Are You Ready to Work With a Music Publicist?

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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.Ready to work with a music 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.”

Budget realistically
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.

Paper Boy image via ShutterStock.com.

Michael Gallant is a musician, composer, and journalist living in New York City. Music from his debut trio album Completely was featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition and received a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download through iTunes, or purchase through CD Baby.

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20 thoughts on “Are You Ready to Work With a Music Publicist?

  1. Wonderful post however I was wondering if you could write a litte more on this topic?

    I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit more. Appreciate it!

  2. Lars, it’s a secret society for one reason: those who have more work than they can handle, don’t want to be deluged by a gazillion unsolicited phone calls/emails from everyone in the galaxy hitting them up. That’s why they keep their contact info close to their chest. In my experience — as a journalist, and musician — 95 percent of things happen by word-of-mouth, and mutual recommendation.

    Places like Craigslist are the last place I’d go — there’s some legit stuff on it, but there’s also a lot of wannabes and scammers residing there, as well (“Hey, man, play my crappy coffee bar/write my crappy band’s bio/act in my crappy zombie flick for free” — you get the idea). Whereas, the wider the circle you run in, the more quickly you’ll be plugged into what’s happening, and make connections with folks who can grow your career.

    I’d add one more suggestion to JD’s list: check out business and IT mags, because many of them do music-related interviews — not only with bands, but behind-the-scenes movers and shakers, as well. Don’t just limit yourself to the likes of Rolling Stone: check out Fast Company, Forbes, and Wired, to name three. Read the articles to see if there’s a name or detail (e.g., offices are in such-and-such place) that yields material for a quick search.

    As far as the article goes, we need to add some qualifiers. Ninety percent of the B- and C-level indie rockers out there can barely keep in Ramen noodles, let alone cough up the retainers discussed here (800-1K, 4-6K). There’s plenty of DIY things you can do, that won’t cost you a dime…whether it’s approaching blogs that might like your type of music, or trying to generate street-level via local music rags/web pages/what have you.

    Getting a mid- or top-level publicist works like getting a high-caliber manager — in most cases, they won’t be interested unless you can demonstrate a level of success — or, alternatively, some type of unusual angle or life story (think: Wesley Willis) — that’s going to ensure a reasonable income for them. When that happens, trust me…they’ll find your phone number. 🙂

    So, as a general rule of thumb, you’ll probably need a publicist on retainer when you can’t handle your business by yourself anymore, and you’re looking at coverage in mags like Details, Rolling Stone, Spin, and so on — who don’t want to deal with “Joe Blow Musician, Esq.”…but someone mediating for him…that’s another story.

    And yes, I’d be cautious about somebody with an overly huge client list; another important point to consider, though, is who’s likely to command the lion’s share of attention. For example, look what happened when Phil Ochs signed with Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman…that relationship didn’t last long, because the Zimmer-meister had such a huge head start, in terms of attention, So that’s another important factor to consider, because you don’t want to find yourself in that position.

    And, lastly, even if/when you’re able to hire this kind of help — expect to spend a lot of time working for your cause. I often encounter people who complain about lack of visibility, and/or press coverage, and assume that all those issues will magically disappear once they get those 10 column inches in the paper. However…you can’t just leave it there, even if you do get those 10 column inches. Yet…

    …you’ll meet these folks six weeks (or months) later, and when you ask, “Well, how’s the biz going? What’s been happening since we last talked?” And then you hear…the sound of crickets. You don’t want to be in that position, either. Good luck, I hope this helps.

  3. Another thing that is very helpful to do is LISTEN. Potential clients often call and talk up a storm about their project, but they never listen. If you’re going to spend the money to work with a publicist, that means you need to hear what they have to say.

    I’ve been a publicist (primarily) for the better part of 30 years. Things are much different now than they’ve ever been, mainly due to a major saturation in the market. Unless the artist has been around for a while, the primary goal is to build name recognition throughout the system of music media specific to their work.

    Good music will always sell itself to the gatekeepers. Publicist, managers, agents, etc. are simply the messengers. If gatekeepers are not buying into an artist’s work, then strategy is very necessary to keep things
    afloat. Good publicists will tell you when things are not going well…but don’t blame them. Work with them to do as much as possible to gain what you can from the project.

