Music Industry / Music Marketing

What Do Record Labels Look For When Signing A Band Or Artist?

If you’re looking to break into the music industry, you’ll most-likely be wondering what record labels are actually looking for from an independent band or artist.

In short, labels are often on the lookout for the following seven attributes from an up-and-coming band or artist:

  • Incredible music
  • Star quality
  • A distinct brand
  • An established fanbase 
  • An established income 
  • A strong web presence
  • A strong work ethic

Keep reading for detailed guidance on each attribute. 

1. Incredible Music

This might seem like an obvious point, but let’s dive into what actually makes music incredible:

Incredible music is essentially music that’s able to stand out from the scrapheap of thousands of other good independent bands and artists.

The best way to achieve this is by crafting a fully-realized sonic identity. Indie Panda breaks down sonic identity into two primary factors:

  • A clearly identifiable genre: Many independent bands make the mistake of wildly jumping from genre to genre over the course of an EP or album. Whilst your genre and style will naturally evolve and consolidate over time, a single release will struggle to remain memorable or appeal to a targeted audience if the genre isn’t consistent. Before you start recording, think about what kind of music you’d like to make and how you could describe it to someone else in two or three words. English heavy metal band Motörhead were know for being ‘loud and fast’, not ‘kind of rock, kind of metal, kind of punk’.
  • A set of distinct signature traits: Signature traits are what will truly make your music stand out as both unique and incredible. If you’ve ever listened to the radio and heard a song you weren’t familiar with, but known which band or artist it was, it was most-likely down to a strong set of signature traits. Signature traits can come in the form of a distinct vocal or instrumental style, song structure, lyrical content or a certain style of production. 

Additionally, it’s worth honing in on a key set of themes for your lyrical content. Think of a few topics that are of significant importance to you and focus on incorporating them into your lyrical content.

Sticking with the Motörhead example, they were known for writing about war, religion and politics.

This helped them hone in on a well-defined target audience who connected with the thematic material present in the lyrical content. 

2. Star Quality

Whilst this might be a hard pill to swallow, I’d be doing you a disservice if I didn’t mention it.

Record labels want good-looking, charismatic, personable and entertaining artists who fans will be able to connect with and look up to.

Whilst it’s certainly not the be all and end all of the business, you’ll be putting yourself at a significant advantage if you’ve got it. Another hard pill to swallow is that ‘star quality’ primarily falls on the frontperson. 

Think of artists that you look up to; it’s most-likely not just their music you admire, but also their personalities, opinions, fashion sense and lifestyle choices. People buy people, not products. 

3. A Distinct Brand

This ties in with the previous point. Labels aren’t interested in marketing bands, they’re interested in marketing brands. 

Think about what music consumers wish to communicate when they wear a band t-shirt in public. They aren’t just communicating their interest in the music, but also a set of cultural and personable aspects about themselves that the band effectively represents.

Additionally, fanbases are made up of people who share a similar set of interests, cultural traditions, fashion choices, opinions and hobbies. 

The best way to create a brand around your musical project is to craft a fully-realized visual identity. Here are a few pointers on crafting a fully-realized visual identity: 

  • Make sure your project exudes a personality: When designing your artwork or logos, think how the color, font & overall design can exude a personality.
  • Make sure your promotional pictures convey your individual personality: Think how your appearance, clothing, facial expression and the setting of the pictures might do this.
  • Leverage your individual personality through your marketing efforts: Instead of composing robotic and boring social media posts, inject a sense of personality into what you have to say. Your audience want to know  that they’re connecting with a fellow human on the other end of the social media channel. 

Audio mixer in recording studio

4. An Established Fanbase

Ultimately, record labels want bands and artists who have a proven track record.

If they see you’ve gained a significant following on your own, they’ll have good reason to be confident when investing money into you. 

