After an upbeat pep talk to begin the year, it seems appropriate now to acknowledge what we all know:
Things do not always go as planned.
Have you noticed that? If you’ve tried any of the previously given tips on how to get your music out there, I’m pretty sure you’ve definitely noticed that as good as the ideas look on paper, they don’t always play out as well in real life. The truth is that the work of putting your music out into the industry is every bit as difficult as the creative work of writing songs and making records. And that’s pretty hard.
Unfortunately, most of us bring a lot more tenacity and determination to making the music than we do to selling it. It’s always interesting to watch musicians, who have spent countless lonely, isolated hours honing and refining their ability to play a musical instrument or to sing, then devote all of twenty minutes to researching potential contacts. Producers who will miss deadlines or blow out their budget to fix tiny flaws in a recording (which are probably noticeable only to them), will balk at spending money to attend a conference, or will choose to send out mass emails to A&R contacts, rather than personalized ones, in order to save a few minutes worth of work. Songwriters will work and rework one simple line in a hundred variations, but give up in despair when their first phone call attempt to an A&R person goes unreturned.
Be forewarned: no matter how strategically you approach it, getting your music out there will always be challenging. You will run into closed doors everywhere you turn. Everyone does. But somehow, each year, a handful of people do break through. We know then that it can be done. It’s simply a case of trying every possible avenue until you find the one that works. So, to conclude a series of blogs on “How To Get Your Music Heard”, here’s three ideas of how to trouble-shoot when your sales approach isn’t working. Most importantly, don’t panic and don’t get discouraged. This problem is no harder than learning to play an instrument, finding the perfect title, or figuring out why your Protools isn’t working. When your first approach fails…
1. Check your connections.
The most common response you’ll hear when trying to get someone in the industry to listen to your music is this:
Our company does not allow us to accept unsolicited material at this time.
Welcome to the dead zone, from which most songwriters and publishers never return. Indeed, that’s part of the reason for such a policy. By its nature it will eliminate at least 50% of the people trying to call the company. Most will just give up.
Don’t give up. At the same time, don’t get mad– as irritating as it obviously is. The person who is telling you this is telling you the truth. Almost every major music company has an official policy, drafted by the corporate lawyers, that no A&R person is ALLOWED to accept material that is “unsolicited”, which is to say, from someone the A&R person doesn’t know. This is to protect companies from the very real threat of lawsuits, launched by amateur songwriters who are sure that their song was stolen by a superstar act. An A&R person who violates the policy and suddenly finds himself or herself at the center of a lawsuit could very likely lose their job.
The best way around this obstacle is to get out of the category of “someone the A&R person doesn’t know”. You need a connection. If you can drop the name of a lawyer, your ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC writer rep, another songwriter or producer who the A&R person has worked with, a friend in a different department of the company, or an established manager, booking agent, or radio programmer who is recommending you, you are now no longer “unsolicited”. This is the cover that the A&R person needs to be in compliance with company policy. It’s also the test you need to pass in order to make the person on the other end of the phone believe that it’s worth his or her time to speak with you.
If you’re getting the “unsolicited” line, then it’s time to go back and figure out who on your team (lawyer, manager, writer rep, songwriting buddies, studio engineer or owner, gear salesman, friends, etc.) might know the person you’re calling and be willing to refer you. If no one on your team can help, see if they know a friend of a friend of the person you’re calling. If you’re still unconnected, then you need to expand your team. Figure out who might be able to get to the music weasel you’re after, and go after that new person, starting the whole process over again.
I didn’t say it was easy.
2. Check your levels.
The second most common issue, after the “no unsolicited material” roadblock, is “nothing”. That is, total silence. Unreturned phone calls. Unanswered emails. The big freeze-out. You’re trying to get your music out there, and it seems there’s no “there” there.
Again, don’t get mad. Remember– just because you want someone to hear your music does not lay an obligation on the other person to take your call or listen to what you send. The person on the other end of the phone is being given priorities and duties by his or her boss, and they probably don’t include speaking with you. This is especially true as you move up the corporate ladder, and start trying to reach out to the higher-ranking executives on the A&R staff.
