I've had a somewhat fairy tale ride in that I've been at Astralwerks/Caroline for 13 years now; I literally started in the trenches doing college-radio promotion. That was a natural segue because I had been at WVFS in Tallahassee, Fla. (a great college station), played in and managed bands and generally lived the indie life in college. Over the course of the following years, I moved into commercial radio, project management, marketing and promotion, eventually becoming the label manager and ending up in my current gig as general manager of Astralwerks. From my various experiences, I can relay some advice to artists looking for a label deal.
Who can contact you to make pitches on artists? Managers? Entertainment lawyers?
Actually, Astralwerks accepts demos, and we listen to tons of them every week. But we also do get music from lawyers, booking agents, etc. all the time.
What is an effective way to contact an A&R person? What's an effective pitch? A good package to send?
First of all, know the label that you are approaching. A lot of what we receive is just not at all appropriate, and if someone paid attention to what we do, they'd know that. So commercial country music, classical, etc…. It's not really a logical way to spend one's time sending us that type of music.
Then there's presentation: Without question, great music should break through, but sending a cassette — I can't believe we still get those — or a CD with a loose-leaf piece of paper that has a few titles scrawled on it doesn't say great things about you. The bands that succeed have a vision, and it's important to convey that vision in some way, if at all possible, that correlates to the music itself.
Most importantly, there's the music. Most labels seem to prefer your three best songs or whatever, but if you actually have an album's worth of cohesive and compelling music, go ahead and make that statement. Astralwerks isn't really a singles label, meaning that we like to focus on long-term careers from artists that have a deep and exciting agenda, musically. Sometimes I'll get a disc with one song — the only song the person has — and a note that says, “What do you think?” Well, unless it's literally mind-blowing, there's not really much to think.
How can a band pique the interest of a label such as Astralwerks? Previous small-label deals? Tours? A great live show? National releases? A big buzz in the industry? Any advice for artists on how to build up the buzz without looking like hustlers?
If you are making music first and foremost to be rich and famous, it probably shows in your music — and not in a good way. Originality and innovation in musical thinking — even when it's in the confines of major influences — is crucial. Again, many labels are looking for the next song that can win, and they'll figure out the rest of the album later, but that's not our bag. Showing that you are self-starters who have developed a fan base thanks to hard work and great music is an immense selling point for all labels. But for labels like Astralwerks, that's crucial. Starting from point zero with an artist — especially one that thinks a record company can just flip a switch and make it happen — that's not reality.
When an artist signs with a label like Astralwerks, how can the new relationship between the artist and label go smoothly? What should the artist do or not do?
Well, ideally the number-one driver of success in this area is trust. And hopefully, if you are signing with a label, you have some semblance of that. If you feel that the relationship is governed by your manager having to be a full-time bastard, with everyone looking over each other's shoulders suspiciously, then you've got worries. Transparency is the key: If you can get to a place where your record company tells you the truth always, and you reciprocate, that's perfect. But you have to be prepared to believe and accept it if the news isn't good. Lots of artists complain until they hear what they want to hear, and then when it all unravels, they don't know why. The reason why is that you weren't dealing in reality.
It's important to have a real team — management, label, booking agent, etc. — that works in tandem together, helping each other instead of criticizing, sharing the same vision and goals. If you've got that, then you'll at least be able to feel that the best that could have been achieved is what actually happened.
Throughout your career, have you made any mistakes in signing bands that you wish you hadn't made? How do you choose and negotiate with bands today as opposed to when you first started?
I think that every day we all learn important lessons about deal making and signing acts, but I don't regret a single signing. Every artist had something special to say, and even if the success disappointed in the long run, I stand by the acts' music.
I can say that issues like addiction, egomania, absurd expectations and combative managers can definitely sink a deal for me. The Astralwerks team works too passionately to be abused or treated with abject cynicism by anyone, frankly.
My philosophy in signing acts is linked 100 percent to all the thinking above. Is there a competent, enthusiastic team in place? Does the artist actually understand what is necessary to be successful? Is the artist productive? Do they like touring? Do they have their feet on the ground in the crucial areas that make a relationship work? But the beginning and end is always: Does the music move us? Does it speak to us in a way that's special?