The Road to Getting Signed

For the most part, today’s local bands share at least one thing in common…..the desire to get signed to a major or independent label. But sometimes, that’s easier said than done. So where does it start, you ask? Although I might be stating the obvious for some, many musicians get caught up in the nonsense glitz and glamour and forget about what is at the heart of this business: “stellar tunes.” But who determines what constitutes a “stellar tune”? Irrespective of the genres that interest you, great talent is great talent, across the board. But to achieve this “elite” status a band must craft tracks with passion and inspiration…lyrics that move us, comfort us, thrill us…and instrumentals that awaken emotion we didn’t even know we possessed. Hence, getting signed starts right there…..with the music itself.

In my experience, I have always encouraged bands to take on a level of professionalism that surpasses the quintessential “garage band.” Take time in crafting new material, take pride with what you perpetuate (both with messages conveyed through lyrics, and the instrumentals that are intended to set one band apart from another). Invest blood, sweat and tears into creating an acceptable recording and a presentable press kit…and most important, hit the streets to promote like you hit the stage to perform—with passion, conviction, commitment and pride. You have to believe in yourself and your music before anyone else will. Take risks, challenge societal norms and stick to your style, your technique and what you stand for. Conforming to what’s “hot” in society today, solely in attempt to get picked up by a label, can make it extremely difficult for you to be compelling when on stage. If that’s the road you elect to travel, don’t be too surprised when the loyal following you created over the years or months slowly starts to drift away.

So, what are labels looking for when in search of new acts? As noted above, my experiences have taught me that labels are constantly searching for music that moves them. They don’t need a press kit saturated with the band’s life story, millions of photographs, and empty press releases. It starts with the music….don’t put music out that even you think is sub-par because you want everything to happen yesterday! Believe in what you are doing…..find your band’s niche and stick to it…through the thick and thin, ups and downs. There are tons and tons of “good” bands that I have seen, but only a few rise to the level of “greatness,” and that’s what the labels are seeking. “Greatness” is all encompassing–be innovative, challenge yourself, take risks most wouldn’t, and never, ever settle. Finding your niche and sticking to it doesn’t mean that you can’t continue to grow, expand and cross genres and styles….it just means that when you grow be sure you are doing it for the right reasons–because that’s the direction your band wants to go (and not the direction society says you NEED to go to make it in the industry).

Once you have achieved a level of greatness with the music, apply that same dedication and determination into marketing your “product.” This includes the creation of a press kit that is clean, simple and direct: a brief biography, tour schedule, a picture, a few tunes and contact info (including a website). If you have obtained sponsorship, opened for national acts, or if you have received favorable reviews, a brief blurb in that respect wouldn’t hurt. Just remember that at the end of the day, even the most crafty biography, killer graphics and unbelievable pictures can’t sell the music….the music has to sell itself. That being said, for the music to sell itself you have to get it out to the masses any way possible. That means playing at family and friend events, community events, submitting your material to venues, festivals, charity events, hosting your own events, and hitting the streets….hard. Street teams can be very beneficial to bands, but I also encourage the band members themselves to hit every venue in your city and surrounding cities to promote….be waiting outside of a venue at the end of as many shows as possible, with demos and flyers in hand, and hit everyone….success isn’t handed out in this industry… earn it. You have to try and create a name for your band…utilize the internet to the fullest extent, especially MySpace (which has become an amazing vehicle for band exposure). However, don’t create tons and tons of band web pages if you won’t be able to maintain all of them equally. You never know when an A&R representative is going to Google your band’s name for info…..and you don’t want them locating 15 websites for you with the first 12 having been unmaintained for a year. Pick a few and update them religiously.

Other exposure vehicles that are readily available to bands include CD Baby and Snocap. This is the digital millennium…..use it to your advantage. Sign up for distribution (physical and digital) through CD Baby or another online distributor (for a nominal fee) and get your music out to the masses. In addition, don’t be afraid to pitch your album to local record stores in attempt to obtain a consignment deal with them. The above “exposure vehicles” are among the tools that A&R representatives are looking for to help determine the work ethic and level of commitment the band presents. Remember, there are many ways for A&R representatives to learn about a band’s success thus far….this includes digital distribution, physical album sales, tour archives, national exposure, radio/print exposure, etc. Do what it takes to make it, and then tell the world what you’ve done. In that regard, bands should try their damnedest to get their music to as many radio stations as possible, including college radio stations. Send press kits to local newspapers asking the music editors to review the material and invite them to upcoming shows. And follow-up.

Okay, let’s assume for the moment that you have engaged in several (if not most) of the above activities and you think that you are now ready to shop the music to labels. The first hurdle to overcome is getting the material through the door. Many, many labels (primarily majors) do not accept unsolicited material. In other words, materials must be sent by a reputable manager or entertainment attorney. Thus, don’t spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars in postage just to have your materials mailed back to you a few weeks later.

