This Article Originally Published May 1998
by Michael Laskow
Last month I had a flurry of calls from members lamenting that they'd had several tapes forwarded, but nobody had offered them a deal yet. These members sounded like intelligent people. They were rational. They weren't particularly nasty or irate—just frustrated.
I can feel your pain. Really, I can. I'm not trying to be funny.
I get frustrated easily. Nothing, or nobody moves fast enough for me. I could be the poster child for instant gratification. I'm an incredibly impatient person. It even drives me nuts when people employ too many pauses when speaking to me. You know ... people who like to ... think ... or ponder ... or maybe pretend to be more thoughtful than they really are before they spit out an entire sentence. It makes me want to scream, "Spit it out, you ponderous, pseudo-intellectual oaf!" But I don't. I've been working hard to become more patient. It has its benefits.
But this article isn't about my character flaws, or anybody else's for that matter. It's really about ignorance. I know "ignorant" is the right word for what I'm about to describe, but it always sounds so harsh. It conjures up visions of that toothless, banjo-pickin' kid on the front porch in "Deliverance."
The kind of ignorance I'm talking about though, is the lack of knowledge on a given subject. And let me tell you, some of the folks who have called me are ignorant of the way things work in the music business. But they're not stupid.
I can understand the frustration of submitting one's latest and greatest material to TAXI, having it forwarded to a VP of A&R at a major label, and then not hearing anything back from them. A quick reality check could eliminate that frustration.
A little homework would show that it's a gross oversimplification to expect that your tape ending up on a couple of desks should produce an instant deal. Most people who get deals have had their tapes on the desks of many executives before they got their deal. Most have spent years trying to get their deals. It rarely happens overnight.
There's a lot more to it than just getting your tape on somebody's desk. There's more to it than just getting a deal. If you are in fact "signable," my guess is that it may take delivery of your tape to between 12 and 20 A&R people before you get your break.
All kinds of things can keep an A&R person from signing you. The most obvious of which is they just don't go nuts about what they hear on the tape. Another reason may be that they are already in progress on another signing and they can't sign anything else in close succession.
Other reasons might include: they already have a similar artist on their label, the last thing they signed went "lead," causing them to be overly cautious about their next signing, or they might have loved the tape, but when they played it for their colleagues the response was cold. No matter what the reason, it seems that most deals come as a result of persistence and timing.
Once you have "the deal'" it's not as easy as "Hey world! We're signed and our record is out. Come and get it." Think about it. To get a deal, you only have to convince one person that you're great. To have a hit, you need to convince a million! If memory serves correct, a couple of years ago, the RIAA reported that 94 percent of all records released by major labels DID NOT break even. That means that only 6 percent of all records released that year made a profit.
More often than not, the artists you hear breaking on the radio today have been trying to "break" for years. Frequently, many, many years. How about Grammy Award winner Shawn Colvin? She's been a signed artist for about twenty years, but many people perceive her as a new artist who stepped in to the spotlight in 1997. Her friend, Sarah McLachlan, has been signed to Arista since 1989. But once again, it took her eight years to finally break through.
Did you know the Wallflowers had an album out four years ago? Neither did I, but they did! Yet, for most of us, they seem to be a relatively new band. So does Chumbawamba, but in fact, they've been around for fifteen years. Heard of the electronica band Prodigy? They've been around for about ten years, but most people didn't know of them until last year.
And how about the woman who popularized the word "bitch" more than Leona Helmsey—Meredith Brooks. Doug (our VP) remembers seeing her play a live show in 1985, yet she didn't have her breakthrough hit until last year. And how long did it take her to get her "deal"? Truthfully, I'm not sure (If I were a real journalist, I'd do the research). But I'd bet that it took many tapes ending up on many desks until she found the person who understood her musical vision, and was willing to bet the farm on it.
Hang in there. I did, and it paid off. I've built a company that I'm very proud of. I don't possess some magical power that you don't have. I just kept working hard when other people might have thrown in the towel. It can be a hard road. It will most likely be a long road. But it's certainly not an impassable one.