1. They can’t make any money on it.
It’s show business, not show art. The bottom line is the bottom line. Major labels don’t care if you’re the new Mozart Beatles, if they can’t make any money on you they’re not interested, now more than ever, where recordings render less cash than ever.
2. Radio doesn’t want to play it.
Marketing. At this date, radio is still number one. Once again, if you deliver the album of the century, a full-length opus that can’t be cut up and aired on a radio station that will generate sales, the major label won’t play it. This is what the major labels know best. They’ve got huge radio promotion departments. Deliver something they can get airplay on and they’ll take a whack at it. At many major labels the head of promotion is the most powerful person. Even if the A&R guy or the President gets you signed, if the head of promotion shrugs his or her shoulders and refuses to make an effort, you’re dead in the water.
3. Major labels are most interested in Top Forty airplay.
Top Forty sells tonnage. That’s where all the eyeballs are. That’s where stars are built. So decry Max Martin and Dr. Luke and Katy Perry all you want, they’ve just calculated the percentages and gone where all the action is. Doesn’t mean you have to go there too, just means if you don’t want to go there, the major label probably isn’t interested.
4. You refuse input.
Sure, acts had power in the seventies. The labels didn’t meddle with the product. But with so much money involved today, and so much risk, the label wants the ability to get you to use a cowriter, or sing someone else’s song, or redo the track with a new producer. You can earn the power to do it your way over time, then again, Clive Davis wasn’t happy when Kelly Clarkson did this and let her album languish. Doesn’t matter how good your album is, it’s whether they decide to put the weight of the company behind it. Furthermore, the label doesn’t care about albums. Oh, they want an album to sell, because of the price point, but they truly only care about singles. Tell them an album has four or even seven singles and they’re thrilled. Tell them it’s got no singles but tells an incredible story and their jaws will drop and refuse to release it.
5. It doesn’t play overseas.
Now more than ever before in history a label wants a record with reach. Something that can be spun in Greece and China and Brazil and a bunch of countries most Americans haven’t been to, never mind lack the ability to spell. Just because the makers of music are oftentimes unsophisticated, that does not mean those running the labels are. Proffering something that plays only in the U.S. is like trying to get Yahoo to buy your app that only works in Rhode Island. It’s all about scale. The risk is in product creation. Make something great and it can sell everywhere.
6. It’s just not good enough.
Good is subjective. You must filter it through all of the above. Most people don’t have the talent, almost no one can meet the requirements. (See #3 above, the star producers know the game, and that’s important.) And good is not good enough. Back in the seventies, when there were 5,000 albums a year and no national radio, never mind MTV, a label could get something “good” on a radio station and via relentless touring get traction in specific markets. Those days are through. The best of the best is available to everybody online 24/7. That’s who you’re competing with. Not the band down the street, but Rihanna. Oh, you think Rihanna’s garbage? Well, do you look like her? Are you willing to have your songs written by committee in camps? Are you willing to do whatever it takes to make it? Oh, I didn’t think so.
7. Because you’re good-looking and can sing and that’s it.
Major labels want someone who can write, someone with a personality, someone with something more than TV competition qualities. Isn’t it interesting that no one breaks out of “The Voice,” and you can win “American Idol” and not end up a recording star. Because those qualities are not enough, and if everybody knowing your name were enough, Paris Hilton’s recording career would be a juggernaut and Heidi Montag would be at the top of the charts.
8. You haven’t demonstrated anybody is interested.
That’s how you get signed today. By showing you’ve already got fans. YouTube views are important, but even more important is how many people show up at your show, in multiple markets. Since it’s all about the money, if you’re generating some and the sky’s the limit, the major label is interested, despite all of the above, they want in on that action. If you’re recording goose farts and your stage show resembles a rodeo and you’re ugly as sin the major label doesn’t care as long as people show up and buy merch and recordings.
9. Because you don’t want to be on one.
Now, more than ever, you can go it alone. You don’t even have to sign with an independent label, which usually loves your music but is underfunded and poor at marketing and struggles to pay royalties. Sure, some acts with traction sign with a major label. Because they want to be bigger, they want to tie themselves to the major label marketing machine. Does it work? You can decide for yourself. But you don’t have to make a deal. You can get an agent and book tours and sell recordings at the gig and on iTunes and stream on Spotify without the major label touching your efforts whatsoever. But if you want major label support, you’ve got to play by their rules.