Despite unprecedented DIY methods of forging a successful music career, there’s still no shortage of artists and bands looking to get signed to a label. Likewise, there is no shortage of MC readers thirsting for insights into exactly how signings occur and what artists can do to make one happen. Of all the Signing Stories we published this year (approximately 50 in all) here are the 10 that truly stand out—not always due to the artists’ subsequent commercial success, but because of the important lessons that their stories convey about perseverance, work ethic, networking smarts and good timing.
Date Signed: 2017
Label: Island Records
Type of Music: Alternative
Management: Kate McLaughlin
Booking: Mike Marquis - Paradigm Agency
Legal: Jodie Shihadeh - The Davis Firm
Publicity: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
A&R: Jackie Winkler - Island Records
Thinking of going to Hollywood to become a star? Musicians often dream of being discovered there through gigs and showcases. That dream eventually became a reality for British singer-songwriter Sarah Grace McLaughlin, best known by her stage name Bishop Briggs. After growing up in Japan and falling in love with karaoke bars, the singer moved to LA to pursue a career in music.
“I think everyone has the perception that the minute you land in Los Angeles you will get signed and someone will discover you as you’re coming off the plane.” Briggs recalls.
That was not the case for the songstress. Briggs attended Musicians Institute in the heart of Hollywood and she focused on performing after graduating with an Associate’s Degree in vocal performance. “I tried to write as much as I could, I played shows every couple of nights, wherever I could and wherever I was let in.”
By chance, she was invited by a friend to perform at a songwriters roundtable where she caught the attention of former A&R representative George Robertson. “George was actually there to see a different artist and luckily he came up to me afterwards,” she says. “He introduced me to two producers and within a month “Wild Horses” was written and got a placement in an Acura commercial for the Super Bowl.”
The song entered the top 30 on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart and top 13 on the Billboard Twitter Emerging Artist charts. That was when Briggs signed with Island Records.
“It seemed as though they are truly passionate about the artists they work with,” she says. “They are so committed and seem to have a true passionate relationship with all of their artists, so that was a sign that I felt was undeniable about them.”
Through Island, Briggs released her debut album Church of Scars on April 20––a project that was two and a half years in the making.
Date Signed: January 2015
Label: 300 Entertainment
Type of Music: R&B
Management: Dirk Hemsath, email@example.com
Booking: Bruce Solar, firstname.lastname@example.org
A&R: Pete Giberga - 300 Entertainment
There are no guarantees of success once you’ve signed your label deal. In fact, most signed artists do not succeed; many are dropped from the label. And having fallen short, a few are too shaken to regroup and give it another try. But some, like Chuck Adams, find it within themselves to reboot, restore and revive.
Adams thought he’d made it after penning a hit Ludacris song in 2008. The attention got him signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation. By 2011, he was rubbing shoulders with Ne-Yo, Beyonce and Rihanna.
Then he got dropped. “I was just hurt,” admits the rapper, formerly known as Range. “I took it personally, because these are people I was hugging every day.” So hurt was Adams that he didn’t even allow the label to explain its reasoning for letting him go.
Instead, he moved from New York to Nashville and reinvented himself. The dark R&B that came out was nothing like his previous sound. Counter-intuitively, it’s getting dropped, he says, that turned him into a true artist.
A friend introduced his music to another friend, who in turn took it to 300 Entertainment. The independent label’s head of A&R, Pete Giberga, witnessed his performance at local venue The Basement and expressed interest. The deal became official in 2015.
As someone who’d stopped seeking a label, Adams acknowledges there’s no single path to finding a partner. Getting signed remains a personal journey. “Just roll the dice,” he instructs, “because you never know.”
Date Signed: N/A
Label: Big Machine Records / John Varvatos Records
Type of Music: Rock
Management: Jesse Beer, The MGMT Company
Booking: Andrew Buck, APA
Legal: Doug Mark
Publicity: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
A&R: Julian Raymond
Rock quartet Badflower first graced the pages of Music Connection in 2014 when they scored a deal with the indie label Hundred Handed. Fast-forward four years later and the band signed with Big Machine Label Group and John Varvatos Records.
In fact, Badflower was the first artist to ink with the label under the partnership between Big Machine Label Group honcho Scott Borchetta and fashion designer John Varvatos.
Badflower has had an interesting relationship with Varvatos. While the band was still with an indie label and relatively unknown, Varvatos featured a Badflower song in one of his fashion shows during New York Fashion Week.
