Publicity is arguably the most misunderstood of all the marketing efforts recording artists go through. Many creators, from musicians and influencers to songwriters and producers, have wild visions of what publicity is and how it functions to support and enhance the trajectory of their career. Typically, these visions aren’t accurate. To clarify this process, here’s a rundown of everything you need to know…
3 Winning Strategies For Every Musician’s Publicity Campaign
Before we dive in…
One of my first music label jobs was in the media and artist development department at CBS Records in Nashville (now known as Sony/BMG), a department that oversaw publicity for country music superstars like Dolly Parton, George Jones, Johnny Cash and Tammy Wynette.
In an encounter with an executive at that company, I was told that my job as a music publicist could be described as nothing more than developing a personal relationship with journalists, editors and television producers, and making a phone call to tell them what I wanted them to write about or put on television.
He couldn’t have been more wrong. And yet, he was many steps up the music label corporate ladder from me. To be fair, that executive’s attitude was possibly widespread because music publicity has historically been assigned the lowest rung on the artist development ladder. And before any respected entertainment publicists take offense to that suggestion, let me explain…
There has never been an adequate system to measure awareness.
Exactly how a story, television interview, major newspaper or trade article translates to most definitions of success – how any of these have or haven’t moved the needle with a profound effect. Advertising metrics, radio chart positions, New Music Friday and touring routes have traditionally been solid lines drawn between effort, data and either sales figures or streaming numbers. With these, it’s fairly easy to analyze if you know what you’re doing.
But publicity? – Publicity was always and is still the concept of drawing a dotted line – not a solid line – between the concept of awareness and the concept of success. There’s no denying that there is impact, but measuring it is harder than one might think and it requires some gray area assumptions.
What doesn’t help to convert that dotted line into a solid one is that marketing research has generally supported the idea that watching an interview or reading an article doesn’t alone spawn consumer action, like buying a concert ticket, following you on Spotify, etc. – The understanding by the music industry in broad strokes is that it contributes in an immeasurable way along with other non- publicity efforts.
“Does this mean that it can’t prompt fan reaction on its own?”
No, but it is considered less reliable.
Over the years, the most powerful people running the American music industry have viewed a dynamic public relations campaign as the icing on the marketing cake. And yet musicians, independent and signed, generally have a perception that publicity validates their work, and that good press separates the amateurs from the professionals.
Now, look at the disconnect between these two. It appears that no one is looking at it the same way. As a former publicist myself, I have yet a different viewpoint — one of someone who’s done the work. And I can honestly say that I think the misnomers about publicity are even more inaccurate and certainly more unhealthy than ever.
Marketing Music vs Marketing Celebrity
During my decade as a professor at The Marketing & Management Institute of New York University in Manhattan, I often lectured on publicity as an essential component to effectively market artists, songs and recordings. One very big distinction I always highlighted is the monumental difference between marketing music and marketing celebrity.
- An example of celebrity publicity might be that an established and well-known recording artist might get red carpet photos of his or her wardrobe published by a blog, a feed or a supermarket newspaper. The topic isn’t music even though that person may be a career musician.
- A similar example might be when you read about how a pop star slims down for a tour and shares their recipes for avocado toast and buckwheat something-or-other. Again, this is not press about their music or their career, but instead lifestyle press because they are recognizable and celebrated.
If you are not recognizable and you don’t have core fans yet, no one cares about what you wear (for the most part), and they probably won’t screenshot your favorite chili recipe either. So unless you have reached some level of fame, you don’t need to hire a publicist to execute a campaign that will put your face in these places and talk about such things. Take them out of your mind. They are not for you. These are celebrity publicity outlets.
Music publicity is less about the colorful details of your personal life and more about your inspirations, work, alignments with others on the creative or business side and how you are relevant in the music landscape. It is in this very specific context that you have to find your hook (a.k.a your angle), and wear it like a comfortable sweater.
To begin your publicity work, you have to absorb it completely. And on your journey to identifying your hook, you have to ask yourself, “What is the thing that people who write about music will find so compelling about me/us as a band or musician that they will want to write about me/us?”
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Strategy #1: Figure Out What Makes You Newsworthy
The first of three strategies for every musician’s public relations campaign is to ask yourself a question, then really sit with that question before you answer it, then dissect your answer.
That question is: “What is it that makes you newsworthy?”
Take ten seconds, right now, to see if something authentic comes to mind quickly. – It’s a hard one, right? If the only thing you can come up with is that you are a great vocalist, then you’re not newsworthy. Sorry… A lot of artists are amazingly skilled vocalists. So take that first idea to the next level: I am a great vocalist “and I WHAT.” “I am a uniquely skilled vocalist and I love to write songs?” Oh, okay… is that still enough to make you newsworthy? Do you often read about a musician or band and all you know is they’ve got a great voice and they like to write songs? Couldn’t that be said about most aspiring musicians?
“So how do I answer this, then?”
The easiest and most common hooks or angles that come as replies to that question “What makes you newsworthy?” is that you have a new regional tour launching or you have a new body of work you are about to release to the public or perhaps both – that you are in fact touring to support a new release.
The tour angle is a tough one for almost all developing or emerging artists, though. You will need good press clips to get venues to be interested in your available tour dates. You also need the tour dates to make your music relevant to press outlets in a city you’re not based out of.
So back to the question of “what makes you newsworthy?” Here are some other ways to drill into that mindset: The answer might be one very singular and unique thing about you or your music, or it could be a dynamic and unlikely combination of more than one thing. It could also be who you have collaborated with or attached yourself to as a creative or business partner (newsworthy by association). There are too many options to list them all., so if you are hiring a publicist, you should have these conversations with them first.
Strategy #2: Seek and Study Good Examples of a Press Break.
Visit no less than five or as many as ten of your favorite places to read about music. It doesn’t matter if it is online or offline, so if it’s Guitar Player magazine, Pitchfork, Brooklyn Vegan, or something else, pick the ones that speak to you and where you dream about being written about.
Next, pick an article about someone you’ve never heard of. Read that article twice. Read it the first time for information, to learn about the artist. Read it the second time to identify what it is you believe inspired that journalist to write about this artist instead of another. – There are thousands of new artists who are deserving of press coverage at any point in time, so what hook or angle worked here in the article you chose? What’s the most interesting aspect for you as a reader?
Next, if you want to blow up the press, you have to think like them. That means spending time not just this once, but regularly looking at the “why” behind articles you find of interest and using that thinking as you discuss your career with potential publicists, journalists, and industry movers and shakers. That’s a pro tip if ever there was one.
Strategy #3: Scale Your Expectations
I talk to artists every day of my life, and one of the frustrations I hear about most often is “our publicist didn’t do a good job.” So many artists believe that hiring a publicist means you are guaranteed to get press and if you’ve read this far, you already know that’s not realistic. When an artist is disappointed in a publicist or a publicity campaign, these are so many common culprits.
- For example, a publicist may have been hired too soon. Just because you want press right now doesn’t mean you’ve got the hook or the angle to warrant it, even if you pay someone hard-earned money to try.
- Another reason may be that they weren’t hired for a long enough term. Most press campaigns work off of a 90-day minimum. It takes time to prepare tools like bios, one sheets, electronic press kits, video introductions and more. It takes repeated conversations and reminders. If you expect the best possible results by hiring on the shortest possible time frame, then you need to rethink your expectations.
Just like you work your way up a playlisting campaign, work your way up playing larger and larger rooms, you have to work your way up through press outlets. It’s guaranteed that no one ever got the cover of your favorite magazine without having been somewhere else first.
Publicists get a bad wrap way too often. They are expected to break careers via awareness when often nothing significant is happening, but when things do succeed, they aren’t often credited for having been the catalyst for that growth. At the end of the day, however, publicists in 2023 have a very difficult job reaching and pitching a dwindling number of credible music journalists. So if you are a rising talent, I hope you will take the knowledge you picked up today and apply it toward making the right choices about your own publicity path.
Even if there aren’t many definitive metrics to show exactly how a press campaign has impacted your career when it’s all said and done, limited results don’t always mean that the effort of creating some momentum wasn’t worthy of the money you spent or the seeds you planted for later.