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How to Make it in the Music Industry

By | Published February 15, 2018

New Street Records is a student record label set up by students from The University of Birmingham four years ago. They sign student artists and bands and wanted to tell us the secrets of how to enter and succeed in the exclusive world of music. They invited four big names who have gained access to forefront of the music realm to spill their secrets: Emma Tranter, Hamish Thomas, Kemal Mermutlu, and Amedeo Cappuccio.

Tranter is a tour manager and photographer for NERVO. She is from Malta and started as a photographer. Trying to get her name out, she got contact details of people and music businesses such as Lost & Found. From this she began to produce more “eye-catching and vibe” photographs. Thomson is an artist manager, Sony A&R scout, and talent broker. Thomas studied Medicine at The University of Edinburgh but after taking a year out, he founded his own promoter company in Edinburgh before going regional. Soon after he became an agent and then a manager so he could do ‘whatever I want to do’. Mermutlu is a BBC Radio 1 and I extra producer and a music executive who bought Diplo to BBC Radio 1. Cappuccio is solicitor at Sound Advisor (contracts) and has worked with the likes of Chasing Status and Naughty Boy.

Essentially, to make it in the music industry, you need to know people. At least that’s what four individuals who have made it big on the music scene said. They stressed the importance of having contacts as a big element of accessing the music industry is about who you know, particularly on the agency side of things. To get contacts, Tranter advises staying back that extra hour after a gig or event to see how backstage operates and talk to DJs and backstage staff. This way you will learn first-hand and get the connections that you need. Kemal Mermutlu said that the element of trust formed in networks by giving a heads-up on certain opportunities increases your rank in a network as well as your legitimacy and that opens doors much more easily.

Thomas says fundamentally, you need to find or pay for contacts to get your food into the music industry. He gave the example of how Sony had 20,000 applicants for an internship and only 10 spaces. Only those who have contacts within Sony are ever likely to get the internship.

How do I get my music out there?

Mermutlu believes BBC Introducing is a great platform for new people starting out. BBC Introducing works by splitting it regionally and each regional producer is responsible for which artist’s music to air. Even though your music may not be played on Radio 1, Mermutlu stresses that having your stuff played on BBC West Midlands signals that you are doing the right thing.

Mermutlu also emphasised the importance of building a story. Again, contacts are paramount as having the right manager and right agent, for example, are critical to your story building. Beyond your ‘contact story’, having a story with your music is just as important. Here, you need to look at your fan base. What are you Spotify hits? Are you touring? Where are you playing? If you are playing at the same pubs in the same region, then you’re not expanding your fan base. Mermutlu said that if you’re playing at pubs, then chances are you’re going music is going to be played on the regional BBC Introducing. You’re not going to have a day time slot on BBC Radio 1.

The other big timers in the music industry also reinforced this message of building a story. Thomas, a Song A&R manager and talent scout, said that scouts look for people on Spotify so make sure you’re on Spotify with a big playlist and having a good distributer will definitely help with this.

Another very helpful things is getting featured in key publications and key magazines as this shows that you are a serious artist. Cappuccio stated that if you are in such publications it shows that you know what you are doing even if you don’t have a manager and label because it shows you’re serious because ultimately you need to know your stuff.

What makes a good or bad deal?

In terms of knowing if you’re getting into a good or bad deal, Cappuccio says that that depends on what stage you are in as an artists. An advance payment for signing up to the label can be seen as attractive but a big upfront sum may not the best deal. You must remember that record labels are a business. Therefore, a big upfront pay check might be insulating costs elsewhere. You also need to look at the reversion of rights of a record. You need to think about getting the rights back rather than them staying with the record label because streaming can revive hits. You also need to consider the length of a contract. A shorter deal means you have time to look elsewhere which gives you options and prevents you from being locked into a deal. Thomas interjected that record labels also look at the psychology of an artists. This means that the contract is stuffed full of what the artists wants so to overlook other important details. Importantly, don’t show too many cards. Meanwhile, Mermutlu added that having contacts at other record labels can not only give you options but also help as a negotiation tool. For example, you could say, ‘Record label x will give me this, but if you give me y, I’d rather sign a deal with you’. Also, he believes that a deal is only a bad deal if you don’t know why you’re going there. As a record label is a business, they want a return on investment. So you need to convince them that you’re going to be significantly bigger and better than if you went at it alone. But you need to remember that expectations are not always met. Is it possible that if you receive a larger upfront sum, the record label will work much harder to make you a star because they want a bigger return on their investment. Mermutlu summed it up nicely: it’s all a game, it depends on how you play it. Indi and major record labels work different and you need to weigh up the pros and cons and see what works best for what you want.

