PR: Who Needs it? (You do!)
Publicity: It’s something that everyone in the arts needs, yet it is possibly the least understood step on the path to the local, national, or international recognition you seek. Whether you want to let people know you’re playing at Ryles on a Wednesday night or that you’ve just received your 15th Grammy nomination, publicity is the least expensive and perhaps most effective way to get to the next level in your career. But how do you best use this indispensable tool?
In basic terms, publicity is the act of presenting writers and broadcasters with compelling information and story angles so that they will publish or broadcast about an artist in a media outlet. Promotion, on the other hand, is a broader term that usually includes publicity under its umbrella but also extends out to nonmedia-based activities such as putting up posters, distributing flyers at shows, using your MySpace page to send notices to your friends and fans, and maybe even an e-mailing or snail-mailing news to a fan list.
As Jana La Sorte, president of the respected New Jersey-based Janlyn PR agency (www.janlynpr.com), explains, “A lot of artists that I talk to in the early stages of a PR relationship seem surprised to find out that publicists don’t actually write the stories that appear in newspapers,” she says. “As publicists, we are merely conduits for information. We act as your sales agent, working to determine the most important information about an artist, event, or recording. We package it in as interesting a way as we can. The editors, writers, and broadcasters we pitch stories to are really the middlemen for our real audience: the readers and listeners, the people who will be buying the CD or attending the concert.”
When to Hire a Publicist
It doesn’t matter whether the artist is a 20-year-old saxophonist finishing up a Berklee performance degree or a music business veteran putting out his tenth CD, he doesn’t always have the luxury of hiring a full-time publicist. Even if you are signed to a record label that has a publicist on staff, you need to know what publicity entails so that you can determine whether your publicity is being done effectively. And, more importantly, when it isn’t. Bob Blumenthal, two-time Grammy-winning music journalist and creative consultant for the Massachusetts-based Marsalis Music label, doesn’t recommend hiring a publicist off the bat. “I doubt that hiring a publicist from the get-go would be cost effective for most artists, especially if all they have to promote are local gigs,” he says. “Once a CD is ready for release, though, the need to establish contacts becomes much more important, especially on a national scale. A gig is just a one-time event, but a disc will be around for a long time.”
Don Gorder, chair of Berklee’s Music Business/Management Department, feels that publicists can be invaluable. “An experienced publicist can be a big help to artists at any stage of their career, and most decisions to hire one are simply a matter of economics,” Gorder says. “For artists doing their own publicity, there is definitely a learning curve, but that shouldn’t hold anyone back. Overall, artists doing their own publicity should understand that the media recognizes professionalism no matter where the publicity materials are coming from. Well-written press releases, coherently constructed promotional materials, and polite follow-ups are what gets the media’s attention and makes it want to help.”
Ann Braithwaite, president of the Massachusetts-based Braithwaite & Katz Communications and a 20-year PR veteran, explains why getting help with publicity can be a plus. “We work with folks who have done publicity for themselves for years and want a fresh perspective or a break from the time it takes,” she says. “We also work with people who are new on the scene and want to start off on the right foot. I would say that an artist or group should do their own PR at least until they have a CD to promote. And no matter what stage you’re at in your career, an artist should never have a publicist on the case and then just sit back and wait for things to happen. Be an active partner, and always be involved.”
Braithwaite points to the Billboard Guide to Music Publicity (also see “Additional Resources” on page 17) as a good starting point for artists who want to learn to do their own PR. With a decent Internet connection and a couple spare hours, anyone can find radio station and newspaper websites with street addresses, proper contacts in the applicable editorial sections, and even e-mail addresses. When doing publicity, up-to-date contacts at media outlets are crucial. Also, artists doing their own publicity should consider investing in a database management program such FileMaker Pro to keep track of these contacts.
It cannot be overemphasized that artists—greenhorns or veterans—should never shy away from doing their own publicity. As long as the information is well written, informative and transmitted to media contacts in a professional manner, it doesn’t matter whether it comes from the artist or from a high-priced publicity firm.
Still, you should heed some key points. Bob Blumenthal, the author of hundreds of CD reviews, concert previews, and artist features for outlets such as the Boston Globe, The Atlantic Monthly, and JazzTimes, says you have to be realistic about the product. “The biggest mistake that anyone sending me a press release or pitching me on the phone makes is self-aggrandizing their product in a vacuum,” he says. “By that, I mean making wild claims for the artist or CD in question without having a sense for the overall scene. If you make a statement, back it up with facts, or at least make realistic claims.”
“If the music is amazing, it doesn’t need a publicist,” says Downbeat magazine editor Jason Koransky. But, he adds, “Don’t send me a CD with no information or bio attached. Also, I never listen to music in a digital press kit. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer to get music on a CD. I don’t have time to download and keep track of music.”
Like many editors at jazz and blues magazines, Koransky is more approachable than artists might think. “I listen to musicians when they give me their opinions,” he says. “And I truly enjoy working with artists directly. They should know that my phone line and e-mail box are open. We have a small staff and a ton of work to do, but our magazine is about artists first and foremost. To be honest, most artists tell their stories better than their publicists do, because they know what their music is about. I love the fact that in jazz there isn’t as much distance between the artist and the journalist or editor as there is in pop music.”
