Want to sign your music to a label? Here are some things to consider

Mark from Solardo tells us how his label, Sola, which focuses heavily on new talent, approaches signing artists, while offering advice on best practices and mistakes to avoid.

If you were looking for advice on how to get your music signed to a record label, Mark Richards from Solardo would be an ideal person to speak with. During our recent conversation, he barely went a minute without offering some kind of wisdom or relevant opinion.

Mark’s credentials on this subject are watertight. He’s been involved in electronic music for roughly 20 years, and as one half of Solardo with James Eliot he’s recently developed one of the most successful breakthrough projects in house music. The list of their achievements is both long and impressive—playing all over the world, DJ Mag awards, a residency at Hï in Ibiza, signing with leading labels like Ultra, Hot Creations and Toolroom. But in speaking to Mark, I got the feeling that he was most proud of the music he’s made and released.        

There could have been a whole separate article on Mark’s role in producing bangers like “XTC,” “Power,” “Free Your Body” and “Move Your Body,” some of which have been streamed tens of millions of times. But we’re going to focus on the steps Mark took to get his music in the hands of the right people, and the role that his label, Sola, played in establishing the Solardo name, before it went on to become a non-stop production line for new talent.

Sola has an open-door policy to demos, and apparently receives roughly 1,000 per week. While it’s obviously impossible for Mark to listen to everything, he sees a huge part of his role as identifying and nurturing new producers. He encourages a patient and deliberate approach to artistic development, while also being honest about just how hard a career in music is to come by and just how hard people need to work

Did you have an aim for the label when you started?

We only really started it originally to release our own music. We were sending tracks out to everyone and not really getting anywhere. We thought if we start our own label at least it’s a way of getting music out there. If we released music in any form it would then hopefully enable us to work with other labels. You find with a lot of labels nowadays that they don’t want to take too much risk on unknown artists. You can only release so many tunes a year on your label, so it makes more business sense to release something with a more established artist. Or at least someone who’s had a couple of releases—unless the tune [from a brand new producer] is really standout.  

We grew as artists quite quickly—pretty much off the back of us releasing music on our label. We did exactly what I just told you. We got a small fanbase, then more labels were willing to take us on. It was a big snowball effect. A release of ours, then we’d release on a small label, then a bigger label and a bigger label. 

You mentioned that you found success relatively quickly. Was there anything in particular that really helped you along? 

It all stems from releasing music, for us it did anyway. Everything else goes hand in hand with it. So if you’ve got the whole 360 model in place—we had a vision, a sound, and it all came together. When we broke through, we had so many tunes stored up. When we first started making house music we really studied the market and saw what sort of gaps were left there. I came from a dubstep background, and you saw that big basslines always go down really well in a club. So we thought, let’s incorporate that more into the house world, keeping the 4/4 formula and seeing where it goes. 

After we accumulated all of these tracks, we could see that people were playing them because we were going out on a limb to give them to every DJ you could ever imagine. We’d climb over fences, climb over barriers to make sure we got those tracks in the DJ’s hands. We’d speak to DJs, get email addresses—just do everything humanly possible to make sure people listened to the music. We knew that the music was of a good standard, we thought it was amazing, we believed in our music massively. That’s why we were able to push ourselves upon people, saying, “Listen to this, you need to listen to this.” 

I’ve had this a lot, people sending tracks saying, “This is a bomb.” And if you’re telling me it is, it has to be a bomb. When it’s not you think, I can’t really take this guy seriously. But when we were doing it we were 100% convinced. I’ve been in the music scene for 20 years. I’ve released music for years and years now, so I’m pretty confident that I know what works. That’s why I would literally bombard people with emails to make sure they listened to it. Sending tunes through Facebook, email, SoundCloud… every possible angle to make sure these people listened to it.

In the process of doing this we weren’t getting too far, but when we started our own label to release our own music then people’s ears started to prick up a little bit. We had such a big catalogue of music—maybe 35 tracks that we knew we could release, which we knew were of a high standard. We did other tracks around that time, but it was a learning curve to get to those 35 tracks that we were very happy with.     

So once we had the music out on our label, labels started picking up on us. When we’d have one release with someone, the word would get around, or we could spread that word ourselves by saying, “We’re releasing this tune on this label.” Then people’s ears prick up even more so. Soon we found that we had all 35 of those tracks signed to different labels. We had a release coming out every other week, which isn’t really the way you should do it—although there’s no real right or wrong way of doing it. People would say you shouldn’t release so much music, but I thought we were basically flooding the market… we had those tunes in circulation and people got to know our name. 

