Expert Music Career Advice For DIY Musicians

What Makes a Band Worth Signing? (According to an Indie Label Owner)

fathermountainFather Mountain. (Image via

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I've been involved in running a small record label based out of Boston for the better part of four years at this point, and I'll be the first to admit I don't know everything. I probably don't know half of everything there is to know about running a record label, but I do think I know a thing or two about music. I've been working in the industry in one way or another since I was 16, and I even have one of those fancy music business degrees you see promoted in the back of rock magazines. In just a few months, I will be 28, and I like to tell myself I have something to show for 12 years of long days that almost always turned into late nights, even if it is just an understanding of how the industry works.

This post could go in depth on how big labels operate, as well as the many factors that are considered before signing an artist that lie beyond the quality of their music, but that isn't the reality I know. The world I know is small and mid-size labels, often started out of bedrooms or dorms, that are run by people who are making records for no reason other than the desire to help further expose the artists they know and love. You can call these labels passion projects if you must, but if you understood the work involved, it probably wouldn't sound quite so glamorous. The financial return for running a label is honestly smaller than any other project I have been a part of, even though most our albums have sold incredibly well. People don't start a label to make money, though – or at least I didn't.

For Antique Records, the artists we seek to sign are the ones who we cannot resist. We want the creators of the earworms people will be trying to shake for days or weeks or (preferably) even months at a time. I don’t mean pop artists necessarily, though we would certainly consider them. I simply mean the kind of artist whose material punches you in the gut with something so universally true, be it happy or sad, that you feel as if he or she has just described your very existence. We want talent that speaks to the reality we know, the struggles we have faced, and the hope we have for the future. There are plenty of sad songs about sad things, and there is always a time for them to be enjoyed, but we tend to like artists who offer a silver lining to every rain cloud. The artists who recognize when times are bad, and then take steps to make themselves better instead of simply wallowing in the turmoil that surrounds them.

Just to be clear, there's nothing wrong with artists who create music that falls outside this description. I pride myself on being someone who loves a little bit of everything, from Kacey Musgraves' tongue-in-cheek country croon to the skull-shaking heaviness of Fit for an Autopsy, but just because I enjoy something doesn't mean I want to release it on my label. I'm sure there are labels that release a little bit of everything that makes them happy, but we prefer to curate a select pool of talent where every artist is different, yet just similar enough to fit alongside one another on, say, a mixtape or compilation. That isn't something every label seeks with their roster, but for us, it's important.

We decided on our latest signees, a Kentucky-based band known as Father Mountain, about two months after we first spoke with them. The band had released an incredible EP on their own in November 2014, not to mentioned performed numerous shows all over the US, but as far as we could tell, almost no one with influence in the alternative community had "discovered" them just yet. We reached out initially to ask if the band was preparing to release something new in 2015, but after learning they only had plans for an acoustic EP, our talks cooled for a bit. We liked the idea of the EP, but if we're going to invest a lot of time and money into a group, we want to have a proper release to support. Still, there was something about the band's EP we kept coming back to again and again. We asked if we could wait until we heard their new recordings to make an offer, and the band told us that was perfectly fine.

Fast-forward several weeks, and the band sends over a demo of a new track entitled "Jamais Vu." The song is a heartfelt and honest depiction of that moment when your heart shatters from a surprise breakup. Like Ralph Wiggum when Lisa Simpson told him she no longer wanted to date, "Jamais Vu" makes you want to clench your chest, if only to know your heart hasn't stopped altogether. It's sad yet beautiful, and no matter how many times you want to hug the member of the band who had to experience the breakup in question, you keep reaching for the repeat button. I knew from the first time I heard the opening lines that the band had not only delivered something special, but something we had to put out. It was no longer a question of whether or not the EP was the right thing to do, because every bone in my body was telling me if I let Father Mountain get away, someone else would come along to scoop them up. I was hearing a band poised for greatness, and I had the rare opportunity to help them take another step toward reaching that point.

Months later, and a just a day or two after "Jamais Vu" was shared with the world at large, I still find myself scrolling to Father Mountain's music every other time I'm looking for something to play. Antique ultimately decided to reissue the band's 2014 EP with the addition of three acoustic tracks, and I think it's really the best decision we could have made. The early sales have been good, but even if they weren't, I wouldn't have a single regret about bringing the band onto our label, because I know the talent they possess. I know there are other bands with great songs and a lot of promise looking for their shot at national exposure, but there's something about Father Mountain that keeps me coming back again and again. I know if I were not involved with this band, I would be a fan of theirs when someone else signed them – and someone else would definitely sign them. They're that good. Some will disagree, but that's okay because they don't have to pay our bills. We pay for everything, and as long as we're happy with what we’re putting out, then our label is a success, and that's something no one can take away.

This is a long way of not really providing a solution the question at hand, and I apologize if you went into this article thinking you would find a concise answer to what makes a band worth signing. I think the answer is, if one exists, that you have to find an artist that you connect with on a deeply personal level. Hype and proven road chops are already a plus, obviously, but at the end of the day, you have to love what you're putting out before anyone else will be willing to give it a listen. No label run by people who are working for passion rather than money wants an artist they wouldn't listen to themselves, and no artist should want a label that's comprised of anyone other than their biggest fans. The bond between artist and label has to be real from day one, and there has to be a mutual respect for one another as well. Labels need to trust that an artist will continue to grow and create great work, while artists need to believe the label will do everything in their power to get that record in front of consumers. If that connection isn't strong, no amount of great music will make a difference.


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James Shotwell is the marketing coordinator for Haulix. He is also a professional entertainment critic, covering both film and music, as well as the co-founder of Antique Records. Feel free to tell him you love or hate the article above by connecting with him on Twitter. Bonus points if you introduce yourself by sharing your favorite Simpsons character.

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