Music producers play a vital role in the creation of musical projects of all kinds.
They are often thought of as “behind the scenes” contributors, unless of course they’ve achieved the notoriety of people like Timbaland, Phil Spector, or Brian Eno, whose influence can be deeply felt on the pop music landscape.
Looking at these examples, it would be easy to assume every successful producer could be signed to a label just as an artist could be. But is this true?
In this guide, we consider whether music producers can get signed to a record label.
Can A Music Producer Sign To A Record Label? – Quick Answer
Generally, labels are only looking to sign artists and not music producers.
Does this mean that music producers can’t be signed to a label? No.
Whether it’s Dr. Dre, Timbaland, or Mark Ronson, there are many examples of producers who are currently signed, have been signed at one time or another, have created their own labels, or are executives at a label.
Do keep in mind, though, that many of these producers were, at some point, artists (if they aren’t still an artist today).
Which means this:
To be signed to a label as a producer, you will need to develop your own artistic career, rise through the ranks with a handful of artists you produce, create a trademark sound, and / or have a marketable image / brand and larger than life personality.
Getting hired by a label, on the other hand, is a matter of who you know, your overall notoriety, and your skill / experience level. Labels hire producers for projects all the time, so it’s fair to say this might be a more viable opportunity overall.
But if you’re still determined to be signed to a label as a producer, keep reading…
How Can I Get Signed To A Label As A Music Producer?
Before we consider the steps involved, it’s critical to know one thing:
Assuming the music you produce is on par with major label projects, your chances of being signed to a major independent label is roughly one in 100 (or 1%)! And being singed to an independent label might only be a steppingstone onto your goal.
So, there are no guarantees that your hard work will be rewarded or recognized. And while stressing over the facts isn’t going to help you, if you don’t face the reality that 99% of artists (never mind producers) aren’t signed, you will not do what it takes to attract the attention of a label in the first place.
Keep in mind, though, that you can still earn a very good income, even as an independent music producer or as a founding member of a local studio. Your chances of achieving this goal are much better than finding a label that will sign you.
As noted earlier, major labels also regularly hire record producers, so this may be a more viable path as well.
The only guaranteed way to be signed to a label, though, is to start your own.
With that, here are the steps you can take to ensure your success:
Work On Your Skills
Become a better producer. Study plenty. Experiment lots. Work with a variety of artists in various genres. Try different workflows, gear, and setups. Be willing to take on projects pro bono for a while.
Unless your mixes are on par with top 40 productions, there is always more to learn. So, don’t try to shortcut the process. Successful producers earn their stripes.
Develop Your Signature Sound
Become known as the go-to producer in a specific genre, style, or sound.
This seems like paradoxical advice to what I said earlier about challenging yourself with a variety of artists and styles, but here’s the deal:
First, you will learn something from every project you take on, regardless of style.
Second, finding your signature sound will likely require that you study and experiment widely.
No matter how you cut it, it’s going to take some time and effort. You can’t decide to be a producer today and have the world handed to you on a silver platter tomorrow.
But if you can find your signature sound – a sound that appeals to the masses – you can become the “go-to” person for said sound.
Just look at Timbaland. His work with Ginuwine, Aaliyah, and Missy Elliot helped him rise through the ranks. And before long, he was working with Justin Timberlake, Jay-Z, Madonna, Rihanna, Nelly Furtado, and many others.
If someone wanted that sound, they had to turn to Timbaland. And that’s what you should aspire to as well.
Brian Eno is another personality whose ambient influence is undeniable, whether with David Bowie, U2, or Coldplay. And today he is one of the top paid musicians in the world.
What are you good at? In what area could you specialize? Raw, edgy synth sounds? A new kind of drumbeat? Making guitars sound like pianos?
While there are no shortcuts to success, specializing in a niche wouldn’t hurt.
Work On Your Brand
We’ve already looked at some of the reasons why getting signed as a producer (versus getting signed as an artist) is difficult.
The artists that get signed to record deals are those with a marketable image. Typically, they already have a following and a proven track record with their music.
If you don’t work on your image / brand, the road to getting signed will prove rough indeed.