  4. However many of my lyrics has been used for the last 3 decades through theft. Benjiman miller now decease got his foot in the door by singer songwriter Glenn jones. Has left others to do the same. With innocent life been taken I have sort to get in by other means.

  5. Although many of my lyrics has been used for the past 3 decades by theft. Benjiman miller who is now deceased, got his foot in the door thorough Singer songwriter Glenn Jones and left others to do the same. There greed and taken of innocent life has led me to get through some other way.

  6. Great article, and I agree with Lars that it is a secret society. In order to find any information on managers, publicist or booking agents you have a lot of companies that want to charge you to give you this informaiton. I even went so far as to go to Full Sail University and get a degree to try and get a better insight in how the music business works. The industry has changed so much and allowed the independent artists to pretty much take care of all their needs. But sometimes you still need a little guidance on background information on how to get started. However I will continue to search and continue to pursue information on being an informed manager for my artist and getting the necessary exposure for them. But I do believe this article is a step in the right direction. Thank you
    Dorthelia (MsDotty) http://91deuceent.blogspot.com – an inspiring Artist Management company

  7. Lars look on the credits on CD packages. Most if the time they are there. Try Music organizations for a list. For example if you are in Country music, the CMA should have a list of PR firms.
    BTW: I am a publicist but not currently taking clients. Just was curious and read the article.
    A good PR rep will cost 2-4k

      1. I just spent a few weeks looking for a good press agent for a single release and we received some great advice which I’d like to share:

        My band is Uk based so we complied a list of relevant up and coming uk bands
        We then created a database of their press info which is usually available on the about section of a Facebook page

        We used the hypemachine – hypem.com to check out what campaigns were the most successful. Thus discovering loads of blogs and sites that were dealing with our genre

        This process has helped us hone in on the right folks for us and as a bonus been great for our confidence as a group as we now have a list of bands out there who are successfully out there

        hope that helps!

  8. This says what to do and how to do it but nothing about where. Where do you find these people? A manager? A Booking agent? A publicist? Where? I’ve looked all over the internet and Craigslist….nothing. It’s like this secret society…VERY frustrating.

    1. This is for Lars – You can go to Pollstar and order any one of their directories of artist management, booking agencies, venues, and music festivals to play. Here’s a link to it – http://store.pollstar.com/c-2-Directories.aspx
      There’s also a lot of books full of info on amazon.com for independent, and unsigned musicians. Here’s a link to some of those – http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=a9_asi_1?rh=i%3Aaps%2Ck%3Aindie+musicians+guide&keywords=indie+musicians+guide&ie=UTF8&qid=1363732810
      Another thing that might help you out is to go to local community and college radio stations and giving them a copy of your music to play, and offer to play any benefit concerts they might have coming up. I’ve seen a lot of bands get a good start that way, and then transition to regular radio station airplay.
      Hope this helps you out some.

  9. I say let the process take care of itself. All the hangers-on in the world will only delay the inevitable which will either be, success, mediocrity or simply failure to make it big.
    In today’s world of “Music and Artist Saturation” the labels are about protecting their interests by backing the established and successful performers foremost. Then those few who make it into gaining a “Commercial Audience” come next. The other millions of “Average Performers” can get in a long long line of hopefuls.
    My advice unless you are a very gifted artist is not to bank on getting fame and fortune from music. Enjoy what you get out of it and keep your full-time job while exploring your musical interests and talents and your options.

    Poppa Madison

  10. “Everything these days is more in the realm of small, incremental gains.”

    You’re absolutely right about that. It is like water flowing over a rock. In time the water will win. But you have to understand that it will happen, be confident that it will happen, be patient, and have the perseverance. Someone will always win the lotto. However, it will probably never be you. You can’t make winning the lotto the keystone to your business plan. You have to have a realistic plan. And, you must execute your plan like a full court press at all times! A good plan can fail if not well executed. A not so good plan can succeed if well executed. Success will never come when you want it, how you want it, or why you want it. But if you persevere in the process, it will come. “The process is the goal.”

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