The relationship between record labels & unsigned artists - Are demo submissions the best way to get signed?

Blog by Louise Dodgson under Record Labels, Selling & Distributing Your Music

Sending demos to record companies has long been the primary route of approaching A&R contacts for many unsigned bands and artists. But is this still the most effective way for a band hoping to work with a label to spend their time? We chatted to A&R managers at Decca Records and Clue Records, labels at opposite ends of the spectrum; one a subsidiary of a major label established for over 80 years, and the other an independent, DIY label set up by 2 music loving friends.​​They tell us about how they source exciting new talent, how they work with them to release material, and alternatives to sending demos that may be worth considering for unsigned acts.​​

Scott Lewis, Clue Records
Scott set up Clue Records with his mate Ste in November 2012 to release Alternative music that they love. The label is currently juggled alongside Scott’s full-time job, allowing the label to grow naturally without added financial pressures. Clue Records are currently working with Allusondrugs, NARCS and Avalanche Party.


What is your role at Clue Records?​I run Clue Records. We’re a really small outfit (it’s just me & my mate Ste who helps out with orders & accounting as well as a few other bits) so if you see us somewhere I’m usually behind it.

Do you still receive a lot of submissions from unsigned artists?
We get plenty in! Approximately 5-10 per week. They tend to come in chunks for some reason, hard to work out why.

Have you seen any changes in the level of band/artist that you get submissions from in comparison with when you first started?
Not really, it's always ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. Mainly the latter, unfortunately. It ranges from established acts looking for something specific to people sending in rough demos to those singing covers through their laptop with iPhone headphones strapped into each ear.

I think there's a huge lack of education in approaching labels (or management and agents for that matter). There's also a huge lack of knowledge on how labels work, what they'll do and what's reasonable to expect. Saying that, I had no idea what I was doing when I started and I still don't quite know how other labels work, I just follow my nose. The quality of submissions can vary from act to act but whether it's a fully fleshed out recording or a scrappy demo, quality will shine through one way or another.

What is the ideal time for an artist to approach a label?
When you've got a recording of a song you're really proud of (even if it's a home-made demo) and no plans to release it. We get emails from bands saying "We're releasing this track next week, would love to know what you think and if you'd like to work on it together!" At that point it doesn't matter what we think, we want to be involved in a release from the planning stage. Equally, a live recording probably isn't going to put across what you want in your track, so don't offer something you know you're not really happy with.

Also, go out & meet people behind the labels or the bands on them if you can. I'm much more likely to listen to and get back to someone who's come to one of our gigs or DJ nights and said hello. I won't judge the track any differently but I'll definitely come round to it quicker than others. Putting yourself out there can help loads.

How realistic is it for a completely unknown & unsigned band to get signed by a label? Is it wise to start releasing your own music first?
For us there's no prerequisite, just that if we love it we'll be keen to work with the act. I love the idea of getting in with a band for their debut release but that's more of a romantic thing for me of getting to work with someone amazing from the start. One of the best things acts can do is research which labels would be a good fit for them. Look at acts you'd like to be associated with (from large to small) and see who they're working with, then find out more about them and approach showing you've done some research, explaining why you've picked them out. We've had pop acts, gospel singers, X Factor wannabes and all sorts of other inappropriate stuff that, if a bit of research was done, would never get to us really.

Do you think sending demos is the most effective way to get a label A&R’s attention – or are there other things you would recommend?
We're a bit different as we don't have an A&R department so we're easier to reach (as mentioned above, come to a gig or night we run). I've no idea how other labels work so it's difficult to say but if you don't stick your neck out you'll never know. Just be prepared for rejection and even to be ignored. Labels have lots to do and tons of submissions so it's hard to keep up with them all. And if someone doesn't like it, it doesn't mean it's bad. We've had stuff through that we've said no to because it's not for us, knowing it will do well with someone else as it's great. People have different tastes, I have disagreements with some of my best friends over certain bands all the time. That's the beauty of music, it's about what grabs you!

How do you find the majority of new acts that spark your interest?
Going to gigs, recommendations from mates, recording studios/producers, promoters mentioning someone, our bands playing with others and telling us about them. I try to check out any new name I come across locally so I know what's going on.

