Favorite Signing Stories of 2021

Rexx Life Raj

Label: Empire Records

Type of Music: Rap/R&B

Management: Ari Simon - ari@empi.re

Booking: Victoria, vgutierrez@icmpartners.com

Legal: Joey Seiler, jseiler@loeb.com

Publicity: Mikaela, mduhs@shorefire.com 

Web: rexxliferaj.com 

A&R: Nima Etminiam - Empire 

Rexx Life Raj’s signing with Empire Records covers a royalty percentage––leaving Raj the majority of streaming sales income—and is a 30-song commitment with an open timeline: the perfect example of Raj’s belief in artful negotiation. 

Raj began writing poetry in elementary school, recorded his own music with beats on a Casio keyboard, and was making and selling CDs by middle school. Playing offensive tackle for Boise State in 2010, he kept a music studio set up in his room to record, explaining, “music was always the priority; football was a detour.” Returning home in 2013, he worked in his parents’ shipping business while his writing started to take form. 

By 2014, a friend managing Raj’s music shared it with Ari Simon, a radio show host at the time. Seeing potential, Simon became his manager and released Raj’s first two EPs. The Father Figure distribution deal followed when Simon began interning at Empire Records. 

“Learn to negotiate and learn from whoever you can,” says Raj. “The first offer is only the first offer.” 


Tele Novella

Label: Kill Rock Stars

Type of Music: Folk/Country

Publicity: Sarah Avrin & Erin Jean Hussey - Girlie Action Media & Marketing

Web: facebook.com/telenovellamusic

A&R: Slim Moon 

Tele Novella’s seemingly sudden success can be explained by a fearless ability to try something completely different. Originally formed as a quartet with a complex, psychedelic pop flavor of layered sound, the group has been reinvented by co-founders Natalie Ribbons and Jason Chronis as a duo with a stripped-down, minimalist retro feel––which is exactly what caught the ear of A&R rep and Kill Rock Stars founder, Slim Moon. 

Taking a break from any serious musical push after burnout following the band’s 2016 record, House of Souls, Ribbons dug into her vintage shop work and Chronis slowed down, although they were still loosely playing together with sounds and ideas. A turning point came when they were notified that they had been awarded a $9,000 grant to record. With nothing prepared, they had to start from scratch. Inspired by Ribbons’ discovery of 1950s country and a move to Lockhart, TX (30 miles outside of Austin), retro-country sounds seeped in, and the process felt much more natural and symbiotic than in earlier collaborations. “It is really important not to be afraid to reinvent the wheel,” Ribbons says. “If the world you have built around yourself isn’t working, or isn’t getting you where you want to go, don’t be afraid to tear it all down and start over.”


Merci

Label: Rise Records

Band Members: Seth Coggeshall,
Nick Jones, Colby Witko, Justin Mason, Jack Duniga 

Type of Music: Alternative

Management: Ricky Butt, Matty Arsenault - Reclaim Music Group 

Publicity: Stunt Company 

Web: @mercitheband 

A&R: Sean Heydorn, James Neely - Rise

After nearly six years of touring and releasing DIY EPs, alt-pop band Merci signed with Rise Records. While it may seem an unusual fit for an alt-pop band to sign with a label known for its metal bands, Merci don’t see it that way. Says singer-guitarist Seth Coggeshall, “It didn’t seem that outlandish. We could still be sort of weird. Not being on a purely pop label meant we didn’t have to worry about not being pop-y enough.” 

The band got the attention of Rise in a very organic fashion. While touring with Under Fire, the band befriended bass player and manager Matty Arsenault, who would become Merci’s manager. With his connections to Rise, he forwarded to label head Sean Heydorn two demos the band had recorded, and the exec took immediate interest and offered the band a deal. 

“We were pursuing our career as an indie band,” says Coggeshall. “But we had reached a point where it was going to be difficult to get big enough in the way that we were hoping to achieve without that network of distribution and backing that a label offers. We were hitting the ceiling as an indie band.” 

