Since you've asked me, the owner of the lowly but scrappy Bloodshot Records what we look for in a new artist, and not David Geffen or the CEO-of-the-month at DynaMusic TechNet Global LTD, I will assume that we all understand my advice and taste and goals all come from the staunchly independent perspective. We don't have to worry about shareholders or making sure the CFO's housekeepers at the Caribbean island getaway are paid, nor do we deal with pie charts, Venn diagrams, oily A&R men and focus groups. We don't care how many MySpace friends you have (I actually heard some VP flack at SXSWsay somewhat haughtily into his cell that he doesn't even LISTEN to a band unless they have x number of friends on their MySpace page). I am a lifelong music fan who got lucky and gets to put out records I like for a living.
To start, there are a few questions you need to ask yourselves before even approaching a label. What are your goals? Expectations? Be brutally honest with yourselves. Why do you even want to make a record? Seriously. It seems like a basic question but one that needs to be asked. Is it for fun? Vanity? Cuz it'd be "neat" to have one? Because you sell out the local watering hole and everyone gets drunk and has a grand time? That's great, I love bands like that, but put the record out on your own and be happy to sell a few hundred. If you have a full time job, familial responsibilities and no intention or ability to do the road work, leave us out of it; be content to play for local friends and fans, there's no shame in that.
If you look to the label deal as a magic bullet for your band, think again. Countless bands over the years have told us in effect "once we have the deal and are selling records we'll be willing to go on the road and support," or "we are ready to finish our songs once we have an agreement. "Thinking that the label deal puts you on your way is like thinking that putting some greasepaint under your nose makes you Groucho Marx.
Making a living in this racket is hard, dirty work; nothing can replace that. You need to have the confidence, arrogance and awareness to overcome the unceasing obstacles that'll come your way. Oh, and it's not a meritocracy, either; many a great band gets shunted aside in favor of some couch potato-friendly pablum. The septic tank metaphor (usually only the really big chunks rise to the top) is all too apropos. What we are looking for is a band or an artist that HAS to create, HAS to perform, that is committed to their art regardless. We want to see an unstoppable drive. We cannot care about your career more than you do, nor should anything like a lack of a label prevent you from your craft.
Okay, you've answered all the above questions truthfully and determined that you, yes YOU have the goods and the guts to pursue this, how do you then get the attention of a label? The one and true and all encompassing answer to that is quite easy: be good. We have to LIKE the music. We have to totally believe in what you are doing and get behind it 100%. We have to be able to care enough about it to evangelize when no one is listening, to work on its behalf in the face of commercial indifference, and fight trench warfare. Life is too short, and staying in business in the venal snake pit that is the music industry is too grinding, maddening and frustrating to go to the mat for something that you just don't like very much.
It's as simple as that.
If that sounds too glib or too vague, let me explain lest ye get too discouraged by your inner-voice yelling "How the hell should I know what they like?" Indie labels are, by their very nature, products of their owners' idiosyncrasies. Since we don't have to answer to anyone but our own whims, it is in your best interest to do your research BEFORE sending music--you would hate to end up on a label that doesn't "get" you or doesn't care deeply or wouldn't know how to effectively promote you just for the sake of having a deal.
To whit, think of several bands that track well with what you do, or artists you've admired or been influenced by. Are there any labels or outlooks on the biz or attitudes that tie them together? If so, follow the leads. Learn about your prospective mate. I mean, really, you don't Internet date without seeing the picture first, right? Without finding out some pertinent details? If they describe themselves as a Masterpiece Theater watching animal lover and you are a snuff film watching dog-fighting impresario you wouldn't go and get married would you? All I ask is that you put at least as much care into a potential artistic partnership with a label as you do finding a date.
From this basic research, you should be able to find a manageable list of labels to intelligently approach. I'll stack my love of Motörhead against anyone's but that's just not what we do. If that is what you do, DON'T send us a CD anyway with the attitude of "yeah, but WE can be the exception;" it's just a waste of your resources and time. I have filled a dumpster with such "exceptions."
Once you have whittled down your A-list of labels, what should you send? Back to the first point, send the BEST you've got to offer. Don't be clever with sequencing or packaging. Thick packages with quotations of lofty praise from the Traverse City Nurses College Gazette and the door guy from Cooter's Bar who thinks you rule, or lists of bands you've "shared the stage with" (we ALL know that means "opened for") are annoying fluff and promptly get recycled. Fancy vellum cover sheets sent by a lawyer REALLY get shuffled to the bottom of the pile. Don't tell me who has influenced you. Hell, Rush influenced me as much as the Cramps. One influenced me to shave my head and start digging around for Charlie Feathers records, and the other influenced me to never like drum solos or go to arena shows--they almost turned me off Canadians altogether (but John Candy brought me back to my senses).
Truthfully, it's a crapshoot that we'll even listen to it at all. It may sit in a box for two years, or it might only get noticed because of an obscure reference to Raising Arizona in the bio. Just the other day I opened a package that had nothing but a CD and a hand written note on a torn scrap of paper that said "Rocks" and a myspace address. Turns out it was just some Iowa Doom Metal, but still, I listened. Again, the maddening and endearing vagaries of the indie world. Don't let it get you down.
What to do in the face of this? Continue on. Don't wait for us. Keep playing. Learn something from every show. Develop your material and hone your live show. Come to Chicago and let us know. Nothing gets things rolling faster than a killer live show. Get on the bill with our other bands when they come to your town and impress the hell out of them. Have them pass along another CD to us. Walk that thin line between persistence and annoyance. Nothing is more attractive to a label than a band whose music we love who comes to us with a built in fan base and a massive email list, a track record with clubs, accumulated goodwill from folks in their town or region and an organically created sense of momentum.
With all this said, and with all the caveats and limitations endemic in a tough environment, it always goes back to point one: if we love it, we will ignore all the common sense in the world and all our own rules and figure out a way to make it work. We have always regretted it when we didn't. Heart over brains. It's what makes independent music so great.
Since co-founding Bloodshot Records in Chicago in 1994,co-owner Rob Miller has dirtied his hands in all aspects of keeping anindependent label afloat in a world beset by American Idol, illegal downloadingand a collapsing economy. Before that helived in and around Detroit where he was a middling music writer, college DJand Production Manager catering to the demands of everyone from GWAR to the PetShop Boys.