio workstation (Pro-Tools, Logic, Garageband et al) these days. Locate them and badger them. Or use your local community studio if you have one.
DO YOUR BEST
Once you've compiled your label wish-list, it's time to get their attention. Most labels will have instructions on their websites on how to submit demos. Usually, they'll require a link to your songs via Soundcloud or Bandcamp or another streaming site. Some will prefer MP3 or WAV files. Others may even request a CD, just to make you put more effort into it. Whatever the format, there's one golden rule: SEND YOUR BEST SONGS! If they ask for three songs, they're your three best songs, with your very best song first. This can't be underestimated. You've got about 60 seconds to grab their attention. If it isn't grabbed by then, it's unlikely it ever will. At least, not until you record new, better songs and send them. Labels hate to be pestered once they've received your music, but they will most certainly welcome more songs from you.
DO THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX
Of course, you don't have to follow protocol. You could ignore the online submission and send a citrus bloom bouquet to your favourite record label with your demo CD lodged inside. Or, if you're an indie/folk band/artist, hand-deliver it to their offices armed with acoustic guitars and bash out a couple tunes on the spot. But beware, your songs have to be pretty spectacular for these unorthodox methods not to gloriously backfire.
DO YOUR GROUNDWORK
A label may be very interested in your music but feel less enthused when they go onto your poorly maintained social media / websites and notice that you have no shows coming up and no current info. For the label to sell your wares, they need to see some commitment and self-belief from your end. Lots of self-booked shows, regular updates and fan interaction indicates that you mean business and that you have a fire in your belly. Get that fan-base rolling!
DON'T BE INTIMIDATED
Independent record labels, big or small, are only people. Flawed people at that. They're not business moguls, they're music lovers, often musicians themselves, who think the same way as you do. They're driven by emotions. Sure, they want to sell your product as much as the major labels do, but their passion is in the noise, not the shifting of units. Make sure you treat them as your equals, talk to them as you would talk to anyone else who cares about music.
DON'T SELL YOUR SOUL
If you're fortunate enough for a label to take you on, be careful what you sign. A lot of indie labels don't bother with contracts, relying on mutual trust and working on a record-by-record basis. However, if there is a contract, get it looked at by a music lawyer. If the lawyer concludes that it's a one-sided deal in the label's favour, negotiate for a better deal. It's all too easy to accept anything in the excitement of your first signing and end up receiving the mouse's share of profits.
DON'T BE DISHEARTENED
If you send your music to 30 labels and receive no replies, don't lose hope. Get back in your practice space, write another clutch of bangers and send them to the same 30 labels and another 30 more. No response doesn't mean they're not listening. They may like you but want to see what else you can do off your own back. The more labels you send music to, the more industry people will know your name, regardless of the outcome. And, in the meantime, keep inviting all of the record labels, and music journalists, to your shows, every time you play their home towns. Sooner or later, someone will take a real interest and all the hard work will pay off. Or it won't. Who cares? You're in it for the music!