Cull the Herd
The Definitive Guide to Deciding Where to Submit Your Music
This article first appeared in FlyPaper by Soundfly. I reprint it here with permission, and I encourage you to check out their courses. You can get a 15% discount code on a subscription using the promo code AJTRUMM15.
You can’t be everywhere all the time. Still, it’s hard not to fall into the trap of trying to do just that. In the music business, there are thousands upon thousands of gatekeepers, promotional outlets, and other “opportunities” where you can submit your tracks. Since promoting music is largely about submitting and submitting and submitting again, you can’t simply ignore this aspect of the business.
That said, there is no way you can realistically submit to everything, so you need to pick and choose. How to decide who should get your music can be a bit tricky to figure out. Plenty of people will advise you, and everyone accepting music will recommend you submit to them, but the truth is the right plan is different for everyone.
Knowing that your time is precious, here are some things to consider when evaluating whether to submit to a particular opportunity or company.
First things first. Let’s define the types of companies and submission opportunities out there. There may be some variance and crossover here, but generally everyone you could submit to falls into one of these categories:
- Press – Anyone who writes or talks about music, usually in text format. This includes traditional print magazines and zines, online magazines, blogs, and podcasts.
- Radio – Anyone whose purpose is to broadcast music, including terrestrial radio (commercial, college and public), online radio, satellite radio, and streaming playlist curators.
- Licensing – Companies or individuals whose job is to place music in film, TV, advertising, video games, or other creative content which uses music. For our purposes here, this also includes publishers.
- Labels – Record labels, both major and independent. Anyone looking to profit from promoting and distributing music.
- Agents/Managers – Any person or company who manages artists’ careers or helps artists shop for labels, performances or other opportunities.
- Venues – Any place where a musician might perform. This includes everything from coffee shops to bars to huge festivals.
Every category of submission opportunity has its own unique considerations, but to start with there are a few things to think about, no matter who or what you’re pitching to.
First off, think about your goals. Do you want to find new fans to go to your shows? Are you trying to make money as quickly as possible? Are you building a brand around a musical act, or are you a producer trying to produce instrumentals and make a living?
It may seem obvious, but you don’t need to submit to every category for every goal. For example, if your only goal is to place instrumental cues in video productions, you don’t need any press or radio connections. In fact in that case the only category you need to worry about is licensing.
Next, there are a few universal considerations to think over in every case.
Make sure the people you’re submitting to work with your genre. It may go without saying, but lots of musicians don’t bother to research this crucial aspect, and waste a lot of time in the process, not to mention annoying the people on the other end and damaging their own reputation.
How reputable is the company or person you’re submitting to? Is there any risk to making a deal with them? We’ll talk about submission fees in a moment, but also consider whether the company will be hard to deal with, or whether the time you put in to deal with it will really be worth the effort.
This consideration is closely tied to reputation. If the entity is a major player with a great reputation, you may stand to gain a lot more than with other companies. If the potential reward is big, you may be willing to go to more trouble.
Speaking of effort, some submission processes are easier than others. Sometimes it’s as simple as sending an email with a streaming link to your music, and sometimes you can find yourself spending an hour or more per song filling out forms and checking boxes just to be considered. When it comes to business efficiency, this can be a make or break consideration.
This is probably the stickiest and most contentious consideration. Quite often, pay-to-play is a red flag, but there are situations where it’s ok. If there is a fee, you should be sure that the company has a great reputation, and that your music is really on the mark for their needs. You also need to consider the potential return more seriously. It may only cost five bucks to submit a song to a brief, but if you’re playing a numbers game and submitting song after song, it can add up.
Also, submission fees could indicate something very important that you should consider seriously. They could mean that the company’s revenue model is based on your submissions. Companies like this will often encourage you to submit too often, overstate the potential of your return, or do any number of other shady things to keep you paying in. It also means that this company doesn’t really need to believe in you or your music to accept your music.
If you think a company might be worth it even though they charge submission or membership fees, check with peers and try to find out if anyone is actually making money. If your friends like the company, but can’t point to any revenue generated from them, that’s a big red flag.
When it comes to venues, you shouldn’t pay to play. If you’re renting a space, that’s a bit different, but don’t pay regular venues a fee to submit or play.
Once you’ve gone through the major considerations above, there are some category-specific things to consider.
Applicable to press, radio and somewhat to label submissions, the question of reach is simply how many potential fans can this outlet reach? For press type outlets, check into their readership, website traffic or subscription numbers. For radio, what’s their listenership? For labels, look at how big their other artists are, what their overall budget is, and how many connections to press, radio and other outlets they have.