Most major record labels do have people that are searching for the next “developing” star– the hot, unknown songwriter or the undiscovered artist. But they are junior A&R people– not Sr. Vice-Presidents. The more elevated executives are supposed to be devoting their time to the superstars that are already signed and paying the bills. The same is true in major publishing companies and management firms. If you don’t yet have a track record or the calling card of a current “hit”, you will probably not have much luck reaching the Big Weasel. But that’s not who you need anyway, nor is that the person that needs you. You want to speak to the hungry, ambitious, excited, 22 year old kid that works for the Big Weasel and who wants more than anything to discover the talent that no one else knows about yet. This is how the kid will eventually become the Big Weasel. It is also how you will eventually get a returned phone call.
If you’re hitting a wall, it may be that you’re aiming too high. Adjust your aim one or two levels down the corporate pecking order, and you might find an open door.
3. Check your sound.
I know it will come as a shock, but some people may simply not like what you do. They have that right. In fact, if what you do is reasonably stylized, quirky, or clever, you can be sure that most people in the industry will not quite get it. Sony dropped Alicia Keys. Jive dropped Kid Rock. Lady Gaga is already on her second record deal. The fact that some people don’t like what you do might mean that there’s a problem with your music– you’ll have to determine how to address that. But it also might mean that you simply don’t have the right match between your sound and the person listening. There’s no accounting for taste–and you don’t have to. All you have to do is find the person whose taste is suited to your music.
As a veteran of the music industry, one of the few advantages that I enjoy is that I have begun to understand the likes and dislikes of the people to whom I’m pitching music. This means that a huge part of my job is simply knowing how to match a particular song, a new artist, or a producer with the people in the industry who will “get it”, whatever that “it” is. If I hear a great Swedish style pop song, I know to send it to Jive Records or Syco, and not to Island/Def Jam. If I’ve discovered a new female singer/songwriter or a Triple A band, it’s going to fit better for Chop Shop than Activision. Much of song-pitching is not how you send it out, but who you send it to. If you’re not getting results, it may simply be that you haven’t matched your sound with the correct listener.
4. Check your options.
Every office has multiple entrances. There is always an alternate way into any project. Persistence is vital, but persistently beating on a closed door will not make it open. The good kind of persistence is the kind that knocks on a door once, twice, maybe a third time… and then circles around the back, and goes in the side entrance. If an A&R person refuses your “unsolicited material”, try the artist manager. Many managers are one or two person companies, and thus have far fewer corporate “policies” that have to be respected. If the manager won’t respond, try the producer. If that proves to be a dead end, just keep searching– try the artist directly on MySpace or Facebook, or a friend of the artist, or the recording engineer, or the fashion stylist. Whatever crazy idea you have, I promise you, someone has tried something stranger. Not quitting doesn’t mean picking one person and torturing them until they listen to your song. It means searching for every possible person to torture. Just joking. But it does mean that you never stop looking for another way to approach the project that you’re targeting.
I hope the little series we’ve done on “Getting Your Music Out” has been helpful. I know in the opening paragraph of this blog, I compared the challenge of selling your music to making it– and in many ways the two things are quite similar. But in a few important ways, they’re as different as night and day. You know that rush you feel when you play a great guitar solo, or come up with the perfect hook line for a song? You’ll probably never get that feeling when you’re pitching music. It just doesn’t have that kind of reward. Instead, you get rejection followed by rejection followed by a slight glimmer of hope.
But here’s the thing: if you don’t do it, nothing happens. No stranger is going to find a song hiding on your hard drive and decide to put it on the radio. You’re going to have to make that happen. That’s the point of my book, “Making Music Make Money”. The only thing that can move your career ahead is if someone else hears your music and wants to buy it, sell it, perform it, or help you to do one of those three things. That won’t happen if the song never leaves your home studio.
If you haven’t made your New Year’s Resolution yet, here’s one: resolve to spend one hour pitching songs for every five hours writing or recording them. Get your music out there, and let’s see what happens…