The Basics of Publicity
Branding, media relations, and when to hire a publicist…
If you’re reading NewMusicBox, chances are you’re someone in the music industry working to make a career for yourself (unless you’re someone with an actual, physical music box that’s broken, and you’re trying to replace it, in which case try here). If you fall in the former group, then at some point or another you’re going to need to think about publicity, and so I’ve written these posts on the basics of publicity as a primer to help get you started on the winding, sometimes treacherous road of self-promotion.
Before we go any deeper, however, we need to be clear about what we mean when we’re discussing publicity.
WHAT IS PUBLICITY?
At its core, publicity is about the public face of your music making and how people perceive it. What is the story of your music? What distinguishes you from the sprawling hordes of other people out there doing the same thing? Who is telling that story, how are they telling it, and to whom are they telling it? Essentially, it boils down to trying to get someone to care about what you’re doing, and then having them tell other people that they should care, too.
In the golden days of yore, that public-facing story was told in a rather controlled way—a publicist spoke about you to the decision-makers at a handful of very powerful media outlets (newspaper/magazine/radio/TV), and those media outlets either told your story to their readers/listeners/viewers and made you a star, or they didn’t.
Then the internet happened, and there was a flood of new ways that the story of your music (and your music itself) could be exposed to the public. As a result, the ways in which people heard your story, and told it, changed dramatically. Instead of a handful of highly controlled outlets, all of sudden you had blogs popping up like rabbits in summertime, not to mention forums, podcasts, video series, a parade of social media platforms, your website…even the older media outlets began expanding into digital and social media, in addition to their traditional platforms.
So today more than ever, if you want to get your music to an audience that’s larger than yourself, your cat, and your mom, then you must consider the question of publicity and how the story of your music is being told. And that begins with your branding and media relations (with or without a publicist), though it also extends into your social media and digital marketing, as well as your public-facing assets (photos, videos, website, and recordings—the last of which deserves its own category). But let’s start with the first of these.
At the risk of sounding like a budget Don Draper, you need to consider your brand. Yes, “brand” is a terrible word, and yes, I do feel a little bit dirty every time I say it, but I’ve yet to find a suitable alternative (though if any of you wordsleuths have a suggestion, please share in the comments).
You should think of your brand as the best possible slice of yourself and your music. It’s about taking the gloriously messy complexity that is your life, personality, and creative process—most of which is (spoiler alert) not very interesting to anyone other than your closest friends and family—singling out the most compelling parts, and shaping them into a narrative that people will want to hear and want to talk about.
It’s the difference between saying this: “She’s a young lady who spent her childhood in rural Montana, then studied to be a hotel manager at a state university while also singing on the side, and then, on a whim, she applied to a conservatory in New York, was accepted, and then after finishing her studies, was offered (via a close friend) a chance to be a cover at the Metropolitan Opera, and when the lead fell ill suddenly, she got the chance to sing in an actual production.”
Or this: “She grew up in the middle of Nowhere, USA, until a top-level conservatory heard her, brought her to New York, and four years later she was singing on the stage of the Met.”
It’s the same story, but the second version cuts out what’s extraneous and focuses on a concise story with a few “hooks” that people can easily catch on to, remember, and repeat to others.
GETTING COMFORTABLE WITH THE IDEA OF PUBLICITY AND BRANDING
Let me just pause for a second, since many people will read that last section and say: “I’m an artist…I don’t want some skinny-tie-wearing, hair-slicked-back hustler trying to sell me like a bar of soap. MY MUSIC WILL STAND ON ITS OWN MERITS, and if it’s good enough then I’ll succeed without any branding or publicity!”
Except it won’t. And that’s not what this is about anyways.
Listen, I understand that being a musician generally reflects a certain baseline level of commitment to integrity and a belief in the inherent value of art. And I also understand how people feel that any sort of promotion might somehow risk compromising that and cheapening their art, but the fact is that 999 times out of 1,000, if you don’t promote your music then it won’t be heard, no matter how good it is. If you don’t talk about your art, no one will.
The distinction—and it is a vital one—is between talking about what you have created in a way that is thoughtful, concise, and honest versus being a crass, egotistical self-promoter. We all know the latter when we see them, and while they might get some more exposure in the short term, they always lose in the long run since people get tired of having something pushed on them.
So once again—if you wish to be a public figure in any capacity and to have your music reach an ever-larger audience, then you simply must come to terms with the idea of talking about yourself and what you’re doing. The important thing, as I’ve said, is to do it well, and to always to be true to yourself.
UNDERSTANDING YOUR BRAND
So how do you figure out what your brand is and how best to tell your story? Well, you can hire a publicist and have them figure it out (more on that later), or you can go the DIY route. The first step is write down your story in your own words: how you’ve come to where you are now in your music career, step by step, in as much detail as you can. Then write about how you approach your music making: what you think is special about it; what you love most about making music; what you think is important (and not important); the people and experiences that have influenced you and why. Get it all out on the page, even if it’s messy and longwinded.