“When we saw that happen we discovered that he was starting his own record label,” says frontman Josh Katz about Varvatos’ other endeavors. Eventually Badflower showcased for Varvatos, got along really well and signed a deal with his Republic Records-associated imprint. When Varvatos left Republic for Big Machine, it became a no-brainer to come along for the ride.
“It made sense. ‘Let’s go follow John,’ because he’s been the champion for our band this whole time,” Katz says.
The signing was entirely painless and has so far paid off. The first single under the new label, “Ghost,” claimed the #1 spot on the Active Rock Radio Mediabase Chart. In 2019, they’ll be joining Nothing More’s The Truth Tour and will release an album, OK, I’m Sick, in Feb. 2019.
When asked what helped the band the most during the signing, Katz says, “Find the most passionate staff. Don’t worry about which label has the most money, which label has the most credibility, just find passionate people, because those are the people who are going to propel your career forward.”
Date Signed: October 2014
Label: RCA Inspiration
Band Members: Dee-1
Type of Music: Hip-hop
Management: Marlin Hollins
Booking: Marlin Hollins
Legal: Marlin Hollins
Publicity: Tasha Stoute, Strong Arm Media
A&R: Jeremy Castro
New Orleans-based Dee-1 started rapping in high school and upped his game when he left school in 2008, but it was in 2010 that he really started taking it seriously and figured out that he just might be able to forge a career. He’s been remarkably prolific, putting out 11 mixtapes and one independently released album since then, but his record deal with major label RCA has taken him to another level entirely.
“It’s cool that I established my own lane––that’s the exciting part. I’m not worried about trying to ride on the coattails of what’s hot at the moment. I just try to my own thing, and it’s proving to be the best route to take.”
Dee says that his deal with RCA came about simply because of his own hustling––he was attracting so much attention by making so much noise that a number of labels were interested in signing him, all of whom he met with, and he was able to pick the one that he felt most comfortable with.
“The meeting with RCA felt the best in terms of the energy and the ability for me to actually be in control of my destiny creatively, and that’s what I wanted,” he says. “I just want a larger platform than what I can provide for myself. That’s why I partnered with them.”
That partnership began with Slingshot David (The Album), a record of which Dee says he fought with everything in him to ensure that no part of the artistic vision was compromised. It’s a concept album, taking the parable of David defeating Goliath with a slingshot and applying that to real-life struggles and obstacles.
“Your Goliath can be anything from poverty, to racism and discrimination to community violence to depression, anxiety and things of this nature,” Dee says. “You have to identify your slingshot. I’ve had my ups and downs but I discovered what my slingshot is. Once you’ve figured that out, all of a sudden you don’t feel like an underdog. Life doesn’t feel so intimidating anymore, because you know what you can defeat Goliath with.”
Date Signed: October 2017
Label: Republic of Music
Band Members: Kenneth Frost, lead vocals, keyboards; Dave North, guitar, backing vocals; Eric Ross, bass; Cole Koenning, drums
Type of Music: Psychedelic Rock/Rock
Management: Maria Hoppe - One Step Management, email@example.com
Booking: Kenneth Frost, firstname.lastname@example.org
Having someone who will advocate for you––persistently but politely hound the industry’s gate-keepers to check out your music––is so important. In our Signing Story on English band The Cuckoos, we learned once again about the importance of a persistent manager. Mark McQuillan, Republic of Music’s managing director attended a summer concert by The Cuckoos only because the band’s manager, Maria Hoppe, suggested the distributor check out the fledgling group.
The unsigned psych rockers had only been together for three years, yet they’d garnered kudos from outlets like Relix and Classic Rock Magazine. Given their manager’s recommendation of Republic of Music, the decision to work with the record distribution company was easy. “We looked at some of the artists on their roster and others who’ve worked with them in the past,” says lead singer Kenneth Frost. “And it’s important that they’re based out of the UK It’s important to reach people here in the US, but doing a distribution deal got things going in other parts of the world.” Once the contract was in motion, they let Hoppe handle the details.
Frost’s advice for artists emphasizes finding balance between music and commerce. “The creativity part is the most important, of course,” he opines, “but you can’t forget about the business side of things. You’ve got to get up in the morning and sell yourself to people every day.”
Date Signed: July 2017
Label: Interscope Records
Type of Music: Alt-Rock
Ever wonder whether a change of location will rejuvenate you as a music-maker? For the artist now known as SUR (multi-instrumentalist/producer Zack Arnett) getting outta town proved to be just what he needed to fully unleash the next phase of his creativity, music he calls “native electric.” He created this music on a nomadic journey through some of California’s wildest spaces. Frustrated by the confines of Los Angeles, the Northern California-bred artist built a makeshift studio in back of a friend’s RV and set out on a two-month journey.
