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Dance Business Asia: Three record labels want to sign do I choose?

Your guide to picking the right Asian label for your track

  • Otto Clubman
  • 24 August 2020

Welcome back to Dance Business Asia, Mixmag Asia’s monthly column focusing on the business of dance music in the region. Dance Business Asia dives deep into the business issues confronted by artists, managers and promoters. We look at the economics of dance music in Asia to see what’s working, what isn’t, and how issues can be addressed. The column also features interviews with movers and shakers on the business end of the industry in the region. Your guide, Otto Clubman, is a music industry executive with over twenty years of experience in the dance business.

Hey, hot-shot, you’ve got a hit on your hands. Or at least you feel pretty certain you do. You’ve finally recorded your first dance masterpiece, and you are proud of it. The track is transcendent if you say so yourself. It’s a tight four-minute opus that is both commercially viable and artistically credible. That’s right: you hit that tiny little sweet spot in the musical Venn Diagram; musical nirvana.

Your loyal manager (ok, actually, your roommate, but he doubles as your manager) sent the track off to a few record companies without your knowledge, and lo-and-behold, you received three envelopes in the mail on the same day, with the same message: We want to release your track! (Ok, that’s not exactly how it works in the modern digital age, but just go with it).

The problem is, these are three very different kinds of record labels. True, this is an upscale problem to have, but still, you are freaking out. Sometimes one option is better than multiple options. (Personally, menus at diners make me very nervous… too many choices, too many ways to go wrong and blame myself later. Fish or meatloaf or pasta or goulash? Give me one or two solid entrées to choose from and I feel a lot more secure). Same thing here. You just received a diner menu of offers…three labels, and all you can see is what can go wrong.

Your three letters came from quite different places:

1. The Asian division of a big international label based in New York (“WorldCo”);
2. A leading regional Asia-label based in Bangkok (“AsiaCo”); and
3. A small but super-hip label based in Ho Chi Minh City, whose founder completely “gets your music” (“HipCo”)

First, don’t worry. We’ll get through this together, and realize that you are lucky to be in this position. Most artists don’t receive one letter, let alone three. Second, worry! A lot. Because, if you want me to be honest, you have 66% chance of messing up this decision. So, better pay attention ...your career is on the line.

Wait…how do I get my tracks in front of the record label in the first place?

Before we dive into which record label to choose, let’s step back a little. Not every DJ / producer is lucky enough to have a Roommate / Manager to send out their tracks. So, how do you even get in front of the right set of ears (i.e. an A&R person at a label) in the first place?

Well, these days, there are numerous ways to try to get the attention of a label exec. Many of you may have been through this before, but for you newbies squatting in your mom’s basement finishing up a masterpiece that you hope to reach label-ears, here are a few ways:

Get a manager: An experienced manager should have the trust of the A&R people and should at least be able to score you a listen.

Generate some buzz: The more buzz, the more chance the A&R lemmings will be willing to give up four minutes of their valuable time to listen to your demo.

Play it in clubs: Get some grass-roots support going for the track; a little chatter about your ditty can help a lot.

Bring on a Big Name: If you can afford it (you Second-Generation Rich Kids out there), you can pay a big name to feature as a singer on your track; you’ll get some attention and rise above the clutter (e.g. DJ Squatter feat. Rihanna)

Send it in directly: Drop it in the mail, and send it to the label for a listen. About as likely as getting it listened to as getting Rihanna to feature on your track, but nothing to lose by trying.

Have a friend walk it in: Got any connected friends in the business? Ask them to drop it off for you.

Build your Social Media: Labels are watching your numbers, trust me… Grow your following. They see dollar signs.

Do whatever else works: Be creative. Don’t break the law, but, you know, you can go up to the line…

How are these three options actually different? Is this just much ado about nothing?

No, this is much ado about a lot. I mean, you may never record a masterpiece again. What if you are a one-hit-wonder? What if this was a fluke? That’s why this is so important. If you do this correctly and break big now, even if you never pop out another hit the rest of your life, you can hire other beatmakers/songwriters (ghost-writers) to churn out hits for you and release the tracks under your name, slowly milking a decades-long career. You only need one hit. So, you better get this right.

The three labels will put you in front of their Closer; the smooth-talking girl or guy who is going to persuade you to sign, because they know best how to help you achieve all your dreams in this world and the next.

What are their respective angles?