Next, come up with a list of close friends—people who you feel know you, and also appreciate and enjoy your music. Call them up, tell them you’re doing an exercise and were wondering if they might be willing to tell you what they find most interesting about you, what they enjoy most about your music, and how they would describe you and your music to other people. Write it all down. Yes, it’s going to feel a little bit awkward, but get over it—again, this is part of being a public figure, and if you don’t want to do this then it’s back to the basement with your mom and cat.
Once you’ve gotten some external opinions, you should start to see some patterns emerge. Compare those points to the story you originally wrote down and see how you can consolidate the two into a narrative that is true to yourself and your history, but speaks to the things that other people find engaging. Then read it back to those friends and see if it strikes a chord.
After that, you should at least have a much clearer picture of your brand and how to better tell the story of yourself and your music.
Now that you’ve got a story to tell, the next step is figuring out how to get other people to tell it—both to get the word out to new and larger audiences, and also to validate the elements of your story. So instead of you saying, “Hey, this is my story and it’s true, I swear it!” instead you can say, “My story is such-and-such, and here’s a sweet pull-out quote from a prestigious media outlet that proves it!”
This is what media relations is about: finding a way to get people in the media—journalists, critics, producers, bloggers, influencers, and anyone else who has access to a platform that reaches an audience—to talk about you and your music, to that audience.
Once again, there are two ways to do this: 1) you hire a publicist who has the media contacts you want to reach, and pay them to get your story told, or 2) you do it yourself. Let’s once again take the DIY route first.
If you want to do your own media outreach, then the most important thing you can do is actually engage with the media that you want to be featured in—read the blogs, newspapers, and magazines, listen to the radio, watch the TV shows, follow the social media accounts. See who covers what, how they talk about it, what stories, angles, music, and personalities seem to pique their interest…then start to think about how you might be able to make them interested in you. Do they write about live performances in NYC featuring avant-garde music by living composers? Don’t pitch them on your Gershwin recital in Kentucky. Do they do long-form, in-depth interviews with established stars? Don’t pitch them a listing for your upcoming house concert. When you’re reaching out to media for the first time, it’s crucial to show that you understand what they’re about and that you’re trying to present them with a story that they might actually be interested in telling, in the way that they like to tell it.
Once you’ve identified some outlets and contacts who might be interested, you have to research your way to their contact info. Alternatively, if you’re performing with a venue or presenter that has a PR/publicity/marketing person or department, you should get in touch with them and see if they’d be willing to make the pitches, or at least give you the contacts. Or, if you have colleagues who have been featured in certain outlets, ask them if they’d be willing to give you a contact or make an introduction.
Be to-the-point and polite in your pitches—say who you are, what you’re doing, and why you think it might be of interest to them, then thank them for any consideration. That’s it. You can follow up once or twice after a week or so of no response, then let it go and try again next time. You’ll never get everyone to respond in the first go-round, and you shouldn’t take it personally if you never hear back from people.
If they do respond, and you end up getting some form of coverage, then keep a list or spreadsheet of that, and whenever you have other things going on that might be of interest, reach out to them again. It’ll be much, much easier the second time around.
I could write another ten pages on media relations, but those are the core basics if you want to handle it yourself. Alternatively, you can hire a publicist—which leads to our final area of discussion.
HIRING A PUBLICIST
I can’t tell you how many people have asked me the question: “so, what do publicists actually do?” There’s a lot of confusion—not to mention smoke and mirrors—around the work of publicity, when it’s needed, and how to tell if it’s being done right. Let me try to clear the air a bit.
CAMPAIGN VS. ONGOING PUBLICITY
First and foremost, there are two types of publicity: campaign-based publicity and ongoing (or “retainer”) publicity. Campaign-based publicity is when you hire a publicist or publicity firm for a specific time period around a specific event or series of events, like a major performance, tour, album release, announcement, etc. Here, the goal is for the publicist to determine the best way to tell the story of your event, and to try to secure as much media coverage as possible for it, in order to achieve both general exposure for yourself and your event, and also to help achieve whatever the concrete goals of the campaign are (selling tickets or albums, for example).
Ongoing publicity (also referred to as PR or public relations), is when you hire someone to be your constant advocate and mouthpiece to the public, to shape the longer arcs of your story and career, and to also pitch and coordinate media placements around your important events. If you’re a top-level established artist, then this becomes more about controlling the flow of communications, deciding which outlets can run which stories when, and so on. For the rest of us, it’s about building a sense of momentum for your career and making sure more and more media outlets cover you in increasingly visible, impactful ways. It can also be about forging brand partnerships, collaborations, putting on showcase events or performances, and managing your social media and digital marketing, depending on the publicist and your own career goals.
WHEN TO HIRE A PUBLICIST
Here is the cardinal rule: only hire a publicist when there is something truly of note to publicize. If what your trying to promote simply isn’t a good story, or doesn’t have the necessary elements in place for media to want to cover it, then you can pay A LOT of money (see next section) and get very little in return—and believe me, there are plenty of people out there who will gladly take your hard-earned cash if you’ll give it to them.
For campaign-based publicity, if you’re not playing a thoughtfully programmed concert at a relatively noteworthy (or a wildly unusual) venue, or releasing a professionally recorded album with a compelling theme on a respected label, or receiving a significant award that media have covered before, then you will most likely not get your money’s worth from a publicist.
For ongoing publicity, if you don’t have a relatively full schedule, ideas about interesting projects you want to do, a willingness to do interviews and promo performances, and at least a baseline of industry bona fides (top conservatory training, competition wins, awards, successful recordings, social media traction, etc.), then you most likely will not get your money’s worth from a publicist.
There are a lot of people who hire a publicist just because it makes them feel like they have arrived at a certain career milestone. This is not a good reason. Let’s briefly look at how you can tell if a publicist is actually getting results for you.
HOW TO TELL IF PUBLICITY IS WORKING
There are a few ways to tell if a publicist is actually making things happen or just taking your money and laughing all the way to the bank:
- Media Placements: Listings, previews, interviews, reviews—are media covering you and your events? Also make sure to distinguish actual media placements with smoke and mirrors media placements (i.e. places that simply re-post a press release, tiny blogs whose readership is literally you, your publicist, and the person who wrote the piece, or pay-to-play websites where your publicist pays them to review you so they can say, “Look, I got you some coverage!!”).
- Traffic to your website and social media: You should see a gradual but steady increase in online traffic and engagement around you (which, by the way, you should know how to read and monitor—more on that in another post). This might not happen overnight, but if you’re paying someone to increase your public profile, that should be reflected in the numbers.
- More people should know your name: Even if you’re not getting covered immediately (and it can take a moment for the rubber to hit the road), then at the very least your publicist should be talking about you to people and trying to get them interested in you. And eventually that should somehow filter back to you via the trickles of communication that make up any niche industry. If after a few months of publicity, someone doesn’t say, “I heard about what you were doing from so-and-so!” then you should ask what’s being done for you.
- A sense of momentum: This is a bit more difficult to quantify, but if you’re paying someone to promote you, you should feel a sense of excitement and an upward trajectory to your career—that you’re headed in a positive direction and taking significant steps to get there. This is crucial, but it’s also an area where many publicists can talk a great game to their clients, and sell them on the belief that they’re becoming stars, without actually delivering on any of the first three points…so while this is important, if it’s all you’re getting then you need to be wary.
Those are a few pointers in terms of deliverables. Now let’s talk money…
This is the question I get most often—how much do publicists charge? Obviously it depends on the publicist, how established they are, what other artists they represent, etc., but there’s one hard and fast rule: good publicity is expensive. If a major market publicist is charging less than $1000 a month, then chances are they don’t have the contacts or influence (or confidence in their abilities) to really deliver for you. Good publicity takes a certain level of expertise and experience, as well as contacts and relationships that are established over a long period of time, and you will pay a premium for access to both of those things.
Generally speaking, campaign-based PR is more expensive since it’s a shorter time-period, and has more concrete and high-pressure deliverables for the publicist. You should expect to pay at least $1000-1500 per month on the low end, to $5,000 and up (though for niche genres, unless you’re a superstar you will quite frankly almost never see a financial return on that kind of an investment). Ongoing publicity rates can depend on the length of the relationship and how much you have to actually publicize, but you should still be prepared to pay north of $1000 a month. Think of it as hiring a part-time employee to work with you on your career.
There can be countless add-on costs as well, such as press release writing, social media and website management, event management, and so on.
Hopefully that gives you an understanding about the core concepts of branding, media relations, and when to hire a publicist. Next up, we’ll look into some other ways that you can tell your story and present your public-facing brand: your website, social media and digital marketing, and the various audio/visual/written assets that represent you and your music.
With more than a decade of experience in the music industry, Andrew Ousley has worked with artists and organizations such as Lawrence Brownlee, Conrad Tao, Kevin Puts, Warner Music, On Site Opera, and more. He has overseen the marketing, promotion, publicity, and project management of fourteen #1 albums, from core classical to crossover. He is the founder and president of Unison Media, an integrated music company that handles publicity, marketing, social media, websites, and more. He is also the creator, curator, and presenter of The Crypt Sessions, a concert series in a crypt in Harlem, and runs Burger Club.