Arnett has previously been toiling to make a living doing music for the past 10 years. After finding some success as an indie artist with the hip-hop group Ostrich Head, he spearheaded the alt/indie band Fire in the Hamptons for five years, releasing the album F.I.T.H in 2012.
Arnett’s girlfriend Gara Gambucci, a top stylist whose clients have included Madonna, sent his music to her friend Dyana Kass, who then worked in marketing at Interscope. Kass loved the band’s live show, and when she left Interscope to form Novateur Entertainment, she became Arnett’s band’s manager. She maintained her full support for Arnett even when the band split a short time later.
When he emerged from his RV trip with fresh new music, Kass shared some of that and his Fire in the Hamptons songs with her former colleague at Interscope, Tony Seyler, the VP of Film & TV Marketing. “Angel Bones,” as Arnett calls Seyler, liked the material and helped him hook up a deal with Pulse Music Publishing. Seyler then asked the artist to give him a full recording of songs like “Lean Back” and “Make It Till Morning.” Arnett signed with Interscope as SUR after he had completed the full EP of Savage Beast, his label debut.
“Tony saw in me what I didn’t see,” Arnett says, “an artist who could be touring all over the world. Dyana was always championing me, but I needed that second voice to go full force. I think it’s great to start a career as a DIY artist, but once you’ve been on your own a long time, you realize the value of having a solid team behind you, with a great vision for what this could become.”
Date Signed: Fall 2017
Label: Virgin Records
Band Members: Manny and Landa
Type of Music: Rhythmic Pop
Management: J. Hill - email@example.com
Legal: Damien Granderson, firstname.lastname@example.org
A&R: David Wolter
We at Music Connection love it when music creators realize the benefits of making music just for the fun of it, with absolutely no strings, deadlines or obligations attached.
That’s what struck us about the Signing Story of this rhythmic pop duo PANDA$, formed in New York in 2016 when longtime friends Manny and Landa witnessed the wisdom of collaboration. Manny came to the partnership as an industry veteran, a fulfilled Warner deal already to his name while Landa brought production credits. The pair worked casually yet highly focused as they brainstormed over the past 18 months in pursuit of nothing more than authentic expression, artistic gratification.
“About a year and a half ago, I got out of my deal with Warner,” Manny recalls. “Me and my homeboy [Landa] started to record music just for fun. It was literally about what we were feeling right then. No censorship, no anything. We just wanted to get in a room and write music that we loved. That’s all we did, 12 hours a day.”
A number of songs resulted, not the least of which was the single “PARI$,” which features Toronto rapper Jute$. “Some friends came by, listened to our music and said, ‘Yo, this is dope,’” Manny continues. Fortunately, those friends had connections and the relationship soon morphed into one of manager-client. “They showed [our music] to some labels and two weeks later we were in the offices of Capitol/Virgin. It’s quite hilarious because in my last deal, I tried so long to make it happen. It didn’t. In this one, we didn’t try at all. We just kept it real and ended up in this great situation.”
Date Signed: 2014
Label: Verve Forecast
Band Members: Ben Lusher,
Richard Saunders, Elliot Skinner
Type of Music: Pop/R&B/Soul
Management: Marc Johnston
Legal: Ted Harris - Grubman Shire Meiselas & Sacks, P.C
A&R: Karen Kwak; Dahlia Ambach-Caplin
Talking with the members of Thirdstory, we learned the importance of truly engaging with fans over time. And their label gave the YouTube cover-songs stars quite a bit of time to develop before releasing their first album of original material.
“We’ve come of age as a band in an era when the music industry is rapidly changing,” explains singer-songwriter Ben Lusher. “It was really great finally getting the chance to dive in and figure out our sound without any restrictions, having full access to different musicians and connections outside of our own community.”
“The first time working with Malay was almost a magical experience for us,” adds Richard Saunders. “It’s important to try molding your own team and making use of the resources you have to the depth of your ability––always show them your worth.”
Released in March, Cold Heart is Thirdstory’s first full-length album embracing a harmonious collection of original melodies and smoldering lyricism. Now it is up to their loyal grassroots following, mostly just familiar with Thirdstory’s popular YouTube acoustic covers, to go along for the ride. And the guys are happy to oblige.