Whether or not to pursue a label deal, he continues, “depends on your goals and your metrics of success. If you feel like you’re in a good spot, are reaching the people that you want to, and you’re comfortable, you don’t really need to take any further steps. There have been a lot of articles written about whether or not the record industry is still relevant. In my opinion, it is, because it takes a lot of capital to launch an artist, and a lot of expertise to not make expensive mistakes. It takes relationships and people who can open doors for you.” 


CJ

Label: Warner Records

Type of Music: Rap

Management: James Cruz - jcruzcontrol11@yahoo.com 

Booking: CAA 

Publicity: aishah.white@warnerrecords.com 

Web: press.warnerrecords.com/cj

A&R: jeff.juin@warnerrecords.com 

When Puerto Rican rapper CJ released “Whoopty,” it took off like a Bugatti. Its success was partially due to a pair of TikTok dance videos that used the song and went viral. To date, the official video for the amped-up banger has notched more than 118 million views. This, along with his other impressive chart statistics, triggered a host of labels into expressing interest in signing the rhymer who proudly calls Staten Island home. 

One of those labels was Warner Records. The unfettered artistic freedom they offered appealed most to CJ. “They basically let me run free,” he trumpets. He also digs the quality of their roster, serving shout-outs to NLE Choppa, Doja Cat and Saweetie. 

After a Zoom meeting, the budding star flew to Los Angeles for an in-person powwow, during which he played multiple records for the executives. 

CJ attributes several factors to the recognition he’s received. One is keeping his songs as brief as possible. “Kids have short attention spans,” he observes, “so I started making every song super-short and simple.” Another is his ability to drop Spanish vocals, helping him infiltrate the Hispanic market. A number of Latin artists have already expressed their desire to collaborate. 

Before signing, CJ had already gained the attention of French Montana, who offered support and guidance to the newcomer, resulting in his Executive Producing CJ’s debut EP. Although Montana’s endorsement didn’t hurt his label-seeking game, CJ believes it’s the raw intensity of his music that caused the most bites. “Hip-hop and rap were missing that feel, especially due to COVID,” he opines. “I kind of filled that lane and brought some energy to the table.” 


Natalie Gelman

Label: Blue Гlan Records

Type of Music: Singer-Songwriter

Management: Andrew Hoffman, andrew@industrybites.com 

Booking: jimlenz@tkoco.com 

Legal: john.seay@theseayfirm.com

Publicity: mdragichcordero@blueelan.com 

Web: nataliegelman.com

A&R: Mary Jurey, mjurey@blueelan.com

Having been on Music Connection’s Hot 100 Live Unsigned Bands list in 2020, Gelman soon after went on to sign with Blue Гlan Records. It’s been a long journey for Gelman, who started singing when she was a young child in Catholic school and later became a subway station busker.  

As it turns out, that period of busking among subway trains was crucial, as one passer-by who ended up helping Gelman was entertainment lawyer Steven Beer. He’s been in her corner ever since. Pieces have fallen into place, but it has taken dogged perseverance from the artist. 

“I’m not 20 years old, or 25, or even 30,” she says, who has opened for Bon Jovi sung with Wyclef Jean. “I would love to go back in time and have this happen 10 years ago. But I think it’s inspiring, that if you feel compelled to do something, don’t give up. That was the thing with this record. I really decided I need a team. I was tired of hustling alone.” 

Gelman’s deal with Blue Гlan came about after a chance meeting with owner Kirk Pasich at a rooftop party. “I went to the bar, and as I was walking back I saw someone had a t-shirt that said Blue Гlan on it. It was Kirk, who owns the label. He gave me his card and told me to send him music. I followed up as soon as I got home. I followed up last September and they started coming to my shows in October.” 