WorldCo: Their pitch to you will be something like this, “We’ve been following you for a while [Note: That’s a lie], and we really love your music. As you know, we are the Dance Division of one of the Big Three, so we have crazy resources all around the world. We’ve got people in every country on the planet. And we want to break you wide! Give us your single and we’ll work it around the world. We’re gonna make you a star, kid.”

AsiaCo: They’ll come at with you slightly different sell, “Yeah, nothing against WorldCo., but, they are from the U.S. originally, and frankly just don’t know Asia. You, my friend, are an Asian DJ. We want to make you big here, at home, first. You need to own this market. We have long standing relationships on the ground here that WorldCo. doesn’t have—they only set up shop here five years ago. We’ve been doing this for twenty years. We are the ones to break you in Asia”.

HipCo: “Yo, yo, I’ve been following you forever [Note: That’s probably true]. We don’t have the resources of the Big guys, or the even Asia Co., but we love you and get you, and will be behind you every step of the way. We know every player in this country - let us break this record here and we’ll do our best to see if we can get legs outside of this market too. Come on, bro / sis, we go way back… We get you, those other guys don’t; they just want to use you for a quick buck. We respect your art. Want a puff of this?”

You retreat to your mom’s basement, trying to sort out the options.

And, now, it’s time to decide.

Ok, you are probably thinking. “Thanks, Otto. This has been mildly interesting, but, what I really want is the answer. What’s the right decision?”

In the end, you have to choose the right fit for yourself. Every artist is different, every track is different. You need to carefully weigh and evaluate the….WAIT, STOP…I’m just kidding. That’s complete rubbish. 100% BS. Sorry maestro, but let me break it to you: Your “masterpiece” is just a widget in the giant music machine, and all you should care about is going with the biggest, best, most connected company that gives you an offer. Put another way, your only question should be how many widgets can you sell so that: (i) you can make a lot of money, and (ii) people keep paying you to make more widgets. Don’t get taken in by the “this is art” and needs to find the right home malarkey. That’s hogwash.

So, with this guidance — while maybe upsetting, but undeniably true — you should be able to make your decision.

First, let’s rule out one option…

Remember that annoying guy you met the first week in college that told you he was admitted to Harvard but decided to attend Fordham instead because Fordham had a more flexible meal plan? You didn’t believe that dude then, and you shouldn’t believe him now. That’s the guy from HipCo. sitting in the back of room of his cool vinyl record shop — which he also uses as his label headquarters — in Ho Chi Minh City. I’m sure he’s passionate and loves your music. But, don’t go with him. Fordham is a very good school, but, if you get into Harvard, go to Harvard. Period.

Now, let’s rule out another…

Remember your Investment Banking colleague in your analyst program who told you he had been offered a job with Goldman Sachs but turned it down because they didn’t have casual Fridays, so he joined BNP Paribas instead? You didn’t believe that, did you? That’s AsiaCo. Sure, they are well-respected regionally and have done a decent job breaking artists in the Asian markets — and once in a while have been lucky and scored a hit outside their core territory. But, let’s be honest…you want to be an international star. What do they know about marketing you in the US or Europe? Or South America? Or Africa? Ok, they can get good traction within a 1,000-mile radius… but, luckily, you have a choice! BNP Paribas is a very good bank, but, if you get into Goldman Sachs, go to Goldman Sachs. Period.

Your song is a widget. You want to go with the team that knows how to push your widget through the machine as far and wide and fast as possible. It’s a sad truth maybe, but it is what it is.

So, that leaves us with your choice: WorldCo. I know it’s not necessarily what you want to hear. We love to root for the underdog. We want to support the smaller firm that really “gets you” and says they can push you with a passion the big guys cannot. But, let me say it again: Your song is a widget. You want to go with the team that knows how to push your widget through the machine as far and wide and fast as possible. It’s a sad truth maybe, but it is what it is. It takes an obscene amount of resources to break a hit these days – marketing, distribution, promotion, videos, ancillary media. Literally, it takes dozens of people to do it well, if not more. I don’t love to be a cheerleader for the “big guy”, but you asked for my advice, so here you have it. The fact is, not many companies have the resources to do this well, and you need this hit.

It might not be as cool and hip as going with the local art-label you love so much, but, you can throw a few singles to the smaller guys later on once you’ve made it. For now, look out for #1 first! Like I said, it only takes one hit to set you up for life.

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