Anthony Graham passes on some valuable advice to help maximise your chances of landing that elusive recording/publishing deal.
Why are we all here? No; I'm not talking about life, the universe and everything. What I'm talking about is the very reason why you have bought this magazine, why you invested in a multitude of MIDI and recording equipment, and no doubt why you spend most of your spare time (and then some) noodling away on another masterpiece.
A recording and/or publishing deal is the aspiration of virtually every musician on the planet, yet the odds of obtaining a deal are (not to put too fine a point on it) somewhat stacked against each and every one of us. But some people do make it, and a much smaller minority go on to even greater musical heights. So how can you maximise your chances of being one of the lucky ones?
In the course of a year I have gone from having no business contacts whatsoever, no management, no live experience, no songs, minimal money and equipment, and little experience of the music biz, to the point where major record companies and music publishers are chasing me, and my band are about to be signed by both a major record company and music publisher.
Want to know how to do it? Read on...
At the end of the day, however much it may irritate you, your future lies well and truly in the hands of the dreaded A&R department. So just who are these all‑powerful people? Their backgrounds vary tremendously, but in my experience the best 'types' fall broadly into two categories: those that are old (by which I mean middle‑aged or over) and those that are musicians/producers. Most of the former tend to occupy the higher ranks in the company, such as A&R Head or Managing Director, which means they're harder to get to, but they have got to that position by having success after success, and proving that they know a good act when they hear one. Musicians and producers also make good listeners, particularly if they have had first‑hand experience of being a performer, because they know what is required from a new artist.
The remainder seem to come either from related fields, such as music journalism and recording studio administration, or have worked there way up from the bottom of the company.
Bearing this in mind, it is very important to remember that musical talent alone is nowhere near enough to ensure interest from a record company, never mind a contract. Anyway, talent (or the lack of it) is a personal opinion and those that you receive will vary immensely. There are other aspects that should be considered:
- LOOKS: If you have them, then it's a definite advantage; if you don't, then it can be worked around. If you're a female singer, then it will be harder if you are neither attractive or 'different' (Tori Amos and Bjork are good examples). But if you're an unattractive male singer, then it should be rather easier (Jimmy Nail, step forward).
- RELATIONSHIPS: If you're putting together a band or looking for a partner, then ensuring that all egos and personalities are at least vaguely compatible is very important. This is obviously hard to establish in the beginning, so it's wise to have a trial period for all parties, to see how they work with one another. Duos, be they writing and/or performing partners, can be particularly intense — especially if your partner is of the opposite sex! Incidentally, 'looks' should also be borne in mind for each person that you audition or are considering working with, unless they are purely writers.
- AGE: Quite simply, if anybody is over 25 then it lessens their chances of being signed. Sad but true.
There are also other factors that do not really concern A&R people, but should nevertheless be considered now. For example, who does what in the band/partnership? Is one person going to be the 'manager' and be the spokesperson for everyone else? How are the costs (and profits, if there are any) going to be split? And what about songwriting?
By far the simplest way of writing songs is to do everything yourself. But a quick glance at this week's singles chart will show you that the majority of songs are written by two or more people. Why? Well how do you really know that the brilliant idea you just came up with really is that brilliant? You certainly can't rely on your girlfriend / boyfriend / parents etc to be honest with you. But a good working relationship with another person allows you to be objective about each other's work and bounce ideas between you, hopefully resulting in a song better than anything either of you could have achieved individually. So if you don't have a band and are looking purely for a writing partner, then an advert in the SOS Reader Ads or in Melody Maker (or a word with an organisation like BASCA) should point you in the right direction.
Once you've settled on one or two people who you'd like to try working with, then it's a good idea to discuss the subject of royalties early on. DO NOT wait until you're offered any sort of deal, because by that time you will (hopefully) have become good friends, therefore making it much harder to rationally discuss business matters between yourselves. Some books I have read suggest that you ask your new collaborator to sign a collaborator's agreement, outlining your working relationship. Whilst the legal benefits of this are undoubted, I have to say that I've never heard of anyone being asked to sign one. In my opinion, asking someone you've just written a song with to sign a contract may create the wrong impression.
An easier way of getting the division of labour in print is by registering yourselves and your songs with the Performing Rights Society (PRS). The Joint Notification (Works) Form is a standard form that must be filled in before anyone can earn any performance royalties, and it's thus unlikely to insult your partner! As far as splitting royalties, the only norm to bear in mind is that music (including vocal melody) is usually 50% of a song and lyrics the other 50%, but this is often varied if everyone is agreeable.
