How to Land an Indie Record Deal, According to Sub Pop, Merge, and Other Record Execs

In typical DIY fashion, the ska punk band Beat the Smart Kids is accustomed to giving away their EPs to friends and fans for free. But like many locally successful bands, they want to expand. Because whatever lives, including music, must either grow or die. So, now what?

If you’re an independent artist or band, you might be wondering how to find a label that’s right for you. While most of the advice out there is common sense, the insight into what every label really wants from their selective roster of artists just might surprise you.

Do Your Homework

Based on an informal poll conducted among small to mid-sized U.S. labels, the biggest reason artists are turned down is twofold. The first reason for rejecting a band is when they don’t do their homework. Instead, they just send out demos to labels whose roster doesn’t resemble the band’s artistic style.

“Uninformed cold calls are the worst. Don’t email MP3s and never call up a label without at least doing a cursory Google search,” advises Christina Rentz of Merge Records in Durham, North Carolina. While Josh Zanger of Bloodshot Records in Chicago agrees, he recalls the most memorable submission he ever received actually came from someone who didn’t research the label first but she did have a compelling back-story.

Zanger readily summons the memory, “I received a demo from a 12-year-old rapper who wanted to make some money so she could help her mom who was ill. I was impressed by her fearlessness and her maturity in figuring out a situation to try to improve her’s and her mother’s lives. Pretty heavy stuff.” But, unfortunately, a look at Bloodshot’s roster, which remains devoid of rap artists, made the rejection fairly predictable. While doing your research might seem like “common sense,” it’s worth noting. The competition is fierce if not downright overwhelming with reports of receiving anywhere between 40 and 200 unsolicited submissions per month.

“I listen to none of it,” Mike Park admits flatly. And that’s the second reason why bands get turned down. Park adds, “I don't know any label that has the time to listen to [new] music. I feel like if you want to get picked up by a label, create a buzz for yourself and the labels will fight over you.”

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Personalize Your Correspondence

Park is the owner of Asian Man Records located in Northern California. Since 1991, he’s been growing the prominent punk label out of his parents’ garage. While Park might not have the time to listen to the unsolicited mail his mom helps pick up from the local post office, a lot of labels happily accept hard copies of music via USPS. In fact, according to Justin Pearson at Three One G in San Diego, California, the best unsolicited pitches are often sent by snail mail.

Songwriter Holly Muñoz

Songwriter Holly Muñoz

“That way, we know there’s effort put into it,” Pearson begins. “It’s the stuff with personalized correspondence and content that has something to grab our attention.”

A few years ago, musician and songwriter Holly Muñoz, from El Paso, Texas lived by this philosophy of personalization. Early pressings of her LPs were often mailed to supporters, the media, and a few labels in a thin, stark white album cover. Painstakingly, she decorated each cover using magazine cut-outs. Before sealing up the package, she slipped a gold-foiled square of chocolate with a handwritten card signed, “Love and dark chocolate, always – Holly.”

“I still do that,” says Muñoz as she prepares to release her third solo record in three years. “In general, I send handwritten notes and chocolate to everyone. Anything I can do to show people that I’m human.” Additionally, she’s spent the last 18 months cultivating a community of musical mentors. Her last solo album, called #2 Record, dedicated an entire side featuring established artists like Alan Sparhawk of Low; Ken Stringfellow of R.E.M., Big Star and The Posies; Andy Stochansky of Ani Di Franco; and John Hermanson of Storyhill, all covering her original songs. Mid-sized labels, like Merge and Sub Pop, find value in the kind of artistic moves Muñoz has made.

Think Local and Build Community

Sub Pop Records is a well-established label out of Seattle, Washington that’s been around for almost 28 years. They’re famously responsible for signing some of the biggest acts of the ‘90s grunge era, including Nirvana, Mudhoney and Soundgarden. And they’re still going strong with a range of talent from New Zealand’s Flight of the Conchords to Beach House. Bekah Zietz handles publicity, international marketing as well as A&R at Sub Pop. Like Park, Zietz agrees that it’s difficult to find the time to invest in new music, so she relies on finding out about people and bands organically. In other words, if you’re any good, word will spread naturally.

It turns out that what works in business also works in the music industry.”

“As cliché as it might sound, I always say: think local,” Zeitz says. “If you’re getting written up in local papers [in Seattle] and getting supported by local radio stations and then you go to Portland and you get written up in the Portland Mercury [newspaper], it kinda builds from there. And if you’re making friends with bands that you’re touring with and building a community for yourself, only good things will come of that.” The business world calls it “networking.” And while most artists tend to reject all things “corporate,” it turns out that what works in business also works in the music industry.

Pearson from Three One G Records shares an industry secret: “The only way we really end up working with artists is when we know them on a personal level. Usually by touring with others and getting to know them as more than a band, but more so as friends, comrades and perhaps even eventual band mates.” As it turns out, this secret was expressed by every single label interviewed. Second to making music, it turns out that the ultimate goal shared by both labels and artists is to foster a sense of family. Pearson recalls the genesis of his own label. “Three One G quickly developed into a family of artists who were all intertwined or on the same page as one another. For me, a label is the truest definition of family: People who are of the same breed and people who are from the same way of life.”

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Bill Roe is the owner of Trouble in Mind Records. He concurs, “From the first origins of the label, I wanted the bands on our roster to feel like they were part of something greater. I feel as if most of the bands on our label (generally) come from the same place mentally and are extremely supportive of each other's various projects. I've tried to instill a communal vibe through all our bands, encouraging collaboration, encouraging friendship, encouraging them to play shows together whenever possible. It benefits the label of course. But more importantly, I think the sense of community gives the bands a support network.”

Be Autonomous

While labels continue to take on the role of a responsible guardian by fostering the artistic growth of their young, most artists maintain that “the band” is truly family with band mates that operate more like loyal siblings who’ve got your back. Between this age-old mentality, as well as an emerging desire for artistic autonomy, bands like Beat the Smart Kids have generated their own following and funded their own recording and mastering of their upcoming LP.

Artistic ownership is priceless. What they’re looking for is help with pressings, distribution and promotion, not necessarily a long-term relationship. While Beat the Smart Kids is seeking a la carte support, Muñoz, who has spent years crowdfunding her albums, says she’s ready for the infrastructure that comes with mid-sized labels. While both acts are looking to build a musical career, Muñoz’s knowledge of the industry is pressing her to recognize how all of the pieces must come together in order for her to sustain a livelihood as a professional recording artist.

From outside of a recording studio in Nashville, Tennessee, Muñoz humbly recounts an early meeting with a successful booking agent. “The first thing I said to him was, ‘I want you to book me.’ And he was like, ‘Uh, you’re completely unknown. Get a bus. Make it move. Then we will have something to talk about.’”

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Muñoz sighs with renewed perspective: “The figurative moving bus will continue to be the way things work in this industry with everything hinging upon everything else. Booking agents, labels, managers, etc., etc. They all want to jump on something that already has momentum. So the reality is that you have to create that vehicle yourself, and trust that when the time is right, you’ll get the support you need. Keep going. That’s the only thing I know. Two-and-a-half years into it, I’m still on track to release an album every year. I’ve got one in the can for 2016, and I’m already working on tracks for 2017.”

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