As far as I know, every musician is looking for more exposure. To be heard by other people is to have our art honored, accepted and justified. It is a connection, a performance, an intimate relationship to have our words, melodies and creations shared with the world. And it is our livelihood.
The question is an ever-changing how? How do we use new technologies to gain exposure? How should we spend our money and time on reaching more people? How should we shuffle through the dozens of public relation and promotion companies to choose the right one to develop OUR relationship with the public? And is it worth it?
This is what I have learned: you need to know what you need before taking on a PR plan. It doesn’t matter if your plan is to put up posters all over town or hire the top PR firm in your area to make elite connections for you. You need to know what it is you and your music needs. I’ll tell you my story and my mistakes and hopefully help you figure out your PR direction.
After I produced my very first album, I had only done a few shows and had no press whatsoever. I had just made a simple website and had some friends email me some press-esque quotations about my music, just to have SOMEthing on my “press page”. I had zero street cred. That’s when I heard about a small PR company that sends new indie albums to the music niche world. I decided getting some real reviews for my album wasn’t a bad idea. I paid the flat fee of about $1500 and mailed out a bunch of records and waited around. For a few months, good reviews would slowly trickle in from publications I’d never heard of, and I added them to my website. But what I realized was that the people that were reading these reviews were also musicians, and I wasn’t gaining new fans. So I hired a radio PR company. I sent them a few hundred discs and they sent them out to the appropriate stations, sending me weekly reports of who was playing my records. Something I could list on my website and use to beef up my slowly growing press page. Still didn’t see too many cd sales or surges in fans.
After scolding my self for wasting my money, I spent the next year doing my own PR… emailing magazines, tv and radio stations, and newspapers, trying to get any mention of my next show, my album, or me in the public eye. My successes were that I could usually get my performances listed in magazines like Time Out NY. My favorite is when I researched the editors for about 100 big magazines and emailed every single one of them, personally, and received one reply. That reply was from Ernie Rideout, then the editor of Keyboard Magazine. He was going to be in town and though he couldn’t make my show, wanted to meet me. So we met, and a professional relationship was formed. I was featured in Keyboard Magazine twice, and later went on to write an article for them. Ernie and I remain friends. Suddenly, my no-name music magazine reviews seemed unimportant, and the one that counted and gave me real credibility was the one I got for myself. Lesson learned.
Or maybe not…. When I came out with my second record, I was ready to step it up in the PR department. I consulted with Keyboard staffers and asked them who their favorite PR companies were to work with. I was referred to a few and after interviewing with some, like the great Shorefire, realized that my little album was never going to compete with Bruce Springsteen’s latest and greatest. Yet I didn’t want to go back to a little company, only hitting the small music-niche publications. So I split the difference, I turned to a friend I had met at a big show a few years back. She worked a PR company that does PR for all sorts of clients, not just musicians. Their price was half of the bigger companies, yet a little more than the smaller. They had experience with the big network TV shows, but not with working with musicians directly. They were excited about a new kind of client. And I found my match.
After six months and several local TV performances on stations like Boston’s FOX 25 and Portland’s ABC, I thought I had spent my money well. I stepped up the PR ladder and gathered more evidence of my awesomeness (this time, instead of reviews from unknown publications, it was in the form of TV interviews and performances). As I headed to England for an acoustic tour with my drummer, I was excited to see what my PR company would come up with. Unfortunately, it was nothing except a 5am interview the day after we got back. My drummer and I spent our British days twiddling our thumbs. The low point was when he said “don’t we usually have stuff to do on tours? Like radio shows and interviews and stuff?” My answer was “yeah, when I’m running the show”.
I sent myself home, scolding myself yet again for wasting money, this time a whole lot more, on something I could have done myself. Same theme. Same problem. What’s the common denominator? Me. I CHOSE to hire these companies, for very specific reasons. When my reasons changed, I never notified the companies, and the result was disappointment.
Still holding a new album, I wanted to tour more. I thought I would try one last attempt at PR and hired Tinderbox to do a more intense radio campaign than the first company I used. Tinderbox not only tripled the amount of stations that spun my record, but they were diligent in followup. My work ethic was noted by the owner of the company, who personally took it upon himself to reach out to some of his friends in the music supervision world, and a few months later I found myself staying up to watch “The Real World” on MTV just to hear my music in the background. I guess things happen for a reason, work pays off, and there are interesting spiral staircases that I am climbing.
What I did learn was to give myself some slack and to realize that each of these companies did exactly what I needed at the time. As I started to outgrow them, it was my responsibility to reassess my music’s needs and find a new company that could address them.
So here’s the short of it: Ask yourself this: what press do you currently have? Is your answer a) My buddies wrote some reviews of my album for me. They read “This is awesome!” b) I’ve got some good reviews, nothing on-air or noteworthy enough that my mom would know the source. c) I’ve been on local TV, radio and been in some decent publications. I’ve also opened for some bigger acts.
Then ask: What do you need? a) Anything! b) To step it up and get press that can get me gigs and be recognized by the music community c) get press that my friends would be psyched about and that would get me more fans: national coverage.
If your answer is A, you maybe looking for a small PR company, like Rainmaker or PowderFinger.
If your answer is B, check out doing a radio tour- when you are thinking about touring, hire a company (I STRONGLY suggest Tinderbox– tell Jon that Cheryl sent you!!) about 2 months before your tour and use your report sheets to fill in your tour dates- you can map out where you are getting radio play and then call up those stations and do an on-air performance. I’ve learned that radio stations LOVE live acts, and you can give away your CDs to the first 3 callers, etc etc. It livens things up for them, and gets people to come out to your shows that night, and you’ve got something to do in the day besides dealing with your hangover from last night’s show.
If your answer above is C then it may be time to save up the big bucks and hit up a big-time player, the one that can make connections on a national level. If you’ve already done steps A and B, plus put in your own efforts, chances are you’ve developed a few good press relationships already that your new PR company can build on.
Last note: PR companies can’t polish turds. Make sure your music is ready to go, you’ve got the full package, and something worth talking about, whether it’s a tour or a new record. Be polished. That way whatever PR you do is really working for your music. The fans, credibility and sales will be worth the money and effort. Even if you’re like me and don’t realize it at the time. Every step you take for your career is a step in the right direction.