Signing a record deal with a major recording company is the ultimate goal of most aspiring songwriters and bands. But as AC/DC sings in their hit song, "it's a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll." Getting your foot in the door at a major label can take years of playing the club circuit and recording for small indie labels---or you might be one of the lucky ones who get your first big record deal at age 16. However, it takes more than just luck to get a record contract. For the majority of artists, it requires a team of people working to pitch the band's demo and set up auditions with labels.
Build up your confidence and experience through performing live as often as possible. Songwriters and bands seeking attention from major record companies already need to have a large following of fans; when you can show a label you bring guaranteed sales to the table, it's a powerful bargaining chip. They will be far more likely to sign you.
Get into a quality recording studio and make an album (or at least a demo of four to six songs). Nowadays, it is relatively inexpensive for artists to self-produce and release their own album. You can not only shop this demo around to record companies, but you can also sell your CDs at live shows, on your website and through retail outlets to earn extra income.
Hire a talented artist to design your CD cover art. Record company executives and A&R representatives often say that unique or especially creative cover art will cause them to listen to an unsigned artist's CD. It is one creative way for new artists to catch the attention of label executives, according to Island Records founder Chris Blackwell.
Find an investor or sponsor for your music. This is becoming an economic necessity in today's music business. Unless you are independently wealthy, you will need some capital to pay for the cost of CD recording, manufacturing, promotion, instruments and sound equipment, touring/travel costs and merchandise such as T-shirts.
Increasingly, artists who come to a record label already with strong financial backing are more likely to get signed to a record deal. The record label does not have to assume all the financial risk for the artist if the album fails to meet sales expectations.
Don't waste time and money sending your CD to record companies yourself. Most unsolicited submissions go directly in the trash. Most industry insiders agree that having a contact inside the label or a well-connected manager are the only ways new artists can get heard.
Have your manager or agent submit your CD or demo to the major labels and set up auditions for you. A skilled manager with friends in the industry should have A&R reps from the major labels return his/her calls, listen to your music and/or come see your band play live.
Strike while the iron is hot. Timing is critical; A&R reps hear so many bands, they may forget all about you if you wait too long to follow up. If the label displays interest after hearing your demo, visiting your band's website, attending one of your gigs or just watching your performance video on YouTube, it's time to push for an audition or at least a lunch meeting with the label rep.
Prepare for your big audition. Practice hard with your band or sing with backing tracks; ensure your delivery is smooth and confident. Rehearse in a mirrored room, if possible, or videotape yourself so you can improve your moves. Choose your wardrobe for the audition well in advance. Make sure you not only look your best, but that your clothing allows you to move freely for dance moves.
Go into the audition with an upbeat, positive attitude and do your very best. Don't take any criticism personally; the most professional thing you can do is thank that person for helping you better yourself and your art. Respect his expertise from years of music industry experience and happily derive the benefit of his input.
Follow up after the audition and have another meeting or lunch with your manager/agent and the label rep. If the label is interested in offering you a deal, have an attorney experienced in entertainment law review any contracts before you sign (see Resources).
Consider using services like Taxi, The Music Broker and Song Link. For a fee, they "pitch" your demo to major record companies, swing publishing and film deals for you, place the song you write with recording artists and even help you find a manager or agent. These placement services have a strong track record of success and contacts inside the industry that can get the right people hearing your music.
Don't linger in the audition room making small talk with label reps for too long after the audition. Be polite and clear out quickly to make way for the next audition. Projecting your desperation to get a deal is another sure way not to get a callback. Keep follow-up calls brief, friendly and infrequent. If the label is not returning your calls, take the hint and focus your search elsewhere. While it is a good idea to work with a singing coach before a major label audition, do not overprepare. You don't want to wear out your voice before you even make it to the audition. Take 12-24 hours off from singing before the audition and give your voice time to rest. Before the audition, you're going to be nervous; that's normal. However, do not neglect your body's basic needs. Eat well-balanced, light meals to maintain your strength. Drink lots of water for hydration if you're a singer, and steer clear of caffeine. You do not want jittery fingers when playing your instrument.