I had a chance to talk with the head of Toolroom records, Stuart Knight. Here’s a paraphrased version of our conversation where we discuss how to get signed as an unknown artist, the evolution of labels, and the impact of COVID.
Joey: How are you, Stuart?
Stuart: Very busy! I’m coming off a virtual music conference and making a lot of progress at the label. Toolroom is the main record label that I’m in charge of, but I also help look after our sublabels like Toolroom Trax and Zerothree. We’re always trying to find new music, so it’s been quite productive during this time as everyone’s at home and in the studio
Joey: Are you noticing that artists are becoming more productive during quarantine?
Stuart: Yeah, when there isn’t a live performance side, the creation and the production side really comes to the front. We’re about to release a T2 album, which is a collaboration between 32 different artists who are randomly chosen to collaborate by pulling a name from a hat. So we’re definitely seeing artists being more productive.
Joey: So your release schedule is stacked up until December?
Stuart: I talked to Matt, our label manager, and he’s got a tentative release schedule to the end of the year, which is great. This means we can also spend more time marketing our records, as it’s hard at the moment without the live side.
Joey: How do you deal with marketing tracks as a label given that nothing can be played or promoted live?
Stuart: The lack of live shows has an impact. In addition to shifting towards livestreams, we’re also focusing on album projects which are more stream friendly for Spotify, not just the dancefloor.
Joey: I have some questions from the Artist Coaching community that I’d love to ask you. The first one is if an artist sends you an instrumental track that you like, would you help find a vocalist?
Stuart: Yeah, of course. The strength of Toolroom is our A&R department’s ability to take a record and make it the best it can be. If it’s a great instrumental which needs improvement through a vocal, we’ve got the connections and experience in the industry to hook those things up and develop the song. That’s really what a label should be doing. Don’t get me wrong, we’d like for people to try and put their own vocals on, but of course we’d help if the track has potential.
Joey: Does the same process apply to mixing and mastering? For example, if the song has potential, but somehow just doesn’t sound right.
Stuart: Yeah, we put a lot of trust and value on mixing and mastering. Andy, our engineer, is very skilled at what he does and knows the sound we’re looking for. It’s the role of a record label to really polish the product and make it the best possible. We’re also making sure that the artist is happy with the product as well.
Joey: The million-dollar question: how do you get signed as an unknown artist?
Stuart: Talent, determination, and perseverance. Determination shows that you are going to keep improving, and perseverance shows that you won’t take ‘no’ for an answer (be polite!).
Artists should also try to build levels of communication. Big record labels always have their eye on the market. You’ll be surprised how many labels are monitoring what’s going on under the surface. It’s a small world, and that’s the beauty of it. If you can make the right connections and keep that level of communication up, your voice starts to become louder, and it’s easier for people to listen to your music, and then ultimately sign you. There isn’t one particular thing that’s going to get you signed; it’s a combination of four or five different things that you constantly have to be working on.
Joey: What are some other things that big labels look out for?
Stuart: We very much see an artist and a project as almost a business within its own right. This means your social media, branding, production, etc. has to be on point. Especially for bigger labels, they are looking for people who are organized and have their shit together.
Gone are the days of plucking someone from obscurity and turning them into a star. Big labels amplify what an artist has already started. A great record is good, to begin with, but you need more for a label to be really confident and put their team and resources behind you.
Joey: Do you think it’s a smart strategy for an artist to start releasing music themselves to get the ball rolling and possibly gather support from other DJs and smaller labels?
Stuart: Totally. Again, labels with a good A&R will notice. We monitor the bowels of the industry. It definitely takes a lot more hard work and dedication to self-release, but if you have consistency, solid artwork, and socials, we can see if you’re ready to join a bigger organization.
Joey: In the last couple of years, we’ve started to see labels creating “homes” for certain artists. Now, if you’re trying to play at a festival, you have to be part of a label family to get placed on a stage. Do you think it’s important to be a part of one label or releasing on different ones?
Stuart: Most organizations are looking for a level of loyalty for the investment they make; however, balancing between a couple of different labels can also benefit all sides. It comes down to communication. If you openly and honestly communicate with your label and say that a release on another imprint may bring a new fanbase and sales, they will understand.
Joey: Here’s a hard but honest question: do you think Toolroom will still exist in 10 years?
Stuart: Yeah, of course, I do. There are loads of more things that we want to do and achieve. As to what shape a record label is in 10 years, I couldn’t tell you, and to be honest with you, I think that’s the excitement of why I want to do it for over 10 years. If I knew, I would probably be bored because the industry would be too predictable. We’ll have to adapt to situations. Obviously, labels will still be about music, but I think it may be more of a lifestyle thing where you buy into a record label.
Joey: Thanks for your time!