Well, record deal is definitely as important as it used to be, but when you present to a label you should have a cohesive mastered product, and better make it with artwork.
In 2017 my band released our first EP, recorded and played at our practice studio. The performances were killer, but the sound wasn’t 100%. Reaction was good but nowhere as good as our current EP which has 2 of the songs from that first EP. The current EP is commercially recorded, mixed and mastered as opposed to the previous one which was handled in house. We also paid for the artwork and had CDs produced professionally. This whole package sells well and definitely better than our previous one. Record companies (mainly distro and indie labels) are taking note and it is selling good in local indie stores.
Have we recouped the costs? Not by a long stretch yet, but it is a material that we can confidently present to labels and managers. So IMO that’s another aspect why people need to have their product as close to a major label sound as possible.
Then in some regards Metallica turned the whole concept upside down with “St. Anger”, which was an awful hack job of an album, awful sonics, bad music and still sold like hotcakes.