How do I get paid work?

For Tranter, the transition from voluntary to paid work was awkward. Firstly, she needed to get the incredibly valuable contacts and gain interests in her photography. With pricing, she started very low and as she continued to build a name for herself, she began increasing her fees. She found charging for her work awkward on at the initial steps of the transition. With photography, she got her first paying job after meeting two friends and creating contacts despite having a small budget. With tour management, her concern was not money but about having an extra role.

Thomas found that gaining creditability is very important. Just like with an internship or graduate scheme, you need to build your worth. Once you demonstrated your potential, you are an investment. After leaving medicine, he started to do promotion but found that despite the instant return, the profit margins were small so he went into management. Here, the investment is long-term and you make the money later. To get jobs you need to build your CV and reinforce it by having those all-important contacts.

Mermutlu went from being a DJ to doing club nights and marketing them to doing a sound engineering course. Building a skillset allowed him to have the mental shift to ‘I’m qualified to do the job’. The next step involves turning your passion into a job and making a career out of it and the way to do this is to get a paying job.

Finding a reputable firm who would trust him was important for Cappuccio. He didn’t want to train people. So, he emailed every firm and junior associate he knew. As people love talking about themselves and their work, they’ll meet with you to have coffee. From these conversations, you’ll sound as if you’re in the music industry even if you’re not in it and the best thing is that they’ll tell you about vacancies. Anything helps as it gets your foot in the door: internships → friends → network → information.

What is the biggest piece of advice I can get?

Essentially just network.

Tranter found that turning up at their front door (not home door, workplace door) works wonders if emails and phone calls are not answered. Also, be creative. Stay that extra hour to talk to people and network after gigs. Ask to support the sound technician or of you can take photographs. Thomas agrees with this persistence. Once you’re in the system get contacts because they change everything. They’ll tell you if something that could be of your interest comes up. Cappuccio too agrees. You need to put yourself out there are staying back an hour after events allows you to make connections and learn new things just by talking to people.

Is there anything else I can do to stand out?

There are platforms beyond BBC Introducing. Put your content on YouTube, GRM daily, or JDZ music for example.

Make the most of social media and build a story with it. People watch you live and so you create a fan base. This fan base will then engage with your social media engagement and this can lead to Spotify engagement. You need to promote your product as so to create demand. Ultimately, the fan base determines whether you are successful or not. And keep your social media up-to-date and not just on stuff related to your music. Fans want to see something current and relatable and want to buy into your personality so put up posts to show different perspectives of yourself. Diplo gets a far greater response on social media when he’s feeding the chickens or is with his kids than he does when he posts a picture of a stadium crowded with 80,000 people.

Put your content on SoundCloud, after all that’s where KYGO’s manager found him. And don’t forget or underestimate the power of the radio. If you are doing this then you need to make sure you have a good distributor and communicate because they have their own networks for you to take advantage of.

If you’re short on cash, invest in a good quality recording or two or three tracks and then reach out to people to play your music. Get gigs places beyond your hometown which is the only place you’ve ever paid or your preventing your fan base from increasing. Also, look at being a support act for a friend who is currently more successful than you because that will expand your fan base. Just don’t spend your money on Facebook ads. Spend it on getting to your end point- be that a good quality recording or featuring in a publication.

Also enter competitions, even if they’re new. Thomas revealed that one artist wrote an email to the head of a new competition and now then play three nights in Ibiza and have gotten themselves a record deal.