So, who do you want to be known as? Whose success could you model and emulate? Who would you have to be to be a “no brainer” to be signed to a record label?
Think long and hard on these questions because music alone isn’t going to get you to where you want to go. You must be able to produce at a high level to get signed in the first place, but the packaging the product comes wrapped in isn’t any less important.
And again, while this might sound like paradoxical advice, in your search to finding role models, don’t leave your individual and distinct flavor out of the picture. It could be the key to your success.
Find Your Collaborators
It may seem like all successful people are self-made, and it’s what most media outlets would have you believe.
But behind every great man or woman is usually a team of great men and women. This is what they don’t want you to know.
Rising through the ranks will prove more viable if you develop your “inner circle” – a group of artists, collaborators, and even team members or helpers who are just as dedicated as you are to achieving success in the music industry.
You could adopt the habits of a major label, and work on two releases per year with each of your artists, demonstrating your reliability and work ethic.
You could establish an independent label with the intent of selling it to a bigger label.
If you think outside the box, there are a few different ways to get what you ultimately want.
But no one is self-made, even those who say they are. At some point, they had to turn to a magazine article, book, course, mentor, agent, or otherwise. They had to dig deep and find the motivation to persist even when nothing seemed to be happening in their careers.
Develop your team and you’ll scale your productivity to unprecedented levels.
Don’t Forget The Business Side Of Music
Producers, just like artists, love what they do. They enjoy the process of thinking about production, microphone placement, vintage EQs, and so on.
But there’s a harsh reality few are willing to face, namely that the business side of music isn’t getting better at what you do (i.e., learning more about music production). The business of music, at its core, is learning to market yourself.
Sure, negotiation, contracts, legalities, and other administrative details are still important. You need to ensure professionalism.
But more than that, if you want your projects to reach anyone, you shouldn’t just rely on the artists you work with to get the word out. You should also take it upon yourself to learn the ropes of marketing and promotion.
Both artists and producers make a critical error in thinking, namely that they think they’ll be able to hand off their marketing to some expert or agency. But no one is more qualified to market you than you are, and every minute and dime spent learning about marketing is only going to benefit your career.
Also take note – you can go further faster working together. Depending on artists to market their own releases could hold you back. You’ve got to be willing to put in the work too.
Additionally, if you can market well, you might even be able to work it into your negotiations. There’s virtually no downside to understanding the business of music.
Is It Worth Establishing Your Own Label?
You probably noticed my statement from earlier in this guide:
The only guaranteed way to be signed to a label is to start your own.
So, is it worth starting your own label?
To be honest, there are pros and cons to everything. So, let’s examine the upsides and downsides of starting your own label.
Pros To Starting Your Own Label
Here are the main upsides to starting your own label:
- You’ll have more ownership over the work you produce
- You can tap into more revenue sources
- It gives you more authority and credibility overall (everyone will take you more seriously, including artists, other producers, fans, etc.)
- You’ll be able to create a proper legal and practical structure for working with artists and ensure you are paid what you are owed (along with more legal protection)
- It can lead to more opportunity (more work, media coverage, interest from investors, etc.)
- To lesser or greater degrees, the work you do as a producer will begin to look more like the work of a label anyway (so, you may as well lean into it)
- If you are successful, a major label may acquire your label for a substantial sum of money (and you may be able to negotiate staying on as the primary producer)
Cons To Starting Your Own Label
Here are the primary downsides to starting your own label:
- It will be more work and responsibility overall (though there’s always the opportunity to form partnerships for a percentage of your business)
- There will be some work and cost associated with founding your label (and it can be confusing)
- You’ll need to market your label (which isn’t necessarily a con, but guaranteed it’s going to require more of your time)
- You’ll need to manage your artists, unless you put someone else in charge of this (ditto)
- You’ll have to submit your (corporate) income taxes (though you will likely need to do this anyway)
- The business side of running a label could detract you from focusing on the creative side of your label and projects
Examples Of Signed Producers
To carve out a path for ourselves, it’s critical that we know what has come before us.
Even if you were signed to a record deal today, you wouldn’t be the first producer in history to be approached with this opportunity. There are those who’ve come before you, and there’s always something to be learned from them.
