Making it in music: How hard is it to get signed in the modern day?
Manchester is a city famed for its illustrious musical past. Oldham street in the heart of the Northern Quarter is literally paved with recognition of the cities historically famous artists, with placards celebrating the vast amount of talent produced throughout the years – Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses and Inspiral Carpets.
But the music culture goes way beyond the bands from the area; clubs such as The Twisted Wheel and Fac-51 The Hacienda also make the walk of fame. Factory Records record label itself makes the cut, a powerhouse platform for producing Northern talent and responsible or the likes of Joy Division and New Order in the 70’s and 80’s.
Right up to modern day Manchester has always produced new bands year after, with groups like The Courteeners, Blossoms and Cabbage coming in the last decade. Whether or not they’re anyway near the talent of the past is all down to personal opinion, but it’s hard to deny the volume of bands making it to the bigtime over the years.
Perhaps there’s something in the Mancunian water that breeds the continual success of rock ‘n’ roll bands. But for every success story of a local group getting signed to a major label, there’s still hundreds of bands in the city tirelessly competing for the recognition and attention week in week out.
Night after night there’s constantly unsigned bands playing at one of the Northern Quarter’s many independent venues. Promoter posters decorate the windows of NQ businesses showcasing the up and coming talent on offer. It’s a fierce, competitive and saturated market. Not every group of young lads who pick up guitars and start jamming are going to be signed to Rough Trade or Virgin EMI, but if they aren’t putting in the ground work for recognition then fans and labels aren’t just going to throw themselves at them.
The rise of the internet in the last two decades comes as friend and foe to hopeful artists. On the one hand platforms like Soundcloud, YouTube and Spotify provide free means to showcase music to the masses, but with this competition comes thousand-fold.
Tom Edwards, bass player in the unsigned indie rock’ n’ roll band Dirty Laces knows first-hand the struggles an up and coming band face in the modern day. Playing weekly in the city and recently releasing their first EP The Modern Age, Tom offered an insider’s view into the challenges he and the rest of the band encounter.
“Nowadays bands like us have to tour to make a lot of money because people aren’t buying physical music. The strength of your recordings doesn’t seem to be the biggest aspect, labels look to sign anyone who can bring a large crowd to their gigs, because that’s where the moneys coming from. The role of the record label used to be to sign and develop up and coming bands but nowadays it seems like they only want to sign fully developed bands with fan bases and strong self-releases to cut the risk.
“Songs are almost like a publicity thing now to play on radio to get someone to come along to your gigs. It’s not like your recording an iconic song that’s going to sell millions anymore.”
Tom spoke of what he and the Dirty Laces do to try and stand out from the rest, particularly when there’s so much music from hopeful bands ready available at the click of a finger:
“The internet has definitely made it harder. There’s a lot more competition online and to stand out you need to get the public interested. You have to build up your image and social media before people will engage with your band and click on your music links. You need a lot of determination to stand out from the rest as well as having the raw talent of the bands of the past.
“We try to stand out more by constantly making as much strong music as we can and rehearsing daily to make sure playing live together is as tight as possible. We’ve also been working with some very good photographers like Paul Husband who’s worked with some of the country’s best bands. We also get a lot of support from good graphic designers who’ve helped to give our vinyl release a professional look. It’s hugely important to develop a brand image but that will only get you so far. You may look the part but if your music’s not up to standard then you won’t breakthrough.”
Tom and the rest of the Dirty Laces have only been together for around 18 months and still remained unsigned. However, this hasn’t stopped the five-piece from continually selling out venues in the city and pulling 18,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. Their approach to tackling the modern music landscape looks to be paying off.
Someone else who knows quite a bit about unsigned bands in the UK is manager of another up and coming Manchester band No Hot Ashes who recently sold out their headline show at Manchester Academy 2 and presenter of MrPeepsPresents podcast championing the best in unsigned music.
Speaking about bands utilising social media to try and get noticed Mr.Peeps said:
“Social media is very important to bands across all platforms and if you’re in a band and not taking advantage of what is ultimately free advertising then you must be mad. It makes it a lot easier for bands to get heard and noticed but I’m not sure about making it as now there’s a million and one bands all trying for the same attention. But if the band is good and believe in what they are doing well then that’s half the battle.”
Similarly to the problems faced by the Dirty Laces, Mr.Peeps spoke of the limitaions of music sharing platforms.
“The downside of music streaming platforms is that not many people buy physical CD’s anymore so less income for bands, but it’s good to see Vinyl making a return and people tend to want to buy limited edition runs. Downside again to this is the production costs which bands some struggle to pay for.”
Having been in the industry for quite some time Mr.Peeps spoke about the band community in the past.
“It was harder to get noticed before the internet as there was no real outlet apart from full time gigging, local radio and word of mouth. But having said that bands were more inclined to help each other back then and if you were lucky enough to get picked up by a label or management the chances of you making it I think we’re far greater - especially if you think back to the Punk Days, labels were fighting over each other to sign bands and some were crap to be honest.”
As a final word to any aspiring artist and being a manager of a band currently gaining rapid success, Mr.Peeps offered out his four top tips to give young hopefuls the edge over the competition.
Number one – Demo:
“Get a good quality demo done don’t do it D.I.Y. If you have to save a few quid, it’s well worth it. Anybody you send a demo to will probably only listen to the first 15 sec so make it your best.”
Number two – Socials:
“Work every available platform with good content, let everyone know when you’re playing, when you have new stuff coming out and most important interact with people and make contacts.”
Number three - Photos:
“Get some good band photos done, first impressions and all that.”
Finally, number four - Be Nice:
“Never fall out with anybody in the business even if you have to bite your lip sometimes, you never know when you might need or meet them again.”
From speaking to both Tom and Mr.Peeps it’s clear that there is no clear answer to whether technology makes it easier to get signed in the modern age. It comes with both the advantages of getting music to the masses, as well as the competition from up and down the country. But competition breeds champions, therefore the bands of today need to be at the best of their ability to come out on top. The contesting nature of getting signed in 2018 only helps to produce the finest talent in the British music industry.