Melissa Aldana

Type of Music: Jazz

Management: Robin Tomchin - RT Productions, rtomchin@gmail.com 

Booking: N/A

Publicity: cem.kurosman@umusic.com

Web: melissaaldana.net

A&R: justin.seltzer@umusic.com 

In 2017, Juno award-winning jazz pianist Renee Rosnes was tasked by a European promoter with assembling a group of top musicians for a dozen or so festival dates spotlighting “Ladies in Jazz.” Among the culturally diverse mix of veterans she chose was Chilean born, Berklee educated saxophonist Melissa Aldana, who had once joined Rosnes for shows at the Village Vanguard and Dizzy’s at Lincoln Center in N.Y.C. 

During the Euro tour, the band was focused on gigging and there was no specific talk of extending it into a long-term project—but everything gelled a year later when they regrouped as Artemis and performed at the Newport Jazz Festival, a show NPR broadcast on Jazz Night in America. Blue Note president Don Was caught the performance and quickly got the ball rolling toward making a deal with the famed jazz label. 

Aldana, who had previously released an album on Concord and later won a 2020 Grammy for Best Improvised Solo for “Elsewhere” from Visions on Motema Music, was in on the initial meetings with Was. “He learned about our individual histories when he signed Artemis,” she says, “and I had kept in touch with him. 

“I wrote a lot of music early on during the pandemic, and by the middle of the year I started thinking about a new label for it,” Aldana adds. “I reached out and asked him if he would be interested in signing me as a solo artist. He’s been nothing but nice to me and a super-supportive fan of mine for a long time, so it was a natural fit. I sent him a recording of one of my live concerts playing some of the new music. He agreed to pursuing a deal, and luckily, I have a great manager, Robin Tomchin, behind me who took care of developing the details so I could continue writing and start recording.” 

Was enthuses, “Melissa is one of the foremost musician/composers of her generation. Her vibrant artistic vision, mastering of her instrument and her deep groove make her a perfect exponent of the Blue Note ethos. We’re thrilled to be part of her musical life.” 


Payton Smith

Label: Big Machine Records

Type of Music: Country

Management: Eric Smith & Rob Beckham - The AMG 

Booking: Jay Williams - WME 

Publicity: Erin D. D. Burr & Shelby Paul - Big Machine 

Web: paytonsmithmusic.com

A&R: Julian Raymond - Big Machine 

Payton Smith’s tale of success begins in Nashville. The rock-influenced country crooner was making noise in a hotel lobby when a random session player strolled by. The quality of Smith’s sound inspired him to tip off producer Buddy Cannon to the unknown performer’s talents. Under Cannon’s tutelage, the Louisiana native continued to hone his already sharp songwriting. 

Smith and his parents approached many labels, but always received “the Nashville no”––a.k.a. silence. He did, however, get a response from venerable country label Big Machine. Although he wasn’t ready to commit Smith to a deal, label president Scott Borchetta encouraged the newcomer, suggesting he focus on writing and playing. “I have so much respect for him doing that,” gushes the guitarist with the buttery voice. “I just felt like, okay, that’s someplace I would like to be.” 

Fast forward to June of 2018, when Smith was playing his first CMA Fest. Smith glimpsed Borchetta talking on his phone, but then the C&W exec abruptly disappeared before Smith could say hello. The sting of a believed missed opportunity was eased by having recently signed a publishing deal with Eclipse Music Group. 

Arriving home, Smith received a call. Turns out Big Machine’s founder had been impressed by the singer’s performance. A meeting with Borchetta followed. “I went into a little office and played an acoustic set,” the singer discloses. “And then he was, like, send me some songs.” 

Having delivered a selection of homebrewed acoustic recordings, Smith waited. That July, he was driving when word of the label’s interest reached his ears. “I was on Old Hillsboro Road,” he reminisces, “and I pulled off and cried.” The actual signing didn’t occur until October, but recording sessions began almost immediately thereafter. 

Smith used instinct to guide his decision. It’s a strategy he feels has paid off handsomely. “Your gut is always going to tell you,” the artist offers. “That’s why I signed with Big Machine.”