In the licensing realm, you’ll want to consider how many placements they have under their belt, and how widely exposed those placements are. A company that has thousands of placements in small YouTube videos spots may the biggest overall reach, but one that has dozens of national ad placements may also be a powerful ally.
Who you’re able to reach is as important as how many people you can get to. If your submission is genre-appropriate, you’re already in a good place here, but it’s worth it to further consider a company’s focus. If you’re looking at a label for example, they may have a very wide reach but be spread too thin. A magazine may claim to be national but only have a few readers in each city. Especially if your goal involves getting people to your shows, you’re better off submitting to press, radio and labels who are strong in the areas you want to play. Genre-specific blogs and playlists may be better for finding fans than generalized publications and shows.
When it comes to licensing companies, consider your own goals. Your basic genre may be on point, but if your goal is to produce songs and sing them, you may not want to spend much time with libraries that focus on instrumental cues. Some licensing firms are all around companies, and some specialize in very specific areas like advertising or film and TV. Consider where your music has the best chance of being used and go for the companies in that area.
When you’re considering an agent or a manager, their biggest asset is industry relationships. Don’t just consider how many people they know, though. Consider how deep and lasting their relationships are, and how trusted they are.
Payment isn’t something you need to consider for promotional opportunities like press and radio. But if you’re submitting to labels, licensing companies or venues, you need to know not only WHAT they will pay, but HOW.
Consider the percentages they offer and what the terms are. This is especially important in licensing. Many licensing agreements are super unfavorable, with really long payment terms, clauses that allow non-payment for certain usages, or any number of odd chicanery that might not suit you. If you can, read their terms before you submit. If you can’t live with their terms, there’s no reason to submit.
Similarly if you’re submitting to a venue for performance, find out ahead of time how they deal with money. Do they pay a guaranteed amount? Do you share the door? Are you allowed to sell merch? Again, try to get some idea what you’re likely to make before you submit.
Exclusivity is a consideration mainly for licensing submissions. Label deals are always exclusive, agent/manager relationships are generally exclusive, and exclusivity isn’t a question in promotional settings.
However, in licensing, exclusivity (or the lack of it) is a major consideration. There are a lot of opinions on what’s better – an exclusive deal or a non-exclusive – but when it comes down to it, your needs will determine what works best.
For the most part, artists are not asked to sign licensing or publishing deals that tie up everything they do. Usually, exclusive deals in this realm apply to individual songs or groups of songs.
Generally, if you place songs with licensing agents or libraries non-exclusively, it means that you’re free to place the same song with other companies, or shop it directly to productions yourself. The one main drawback is the risk of having multiple companies pitch your song to the same production. This can get awkward, so many licensing-focused musicians try to pick only one company in each niche (advertising, film, etc).
There may be an advantage to accepting an exclusive deal, though. Usually, an exclusive deal with a licensing company or publisher means that company will work harder to place the song. If the company is a good one with a lot of clout, it may be a no brainer to accept an exclusive deal. Just remember to vet the company first. There are a few bad companies out there offering exclusive deals, and you don’t want to be locked into one of those.
Finally, consider your competition. A healthy amount of competition isn’t bad, but too much could be. Anyone worth submitting to is getting hundreds of submissions, so you’ll have to deal with that no matter what, but there are a couple of scenarios where it’s a bigger concern.
Those situations involve licensing and labels. Specifically, consider how much other music is rostered on a label or licensing company. Are you one of a few powerful, handpicked greats that the company really believes in, or are you one of thousands? Being a face in the crowd isn’t always bad, but especially when it comes to any kind of exclusive deal like a label deal, you need to be aware of how much this company will really be putting into you.
If you’re offered a deal with a failing label owned by a struggling major superstar, for example, there probably won’t be many resources left over for you. Similarly if a licensing company is offering thousands of artists exclusive deals, that’s not likely to go well for you.
None of this is to say you should shy away from competition. If you have a chance to submit to an advertising brief worth $200,000, by all means do it! Sure there will be more competition, but you could win! Just be judicious about putting yourself in positions where you don’t have that chance.
Go forth and submit
It doesn’t take much time to consider these factors before making submissions, and when you do, you’ll save yourself a lot more by doing so. You’ll also find your success rate is better, and you’ll have more time to do what you really love, and that’s making music. So go forth, and efficiently submit your music!