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Record Label 101 -- What's The Deal?

What's the deal with record companies, anyway? Aren't they supposed to be on the lookout for new talent? Why is it so hard to get them to listen to my demo? Geez, you'd think they weren't interested in hearing music at all!

Almost everyone who has tried to break through the walls of the music industry without some kind of "inside" help has found themselves muttering these questions. Sometimes it seems impossible to get anyone to listen at all.

It may seem like they're going out of their way to avoid you, but there are actually pretty good reasons why record companies no longer throw their doors open to the general public.

One, they were sick of getting sued. About twenty years ago, labels and publishers began to get hit with nuisance "copyright infringement" lawsuits by songwriters claiming their songs had been stolen by the big, bad companies. In order to even begin filing such a suit, the plaintiff has to prove "access" -- that is, they must show that the company had had an opportunity to hear, and then steal, the song. Simply mailing an unsolicited demo to a record company was enough to show that the company had "access" to steal the song, even if they never actually listened to it.

Two, 98% of all unsolicited material is garbage. It's true, believe me. Sure, there are some diamonds in there, but when the cost of going through it all is combined with the risk of getting sued for doing so, the companies decided they would risk missing out on a few "diamonds" to save a few clams.

Three, musicians are nuts. OK, not all musicians, but enough to terrorize, threaten, and/or generally harass and make life miserable for receptionists, secretaries and A&R people throughout the industry that in order to get some real work done, they had to stop taking calls from just anybody that decided it was time to quit their job and be a star.

And four, they still get tons of new material to listen to from people that they already work with. In fact, most A&R people don't have enough time in their schedules to listen to all the new music that is sent to them by friends, managers, attorneys, and other trusted sources. But at least they know that this material will be worth listening to, because someone is staking their professional reputation on it. And besides, these people aren't going to be telling them they know where their kids go to school if the company doesn't sign the band.

So where does this leave you? Fortunately, there are ways to get through the doors, it just requires persistence, dedication and commitment.

You can still try calling the labels. Be very nice to whoever answers the phone and politely request permission to send in a demo. Most will tell you to get lost, but some will say yes. Remember though, that even though they may let you send it in, your demo will be sitting next to a pile of stuff that is being personally recommended by someone they know. Which one would you listen to, if you were in their shoes?

But let's get the story straight from the horse's mouth. Let's have some A&R people tell you where and how they find new artists:

John Weakland
Director of A&R
Columbia Records

So how do you find new artists?

I call TAXI. People who want to succeed badly enough, find a way to get to me. If I hear something that I think we can work with, I'm on it right away. If I hear a demo and I really think it's good, I go to their web site or look at the pictures.

So as far as the touring base and all of that, we just need some songs. Actually I'd prefer bands that I think no one knows about--a band that I can discover, that are new and just starting. I saw Union Underground with maybe 14 people there at a bar in San Antonio, Texas. They put the show on just for me. They didn't have any fans, but I thought, "Man, this is so on." And we did a deal.

Betsy Anthony-Brodey
Vice President, Talent Acquisitions
Universal Music Publishing Group

How do you find out about new writers or new artists?

There are the obvious business relationships I have, as far as the attorneys and managers. I've developed relationships with them over the years. A lot of people send me stuff, who aren't the managers and attorneys, that I feel have done right by me over the years and sent me great stuff. I think it's hard for a new band or new songwriters who don't necessarily have those relationships with a manager or an attorney to sometimes get in the door.

ASCAP and BMI turn me on to stuff, and I think that's a great opportunity for writers and artists. I'm not a real Internet person. I don't go into those sites and just scope around for new material. I don't have time for that. I don't think that's the best way for me to spend my time. If someone sends me something that way, I'll listen to it. But I don't just go searching that way. I'd much rather stick a CD in my CD player. There is too much on the Internet that's not very good. Anybody who ever wrote anything can go in there.

Antony Bland
Director of A&R
American Recordings

Where do you get the demos that you listen to?