Getting to the Next Level
Print publicity alone won’t shoot you to the top. Always keep the big picture in mind. “Whether you hire a publicist or not,” La Sorte explains, “I still strongly believe in artists doing everything in their power to create a grass-roots movement for their work beyond what a publicist can do. This can be done with consistent performing, word-of-mouth proselytizing through the artist’s website or on MySpace, and using creative marketing gimmicks. In the end, old-fashioned sweat and great music are what really help you connect with people. If those things are there, then it’s all about how much you can build yourself up beyond that.”
Joe Kara ’95, a marketing executive at New Line Records, says, “Once you do step to that next level of publicity, beyond local gigs, you have to make sure that you’re on top of your game. Get your live show down cold before writers come out to review it. Build your grass-roots fan base through mailing lists, MySpace, and other avenues. Once some of the rough edges are worked off and a recording is ready, then a publicist can be brought in to help you work most effectively toward reaching the next level of exposure. Most importantly, don’t be impatient. Wait until the time is right.”
“I have always thought that the best publicity you can get is just being out there and performing,” says internationally renowned, Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider. “Unless you’re doing that consistently, you aren’t going to get the most out of any publicist you hire. Once you are ready to go out and build your audience, then you absolutely must have someone do publicity for any special project or release. There’s just too much product out there, and unless you have someone pushing it for you, it could get lost.”
As a trailblazer in her association with the musician-empowering ArtistShare label (www.artistshare.com), Schneider puts her philosophy to the test with each new release. That’s because ArtistShare CDs are available only online, they have no traditional retail presence. And when it comes to publicity, which she outsources, she believes that newspapers, not magazines, are the most effective media outlet for selling CDs. “No matter what, the best advertising you can have is a good review, and newspapers beat magazines hands down,” Schneider says. “I think it has to do with the immediacy of papers. People read a review and go buy that CD today because tomorrow the newspaper will be replaced. It makes people spring into action. Never underestimate newspapers—especially your hometown paper.”
Publicists and experts stress not only print and all forms of grassroots promotion but also local and national radio exposure. “Focusing on local-market radio early on is important to help build the brand and establish long-term industry relationships to support CD releases, gigs in town, awards, and noteworthy artist news,” says Bob Blumenthal. By doing this, the artist can also help set up future coverage on National Public Radio, which is one of the holy grails of media exposure. Attention from NPR establishes credibility immediately and also taps into a loyal, monied audience that is motivated to buy CDs.”
If you decide to get help with your promotional efforts, make the most of the situation. As Berklee professor and jazz trumpet legend Tiger Okoshi says publicity efforts should be synchronized. “The most important thing I have learned over the years with different labels and publicists is that teamwork is the biggest thing. The musician, producer, publicist, advertising agency, booking agent, and record label should all be working together, to make the biggest impact.” He adds, “The goal that you should have is not to try to sell your music [to the masses], but to find the fans who will want your music and understand what you as the artist are all about. If you can do your publicity on your own, that’s great. If not, find someone who is good at it and share the joy. Look for teammates.”
Schneider agrees with the teamwork concept. “An artist today has to be a businessperson and an artist. And if he or she is out there working, building an audience, and creating a story, then publicity just enhances that,” she says. “More publicity, more gigs, more gigs, even more publicity, they feed off each other. It’s not easy to keep at it, but if you do, it’s a win-win situation.”
La Sorte adds, “There are still so many resources that young and old artists alike overlook. These include older, established artists that are known to have already forged a path in the arts world, club bookers and promoters they know, music-school colleagues and instructors, and even family and friends who have succeeded in different business ventures. Understand the marketplace and how the media in your world covers the kind of art you make. Once you understand this, your own approach will be much clearer. But most of all, act with integrity, and you can never lose.”
And after considering all of the above, don’t forget why you want to get publicity in the first place: you make great music, and you want the world to hear it. Okoshi wisely advises, “You have to know what you have in your hands, and it has to be something special, something that speaks from your heart. Never be afraid to make mistakes. They can be fixed later.” Keep that in mind, and the rest should fall right into place.
Boston-based writer Brian Coleman served as vice president of Braithwaite & Katz Communications for 13 years. He has completed his second book, Check the Technique, for Random House, Inc., and contributes to Scratch Magazine, the Boston Herald, the Boston Metro, and other publications. Visit www.waxfacts.com.
Additional Resources Sidebar
All About Jazz website (www.allaboutjazz.com; the site hosts publicity columns by Jana La Sorte at www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article_center.php?in_type=31).
Mediabistro.com (a website for publicists and professional freelance writers; yearly membership is $49).
The Musician’s Guide to Touring and Promotion. New York: Billboard Directories, 2006.
Pettigrew, Jim. The Billboard Guide to Music Publicity. Billboard Books, 1997.
Spellman, Peter. The Self-Promoting Musician. Boston: Berklee Press, 2000.
Yale, David R., and Andrew J. Carothers. The Publicity Handbook. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001.