Part Two in a series attempting to answer people's questions about the music industry. Please note that I do not speak on behalf of my record label, Fair Trade Services (formerly INO records), nor do I have the ability to sum up a very vast, multi-billion dollar industry. I am only speaking from my first hand experiences and observations from eleven years in the industry myself.
From Beth: I would like to know about getting into the industry, starting with demo tapes, how to get labels to listen to them, and how to get started (of course with the understanding that this is in no way a "get rich quick or at all" type thing.)
Hey Beth! This is the question we "signed" artist's get asked the most! How do I get in the industry? I would say first and foremost, you have to rephrase that question into, "Why do I want to get into the industry?" Or put another way, "What can the industry do for me that I cannot already do for myself?"
When I was in high school in the late 90's I would pick up a copy of CCM magazine and read about young high school guys and girls who were magically discovered by record labels and got amazing record deals. But that was then. To my knowledge, that rarely happens anymore because record labels are- across the board- losing significant money. So in the past, record labels sought out young new talent, giving record deals to any number of newbies and waiting to see which ones they could "develop" and turn into a pop star or Christian icon. But this is no longer the case.
Today, there seems to be an emphasis from labels to come across someone who is already making their own music, performing regularly, and writing their own hit songs. Granted, there are the Justin Beibers and Carrie Underwood's of the world; super-naturally talented and gifted vocalists that labels will do anything to sign, create, and market. (And if that's you- I encourage you to put yourself out there. Audition for American Idol, America's Got talent, or sign up to be a part of Camp Electric where your voice will be heard by industry insiders in Nashville.)
If you have an insane talent, a cold-turkey deal might be easier to attain, but for the most part the industry has become less about creating new artists (turning a 16-year-old, unknown girl with a good voice into a signed label artist) and more about finding artists who are doing good things in their own right and coming alongside of them.
So, to answer your question I would ask you a question. What are you doing on your own? If you want to get into the industry- most industry insiders want to see you "bloom where you are planted." Perform as often as possible, with as many people as possible. Develop a strong social media presence- one of the absolute best things you can do to get recognized. Hone your song-writing skills. And then go out and perform some more!
Tricks of the Trade
When Addison Road started eleven years ago, my husband took the "fake it till you make it approach." He decided that he would do everything possible to make us look like a "real band" even though we were this crappy college band! Still, if you would have gotten one of our promo packets in the mail, you would have thought we were the next big thing! He had embellished folders made, business cards, head shots, recommendations from people who had us out to play at their home churches. Etc, etc. But the truth is, we weren't nearly as good as we looked on paper! Still, being professional goes a long way and it got us shows that we were way under-qualified for. If you are an artist looking to go somewhere- present yourself well. Have a well edited, short and sweet promo pack (both physical & digital). Take yourself seriously. Call yourself an artist. Seek out shows and book with confidence. Don't let on that you are way out of your league! You've heard the whole, "dress for success"... well I don't care if you dress in Portland flannel or New York hipster, but dress the part. There is much to be said for creating your niche- for creating your portfolio- for creating buzz about your music... even when you feel like you are an invisible speck in the music world. A professional, aggressive approach to developing your niche and presenting yourself well goes such a long way!
Make sure your demo is actually good! There are nationally and internationally known bands who record their albums themselves- and they sound amazing. You don't have to have money to make a demo anymore. All you need is a moderately fluent MacBook user. Heck, I could record your demo and make it sound decent- and that's saying a lot! So, there is no excuse for bad demos! Find someone with a home studio or a MacBook pro. Also, some churches have amazing digital boards and they can actually make a great recording straight from the board. So if you are at a church with advanced sound equipment, ask a tech volunteer if they would be willing to record you from the board.
Getting Someone to Listen to your Demo
Every artist is going to HATE me for saying this... but your best chance at getting someone in the industry to listen to your music is to hand your music off to an artist.
