Advice from Sound City+ 2019 - Getting Signed... Who, How and Why?
Blog by Jamie Hamilton under Record Labels
Those of you who follow us on Twitter (and why wouldn't you be?) should have noticed the live coverage of our travails at this year's Liverpool Sound City+ event, just over a week ago. There was plenty of interesting chat going on by the docks at the British Music Experience, from Brexit to brand building and beyond.
A talk that we had a sneaky feeling would be of particular use to you lot was, 'Getting Signed... Who, How and Why?' So, armed with a notebook and my barely legible handwriting, I settled into my seat at the venue's main stage to steal some insight from a talented panel of important industry peoples.
The aim of the chat was to discuss the transition of the music industry from major label domination to the modern day multiplicity of release options on the table for artists. It looked at the positives and negatives of signing to a record label of any size, and the best ways for an artist to generate label interest in an increasingly data driven industry.
Julie Weir (Label Head - Music For Nations/Sony Music)
Ric Yerbury (Chairman/Founder - Funnel Music)
Björn Sandberg (Promotions Manager - FUGA)
Kali Bradford (Label Manager - Distiller)
Mark Orr (Label Manager - LAB Records)
Kate Hendry (Senior Label Manager - Absolute Label Services)
WHAT DOES A LABEL LOOK FOR IN AN ARTIST?
Once we'd been made familiar with the panel, Julie got straight down to business in her role as moderator by asking that big ol' question, "What does a label look for in an artist?" Modern labels are big on self-sufficiency. It is fairly unlikely that an act who hasn't shown some initiative in getting to grips with the fundamentals of promoting and monetising their talent will get a second look. LAB Records Label Manager, Mark Orr, is a strong advocate of this approach, "Of course a label will provide support, but they don't want to have to work harder than the artist is willing to work. An understanding of the business is increasingly important."
Kate Hendry looks for similar attributes in her role at Absolute Label Services. Absolute look to build partnerships with artists, bands and labels and want to work with acts with a sense of identity and direction. She underlined the preference in the industry for go-getting artists that demonstrate involvement with their own development, "We reiterate to the people that we work with that you need to have an artist hat and a business hat... And those are two very different things."
On the less business-y side of the coin, Distiller boss, Kali Bradford, and Funnel Music's Ric Yerbury urge acts to hone their live performance. In Kali's words, "Be great live! Making a great record is going to be difficult if your live performance isn't up to scratch."
WHERE DO RECORD LABELS FIND ARTISTS?
So, record labels and label services have a definite picture of the types of people that they'd like to work with. But how do they go about finding these artists in the first place? Is 2019 all about the views, streams and likes?... In short, yes and no. The majority opinion of the panel was that metrics are an extremely important element of the modern industry and, when committing to working with an artist, it is nice for there to be existing foundations to build upon.
However, numbers are only one piece in a bigger puzzle. In their label manager roles, Kali and Mark underlined the importance of networking by stating how many bands that they discover through existing relationships with artist managers, lawyers, promoters and festivals. The good old fashioned live show still has a part to play in all of this too. If you perform well (and often), you're much more likely to end up finding yourself in front of the right people.
SIGNING TO AN INDIE VS. MAJOR?
Another key talking point was the differences in working with an independent or a major label from an artist's perspective. Whilst there are clear perks to having access to all the resources that come from major label backing, there are also drawbacks. According to Mark, the biggest benefit of working with an indie is accountability, "If something goes wrong at an indie, the label manager can share the responsibility. With staff turnover and constant reshuffling, this can get a little lost at the big labels." The greater scale of the majors can also make them less reactive to change, meaning that independents tend to respond much more quickly to new technologies and trends.
The networks are a little smaller for the independents but Kali has found that this in itself can be a positive for the right artists, "You become part of a community, and being associated with the 'independent family' has its own benefits in the wider industry."
Sony's Julie Weir was a little outnumbered as the only representative of the majors on the panel and, coming from an indie background, has lived in both worlds. Although she agrees that proceedings can move more slowly in the land of the majors, this isn't always the case. She says that her label (Music For Nations) almost operates as, "An indie within a major", which could be a template that we could see more of in the future.
WHAT ABOUT SELF-RELEASING?
With direct experience of working with unsigned artists, Kate and Ric found themselves in the perfect position to take the reins as the conversation moved onto self-releasing. Both Funnel Music and Absolute offer different types of support to artists when going it alone, and there are more options than ever for those that choose the self-release route. This extra layer of autonomy provided by a DIY release is ideal for some but comes with added responsibility. This is still the case when working with services like Absolute, as Kate explained, "We can offer a level of support but artists must be willing to invest time, money and most of the leg work."
If you'd like to dive further into the world of self-release vs. label release, we wrote a little blog about this very subject quite recently.
Julie was keen to pull some final bits of 'reality check' advice from this wise lot before they left the stage. So lets round thangs off with each of the panelists' takeaway tips for emerging musicians:
Mark Orr (Lab Records): Hone your songs. There are tens of thousands of songs released every single day and the bar is constantly being raised in the studio and in live performance. Make sure that what you're putting out is the very best that you can do.
Björn Sandberg (FUGA): Be self-sustainable. If you're already self-releasing then you will be much more appealing to work with for a label or manager.
Kate Hendry (Absolute Label Services): Doing neglect creating a brand, image and identity. This process is an important part of the overall package.
Ric Yerbury (Funnel Music): Build a team around you that you can trust. You want to be safe in the knowledge that everybody is pulling in the same direction.
Kali Bradford (Distiller Music): Be a nice person and make friends! More contacts equate to more opportunities. Julie Weir (Music For Nations): Be present. Take in what other artists are doing, as well as what is happening in the wider industry.
Advice on getting signed to a record label from the music industry experts at Liverpool Sound City+