Once you've written a few songs you should be thinking about demo‑ing them: no more than four songs at a time, and obviously make sure they are your strongest. When looking for a suitable recording studio, it is recommended that you talk with the engineer you will be working with and listen to material that he has previously recorded at that studio; also you may like to take along a favourite CD (or DAT) to check out their monitoring and acoustics.
Many people believe that to impress A&R departments you need to go to a big, expensive, 24‑track studio. Well that may help, but make sure you don't go over the top. A song that's been 'over‑polished' can actually be a big turn‑off if the people you're playing it to don't like the arrangement or production style. Sometimes it is better to go with a simpler version that lets them use their imagination, particularly if you're primarily a writer seeking a publishing deal.
In my case, I only had a Roland U220 to write and arrange with. To save time in the studio, I premixed the backing tracks using the internal mixer/effects and laid them onto DAT. In the studio they were then transferred onto two tracks of an Alesis ADAT and the vocals plus any other instruments recorded 'on top'. Despite this minimalist approach, I was constantly told that my demos could have been released as they were and that they sounded like a big studio production! The moral of this story is that as long as the song, arrangement, and vocal is good then everything else will seem better, even if you don't have lots of good equipment.
When approaching a studio it is tempting to ask for deals or deferment of payment; you'll rarely get either but what you may be offered is a 'production contract', whereby you sign away a percentage of your song to the studio or production company in return for them providing 'free' recording facilities. Think very carefully before agreeing to this and always get any contract checked out by a specialist Music solicitor first. Musician's Union and BASCA members have free access to a solicitor, others may qualify for legal aid if low earners.
Presuming that everything went according to plan in the studio, then you should now have a master DAT of mixes — if possible, get a compilation DAT made of the best mix of each song in your preferred order. This provides a backup should anything happen to either DAT, and will be more convenient when playing the songs to other people.
By now you should know whether your partnership or band is working. Hopefully it is, and now is when you should get photographs and biographies done. Photos should be 10" x 8" Black & White glossies with the most attractive members (hopefully including the singer) at the front, hiding any less attractive members at the back (no, I'm quite serious...). Biographies shouldn't be over‑long, as all the time people spend reading them they're not really listening to your music. Concentrate on the most important personnel — in other words the singer and songwriter(s), and write it from an outsider's viewpoint. Always include everyone's age (unless they're really old) and concentrate on facts about each person's musical background, not speculation or opinion.
When you're ready with all of this, then it's time to go trawling through something like Music Week Directory or Kemps [see SOS Bookshop] to find the details of suitable companies to approach. Once you've got phone numbers, then ring up and ask for the A&R department. You'll normally get through to an assistant, but occasionally you may get lucky and be put through to an A&R person. Briefly explain your style of music and ask who the best person is to see. They will give you a name and then usually say that he or she never takes appointments without hearing a tape first. This is where things get a little tricky. I never stood for this on the phone and through a combination of charm, persistence, and good old‑fashioned lying, I have got in to see virtually everybody I've ever wanted to see, without them having a demo tape first.
To be honest there are good reasons why they'd want a tape first, but if you send one in you never know where it's going to end up. I have sent in tapes to people who knew me and requested them, and subsequently discovered that they never received them. Invariably the parcel would be opened up by a secretary, who listens to your tape for 10 seconds and decides it's not what the company wants! So even if you have to forget about a company for a few months, always try and avoid sending in tapes — very few people get signed this way. (Tip: Faxing your biography to the person in question often helps — particularly if you bend the truth a little about how much interest you have from other companies!!)
So you've arranged your first meeting. You've already come a lot further than most hopefuls but, unfortunately, there's still a long way to go! If you're unsure of the location of somebody's office then allow time for this, and try and arrive 10‑15 minutes early so that you can browse through trade papers, eavesdrop, mingle, etc...
It's really not a good idea to bring the whole band to a first meeting — it makes you look desperate. I've found that the elected spokesperson, and maybe also the singer, is more than sufficient. Make sure you are well dressed, have a professional looking bag (not a dirty plastic one) containing your professional looking material, and are feeling confident. Don't expect a long meeting: 20 minutes is a rough average. Never ramble on endlessly and never appear over‑confident or arrogant. Despite how it may appear sometimes, A&R people are normal human beings just like you or I. I'm sure you wouldn't appreciate somebody coming into you and telling you how brilliant they are and how they won't even consider an advance of less than a 100 grand — so don't do it to them! However, it is usual practice to casually inform them of anybody else that's interested in you, but please be careful if you name other parties; the music biz is a very small world — everyone knows everyone else. Too much bull and you definitely won't come up smelling of roses.
