Traditional Publishing & Distribution

Posted by Japheth Campell | April 17th, 2011  

This month we will be looking at two models of media publishing and distribution available today. We will look at both the traditional forms of established publishers and distributors as well as the do-it-yourself model of publishing and distribution.

We will start by focusing on the traditional models. This includes music publishers which manage the written works of music and lyrics for songwriters, handling such tasks as shopping the music to potential artists and record labels as well as administering royalties. This model also includes record labels that record and distribute music in an audio format.

Why use traditional?

I recently read a music blog where the author asked, “Why would anyone want to sign with a record label?” The author meant his words as a rhetorical question because he felt the answer is an obvious, “No one would want to sign with a record label.” The author’s sentiment is simply not true. There are many artists who would answer a resounding “yes” because working with a record label has brought them more success than they could have achieved on their own efforts.

Take for instance Lady GaGa, Eminem, and the Black Eyed Peas on Interscope Records. I would argue that none of these artists would have found the level of success that they have had without the distribution and marketing machine of Universal Music Group behind them. Granted, for every artist or band that makes it huge on a major label, there are dozens more that the labels sign and then push to the side. These artists and bands never make a penny off album sales and many times end their careers from these deals. The countless negative stories should not rule out the artist, who has just the right ingredients, giving it a shot at being the next successful product for a major label.

Although only a few find success on a major label, there are many more who find success with independent labels on various levels. The first band that comes to mind is Arcade Fire, signed to Merge Records. Although in some ways the band is responsible for their own success in creating chart topping music and receiving the 2011 Grammy for Album of the Year, there is no doubt that they achieved success in partnership with the team provided by Merge.

Success is not always measured by national recognition and achievements. There are artists and bands with a regional focus that benefit greatly from a regional independent label. Record labels, both large and small, bring to the table a team (e.g. legal, development, production, distribution, and marketing) that an artist or band could not easily or fiscally assemble on their own.

Although not applicable to all artists, there are artists and bands that can benefit and will want to partner with a record label or music publisher. If you find yourself in that lot, then the next section is for you. Let’s dive into securing the deal that you are looking for.

Finding an Agent

The music industry has greatly changed over the years. The A&R departments at major record labels no longer accept unsolicited demos from artists, and publishing companies no longer accept unsolicited works of music from songwriters (some independent labels and publishers still accept submissions, however). This has mainly happened for legal reasons. In the past, labels and publishers found themselves being sued for claims of copyright infringement on submitted works. This led to a scare and freeze on accepting unsolicited materials.

In order to get your foot in the door today, you will need the help of an agent, a third-party person with a connection on the inside. These agents are usually managers, producers, or attorneys. For songwriters and some artists, using resources such as the Songwriter’s Market book can offer the directory needed for finding an agent. Several industry directories are also published by The Music Business Registry.

For those artists and bands that do not yet have a manager or prefer self-management, finding a music or entertainment attorney can offer the perfect solution for connecting and becoming established in the industry. Entertainment attorneys aid in shopping both demos and musical compositions to labels, producers, and other artists.

State bars many times contain divisions devoted to entertainment that proper attorneys will be a member of. Use the information provided by these organizations as the first step in creating a list of potential attorneys to use. The next step will be to seek out references and to do credential checking. It will be best to find attorneys who have been successful before in shopping your type of materials to the companies you intend to target.

Query Letter

After finding an agent, you will want to make first contact with a Query Letter. These letters serve to introduce yourself and any accompanying materials such as a demo or written music/lyrics. The term “Query Letter” is traditionally used in the literary world for introductory letters seeking publishing deals. Basically, your Query Letter should limit the length to one page. It should contain a brief introduction of you as an artist along with your achievements. You should introduce the material you are presenting and the purpose you are seeking in contacting the agent.

So far in my research, I have not found very exciting examples of introductory letters for the music industry. On the other hand, in every instruction I found for writing Query Letters for the literary world, the advice was given to start with the “hook.” The purpose is to grab the reader’s attention and entice them to delve deeper into your letter. I believe the “hook” is the most important element of a Query Letter and you should use a “hook” in your letter as well. It could be the one element that makes your letter and you stand out from all the others. If you don’t consider yourself a wordsmith, find someone who can craft a dynamic introductory paragraph for your letter.

Press Kit

Many times your Query Letter includes a Press Kit or at least directs the reader to an online Electronic Press Kit (EPK). There is no one way to create a Press Kit. You could use a fully custom-designed printed piece or simply use materials organized nicely in a plain folder. EPKs not only take the form of an online website, but can assume the form of various types of electronic media included on a CD or USB thumb drive.

Although taking various forms, Press Kits will generally include the same primary elements. They will contain a cover letter (your Query Letter), artist’s bio, photographs, press clippings, song demos, booking/contact information, and a business card. If the purpose of your Press Kit is to secure a record deal or publishing deal, you should include lyrics for the demo tracks. If the purpose of your Press Kit is to secure a venue for a gig, include your stage and equipment requirements along with a list of songs you will be performing.

The first impression your Press Kit presents is its aesthetic presence. Although having dynamic graphic design is a plus, it is vitally essential that the entire layout from front to back have a clean, professional look. That grabs the attention. Next in importance is the photographs of the artist or band. Photos should look professional and provide imagery that the mind equates to your style of music and the types of artists or bands that are historically successful in that genre.

There are several services that can help an artist or band build an online EPK:

Power Press Kits
Reverb Press Kits
Sonicbids EPKs

If your Press Kit and demo tracks stand out from the rest, you will have a better chance of having the desired agent agree to represent you to the music industry. At that point, you can begin to work with the agent to shop your music and career to the labels and publishers that you wish to work with. There are no guarantees, but taking these steps will put you closer to your dreams than most other artists who are looking for their break in the industry.


Coming Up Next: Do-It-Yourself Publishing & Distribution


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