Are you a musician? Is your group having issues? Ask Fan Landers! Critic Jessica Hopper has played in and managed bands, toured internationally, booked shows, produced records, worked as a publicist and is the author of The Girls’ Guide to Rocking, a how-to for teen ladies. She is here to help you stop doing it wrong. Send your problems to her — confidentiality is assured, unless you want to use your drama as a ticket to Internet microfame.
My band is releasing our debut album via Bandcamp in early 2014. I know it is a good idea to get a jump start on publicizing it to press, but how far in advance should we start? Do writers prefer CDs or downloads? I have done a little promo for the band before but mostly for shows and never for a release so I want to make sure I do it right. We don’t have the money to hire a publicist.
Doing a good job is simple, though it can be fairly time consuming depending on how much media you are reaching out to. The thing artists mess up is the basics — not having bios, photos or music available, being bad at interviews, not being timely in communication. I have a long section in my book that steps through how to do all of this for yourself, and I suggest you pick up a copy or check it out from your local library. Yes, the girl on the cover is all of 14, but everything I detail in the book works on grown up bands, too. Here I will step you through the basics.
If you are just doing local press, you do not need to start giving people (local papers, blogs, the public access cable music show, college radio et. al.) a heads up more than three months in advance. Three months is good because people can set aside space for you, or plan coverage because they anticipate it, and it gives them plenty of time to get around to listening or even see your band in advance of writing about you. If you do not have three months, that’s OK, but try not to do it with less than six weeks. I have a column in the Chicago Tribune where I profile local bands and very frequently get emails from people the day or week before an album release, despite that they spent the last nine months making it or booked their album release show seven weeks before. Even though it’s a daily paper, I’m working on stories three or four weeks away, not last minute.
If you do not know who covers local music in your ‘burg, find out, track down an email for them. Worst case, you might have to call or tweet a writer/editor/blog to get in touch and see how much time they require. If there is a half-decent club in town, chances are they have a media list they provide to out of town bands or publicists — or a list they work off of. Ask if they can share that with you in advance of your record release show. Make yourself a little spread sheet to work off of, so you can keep track of that information for future use as well as know where you are at with each person you have reached out to. Also, ask your most eager, ultra-self-promoting peers if they can kick some contacts over to you, have good suggestions of people who cover anything/everything. Those kinds of band people are totally annoying, but they are a solid resource.
Before you contact anyone, have these things in place:
1. A mastered copy of your recording that is streamable or downloadable online. Yousendit, Dropbox, those sort of services are practical. You can also have it streaming-only on Bandcamp or similar sites. Do not email people 12 Mp3s to their mailbox.
2. A decent bio with factual information about your band. It does’t need to have spin or be literary, it needs to be serviceable. It should have everyone in the bands full name, properly spelled, what they play, how long the band has been together, where you are from, the title of the album, where and when you recorded and who produced it. (I get bios from bands who are paying publicists two grand a month who send out bios with no useful, basic biographical information; it blows my mind.) It should have the very basic history of your band contained in a tops four-sentence paragraph, along with anything notable (i.e. you are very young/old, gay, are twin sisters, used to be in Pearl Jam, met in jail, are a couple and live in a yurt, you won the Pushcart Prize). Do not mention a slew of ex-bands unless they were active bands locally or nationally. Lots of times bios have info like “they’ve shared stages with X, Y, Z” — unless you’ve toured supporting a marquee name band, it’s not relevant either. You have one sentence to describe your music and another to cite your (top three) influences. Do not be arcane unless you really are a mash-up of Grupo Bombino and Crazy Band. Do not say you are a unique blend of the Beatles, Stones and Oasis — or a “unique blend” of anything. Genre terms are fine. Do not make a fuss about how your sound defies genre, it’s boring and not true and every third bio in existence claims that. Originality is overrated as a selling point. Don’t try too hard to lead the horse to water here, it’s a critic’s or writers job to figure that out. If the album is a concept, inspired by a particular event, if you have a political or artists agenda, you can make that known — being a Marxist funk band is totally decent story hook. Do not try to be fancy or up-sell your band’s popularity (popularity is also an overrated selling-point). If people have written about your band before, have some links in a document you can email people or scan it have it as a electronic press kit.
3. An email-able hi-res color photo where all the members of the group are present, in focus and tagged with a photographer’s credit. The photographers credit/name/url should not actually be tagged on the photo. You need to either have permission worked out with the photographer for this to be your promotional shot, or hire/pay them to use it for that express purpose. Papers and sites do not pay to use promotional photos, it is your responsibility. (Just because a photographer emailed you a shot they took of you does not make it yours.) You can also take a suitably hi-resolution shot with most phones. It’s good to have two to choose from. Pictures should be reasonable well lit, not have people making obscene gestures, no one wearing a shirt with something gross/questionable on it, you should not be standing against a wall where there is a large crude drawing of genitalia. If you band wears costumes on stage, either get a live pic or be photographed in costume.
Now that you have these things, either have them on your bands website or have them within your easy reach so that they can be emailed. Being clear in your communication, easy to get ahold of and reasonable to deal with is about 90% of the battle. (The other 10% is your band not sucking.)
Now you can contact people. Here is your boilerplate pitch.
Hello Fan (P.S. GET THEIR NAME RIGHT),
It’s B.D., from Super Local Band. We are self-releasing our debut record, Hamsters Weep for Thee, on January 15th and are playing an album release show for it at Snorkel’s on January 12th. We recorded it live to four-track cassette in our basement last spring and Mary Timony (Wild Flag, Ex-Hex) produced it; it’s a song cycle based on childhood pets. Here is a download link for it, bio is attached here — Any interest in covering the album or the show? Let me know.
Check back in two to three weeks, see if they have given it a listen. If you are playing a show soon, invite them a few days ahead of time. Let them know you will be playing songs off the record. Keep it casual — two sentences — maximum three. Have a question in there somewhere. Email them another two to three weeks after that. Writers are super busy. It also helps to read what they write about, follow them on Twitter — know what they care about — compliment a piece or say “I saw that show you reviewed, they were amazing.” You just might develop a relationship that way and also, it lets them know you are not cut and paste spamming them. It’s easier to ignore emails where it’s a formal, super long cut and pasted FULL ON LITERARY BIO with some “hey how ’bout the weather we’re having?” line up top, asking me for a type of coverage I do not do. Also, if they just write previews for shows in the weekly, and that’s all, you want to ask them about previewing it. If they write album reviews or interviews, you ask about the possibility of that. Understanding who people are and what they can do for you is fundamental. Also, one of the rad things that happens with local bands I have developed relationships with is that then they can send their friends’ bands my way — tip me off to rad stuff other people are doing.
If they are easy to deal with, I have almost always continued to write about them beyond their album’s release. Also, if someone writes about your band, when the piece or the blurb comes out — thank them directly. Back when I was a publicist (though I represented much more popular artists), my most interviewed client — by a wide margin — was J. Robbins (Jawbox, Burning Airlines). People would find reasons to interview him — talent and fandom aside — because he was humble, gracious and had something to say about what he was doing. He gave college reporters the same courtesy, respect and mindfulness as he did national magazines — he honored people’s time as well as their interest in his work. And because of that people would bend over backwards for him, give him full page spreads every time his band came through town. Band people who act like dicks, who give off I-deserve-more attitude, are hard to get ahold of — they are not people you call for a second round, or for an interview when you suddenly have space to fill. Being a decent human being, no matter how awesome your band, is as important as any music you record.