A lot of it comes from organizations like TAXI and ASCAP and the people there. A lot of stuff comes in from friends around the country and people who are in bands. I love the fact that bands support each other. I'll be talking to one band, and maybe it's never going to happen, but they'll constantly send me stuff. "Hey you've got to check this band out." "We played with this band." "We talked to these guys." A lot of it is word of mouth. We get stuff from attorneys and managers and publishing companies just like everybody else does.

Tim Devine
Senior Vice President of A&R
Columbia Records

Do you take unsolicited tapes?

No, not really. The flood of material coming into an A&R office every week can be upwards of several hundreds submissions. When you've worked in the business as long as I have, you know a lot of people, and a lot of people know you. All I can say is there are always more pitches than the day is long. My time for dealing with new pitches is somewhat limited. So I try to start at the top of the pyramid and work down.

In other words, the top of the pyramid are the people you have the closest relationships with, and you work your way down from there?

Yeah. I'm not just looking for an act that is "good enough," or "deserves a deal." Every day that I come in, I'm looking to find the best act the world has to offer. Of course, that's easier said than done, but it's also the only thing that really matters. Right now I'm handling about a dozen artists. Given all the aspects of the job, you have to be very selective about who you add to that list.

Max Gousse
Vice President A&R
Epic Records

How do you find your new artists?

I have a little bit of a different approach to A&R. I look at the market to see where the void is, and then I try to fill the void. For instance with a group like B2K, basically I thought that there was a lack of young male urban groups in the marketplace, so I really sought to find that. I went out on the road and put together about 25 showcases in different cities around the country last year. I actually ended up finding B2K at a showcase right here in Los Angeles.

Michael Goldberg
Maverick Records

What can that band in Peoria do to get themselves ready for a deal if they don't have real management working for them?

I think it's all about playing out -- and not just in Peoria, but go to Chicago. Go to St. Louis. Start doing a little local tour. Build a big enough following in Peoria, make a little money, get a van, and start touring around and creating a buzz. Promote yourself. Just get out there. I used to go out there every night with 10 Speed and put posters up with some sort of glue slop, just to get them up all over the place. Believe in yourself and work hard.

Tom Sarig
Vice President, A&R
MCA Records

What are some things that artists can do to get themselves noticed?

Create a following and a story. Things that would contribute to a "story" would be various data that we could track -- sold out shows, record sales, and getting airplay on their own. That happens all the time. Those are things that virtually all A&R people look for.

Do you spend any time on the Internet cruising around looking for bands?

Just cruising around? No. But sometimes I check things out on certain sites that I hear about. Sometimes if I hear about a band and don't know anything about them, I'll go do a search on them to find out more or get a contact number for them.

Luke Wood
DreamWorks Records

What would you say to an artist that says, "My music is the only calling card I need. I'm so good that Clive Davis is going to hear about me and show up in front of my house in a limousine with a briefcase full of cash and make me a star?"

The obvious answer is: "Good luck!" That is by far the longest row to hoe. That's the most challenging way to try to build a career. Sometimes it happens. Sometimes you'll have songs that are so active, or a writer who is just so enormously talented, that it is just obvious to everyone in the music business, and immediately that person has the appropriate support, and other people help them build their business and do it for them. That occasionally happens. But it's sort of like waiting around for gold to fall from the sky. There is no point.

Joel Mark
Vice President, A&R
MCA Records

What can a band in Peoria do to get your attention?

If they were to sell out the Madison Theatre in Peoria, which I think has 1,500 seats, and get on the radio station there, I would go there to see them. What that implies is that they have an amazing song or songs. They know how to write songs that get people interested. You know what I mean? You write songs that get people to rally around your band where people say, "This is my band. I love this band." And why do you love a band? Because of their songs. And whether it's a typical pop song that you hear on the radio that has all the great parts in it. Or whether it's a non-traditional song like System Of A Down writes. Technically, it might not be a song according to the John Denver songbook, but it's still a great song. It's still able to get people to say, "This is my favorite band. This is what I'm all about. I'm about this band." Why are they someone's favorite band? Because they write songs that you can take to heart. People say, "Oh my god, that's my song. That's me."

Doug Minnick has been the West Coast Creative Director for CBS Songs/SBK Entertainment and a Professional Manager at Almo/Irving.