Breaking the Mold: Record Label & Sync A&R!
#HowWeListen Live: In Conversation with May Mahmoudi took place on Tuesday, May 30th, live from Los Angeles, California.
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
In Part II Marc starts by asking May what modern-day indie labels are looking at when they want to sign an artist. Then moves over to publishing and wants to know the same things. Marc drops the big question on May: Why would anyone sign to a record label? May has some great advice. We also get a deep dive into how May went from being an unknown DJ to creating a bit of a stir in the underground music world through a tiny indie label.
Miss part I? Read back here.
Marc Brown: How would you summarize the generic indie label approach to signing these days?
May Mahmoudi: A lot of it is very analytics-based. Not as much as major labels, but they still look at it. There is also still that old-school excitement of the music just being good. You also have to look at their selling and touring capabilities.
Marc: So you would say for your label, Big Dada, it is more about a feeling and being able to build versus only being numbers based.
May: Yeah, and it’s only because we’re a sub-label that we’re able to do that. We’re just in a lucky position where we have the Ninja Tune umbrella so we can take more risks and sign smaller artists. The point of Big Dada is to help and push music that’s different from the indie norm.
Marc: What about publishing? Are people very focused on metrics in that way? Of course, song composition is very important, but do they also look at metrics?
May: Yes, data is definitely a big part of it, but with publishing, you can take more risks and sign even smaller artists. The costs are less when you sign someone for publishing versus when you sign someone to release a record.
Marc: Ok, that is a lot of flexibility. Now, for the big question: why would anyone sign to a label when they could do it themselves?
May: Well first off I think it’s pretty hard to do it all yourself unless you have a really big team, which costs money. There is something to be said about the connections and having a team that has your back. It also depends on what kind of label too. Sometimes I feel like smaller labels are often better because they can help you without you having to do things you don’t want to do. When you sign to a big label, you need to play the game if you want to get the max benefit. The great thing about labels is that you have these built-in teams that do things like radio, press, marketing, Spotify, digital – all of that. You also have a different context within a bigger history if you end up working with a larger label.
Marc: So if you’re an artist that has 3 offers on the table: one from a really small label, one from Ninja Tune, and one from Universal. Can you say why a small label would be the right step for them?
May: Yeah. I think that would be a great move. You might not get a massive advance, but a small label is often the best ecosystem to start growing in. That was kind of my story, I was just a DJ who would play shows. I ended up releasing a mixtape with a really small, well-respected underground label. Through releasing a record with them I put out a critically acclaimed mixtape that was covered by a bunch of media and all that. It was literally because of that first release and releasing it in the way we did that I got the attention that I did! If I had released that project on Ninja Tune, it would have been competing with so many other projects that people were focused on. A small label that has this cult fanbase and only releases a few records per year, people are paying attention to them. Word of mouth is really important in that space. If your name is not out there already, you should go small because you can get lost if you try to go too big too quickly.
Marc: How many years did it take for you to release your first record?
May: I started DJing in 2009 and that was my main focus. I went to a Redbull Music Camp in 2018 and worked with a ton of artists and producers, and then I released my first record in 2019 after this label reached out because they found my music on SoundCloud. So it was about 10 years!
Marc: That’s a slow burn!
May: Yeah. I was playing shows and putting my music out there, but I wasn’t promoting it or anything like that. When I first released the record, it was just on BandCamp and then I moved it over to Spotify a few years later.
Marc: Why would you not put it on Spotify?
May: This was about 5 years ago, so it was a different kind of environment where they didn’t have playlisting or anything that would have been useful for me in the experimental electronic genre. It made sense to just have it on BandCamp, especially because the label was pretty anti-Spotify at the time. All of this also added a level of mystery to my release and it also set the precedent that people could buy my music instead of just streaming it.
Marc: Makes sense! So back to the label thing – Something people don’t necessarily appreciate is that a label like Ninja Tune for example is good at releasing records at a certain level because that’s the machine that they built. What you’re suggesting is that you need to warm up somewhere else, and work to have your music “ready” to be able to properly take all of the experience and connections that you’d get at a label like Ninja Tune. Is that right?
May: Yeah, exactly. Ninja Tune is so good and has had crazy successes because the team is so on top of everything, but you also have to be super on top of everything to be able to take full advantage and you need to have a true vision. Artists need that DIY time to figure out who they are. If they don’t they’ll flounder and won’t be able to stay true to the authenticity that makes them them.
Marc: I agree. What’s your take on the music ecosystem today versus in the past? Is it better for artists?