If you can’t afford a manager or legal counsel it doesn’t necessarily mean that the labels won’t accept your material. Do your homework….take the time to learn about the labels, who’s on their roster, what genres they work with and which A&R representatives scout for talent such as the type you bring to the table. The internet can be an invaluable resource in this respect as well. There are also several directories available (e.g. the A&R Registry, Indie Bible) which provide some contact information for entertainment industry executives. I’m not encouraging you to directly contact CEOs, Presidents, etc….rather, learn who the appropriate A&R representative is and search for the name of his or her assistant. Then call or e-mail them with a short message about the band and respectfully request for their permission to have you send in some materials. If and when they grant you permission, send the material in immediately….and follow-up.

I am NOT encouraging anyone to harass, stalk, or repeatedly send e-mails or leave messages for A&R representatives as to whether they have had a chance to listen to your material. These people are being inundated with material on a daily basis. You must take into consideration that it may take a few months for the A&R representative to even get a chance to listen to your material. Harassing them won’t do anyone any good. A simple follow-up two weeks after you’ve sent the material and another a few weeks thereafter (if necessary) should suffice. A good A&R representative will get back to you once they’ve had the opportunity to review the tracks. You can follow-up to the extent you feel it is necessary, as long as you do so with respect and consideration for the A&R representative who is listening to hundreds of EPs on a weekly basis.

Taking all of this into consideration, I can’t help but to repeat the importance of spending most of your time on your music. Great music is essential before an A&R representative will give your band the time of day. That being said, just because labels may pass on your material now, doesn’t mean that the material isn’t good. It may need work or it just might not be what the A&R label is looking for now. That’s your cue to keep on keepin’ on. Don’t give up and don’t change everything that the band has stood for up until that point. Rather, step it up….work harder, invest more hours, hit more venues, invent new material, and continue to believe that you have what it takes to succeed. There is always something more we can do…..when a label passes, the ball returns back to your court. It’s that moment that distinguishes the “winners” from the “losers” in this game……you can either accept the loss and quit or you can challenge yourself to exceed the boundaries, step up to the plate and work harder than you have ever worked for something that you probably want more than anything you have ever wanted. The choice is yours. Like I said….you earn success in this industry.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have specific questions relative to this article or need guidance as to how you can take your band to the next level. Best of luck!

By: Michelle M. Wahl, Esq.

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Michelle is a Partner at Swanson, Martin & Bell, LLP and is licensed in Illinois and Indiana state and federal courts. With a Masters of Law in Intellectual Property, Michelle is the Vice Chair of the firm’s Entertainment and Media Practice Group and a member of the firm’s Intellectual Property Litigation and Transactional Services Practice Group. Her copyright and trademark practice focuses on intellectual property prosecution and related transactions, including performing trademark availability searches and providing advisory opinions, as well as preparing and filing trademark applications with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and copyright registrations with the United States Copyright Office. Michelle also assists with the oversight of the firm’s extensive trademark docket and conducts required monitoring and maintenance of clients’ trademark portfolios, as well as provides clients with corporate counseling and innovative corporate solutions to address their respective needs.

Michelle further provides comprehensive representation in the drafting, negotiating and executing of various entertainment-related contracts and licenses, including but not limited to band member agreements, artist management agreements, session player agreements, performance agreements, sound engineer agreements, recording and personal services agreements, publishing agreements and licensing agreements. As a former artist manager, she has implemented many facets of national and regional tours, assembled benefit and charity concerts, communicated with various industry personnel, facilitated radio and internet publicity campaigns, arranged radio, print and internet interviews, and assisted in the development of press kits and websites promoting local talent. Michelle has also guest lectured on entertainment and intellectual property-related topics at The John Marshall Law School, DePaul University College of Law, Chicago-Kent College of Law and Azusa Pacific University (CA), as well as served as a panelist on various other entertainment-related continuing legal education courses. Michelle is an author and editor of the Litigation and Industry Updates Column of the ABA’s Entertainment & Sports Lawyers Journal and has also had numerous articles published by the Chicago Music Guide.

In addition, Michelle serves as Chair of Swanson Martin & Bell, LLP’s Community Service/Pro Bono Committee and proudly volunteers her time as President of the Associate Board and as a pro bono attorney to Lawyers for the Creative Arts, a non-profit organization that provides free legal services to eligible clients in all areas of the arts. She also currently serves as Events Chair for the Chicago Chapter of Women in Music, a non-for-profit organization dedicated to fostering equality in the music industry through the support and advancement of women. She recently served as Chair of the Young Lawyers Division for the Illinois Association of Defense Trial Counsel, where she was recognized as the Rising Star recipient and received a Meritorious Service Award and President’s Commendation.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in these articles constitutes general information and guidance and shall not be construed as legal advice applicable to or provided for any particular person or entity, and shall not be deemed to create an attorney-client relationship between Ms. Wahl and anyone who elects to read and/or rely, to any extent, on the material provided herein. In that respect, Ms. Wahl hereby expressly and specifically disclaims any such legal relationship, but encourages any person or entity seeking a legal advocate pertaining to the issues addressed and discussed herein to contact her directly for further information. Ms. Wahl may be reached at Swanson, Martin & Bell, LLP (330 N. Wabash, Suite 3300, Chicago, IL 60611 or via telephone at her direct line: (312) 222-8585 or e-mail at: