Seven no-nonsense tips from music publicists for indie musicians.
Whatever your instrument or genre, as an independent musician, I bet you’ve probably spent time gazing at the arts section of your local newspaper or favorite music magazine and wondered, “How can I get there?” While talent, hard work, business chops, persistence, and luck have a great deal to do with it, there’s another tool that can help — a good publicist.
Basically, a publicist helps make people aware of your work, serving as your media advocate, cheerleader, advisor, and liaison. Publicists work to get their artist clients featured or reviewed in newspapers and blogs, TV shows, and magazines, helping to attract attention and create buzz on a local, national, or even international level. A PR (public relations) expert can also help an artist craft longer term strategies for publicizing their latest release or tour, and can take the lead on putting those strategies into action.
Hiring a publicist often isn’t cheap, and finding a skilled music publicist to work with — one who understands and digs your music and has availability to work with you — can be tricky as well. Plus, in the ever-evolving world of arts coverage in the media, both print and online, there are few hard and fast rules or guarantees when it comes to seeking coverage or launching a PR campaign for your latest project.
When stars align, though, a strong artist/publicist alliance at the right time can give your career a boost and be well worth the investment of energy and funds needed to make the partnership happen. Here are some tips to help you get started.
Know when to look for a publicist
One of the best indicators that it’s time to look for a music publicist is, well, having something cool to publicize. “If you have the prospect of touring and playing a good deal of exciting shows, that can be a good time to start,” says Matt Merewitz, founder of Fully Altered Media in New York City. “Even if you’re just getting the word out to local media, having press support on tour can help you build your fan base and get people to your shows.” Other apropos can include releasing an album, performing in a particularly noteworthy one-off concert, hosting a benefit for a good cause, landing an opening slot for a major act, or beyond.
On a larger scale, there’s no hard science about when in a career artists and bands should start working with a music publicist — though as Big Hassle’s Jim Walsh describes with a laugh, “depending on your goals, whenever you can afford one is a good time to have one.” Having booking agents and management in place before hiring a publicist is a good benchmark of career preparedness, Walsh continues, though he points out that having a publicist on your team at the right time early in a career can itself be the sparkplug that elevates you to such a level of success.
If you feel that the time may be right to approach a publicist, don’t call someone two weeks before your album drops and expect to results. Even after you and a publicist decide to work together, it can take weeks or months to write up press releases and bio materials, plan a strategy, assemble a mailing, whip your web and social media presences into shape, and get your PR campaign underway.
“Artists should start looking five to six months away from when they want to release an album,” says Merewitz. “For some publicists and publicity firms who are in demand and very busy, you might have to reserve their time eight months or even a year out.”
Approach the right people
Merewitz advises looking at artists whom you admire and want to emulate — especially when it comes to how they do business. “If you’re a jazz pianist and really like how Brad Mehldau or Chick Corea is presented publicly, try approaching their teams, or if you’re an indie artist and your favorite groups are working with publicity firms like Big Hassle, Girlie Action, or Biz3, try approaching them,” he says. “A lot of times, artist websites have links to a publicist or manager, or if you just Google the artist with the term ‘press release’ or ‘310’ or ‘212’ area codes, you’ll find out who their PR reps are.”
If searching that way doesn’t get you the results you need, simply Googling “rock publicity” or “indie publicist” can give you a host of names, Merewitz advises. “Ask them for previous press reports from other clients and contact those past clients,” he continues. “Ask if they liked working with the publicist and what results they were able to get. What were they not able to get that you were really looking for? Information like that can help you make an informed decision about whether or not someone is right for you to work with.”
When you do approach publicists, keep your initial outreach brief, professional, and focused, says Walsh. “Just send a short email with a couple sentences introducing yourself and give links to photos, bio, and music,” he says. “Then just write a couple paragraphs about what you’re looking for. It’s pretty straightforward.”
Know what to look for – and what to avoid
So you’ve been in touch with a number of publicists — how do you decide which is the right one? Among other things, Merewitz recommends making sure that anyone you hire is as passionate about music as you are. “One indicator of a good publicist is someone who is enthusiastically checking out music that’s not even by their own clients,” he says. “If they’re out their checking out stuff with the eagerness of a teenager, that’s a positive sign that they’re in it for the right reasons, and not just for a paycheck.”
As with any business, there are going to be a small number of hucksters out there, or people who call themselves publicists but have neither the experience nor the skills to give your project the visibility out need. Doing a little due diligence before handing over a check can help you avoid unnecessary pain and disappointment down the line — and asking for references or checking in with previous clients is a must.
“If someone is rude or dismissive on initial contact, be wary of that,” says Walsh. “Also be wary of publicists who seem to take a lot of clients on at a given time. They may not have the time to give each one the amount of love that they need. That’s a common issue with publicists that are successful — they may want to help and honestly think that they can, but might just have too much on their plates to do it.”
To cut straight to the chase — hiring a publicist can require a significant financial investment. “A good publicist is going to charge a minimum base rate of $800 or $1,000 per month, and that can go up to $4,000 or $6,000 per month depending on what firm it is,” says Merewitz. “Firms charging fees on the higher end often have a staff with multiple publicists working on the same project at the same time — that’s more for bands that are at another level, artists who happen to be independently wealthy, or people who have an investor who is willing to give them a shot in the arm,” he continues. “Some of those firms can get that kind of dough out of people because they also represent world-famous, A-list artists. They already have relationships with most major media in the world and can trade on those names to get coverage for their lesser-known artists. It’s a leverage game.”
If you’re working out cost with a publicist, don’t be afraid to say what you can afford and negotiate. “Sometimes I work out deals where bands pay smaller monthly fees over a year-long period, which can be more manageable,” says Merewitz. “That also means that my artists have me available to help them not just with album releases, but with tour dates as well.”
When budgeting for publicity, it’s important to understand that campaigns can take three months, or often significantly longer, says Walsh — especially when you’re trying to break an act. “It’s not like when Beyoncé does something big and everybody covers it at the same time,” he says. “Things happen more slowly over a longer period of time.”
One final note on budgeting — be sure to ask any potential publicist about extra costs that would end up being billed back to you. Mailing hundreds of CDs and press kits out to potential reviewers can cost a chunk when it comes both to printing and postage, for example, so make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into up front.
Set realistic expectations
Much as every rock band may want to be on the cover of Rolling Stone, it’s important to realize that, even with the best of publicists and most compelling of albums, such placement can be a long shot. “You have to be realistic about what’s going to happen and a good publicist will guide a client in that respect,” says Walsh. “Try to have clear goals and understanding about what you’re trying to achieve.”
“One of the big things artists have to realize is that there aren’t too many shots left for big publicity hits that can really break an artist,” says Merewitz. “Everything these days is more in the realm of small, incremental gains. If you hire a publicist for a campaign and get two or three reviews, a magazine profile, and two blog mentions, that may feel like a disappointment, but you have to understand that that’s the way the market is.”
Before you sign any papers or hand over any checks, be sure to have a heart to heart with your publicist so you can fully understand what kind of results to expect; having similar discussions with other artists similar to you in style and career path can also give you a good idea of what to expect when it comes to scope and scale of PR success.
Get your story straight
A publicist’s job largely boils down to selling you to the media — so giving some thought to your own personal story can help your publicist do his or her job. “If you have a compelling human interest angle, that can really help,” says Walsh. “You need your publicist to have a story to tell for the music to get written about — it’s not just about the music. That’s really important.”
Merewitz echoes the sentiment, citing Melody Gardot as a great example. “She got hit by a car and focused on music as a key to her recovery,” he says. “It’s an overnight PR success story.”
If you’re not sure where to begin thinking about your own story, Merewitz recommends a few jumping-off points. “Who have you played with? What pop gigs have you had? What kind of sideman and mentorship have you had? Have you studied with anybody notable? What circles and cliques do you run in? These all make for different angles that your publicist can work, and sometimes those angles can be strong ones.”
Stay in touch
“When a publicist and client work together, they develop a mutual alliance of trust, and it’s important to keep the communication lines open,” says Merewitz. “Don’t avoid each other. A definite sign that a publicist is not pulling his or her weight is when he or she is unresponsiveness to a client. If a publicist doesn’t get back to you within a day, chances are that person is either overworked or not getting the kind of results they want and is shirking the responsibility of talking to the artist.”
From the client’s side, responsiveness is equally important — sometimes press opportunities come through hours before a frantic journalist’s deadline, so if you wait three days to return that call from your publicist, the window for coverage may be gone.
While staying in touch is important, Walsh warns against overdoing it. “I’ve had clients who get in their own way,” he says. “They soak up my time by talking about nothing when I could be pitching them to journalists or doing something more productive. It’s important to avoid micromanaging, to not to trip yourself up, and to trust your publicist to do a good job. That can be difficult sometimes,” he adds.
Different publicists have different preferred ways of communicating their progress and results, so be sure to check in early on so you know what to expect. “It’s normal for publicists to provide reports every couple weeks, though some do it weekly,” says Walsh. For his part, Merewitz often prefers “a less formal and more conversation-based form of reporting back to clients,” which he feels allows him to deliver more nuanced updates. Regardless, make sure that you’re comfortable with the reporting structure that you agree on, and don’t be afraid to negotiate a reporting schedule that keeps you feeling thoroughly informed.