Here are several examples of producers who have or had an artistic career, are record executives, or have had a dual role as an artist and producer.
When you think of “Uptown Funk,” the association with superstar pop sensation Bruno Mars is quite strong. But Mark Ronson is in fact the top billed artist on the track.
Ronson is a British-American DJ, songwriter, record producer, and record executive.
Besides Bruno Mars, he’s also worked with Duran Duran, Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga, Robbie Williams, Queens of the Stone Age, and others.
Ronson has won an Academy Award, Golden Globe, and seven Grammy Awards, including Producer of the Year and two Record of the Year singles.
Dr. Dre is known for many things, whether it’s signing Eminem or starting the Apple acquisition Beats by Dre.
But this American rapper, record producer, and entrepreneur rose to prominence with N.W.A., as well as his solo debut The Chronic.
In the 2000s, Dre started putting more of his energy into producing the likes of Snoop Dogg, Xzibit, Kendrick Lamark, and others.
Dre has earned six Grammy Awards and he was even the second richest figure in hop-hip in 2018.
American record producer, rapper, singer, songwriter, and executive Timbaland set practically every current pop trend you can name.
He started out producing the likes of Ginuwine, Aaliyah, and Missy Elliot, but would later go onto work with stars such as Justin Timberlake, Nelly Furtado, Jay-Z, Nas, Ludacris, Madonna, Rihanna, OneRepublic, and many others.
In 2007, he released Shock Value, his second solo album, and followed it up with Shock value II in 2009.
But we all know him best for his extensive producer credits.
Trent Reznor is known best as the creator of the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails. As the vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and chief songwriter for the project, he was the only official member of the group until 2016.
Reznor has contributed to the albums of Marilyn Manson, Saul Williams, and Halsey.
In 2010, he would make the transition to working on film and television scores with Atticus Ross.
Reznor is clearly a force to reckon with in a variety of categories, and his production credits are also extensive.
American singer-songwriter, record producer, artist, and poet Ryan Adams has released 20 albums as a solo artist, and three studio albums with Whiskeytown.
Adams has produced the likes of Willie Nelson, Fall Out Boy, and Jenny Lewis, and has also collaborated with Counting Crows, Weezer, and Norah Jones, among others.
First as the drummer of the unforgettable Nirvana, next as the founder of rock band Foo Fighters (originally a one-man project), then as a member of countless side projects (Them Crooked Vultures, Late!, Probot, etc.), Dave Grohl has remained prolific now even into his 50s.
Grohl has produced for the likes of Tenacious D, Ghost, and Rye Coalition.
Of Queens of the Stone Age fame, Josh Homme is an American musician, singer, and songwriter.
He created Them Crooked Vultures alongside Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones in 2009, and in 2016, he would produce, co-write, and perform on Iggy Pop’s Post Pop Depression.
Homme has also worked with acts like Foo Fighters, Arctic Monkeys, and Run the Jewels.
As one of the top paid musicians in the world, British musician, composer, record producer, and visual artist Brian Eno’s fingerprints are all over the works of Robert Fripp, David Bowie, David Byrne, Talking Heads, Devo, U2, Coldplay, and countless others.
He is best known for adding sound-scaped ambient textures to rock albums, and under his direction, a surprising number of artists have found broader reach.
The late and great Phil Spector was an American record producer and songwriter. He is best known for having created the “Wall of Sound” production style he described as “a Wagnerian approach to rock and roll.” He was one of the most successful producers of the 1960s and one of the most influential individuals in pop music history.
Spector’s production credits tell the rest of the story. He worked with the likes of The Beatles, John Lennon, George Harrison, Righteous Brothers, Leonard Cohen, and the Ramones, among many others.
Can Music Producers Get Signed To A Record Deal? Final Thoughts
At the end of the day, becoming a successful record producer versus vying for the attention of labels would look like two different paths. And you’re the only one who knows for sure which is the right path for you.
But it is not impossible for a record producer to be singed to a label. We’ve looked at numerous examples, and there are many more out there. They do have certain commonalities, though, so if you want to follow in their footsteps, you’ll want to study the successes of those who’ve gone before you and identify the steps you can take to reach the summit.
Best of luck!