May: I think it’s harder. Before, if you got just one write-up on Pitchfork, for example, you could blow up and get a record deal just from that. Now you can have multiple write-ups on Pitchfork and it’s just a drop in the bucket. It does not have the same impact, the market is so over-saturated. At the same time though, there’s so much opportunity to create a niche and grow within that because everyone has access to so much more information today. It’s opened up so much room for diversity. I definitely wouldn’t be able to exist in the space I’m in if it was a different time. It’s just so difficult to get noticed today and unfortunately, a lot of people make basic music so easily and then spam music writers and labels and all of that, music pollution. There is so much to go through that it’s hard to find really good music. I’d love for people to be more mindful about creating as well as consuming music, like being intentional about supporting artists whether it be buying music on BandCamp, buying merch etc.
Marc: I’m interested in your comment before where you said that it’s thanks to this time, you’re able to do what you do. Why do you think that is?
May: With my music, I was able to do a lot of sound manipulation that I wouldn’t have been able to do without the technology we have now. We also have better access to computer programs and equipment so now we’re seeing different niches from all over the world pop up. They, more and more people, have better access to technology and equipment now. There is also more room for diversity and opportunities. So much more knowledge is available about the music ecosystem to everyone – I didn’t even know that my kind of job existed when I first moved to LA!
Marc: That trade-off is so interesting. I never thought of it that way. Do you think people are mindful of polluting the music space? Or do you think people are just trying to push forward and get themselves heard?
May: I think it’s just the human mindset where people want to push themselves into a situation for their gains. That can be a positive thing, but we need to be more mindful of why we create and listen to music.
Marc: You talked about creating an environment around your music. How do you look at that from both a personal and A&R point of view?
May: I made a lot of my music alone, so I always thought about how I could participate in my community. I did that by putting on shows or hosting my radio show and bringing on guests who exist in that space. I had people support me in my career when I moved to LA, and when I got to the point where I could support other people I made sure I did that too. Everyone we sign is also huge fans of music and they love supporting each other in the community.
Marc: So when you look into an artist, what are the things that draw you to them? If it’s not how many followers they have on Instagram for example, is it the photos or vibe they give off, or what?
May: For me, I use social media a lot to follow the artist and see what sort of world they live in. Certain players are in the music landscape through their work, and I always look to that when I’m looking towards an artist. I like the context you can get by seeing how artists within the same music scene interact with each other. You also need to think about whether they have a fanbase and if they can grow it.
Marc: Do you think that can create any sort of bias?
May: I try to always be open and objective about it. The starting point is pure and comes from the fact that we all love music, but we eventually have to go to the CEO and, ultimately, we do have to get into the nitty-gritty and look at analytics. So in the end it is very objective, but at the beginning, we are seeking out more of a vibe. There are so many artists I’d love to sign but I know we won’t right now because they need to grow more through those DIY avenues I mentioned. I like working as a team at Big Dada because it means more objectivity and we hold each other accountable.
Marc: Definitely. When you’re working with a label, you need people to be on your side and a lot of people get this idea that there’s an A&R person who says who will get signed, but in reality, the A&R person is looking for artists who work within the already established framework. Plus you have to lobby everyone in the company for support…
Oh, We have a listener question – they’re asking what makes a great songwriter.
May: First of all, it’s the music. Does it have a beautiful melody or is it catchy/interesting? Then it’s about the fanbase and what they’re doing to grow that fanbase.
Marc: Follow-up question – how can a non-performing songwriter grow a fanbase?
May: Mainly working with the right artists and building your catalogue that way.
Marc: Definitely. We have another question: What are labels looking for on a daily or regular basis from artists to make sure they’re hitting the right goals?
May: It depends on what part of the album process you’re in – like if you’re in the process of making it or if you’re releasing it. When you’re making it, things are a bit less strict and it’s more hands-off. Usually, you’ll send the label demos and will get feedback if necessary. When you’re in the campaign stage, it gets more intense where they will require things like radio shows, doing interviews and creating different cuts of songs for Spotify or whatnot.
Marc: It also depends on what kind of music you make! If you’re making pop hits, you’re probably going after radio and lots of meet-and-greets and all that. Some people don’t go out and meet fans, but if your fanbase is local that’s something that will be required of you.
Marc: We have another question: If you don’t perform or work with artists but you are hiring vocalists and putting songs out. What would the chances be of being found by someone like you if a lot of it is about the song and not the numbers?
May: In that case, it’s more about finding the sync agencies and growing your catalogue that way. Then, people will start reaching out to you. You can also look up who is working on specific TV shows and try to link up with them so you can start having your name associated with them.
Marc: Brilliant! Thanks so much, May.
I think everyone knows a great deal more about the publishing and label world now.