Why Can't My Band Land A Record Deal?
Are you a musician? Is your group having issues? Ask Fan Landers! Critic Jessica Hopper has played in and managed bands, toured internationally, booked shows, produced records, worked as a publicist, and is the author of The Girls' Guide to Rocking, a how-to for teen ladies. She is here to help you stop doing it wrong. Send your problems to her -- confidentiality is assured, unless you want to use your drama as a ticket to Internet microfame.
Dear Fan, Our band has finished making our second record and it's a bit different than our first one stylistically, which got some really good press. We made a list of everybody we're friends with or know who has influence (e.g. works for a label of interest, is on a label of interest, knows a ton of people, etc). We started sending the record out and got a lot of excited responses but no labels actually ever got in touch with real interest, except for one very small label. We have fans! And we have some amount of critical respect. Which ultimately begs the question, if it's not those things, then what exactly is a label is looking for? Clout? Cred? Buzz? We're lifers, who have been building slow-and-steady 4-ever. The two possibilities I could imagine are: 1) the music is just not exciting enough , or 2) we're just not cool enough. We'd prefer option #1, since at least it's something that we can control. What do you think the problem is? Sign me, Larry Gatsby Sr.
Hey Lar, Congratulations on the album--you've made some really good and interesting songs, and I don't mean interesting euphemistically or as a backhand. Let's start there, with your jams. Are you married to the idea that the album is finished? I listened through and thought, "If this had two uptempo songs that had hooks as good as the best slow songs you have here, it would be a different album." Not even on some A&R-y "I don't hear hits" way. I mean songs that would balance and lift and unify the record, that would couch and elucidate this other material -- the slower, complex, deep pop work. When too many disparate elements are sandwiched together, it sounds like a confused band. That, mixed with irreverence and/or funkiness, well, can read as "quirky" (inconsistent) or worst case, "wacky".
How an album opens should not throw people for a loop, it doesn't have to be a "My Name Is," level thesis statement, but that's not a bad way to roll. What feels like is missing from the album is the song that gives it a context and allows the rest of the work dovetail from it. Consider the masterful sequencing of D'Angelo's Voodoo--its mood and pace and realm is almost static -- it covers about 4 square inches. (Impeccably!) But that record couldn't start with "Spanish Joint" and then go into "Send It On." "Playa Playa" is like a table of contents--it's seven minutes long and says you will need to be a little patient because this thing is gonna go all night, and it's not gonna be simple, but once we get going, it's gonna be easy and you will love it. (Other records that do this same thing well: Astral Weeks, The Roots' Things Fall Apart--which opens with "Table of Contents", Sister.) Your record needs a "Playa Playa" and it could use a "How Does It Feel"--do not feel shame for putting some pop incentive on there. A song that is four minutes that people will wish was eight (and the chorus infinite) never hurt a career. If you can't manage that, do an inspired cover and turn that shit in. side. out.
Some other things that are correctable in this situation: Big picture, how you are shopping this album is the right way to do it, if you do not have a manager or attorney or designated driver in that regard. Connecting with the well connected is a great plan; as the joke goes, if you don't believe in nepotism, you don't know the right people. That said, you need to work on direct contacts--ask for introductions. Your old friend might have been the most disgusting houseguest Gerard Cosloy has ever had and the last thing he wants to do is listen to the link your friend passed him. Maybe they are actually trying to get their band signed to the label right now and are not about to throw your CD-R in the mix. Your bassist's ex who knows a guy at Stereogum--that guy might be in IT, not editorial. Ask for people to pass you on, and pass you on to the right people. If they can't, work around 'em. It'll be awkward and you might be tempted to be all apologetic and "Sorry to bother you," but don't because it's a bad look. Network with confidence, because your band is actually good.
I cannot tell you why you are not hearing from people about the album. Maybe everyone is busy. Maybe you have heard the story about how Mac McCaughn had the Arcade Fire demo on his desk for 18 months before he ever played it? If you have some history of sales, you are not assholes and you've toured a lot--you have a real shot at finding a home. Perhaps once you start hustling people directly about this album of yours, you will find out what the problem is. That said--and regular readers my apologies for repeating this two weeks in row--but do not be afraid of being the big band on a upstart's roster. So maybe they don't have crazy pull to get you on Letterman, but be the band that allows someone to build their business and you will have someone who works for you like no one at a big cool, established label even has time to. You will have to be more hands-on with your career, but the dedication of someone who is trying to get a business out of their basement should not be underestimated. You guys/gals can all be underdogs together. Nothing wrong with going with "OBO."
Best, Fanny Fan
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