The usual opinion that an A&R person will offer is that they're "interested and would like to hear more". In other words they'll want a copy on cassette, which they'll hopefully listen to again at a later stage, and will want to hear your next set of demo songs. If they really don't like your music and can't see it going anywhere, then they will tell you, but it takes a brave A&R person to be confident that a bad or mediocre artist will never improve. They may also want to see you perform live, although if I had a pound for every time an A&R person told me they would come to a gig and then subsequently never showed, I would be a very rich man. So don't read too much into either of these responses; they are positive signs but ones which are shown to many people on many occasions.
Most people have their first taste of gigging at local pubs or clubs. This is a good way of building up your stage confidence and presence, and polishing up your performance. But don't think that someone from a major label in West London is going to come to 'The Dog & Duck' in Basildon for the amateur talent night, just because you are playing there. A much better way of attracting attention is to appear on the bill of a well respected showcase night.
Showcase gigs are especially for unsigned, up‑and‑coming acts that write their own material and need a platform to play on. Audition is usually by tape (ie. your demo) and if accepted you will be offered a spot where you can play a couple of songs to an assembled paying audience, often including passing industry folk. The organisers make their money from the numbers of people that turn up, so you will find that many of them are more concerned with how many friends you have rather than how many songs you have. Nonetheless, it is virtually the only way for an unknown to play a good club and it should cost you nothing.
Note that showcase gigs lean towards certain types of music, usually acoustic (or at least something that could be performed 'unplugged'), so acts that use a lot of equipment to perform may not find it too easy to get a spot. In this case it's probably better to approach smaller clubs with your tape and biography, and ask for a support slot. If you have interest from any record or publishing companies, tell the club promoter about it — oh, and feel free to exaggerate about the size of your live following [size doesn't count anyway — Ed.]; they won't sue if you only bring your Gran and next‑door neighbour.
I've never liked to ask an A&R department just how many tapes and appointments they have each day from new artists, but I know it's a lot. A hell of a lot. So however much the people you have met liked your material, if you're not there to remind them then they will forget you.
To maintain interest, try and demo a couple of songs every three months at the most, and get them to the person(s) concerned. Send them flyers for your gigs, copies of any press you may get, new photos, updated biographies — anything that can sit on their desk and remind them of you. Try calling them after a month has passed and speaking to them, but remember that they are busy people so their abrupt telephone manner isn't necessarily a sign that they don't wish to speak to you.
(A) They ask you to come in personally with your next set of demos. If they say "put it in the post", then they're probably interested but not especially so.
(B) They offer to pay for something — like more demos.
(C) They remember you straight away when you call up.
(D) The meetings get longer and more informal.
(A) They want to showcase you to the rest of the company.
(B) You meet the Head of A&R or Managing Director.
(C) They invite you out for drinks or a meal, on their expense account.
(D) They start talking about working together and asking who you want to be produced by.
1995 Songwriter's Market
Published by Writer's Digest Books.
A Songwriter's 'Yellow Pages' with a distinct US bias, but useful nonetheless.
The Business Of Music
Series of books published by Omnibus Press in the UK. Based on a series from the US, with parts rewritten for the UK market.
Music Week Directory
Published by Music Week.
Showcases are regularly held at the following places:
- The Original Songwriter's (on Mondays) at The Orange, North End Road, London, W14. Tel: Pam Robbins, 0171 625 6957.
- New Songwriter's (alternate weeks) at The Marquee Cafe, Greek Street, London, W1. Tel: Irene Bull, 0181 923 7780.
- Live At The Y (irregular Cable TV show), YMCA, East Street, Leicester. Tel: Kevin Wilson, 0113 255 6507.
- International Bar (Tuesdays), Wicklow Street, Dublin 2, Eire. Contact: Dave Murphy.
- The Glasgow Songwriter's Club (Tuesdays), Blackfriars, 36 Bell Street, Glasgow G1. Tel: Alex Osborne, 0141 647 6406.
- Northern Song Project, 12 Benson Street, Liverpool, L1. Tel: G. Murphy, 0151 709 6005.
The following can help with contracts, solicitors, advice etc.
- Musician's Union, 60/62 Clapham Road, London, SW9 0JJ. Tel: 0171 582 5566.
- PRS, 29‑33 Berners Street, London, W1P 4AA. Tel: 0171 580 5544.
- BASCA, 34 Hanway Street, London, W1P 9DE. Tel: 0171 436 2261.