Here are a few pointers on how to gain an established fanbase:

  • Focus on providing as much value as you can to your audience: If you want to gain a significant following, you’re going to have to be totally selfless in everything you do. Go out of your way to provide maximum value to your potential fans; give them freebies, take interest in them, shout them out, listen to them and treat them like royalty. 
  • Possess ‘star quality’: This is well-worth mentioning again. Remember that fans seek bands and artists who they can connect with and look up to. 
  • Hone in on a target audience: Remember what I said about fanbases being made up of a community of like-minded people? Use your branding efforts to appeal to a clearly-targeted audience. Over time, your fans will most-likely make friends with one another, which significantly strengthens your fanbase. 

5. An Established Income

As mentioned in the previous point, record labels are looking for bands and artists who have a proven track record.

Whilst not as important as having an established fanbase, most labels will want to see that you’re earning an income.

It’s worth noting that you don’t have to be making a full-time wage off of your music, but having some form of income will give labels the confidence they need to invest money into you.  

There are seven primary ways that bands and artists make money in today’s industry: 

  • Touring/Live Shows
  • Merch
  • Music Publishing
  • Sync Deals
  • Brand Partnerships
  • Streaming
  • Physical/Digital Recorded Music Sales

If you’d like to learn how you can take advantage of each of these income streams, check out our article ‘How Do Bands Make Money Today?‘.

6. A Strong Web Presence

Something that you might not realize is that many signed bands and artists currently run their own social media channels.

Record labels look favorably upon bands and artists with a strong web presence as it means they won’t have to do as much work. 

Here are a few pointers on establishing a strong web presence:

  • Ensure your social media is easy to navigate: Make it as easy as possible for your audience to engage with your project; interlink all of your pages, make it easy to listen to your music quickly and have your pictures and biography readily-available.
  • Leverage your visual identity: I keep bringing this up because it’s such a vital component of independent music marketing. Fans want to connect with a real human being, not a robotic and bland social media channel.
  • Allocate a distinct role for each channel: Instead of copying-and-pasting the exact same content across all of your social media channels, allocate different types of content to different channels. This allows you to take advantage of each platform’s unique features and gives your audience a reason to follow you on every social media platform.
  • Make your content as engaging as possible: Post content that people can engage and connect with, such as Q&A’s, games or interesting conversations. This enables fans to form a personal connection with your project. 
  • Post content on a consistent basis: Remember that you’re not only in competition with thousands of other bands and artists, but also other brands, social media stars and cat videos. In today’s throwaway social media culture, people expect to be engaged and entertained constantly. 

If you’d like more detailed guidance on crafting a strong web presence, check out our article on how to promote your music successfully on the internet.

7. A Strong Work Ethic

This point more or less encapsulates everything else I’ve said over the course of this article.

Record labels will want to see that you’ve got what it takes to be a full-time musician. Additionally, they’ll want to make sure you’re willing to pull your weight so they won’t have to on your behalf.

In order to make yourself attractive to record labels, you’re most-likely going to have to work extremely hard anyway for at least a couple of years.

Here are a few pointers on cultivating a strong work ethic as an independent band or artist: 

  • Treat music like a part-time job: In order to make consistent progress, you’ll have to have a consistent work ethic. Set aside time each day to write and record, learn about the industry, network with others and promote your project. 
  • Allocate distinct roles to members: If you’re a band, allocate roles between members. Not only will this distribute the workload evenly, but it should allow each member to play to their strengths. If your singer is the most personable, put them in charge of social media & promotion. If your guitarist is the most organized, put them in charge of booking rehearsals and shows.
  • Reflect, review and evolve: It’s important to regularly reflect on what went well (and why) as well as what you could’ve done differently (and why). Be willing to adapt your work ethic if something isn’t working and be sure to leverage the things that are benefitting your project. 

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About Author

I'm George; the founder of Indie Panda. I'm passionate about helping independent musicians realize the full potential of their talents and abilities through a strong work ethic, coherent project identity and a strong logistical foundation.