“When following a band on social media, I want it to feel like a personal experience,” says fellow singer-songwriter Elliot Skinner. “That’s something we focus on a lot––just making sure that when we’re existing in the [online] world, it’s us. What you’re seeing is real.”
Lusher would agree, and carries that same mentality onstage:
“Figuring out different moments and dynamics of a show has to do with range, and that leaves a lot of room for experimenting. We always want to make our shows a great emotional experience. We love those moments of crowd participation––it’s really moving and fun for us, which translates to the audience.”
Date Signed: January 2018
Band Members: ATG Metcalf, vocals; Garrett Weakley, bass; Addison Bracher, guitar; Phatbeatz Steve, drums
Label: InVogue Records
Type Of Music: Rap/Rock, NuMetal
Management: 3 Years Inc.
Legal: Wofford Denius
Publicity: Mike Cubillos, email@example.com
St. Louis rap-rock quartet Discrepancies weren’t even looking to be signed, but through their own sweat and smart self-promotion, the band’s music hit the right ears at the right time, via a workout playlist.
Explains bassist Garrett Weakley, “Our basic plan for 2017 was to figure out how many shows we could do out of town and manage to make a profit. [Then] Pricella at InVogue found us on Spotify.”
The band had sent their single to several streaming curators as well as Facebook tastemakers, asking them to promote the music to an audience who may need something to listen to in the gym. “We basically had been reaching out to a lot of people asking them to put us on their curated Spotify playlists,” continues Weakley. “Pricella sent our stuff over to Nick Moore, president of InVogue, who ended up inviting us to Ohio for a sit-down.” The band drove from St. Louis to Ohio on a Tuesday to sign on the dotted line.
When asked about his band’s path and any advice he’d offer fellow struggling artist-musicians, Weakley focused on positivity. “You can’t get too demoralized. It doesn’t help you reach your goals. It’s easy to beat yourself up if something doesn’t go the way you planned. Take things with a grain of salt and learn from it. … As cliche as it sounds, as one door closes another door opens. If Spotify hadn’t worked out for us, there are so many platforms out there that your music can be streamed [on]. You can see how well rappers are doing on SoundCloud.”
Discrepancies’ InVogue debut, The Awakening, dropped March 23 and, by no mistake, is available to stream on Spotify.
THE PO’ RAMBLIN’ BOYS
Date Signed: April 30, 2018
Label: Rounder Records
Type of Music: Bluegrass
Band Members: C.J. Lewandowski, vocals, mandolin; Jerome Brown, banjo, vocals; Josh Rinkel, guitar, vocals; Jasper Lorentzen, bass
Booking: Barron Ruth, firstname.lastname@example.org
Legal: George Clark Shifflett III, Gshifflett3@shifflettlegal.com
Publicity: Katie Keller, Katie@thepresshouse.com
A&R: Ken Irwin - Rounder Records
And, last but not least, here’s a band whose Signing Story wisdom is basically “make great music, enjoy yourself while doing it, and everything will basically take care of itself.”
It’s also a good idea to put yourself in front of the right people.
For bluegrass bands, there’s no better place to be seen than the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards. When The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys got nominated for a Momentum Award, everyone who could accelerate their career saw them. The morning of last year’s ceremony, a 20-minute spot in front of 500 of the genre’s biggest movers included Rounder Records co-founder Ken Irwin. “I remember seeing him and it scared the daylights out of me,” recalls lead singer and mandolin strummer C.J. Lewandowski.
Irwin tracked him down during the awards ceremony itself and expressed his desire to sign the band. Despite Rounder’s interest, the group was mulling over two other offers. Still, Irwin and fellow label creator Marian Leighton-Levy knelt with them in their hotel’s hallway and negotiated a prospective agreement. Months later, however, the band came close to inking with a different label, but had doubts. They abstained and, two days after witnessing their performance at Boston’s Joe Val Festival, Irwin made an official offer via conference call.
“Rounder was the only way to go,” reflects Lewandowski, noting the label’s storied history with bluegrass. They also knew Rounder could aid them in reaching the widest possible audience. Extracting themselves from their RandM Records arrangement proved no obstacle; CEO Paul Cavanaugh insisted they deserved a home better versed in bluegrass, even declaring they needn’t sign a release.
Around this time, they also hooked up with Mike Drudge of Rainmaker Management and Barron Ruth of Crossover Touring. Lewandowski insists these opportunities came not as a result of searching but, rather, hard work combined with a relentless focus on their music. “You can’t push that kind of stuff,” he muses. “There’s a natural process to life. And if you let that natural flow go, everything’s going to happen better than you can even plan.