Why Getting Signed to a Major Record Label is Harder Than it Looks on TV

By Joseph Siprut, Attorney at Law

I've literally had thousands of people ask me why I think it's so hard for somebody who is only a singer (not a writer) to get a deal. I saw this article, and got permission to re-print it from the attorney who wrote it. I think he did a great job of articulating his points, and I hope you enjoy it.

"In the real world, demo tapes sent to labels by these same competitors would be thrown in the garbage."

As the fourth season of American Idol begins, let it be said that, among its many sins, the show has helped to perpetuate the notion that getting signed to a record label is easier than it really is. How many times have viewers seen Randy "The Dog" Jackson fondly remark to one of the show's competitors, "I'd sign you tomorrow." Or likewise, how many times has even Simon Cowell himself — who certainly has not been shy in cutting down talent he believed did not make the cut — nevertheless lavished praise on select candidates with such remarks as: "I don't think you even needed this show to get a record deal."

Comments such as these seem to imply that the competitor — bless their heart — could have otherwise strolled up to The Dog's production offices or Simon's Welshire estate, announced their presence, and wowed them with their rendition of everyone's favorite karaoke classics, all of which we are treated to hear weekly on American Idol. In truth, it just ain't so.

The fact of the matter is that if you (i) don't write original material, and (ii) don't perform as part of a group or band (or play an instrument yourself), you are at a severe disadvantage when it comes to the possibility of being signed to a major record label. For these candidates, in today's market, auditioning on the show is probably the only realistic chance they'll ever get. Or, to put the point in Simon's terms: they do need the show to get a record deal. Here's why.

There are many, many people out there with great voices — more talent than there are slots available on major label rosters. Imagine if each of these individuals (not to mention the untalented ones) routinely bombarded A&R representatives at the major labels with unsolicited demos consisting entirely of cover songs. Even if the reps were willing and able to listen to the unsolicited material (which, in reality, they are not), where would that leave them? What good does it do to have a database of 10,000 capable singers, each of whom has to be developed from the ground up in order to bring them to market? What separates one from the other? That's not to say that one of those ten thousand can't possibly be plucked from the files with some timing and luck. But it is to say that the odds of being that one person out of ten thousand are not good.

In other words, pasting some cover songs on a demo — no matter how well sung — won't distinguish you from your competitors, because there are plenty of other talented folks doing the same thing. Unlike American Idol, where each contestant — no matter how worthy or unworthy — gets their chance to shine before the judges, and where weeks are spent attempting to parse the field of candidates down based on singing ability and "star potential," in the real world, demo tapes sent to labels by these same competitors would be thrown in the garbage. In today's market, labels are not developing artists; they are acquiring them. This means that labels want: (i) artists with radio-ready original material; (ii) an act polished enough to be promoted with minimal development costs; and (iii) some strong "buzz" surrounding the artist. Now we have criterion that gives A&R reps a more workable screening process, and which minimizes their investment costs and risk. After all, this is the music business, not the music charity.

Of course, this presents a problem. How can a "mere" singer — a singer who, despite loads of natural talent and ability, does not write original material and does not perform with a band — win gigs at venues that allow for opportunities to showcase the artist's talent and generate buzz? Without a band performing with the singer, and without original material to actually perform, the singer is not bookable. And therein lies the problem for some artists.

On the other hand, these same market forces create a tremendous competitive advantage for singers who do write their own material and who either play guitar or perform with a band. Even if they can't sing as well as a "pure singer," they're at least out there in the marketplace — being seen and being heard — and are therefore miles ahead of the game. A singer with all the talent in the world cannot realistically hope to move forward until that singer at least acquires original material.

Thus far we've established that writing your own material and performing with a group (or at least strumming a guitar) will allow you to advance your career by creating opportunities to gig and build some buzz — which makes for a heck of a head-start in the business. So, with all that said, what's a "mere" singer to do?

There are enough books written on this very issue to fill a library, so woe be it for me to try and tackle the issue in a few short paragraphs. But, there are some general rules and pointers that one would do well to keep in mind...

First, as explained above, save your postage money and do not bother sending in homemade demos of the karaoke classics — at least not to the major labels. If you insist on sending out demos of cover songs, try independent labels — particularly those which may be openly searching for new talent.

Second, try and find original material offered for sale by producers and/or songwriters. If you find a sound and style you like, you can purchase some demos and hire a producer — or even just an engineer if the budget is tight — to record them. Now you've got original material; just hope it's marketable.

Third, try and target producers that you want to work with, and see if they will both pair you with original material and shop you around to the labels when the project is finished. Of course, if the producer is already commercially successful and well-known in his own right (think "The Dog"), you'll face the same problems getting his attention as you would with A&R at the major labels.

Fourth, understand that the people who do well on American Idol are the ones who can adopt to the show's chameleon-like format. One week the show theme is soul, the next week pop, the next week big-band, etc. But a versatile, vacuous performer is precisely what record executives are not looking for. They want an artist that is clearly branded and identified — not someone who can "do everything." Thus, the show perpetuates a second myth insofar as the successful contestants on that show may not succeed in the "real world" for precisely the same reasons that they will succeed on American Idol: unlike acting, in the music business, versatility is not necessarily your friend. Accordingly, when creating or choosing your original material, pick one theme — create an identity — and go with it.

Finally, carry a four-leaf clover in your back pocket at all times. The fact of the matter, however unfair it may be, is that even if you play by the rules and make all the right moves, you won't get your big break without a little luck on your side. But at the same time, remember that you have to create your own luck; you won't get lucky sitting in your basement. Get out there and give yourself the best chance possible of obtaining your goals.

    Joseph Siprut is an attorney based in Chicago.