In what ways do you invest in new artists?
Time is the biggest one that often you don't think about. But however we can really. If we sign someone for a few releases we work on a plan to gain them exposure, both naturally and with money to back them up. We're quite picky because we work closely with the acts on the label. Clue Club, our 2017 singles club, was started to allow us to work with more acts on a on- off basis, sharing them with the audience we'd built. We also do a regular radio show/podcast where we play songs from smaller acts we love to try and give them exposure. We're enthusiasts over anything so if I come across something great I want to share it.

What is the A&R process for a new artist who signs to Clue?
Once we've heard something we like we usually try to check the act out live as a bit of a confirmer. Or if we see them live and like it, we'll trace back to a recording where available. Once we're ready to find out more we'll get in touch and try to meet up to talk, see what the act wants and if they're keen. From there, we work on a release plan, how they can build their audience and what the key points are for the next 6/12/18 months. It's all really loose though, just whatever works for that act.

Danny Roberts, Decca Records
Danny has worked in A&R at Decca for 7 years, a subsidiary of major label Universal Music. Established in 1929, Decca is a legendary British record label, which has been home over the years to recording artists such as Louis Armstrong, Tom Jones, The Rolling Stones and Morrissey, and currently works with Aurora, XAMVOLO, The Lumineers and Imelda May, amongst others.

Do you still receive a lot of music submissions from unsigned artists at Decca?
Yes. I have 65 unread emails in my demos folder from the past month. I clear this folder as often as I can. I receive 4-5 physical submissions a week. Last month I received 15 submissions from the same act. The persistence didn’t pay off.

Have you seen any changes in the level of band/artist that you get submissions from over the years?
I am still yet to sign an artist through an unsolicited demo. These submissions are generally bands/artists recording their material for the first time. I remember hearing a really fantastic demo CD once. The Submotion Orchestra. We didn’t sign them but they went on to do good things & got a deal elsewhere through really hard work & determination.

What is the ideal time for an artist to approach a label?
I suppose this will depend from label to label. If the music, the band/artist behind the music and the team around them are undeniably brilliant, then the rulebook goes out the window. Get the music to a label ASAP.

An artist will ideally have a lawyer, an experienced manager, an agent and maybe even a publisher on board. At the very least, they will be having conversations with people working in these corners of the industry. Some labels are more stats driven than others. The most important thing to me is a sign of engagement somewhere at some point. This could be reaction to a radio spin, a peak in traffic to a video, or an increased amount of streams on a song.

How realistic is it for a completely unknown & unsigned band to get signed by a major or subsidiary?
Again, it depends. Sometimes something just comes along that is just too good to pass up on. Normally, the conventional route is to build a team, begin releasing material, and show signs of engagement. If you manage this, record labels will more often than not come to you.

Do you think sending demos is the best way to get a label A&R's attention?

No, I don’t think it is. The director of A&R (who essentially gives the green light on a signing) will not be listening to a pile of demo CDs he has been sent that week. He/she just doesn’t have the time.

How do you find the majority of new acts that spark your interest?
The majority of my signings have come through a trusted source. A manager I like. A booking agent I have previously worked with, a lawyer with excellent taste. That’s why a good network is so important.

In what ways does Decca invest in new artists?

I have a number of bands and artists I stay in contact with. We speak often and I give advice and feedback on songs and how to navigate this often confusing industry. When I find an artist or a band I like, I can dip into an artist development fund. I help to set up writing sessions and sometimes help contribute to recording. I can also pass them on to the right people and help them build the right team around them. We now also have a management arm where we can get on board with artists earlier than what we normally would as a label.

Can you outline the A&R process a new artist to Decca goes through?

This is different every time. Some artists know exactly who they are and how they want to be presented. These are the best projects and are normally the most successful. Some artists need a bit of help along the way. Sometimes they might need to spend more time writing songs. They might even need some help doing that. It’s my job to pair them with the right songwriters. It is my job as A&R to find the right producer and mixers. I will also advise on song choices and help with alternative mixes for radio, streaming etc.


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