There are thousands of unsigned producers out there generating hordes of new music every week. It’s a constant torrential downpour of creation, like a million snowflakes falling to the homogenized blanket of white below, and with this unprecedented saturation, specifically in electronic music, comes an increasingly competitive climate. Opportunities may arise to join a genre movement or sound craze, but fast fame is only available to a select few. How does Ted from El Paso get discovered by Mad Decent? What can Jessica from Buffalo do to rise above her peers and show Fool’s Gold she has something unforgettable to offer? Where does Jim need to hone his technique to get on the radar of OWSLA or NEST?
While a simple, cure-all answer to these questions is impractical, there are steps that every aspiring producer, songwriter, and musician can take to increase quality, visibility, and, ultimately, the possibility of getting music heard and signed. To provide a comprehensive understanding of these best practices, NEST HQ spoke with the A&Rs of some of electronic music’s most sought after labels – Paul Devro of Mad Decent, Nick Catchdubs of Fool’s Gold, and OWSLA’s Drew Gold & Jake Millar – all of whom shared unique insight into how and why they sign records to their respective imprints.
Think of this more like a reference guide rather than a bible. Music is an art, and art is wholly subjective. But read and actualize these pointers from some of dance music’s finest ears and you may find your tunes signed to their labels or any of the numerous other quality imprints out there. At the very least, it’ll give you a leg up on the hundreds of other submissions these A&Rs dig through every day.
Unless you have a previous relationship with a label, you’re going to have to email A&Rs and submit demos fully cold. While this is usually the least likely way to get signed — the A&Rs from all three labels admitted to a low number of past releases emerging from completely random email submissions — there is proper etiquette to making first contact (for an exhaustive guide on how to properly send emails within the music industry, read Nathan Beer’s brilliant How To on that here). Here are some specific tips direct from the guys:
I think that the biggest thing that people tend to get caught up on is sending too much. Just sort of going from 0 to press kit before I’ve even gotten to know their names. If you are cold calling us, just be honest and positive and straight-forward. A lot of times I’ll get emails from random kids that take this pitch-man tone almost immediately, and it’s like, “I don’t know you, we’ve never met before, don’t tell me industry buzzwords about the stuff that you have going on.” A lot of people do this thing where they’re like, “We’ve had interest from Mad Decent and OWSLA but you’re our favorite label, so I wanted to offer it to you first.” That’s so gross! The reality is that when you introduce yourself to someone you don’t give them your job title first, you start with, “Hey, I’m Bill, I make music, here’s some music I’m excited about, here’s a link, and here’s how you can contact me.” That’s all you need to do. I like the short and sweet approach.
— Nick Catchdubs, Fool’s Gold Records
If you’ve sent me a demo once, don’t send it again. Send music with an easy way to access it, like a non-downloadable, private stream link. Also, sometimes I’ll get an email that says, “Hey, I’m looking for a good place to send you guys demos.” There’s this email here you’re on, just send it. If someone finds my personal email, they’ll think it’s good etiquette to ask about sending demos, but you should just send them anyway.
— Paul Devro, Mad Decent
According to Nick, Paul, Drew, and Jake, this is by far the most important. Of course, originality is a no-brainer. When you make something different, you stand out. But more often than not, many emerging producers fall into the trap of following trends, limiting risk, and establishing themselves as a derivative of someone else who has “made it”. This isn’t to say that working within popular genres is frowned upon. Make all the future bass and trap you want, but if you’re relying heavily on other producers’ presets or samples or imitating specific songs because they got signed to your favorite label, you’re doing it wrong. Those records have already been signed, heard, and processed. Labels are not looking to double up or feel stale.
The first thing I listen for when going through submissions is the feeling / emotion / story behind the track. The second thing I think about is if it sounds like anyone (have I heard this song before?). I get excited when an artist has a unique sound and vision. The next step is creating a universe where that art lives. Wiwek is the perfect example with jungle terror. I love that world!
— Drew Gold, OWSLA
The biggest thing is sending something that is totally original. If something sounds really different and cool, I’ll entertain any submission. But the amount of trap records/songs that are just builds…over 90% of the songs I receive I could just email back and say, “Hey, I know that you copied such and such song.” If I can hear the influence in it, it makes me bored. We had the song “Gettin That” from Dirty Audio and maybe half of my demo submissions are in that same exact vibe/sound. It’s not like that song was a huge charting record, but producers love making stuff that sounds like that right now. It’s an epidemic.