What we did do a lot is make videos for our tracks. I would just get videos off YouTube and edit them to the track. It was dead simple to do in iMovie. I didn’t know how to do it at the time but I do now. Facebook at that point, the algorithms didn’t force you to spend money on stuff. Obviously now if you put something on Facebook it doesn’t go anywhere unless you spend money on it. But back then you could put something out in a Facebook group and everyone would see it.

We’d make videos for each track and shamelessly post them in every music group we could possibly find, maybe 150 different groups, all of these house music groups. Some of them would get 20-odd thousand views. We realised that when you get people liking or commenting on it, we’d be able to drop the buy link into the comments thread and everyone would get a notification about the buy link. We then knew we’d have people wanting to buy the track, these were groups for DJs. 

One other thing we did: when we sent out tunes to people and saw they’d downloaded it, we’d go to events and force our way up on stage and film these big DJs playing the tracks. We were one of the first to do this; no other DJs were doing it because there was a feeling that people were a bit too cool to do that sort of thing. We weren’t arsed. We’d film any DJ of any description and we’d post it in these groups again. 

Once we had our name out there we then dropped some of our biggest tracks, like “Tribesmen” on Hot Creations, which was a Beatport #1. On the back of signing to a big label, every other big label wants to sign you. At that point we were able to really grow the label because we’d grown ourselves. We’d had number ones. Things snowballed from there, where we’d get loads of tracks sent to us and we could start picking out the best. 

Did you have any guidelines for how you’d approach signing artists? 

It was more what tunes we could play in our sets… We were playing a lot of places. Not for much money. But that’s why we were able to start signing music that was relevant to where we were playing. Any music we signed would be music we were playing in our sets. We were getting bigger, playing more and more places, people were speaking about us and wanted to know about the music we were playing. We wanted high-energy party music that gets people going, gets people talking about it. We got to the point where we’d get people to take videos of us playing. We’d say, “Here’s us playing this new track that’s coming out on Sola.” The whole thing worked together, where our growth worked for the growth of the label, and the label’s growth worked for our growth. 

Why is supporting new talent important to you?

We said this from the beginning: we know how hard it is to break into the music industry. It’s one of the hardest things in the world. I give talks at colleges and universities sometimes, and the first thing I say to them is to be a successful artist you’ve got to be ready for 99% rejection—probably even more. I’m pretty successful now and I still get 95% rejection. It’s one of those things you’ve just gotta get used to. We’re very aware of people getting rejected and the amount of good music out there that gets rejected. So we try to support as much music as possible and find these gems. To be honest, there are a lot of not very good tunes out there, but you’ve just got to go through them and you will find good ones.   

We’ve made so many artists through the label, picking up people that no one had ever heard of who went on to have good careers, so it just shows ourselves as well as others that making sure you look for these people is worth it. In the long run you will find the people who are going to do well. We do miss a lot of people still. We can’t listen to everyone. We lost the password for our music email recently, for about four months. We eventually found the password, opened it up and we had 22,000 demos. It’s the maddest thing and just shows much music is being made and sent. 

Wow that’s eye opening. I was actually going to ask if you know roughly how many demos you get sent each week? 

I’d say between me, James and the demo email, at least 1,000. We’re working on a new way of doing A&R at the moment. It’s going to be revolutionary. We’re involving everyone who sends tracks to do our work for us. So it’s basically going to be like an app, whereby you send music and then we send music to the people sending music, and they pick the best tracks. We see what the top-three tracks are, and they’ll then go through to another A&R department. We’ll know what everyone thinks is good. 

So you put music back into the pool of people who are creating music, and there’s a kind of up-voting system? 

Exactly yeah. We’ve got the app in beta version now. 

How much of the music you’re sent are you able to listen to? 

Like I said, we miss quite a lot. But what I usually find is, the people who are persistent—and there are people who are persistent—will keep sending things. I always say that if you persistently send something it will get listened to. In general my emails are so busy all of the time… so if something persistently pops up I’ll think, alright I’ll listen to this. 

Another thing I say to people: I’ll get messages off people saying, “What’s your email to send tunes to?” And to be honest with you, I don’t reply to many of them. The email is out there. 

I was going to say, it’s easily available. 

If you believe in your music that much and really want to get it out there… if you’ve gone to the trouble of finding the email for the label or finding our emails, I’ll know you’ve put a bit more effort in. If something pops into my personal email account I’ll think, you’ve actually gone out of your way here, you really believe in your music, you really wanna push it, so I will definitely listen to your music.   

