Artists and songwriters have encountered this roadblock of a phrase many times before: "no unsolicited material." The ominous slogan conjures up images of faceless label execs in black suits and ties with an arm out, palm forward in the universal gesture for, "Stop. We are untouchable. Your career goes no further."
It can be the most infuriating thing for an eager artist to deal with. That's especially true when you know you have great material that aligns with the label's brand and roster. I get you, buddy. I’ve been there, too. But "no unsolicited material" is actually not as scary and unapproachable of a term as it seems once you understand why labels use it in the first place.
What does "no unsolicited material" mean?
In short, it simply means, "We don’t accept material that we haven’t asked for." So if you’ve got a great song that you just know will blow the minds of the creative department at Sony, chances are you won’t be able to get that song to them unless someone at Sony has given you the green light to send it in.
That could be the front desk girl, another writer, an artist, producer, assistant, anyone in particular. But if you haven’t made contact with someone who specifically told you it’s okay to send your demo to them, then don’t waste your time. Chances are, your unsolicited material will wind up in the trash.
Why these drastic measures? This is where it starts to make sense.
Why do labels, publishers, attorneys, or other businesses have this policy?
For a label or business to accept material from anyone, it puts them in a sticky legal situation. Imagine this: a songwriter submits a demo with a couple songs. The label rejects it, simply because they felt the material wasn't a good fit. Two months later, one of their artists releases a single that sounds a lot like one of those songs that was submitted and rejected way back then. Now, that songwriter can claim the label stole his intellectual property and has grounds for a lawsuit.
Unfortunately, this is a fictional example of a real scenario. This kind of thing has happened quite a few times in the past. Labels, publishers, and other music industry businesses have had to protect themselves from this kind of situation, and so came up with their "no unsolicited materials" policies.
While it can be incredibly frustrating for new artists and writers when they come across this phrase, it’s also kind of hard to be mad at anyone who’s just trying to protect themselves from the crazies out there.
So, what can you do about it?
Submitting unsolicited material despite the warning will simply land your demos in the trash can. It’s honestly a waste of money that could be better spent elsewhere. If you have a particular label or publishing company in mind that you love and would love to get to know, that’s a good thing. Spend your time doing just that – getting to know them. Be familiar with their artists and songs. Stay up to date on who’s hired, promoted, or changing departments. Know about their successes as a company. Go see their artists play.
Meet with your rep at your PRO and explain your goals. Reps will listen to your music and offer their expert guidance to reach your goals. They’ll even make introductions for you if and when they feel you and your music are ready (just keep in mind, they'll only do that at their own discretion).
Keep working hard at your craft, and you’ll only get better and better. Be respectful, humble, and willing to learn. Don’t say no to new opportunities to play, network, and make friends in the industry. Take a deep breath and know that you’re in this for the long haul. You may not be able to walk into your favorite label's office without an appointment, but you can start to get plugged in to your industry by getting to know anyone and everyone working in it with you.
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Sarah Spencer is a singer/songwriter and blogger, working, living, and playing in Nashville, TN. By day, she's the creative director at boutique creative agency for the music industry. When she's not on the web, she's writing songs, playing shows, and singing as a session vocalist.