Odds are, if you mail in a demo it will never, ever, ever be listened to. Actually, a long time ago my husband interned for EMI while we were in college. His entire job was to listen to demo's. Just a college kid- who could care less and generally just made fun of everything he heard- was the guy who got the demos. Sending a demo in cold turkey is a waste of your time and your money. And- might actually work against you if you annoy the people at the label!
So how to get it into the label's hands? If it is a really good worship song that is currently successful at your church, network with other worship pastor friends and see if they would try your song at their church. Many big worship songs, like Indescribable and How He Loves, have started in local churches and spread like wildfire. That gets the attention of a label.
Go viral. Everything is viral. It's free. It's easy. And if your stuff is good... it spreads like wildfire too. Post your best song/performance on Youtube and then email the link out to as many people as you can. If you have the email address of someone at a label, publishing company, etc. include them on the email blast. Perhaps they might actually take a listen.
And then back to my first suggestion- hand it off to an artist. I will be honest- we hate this! But I think it's mostly because people pick bad times to do it. Don't hand off your CD at the merch table, while the artist is getting off stage and unwinding, or while they are on their way to the bathroom. This is super annoying :) Give the CD to a volunteer or promoter and ask that it be given to the band- or make plans to be a part of a pre-show meet and greet. Don't eat up any of their time trying to sell yourself, just a simple, "Thanks for being here. I enjoy your music. I'm an artist myself... if you get a chance I'd love for you to listen to my music."
Honest truth is- a lot of those Cd's end up in the trash. But there are some artists who listen. I am one of those that listens. And- if I hear something I really love (or if a local artist opens that I am really amazed by) I pass it on to my team in Nashville. Maybe nothing happens at all- but maybe it does. In my opinion this is at least a good shot. And because many artists turn into producers or own their own record labels (Toby Mac, David Crowder, Nathan Nockels, etc.) the artist's themselves often have a vested interest in discovering new talent as well.
If I were to encourage you to focus on one way to get into the music industry, I would say do whatever you can to become the best song writer you can be. Album sales are not what they were 10 years ago. Ten years ago Christian artist like Rebecca St. James, Stephen Curtis Chapman, Nicole Nordeman... they could sell a million records, no problem. But that is no longer the case. Albums don't sell. Hit songs sell. So album sales are incredibly low and single song downloads are incredibly high. Radio has followed suit by diminishing the amount of new songs they play each year. There are major market stations who will literally only drop ten new songs a year. Thus someone's comment that, "from listening to Christian radio you'd think there are only 6 artists." So if everything revolves around the song... the song has to be your focus. There is no longer room for plain ole' good singers who sing other people's songs. The industry is all about the song... and the heart of what you do as an artist is all about the song. So write the song.
Beth- and other aspiring artists- those are some of the basics.
On a personal note, if you were to ask me how to get started in the Christian music industry... I would give you a maddening answer with no concrete "next step."
I would simply say, fall in love with Jesus. Ask for God's eyes and God's heart for people. Dig into the words of scripture. And then continue to fall in love with Jesus and grow deeper roots into your faith.
There are plenty of singers. Plenty of bands. Plenty of music in this world. What the Christian music industry needs is not another guy or girl or band singing half-hearted, cheesy, quite frankly embarrassing lyrics with no depth about our faith. What our industry needs is excellent, artisitic musicians, with deep lyrics. People with something real to say. Authentic followers of Christ writing music that inspires, challenges, draws others into worship, and brings hope and beauty to the world. We need genuine artists with genuine love for Jesus. Not pop stars.
Fall in love with Jesus. Bloom where you are planted. Write songs and then write some more songs. Play shows. Go viral. Be professional. Make a good demo. Contact people to listen to the demo online. Hand it off to an artist. If you are truly gifted, put yourself in environments where people can hear you (camp electric, talent competitions). Play some more shows. Write some more music... And then keep living life-
so you have things to actually write about.
I have taken your questions and put them in thematic order. I will answer them over the next 5 weeks. So don't worry- if you asked something- it has not been lost on me. I will answer all the questions to the best of my ability! Thanks to Beth and so many others for putting your questions out there! I hope this series illuminates the in's and out's of our industry and answers some of your burning questions :)