Is there a way you’d advise people to package up their music when they’re sending it to labels?

I was told this by some big DJs. I used to send out every tune I had, 10, 20 in a playlist, but that does not work. Send your best three. If that doesn’t work, two weeks later send another three. And then another two weeks later, another three. If you get anyone saying, “Oh that’s good,” you then send them more, maybe the original ones. What I find when I’m flicking through tunes, if I flick through the first two or three I can usually tell what’s good from these, so I wouldn’t even bother listening to the other seven. I’m not being a knob, there’s just not the time. 

Sometimes people send you a WeTransfer link and expect you to download the tracks, where you can’t even see what’s there to download—I would never, ever do that. I tell them, “Just send me a SoundCloud link.” As an artist, you should send out SoundCloud links because then you can get an idea of who’s downloaded your music and then you can do a followup email. That’s what we used to do, you just pay the extra money for a SoundCloud Pro account. You then know there’s a purpose behind chasing someone up. 

The whole thing is about persistence. It all goes back to the 99% rejection thing. Be aware that you’re gonna get blanks to a lot of emails. I send tracks to big people who will download them and not get back to me, and I’ll do the same to them. It’s not being rude, it’s having so much music. You think, I’ll download it, go and play it, if it works, maybe a month later, I’ll get back to them. That’s just how the music scene is. Don’t take it personally. It’s one of the things you need to accept when sending out music. 

When you’re considering signing someone does their backstory come into the decision at all? 

Not really, no. People write a story sometimes and to be honest with you I don’t read it. The whole thing is a race against time. You’ve got so many to go through. You’re not going to spend five minutes reading someone’s backstory because it’s the music that does the talking, not the email. If the music is good I might read a bit of it. But all I need to know is the bare minimum. We can make our story through your music, we can build that up as we go along. We’re not signing stuff off the back of where you come from or what you’ve done or where you’ve played—we don’t really care, in the nicest possible way. It’s all down to the music. 

Where do you stand on the process of feedback on releases? Say you’re interested in releasing something, will you get very hands-on in terms of suggesting changes to the music? 

I do this quite a lot, yeah. What I find is sometimes they’ll have great ideas but the arrangement is completely off. I like to make and release tunes that work in 16 bars or 32 bars. It just makes life a lot easier. A big selling point of a track for us is that you’re mixing it and you know the arrangement is going to work. It’s done properly whereby it’s just going to work with your set. If people have done a 16 or 32-bar intro but then there are another four random bars at the end of that, it’s going to make it hard to mix it into a normal track that’s been done in 16s. So I might say to them, “The arrangement is a bit off here, just work it in 16s.” 

Also a lot of time I’ll mention the mix. I’ve got a tune at the moment that I might sign but the mix is just not there. There are little things in a mix that you don’t realise play a big part. If you buy a track off Beatport, you’ll get it on the basis of the 30-second clip. You’ll play it once and maybe realise that the mix isn’t as good as the other tracks you’re playing. When this happens you subliminally decide not to play the track, even if you like it, because it just doesn’t fit in. Even if a track is amazing, the ideas are amazing, you think it’ll go off—but if the mix doesn’t fit with everything else because the quality isn’t as good, the track suddenly doesn’t make your sets. It won’t make other people’s sets, so people won’t hear it and people won’t buy it. 

I’ll also get tunes where I think the sample is cheesy, or it doesn’t need the sample, or it does need a sample or needs a vocal in there to sell the record. I’ll maybe go back to them and say, “Take that vocal out and try a different vocal.” With the tracks I release I’ll always want some stand-out part of it. That might either be a stand-out bassline—which isn’t that easy to get in house music because a lot of tunes will have a rolling sound. I’ll say, “Just try and get a vocal sample or a vocal loop to make the tune stand out.” Or a synth sound to make it stand out.   

My thinking behind this was when I used to go and buy records, drum & bass and jungle records when I was young, I always remember going into the record shops after hearing tunes on tape packs from raves. You’d hear DJs play these tracks and then go into the record shop on Monday morning and say, “Have you got that record that has this vocal in?” Or, “This riff that goes duh duh duh.” But if you don’t have that selling point it would have been very hard to go in there and find those tunes. So this was always my thinking behind signing tracks for the label. They need that stand-out element so that someone can at least say to their friend, “Have you heard that tune that does this?”