— Paul Devro, Mad Decent
Honestly, first thing I notice when going through demos is the way a record makes me feel or react. That’s before the mixdown, before the sound design, before the arrangement, who is on the vocals, etc. We’ll be in one of our weekly listening sessions, plugging through some less exciting records, just sitting there, listening. Then something crazy will come on and it’s like the whole team just caught fire. That’s when you know you might have something. Equally as important to me is the creativity behind the record. Does it follow trends, or is it pushing boundaries? We could sign music that sounds on trend all day, but what’s that going to do for music?
— Jake Millar, OWSLA
Imagine you’re cooking dinner for your boyfriend or girlfriend’s parents for the first time. When it comes to chicken parm, pasta, and salad, you are confident, believe in your abilities, and know without a doubt that this is the very best meal you could make for this important situation. For dessert, on the other hand, your only move is a runny, undercooked bread pudding. It’d be much better to just nail the appetizer and dinner rather than blow the whole thing with a shitty dessert, right? Moral of this hypothetical: send only your best stuff; the stuff you believe is the most accurate representation of you. The stuff you would actually listen to and never get sick of. Why put yourself at an unnecessary disadvantage?
I think in any venture in life, you should always put your best foot forward. I would never send someone material that I didn’t feel was ready for primetime. There’s something to be said about taking the time to do something right. Is this really good enough? Is this really finished? I always encourage people to take a day or two without listening to it before sending it over. Listen to it again with fresh ears. I don’t need something the second it’s bounced out of your Ableton, I would hope that you’ve sat with it a little bit and really thought about it before blasting it into the world. I also think that it’s better to get one song or two, rather than 12 demos. Why don’t you just send me the one that you’re really psyched on or that you think would be a good fit for us?
— Nick Catchdubs, Fool’s Gold
BE PATIENT. You don’t have to send over all your WIP’s at once. You’re going to be much more effective if you send one, totally finished, record that you know is a smash.
— Jake Millar, OWSLA
A good mixdown stands out a lot. If it just sounds really lush and finished vs harsh, it means a lot. Sound quality right away is really important. If I listen to something that starts thin, it’s hard for me to say, “I’m going to keep listening to this.” When you’re listening to so much music, you need something to grab you right away.
— Paul Devro, Mad Decent
PERSONALITY and WORK ETHIC
A good record label, at the end of the day, is much more than a platform to release music. It’s a family, a creative space, a vehicle for improvement and collaboration. In cases like OWSLA, Mad Decent, and Fool’s Gold, there’s a positive tribe mentality; girls and guys all doing different things individually while pushing together toward a common goal. When reaching out to a label, you’re in some ways offering to become a part of its family; and the way you present your music can be just as important as the music itself. To put it simply, don’t be a dick. Don’t feel entitled, and don’t try to be someone you’re not. Be humble and open-minded, be assertive yet aware, and project yourself in public and on social media the same way you do in your studio.
To me, the artists’ personality is actually just as important as their creativity in songwriting. You can have the most creative and forward-thinking record ever, but if you’re an asshole no one’s gonna wanna support you, much less put that shit out.
– Jake Millar, OWSLA
If what you love to make isn’t in the vein of trap/house bangers, then you shouldn’t be making that. You have to make the music that naturally comes out of you. The people that really build up and get big are the ones that do their own thing. Maybe your sound isn’t going to be super popular, but then that’s the not path you’re supposed to be on.
– Paul Devro, Mad Decent
I think that it just boils down to being honest and straightforward. Don’t become this Hollywood wolf guy when you’re just this producer kid in Colorado somewhere. If someone is a dick, whether that’s in real life interaction or via social media, I’m turned off by that. We embrace positivity in what we do. If you’re just out there constantly complaining or shitting on people, it is going to make me pause for a second before thinking, “Hey, let’s do a follow up release with this guy.” It boils down to being honest. It’s not like the people that we’ve released with have crafted some sort of “idea” of who they are. We release their music because they know who they are.
– Nick Catchdubs, Fool’s Gold
So there you have it. If you’re serious about making music as your profession or passion, take these wise words to heart and maybe one of these guys just might end up signing your records one day. Hopefully this piece will get you one step closer to that.
Special Thanks to Paul Devro, Nick Catchdubs, Drew Gold, and Jake Millar