I noticed you use compilation releases a lot. I get the feeling they’re becoming more popular among labels. It seems like a good way of road testing new artists for a possible future EP. 

That’s exactly it. Now we’ve built Sola to a certain level whereby we’re an established record label, people know to go to listen to Sola music regardless of whether it’s in the charts. If you see one of our compilations you’re probably going to listen to it…

With the compilation albums, when we get new artists—we only do 12 releases a year on Sola and we do 12 releases a year on Sola Nauts. There aren’t that many spaces to release music, but we get a lot of artists who are up-and-comers, whose tracks we play in our sets, tracks we think are quality. We can’t, so to speak, waste that release on Sola. To make sure we get a successful release on Sola we need to build up an artist on a compilation. Get them into the Beatport Top 100 through releasing on the compilation. That way we can look to release more music from those newer artists as an actual EP further down the line. We might have to put them on compilations a few times, just to build up that backing. 

It could also work that if we put them on a compilation, other labels might sign them. And then people will begin to know the artist through other labels. It’s like Man United getting a player who’s amazing but needs some work, so they send him out on loan to another club. We’ve done that with loads of people, like Mason Maynard, Sosa, Eldon. It’s a bit of a waiting game for artists. You can’t just jump straight into [success] nowadays. You’ve got to have a bit of a plan behind you. The whole idea is to build people up and make sure they’re successful long-term. 

Do you have to manage people’s expectations? It’s probably harder than ever to break into this thing. 

It is, yeah. But it’s what I said: you’ve got to build people up. We built ourselves up through releasing our music, releasing on loads of different labels. Once we were getting somewhere we had a big tune to put out to really put ourselves towards the front of it all. I could sign a track that is really strong from an unknown artist and put it out straight onto Sola. But if that track doesn’t do well for them it’s a waste of a release. It’s also going to be very disheartening for them… The music scene isn’t easy. In terms of trying to break into it, it’s probably not far off being a footballer. Everyone can be a DJ—but a successful one, touring the world, that’s not easy to do. 

There are so many one-hit wonders out there. So many, I can reel them off. That’s because they’ve just jumped straight into it. They’ve not actually learned what goes into this, how hard the music industry is, to sustain yourself as an artist. The whole idea is that you take small steps and those steps get bigger and bigger. Then once you’re at a certain level you can start putting the big tunes out. That’s the model we try to work with on Sola. 

Is there any other advice you’d like to offer people? 

One thing I think you should never do, which happens all the time, is people get in touch saying, “Oh this is my first tune, what do you think?” What’s the point of me listening to it, it’s not going to be good. Then further down the line when you send me a tune I’m not going to bother listening to it. That sounds harsh, but that’s how it works. 

I remember doing it myself. My first tunes in dubstep, pushing them on people saying, “This is the best, this is amazing.” When I look back on those tunes now I think, oh my god, they’re the biggest pile of shit. It closes the ears of the people listening to your music… I say this to people all the time: don’t jump on the first boat out to sea. Make sure you work and work on your tunes. 

When I started doing Solardo I knew all of this and it’s one thing I took away from my career doing dubstep. I went around so many different people’s studios getting feedback as opposed to sending emails. After making about 100 tunes I realised that the music was really good enough to stand behind. Travelling to Mexico, to BPM Festival, climbing over barriers and saying to DJs, “You have to listen to this!” You have to make sure your music is of that level. 

Steve Lawler was one guy particularly we did this to. He was missing loads of tunes, not listening to them. I jumped over a barrier and said, “Listen: you need to listen to this because this will change the game. It’s the best music you’re going to listen to potentially this year.” When you say something like that to someone they’re going to take you seriously. But if they listen to your music and it isn’t that they’re going to think, what a wanker he was. The next day at BPM he played 11 of our tunes in his sets. I basically stood there and said, “I told you.” 

Obviously these bigger DJs go to afterparties… They’ll be speaking about new music, about producers, and I assume Steve would have been at an afterparty [talking about us]. Next thing you know, word starts spreading around quickly. That’s why I emphasize the fact that before you start pushing your music passionately on people, make sure it’s as best it can possibly be. Show your music to your mates but then try to show people who don’t like your music, or ideally don’t like you, or you don’t know them. Say, “What do you reckon to this?” I play my music to so many people, saying, “I don’t care if you don’t like it, you just have to tell me.” 

Words: Ryan Keeling

Design: Olesia Li

Creamfields photo credit: Anthony Mooney