Music PR mistakes you can avoid next time you approach the media
[This article was written by guest contributor Dmitri Vietze, CEO/founder of StoryAmp.com, and publicist of 16 years.]
You spent a big investment of dollars and time, took all of your learnings from rehearsals and performing on stage, absorbed everything you could from your mentors and inspirations and produced the best recording of your career. Maybe you even borrowed money from friends and friends, or maxed out your credit card to master and manufacture albums. All of your hopes and dreams were wrapped up in your last record. But for the life of you — you couldn’t get it reviewed by the press or blogs, couldn’t get it on the radio.
As more and more artists take their careers into their own hands—skipping the old method of getting a record label deal to launch their careers—the scenario above is becoming more and more common. You’ve heard that you can now D.I.Y. your way through your career, from recording to production to release… but in reality there are certain pieces (like publicity and touring and marketing) that require more than just yourself, if you want to be successful. You have to rely on other decision-makers, and it’s tough to know how to influence them to take action on your behalf.
Here are the top 7 reasons why the media may have not covered your release.
1. You did not have enough of a runway.
This is by far the biggest reason why musicians do not get press coverage for an album release. Most independent musicians produce a record or put it up in iTunes through a service like CD Baby and call that the release date. “I got my CDs from Discmakers on Monday, so Monday is my release date,” they think to themselves. “Now I have to market it!” or “I gotta turn on this money source and make back my debt or investment.”
They email their fan list (if they have one), they post it on their Facebook and Tumblr band page, on their website blog, and maybe their personal Facebook page as well, and they tweet about it: “Today is our release date! Please download or buy it now!” they tweet or post. Only after that they think, “OK, how do I get more fans, more people to buy? I know: the media!”
So another few days or weeks go by and they come up with a plan to get their album out to some media or blogs. They might enlist a PR person or do some research on local newspaper contacts or blogs with generic email addresses to send a pitch letter to. But they are doomed before they even start. Why?
Media outlets generally want to cover an album release very close to the release date. Not days or weeks or months after it has come out. There is a reason the word “news” contains the word “new” in it. They do not want to be thought of as “The Olds.”
Pilots have a saying, “The runway behind you cannot help you.” When you are flying a plane, it is not a good idea to start your acceleration at the middle of the runway before take off. If you use the full length of the runway, you have more options if you have to make a last minute pivot. Give yourself enough runway. Maybe the first batch of media targets are not responding or not interested. You could use some extra time to research and target some other media outlets.
Generally speaking, it is best to start pitching (convincing) the media more than six weeks before the official release date. That means you need to plan when the music will be fully recorded, mastered, sent to manufacturing, and scheduled for release through your distributor. The best way to handle scheduling a release date and publicity campaign start date is to have finished manufactured CDs in hand before you set the release date and to ensure that you have at least six or more weeks before that release date for PR and marketing. But if you have more confidence and control in your production process, you can schedule these dates in advance. Make sure to leave two weeks for writing up your “pitch,” the convincing story you will use to try to engage the interest of journalists, editors, and producers. (You can download StoryAmp’s free 60-page e-book on how to write a good pitchhere.)
If you have a six-month-old release right now and were thinking of starting a PR campaign… don’t. You missed your chance. Spend that energy booking a tour. You might be able to score some album reviews in conjunction with some live performances in a city you’ve never performed in. If the record was recorded six months ago, but does not have a release date on iTunes or Amazon, you can still treat it as a new release, so give yourself and eight-week runway and go for it.
2. Your music doesn’t speak to your press targets.
This is a very touchy one. Most bands do not get coverage because few journalists like their music. While the barriers to entry in making a record have been removed almost completely, musicians now must nakedly face that they may make music with no validation from the outside at all. In the old model, if a record label executive believed in you, you could point to many reasons other than your music why you might not have built the fan following you had hoped for. Because at least some record label believed in you. They validated the music you made. Even worse than the fact that journalists do not like your record is that music fans do not like your music. Even if you hire the best, most experienced, hottest, most expensive publicist on the planet, you might not get any media coverage.
But even if your music is not going to be the pop hit of the year, or even come close, you might get more media coverage if you target outlets suitable for your musical genre, cultural style, or market saturation. If you work in an eclectic genre, you might be a good candidate for National Public Radio or the New York Times, but probably not for USA Today. If you are a classical artist, do not expect to be the very rare classical artist reviewed in Rolling Stone. If you appear to “crossover” within your genre of jazz or country or Latin, try to put yourself into the shoes of a total pop fan before pitching a total pop outlet. You probably are not crossover from their perspective. There is one sure way to tell: read the media’s coverage. And keep in mind that more adventurous niche outlets are generally more likely to cover adventurous niche recordings.
If you target outlets that cover music in your genre, your popularity ranking, etc., you increase your chances of getting covered. Yes, shoot for the stars. But shoot for the stars in the same galaxy as you. And have a back up plan for getting realistic media coverage for your music.
3. Your album cover was ugly.
This one is very simple: If your album cover is ugly or does not fit the style that a press outlet covers, you probably never made it into the journalists’ ears. If you are the type of person who grabs the closest pair of jeans (or Dockers) for that matter every morning for your wardrobe, you probably shouldn’t be your album cover designer. Either hire a professional who knows your genre or think about who is the coolest looking person you know and have them do it. DO not underestimate the power of your visual brand in getting attention. It is the first thing an album reviewer will see.
4. Your story is non-existent or full of clichés and hyperbole.
Journalists are storytellers. If there is no good story to tell, it’s that much harder to write about your music. A story bound to increase your readership: “Here’s another band you’ve never heard of with music that is filled with tired lyrics and stale guitar riffs. Their life as a suburban child was so rough because their parents just didn’t understand them.” Not really. If you can articulate what is compelling about you or your music, it increases your chances of coverage. Music is one of the most crowded marketplaces. You have to stand out from the crowd: musically, visually, and anecdotally.
There are many techniques you can use to get to your story: musical inspirations, lyrical origins, technical innovations, personal revelations, war stories from touring, fan interactions, and more. Read about them in detail in StoryAmp’s free e-book here.
5. You do not play live.
It may seem counterintuitive that in order to get album reviews, you need to perform on stage. However, live performance can double your chances of press coverage. In traditional press, there are more column inches dedicated to live music than to record reviews. Any concert coverage will likely mention a new album if not go into further detail. Sometimes concert coverage is paired with an album review. Or the coverage is the album review with a spotlight on the concert details. Local media outlets are more likely to cover you at all if you are playing in their town.
Furthermore, one of the biggest reasons media outlets cover an artist is because of buzz building around them. One of the biggest builders of buzz is when someone sees you play live. Touring other cities helps you build that buzz as well as gives you a reason to target many more media outlets in each concert city. You might not have gotten covered in the past because you didn’t tour.
6. You sound just like someone else; someone bigger.
Nobody likes a copy cat. If you have become super frustrated that an artist that sounds just like you always gets media coverage and you never do, you need to realize they now “own” that sound. You have to do something that makes you different; not complain about how you are the same.
There is a balance within each musical genre to demonstrate that you are a part of the genre, but that you have an individual voice within that genre. When you hear people say “I hate country music” or “I hate rap music,” generally those people do not understand which characteristics define the genre and which characteristics define the individual. You must be a master at this with your genres of choice. You must be the best at defining the genre and connecting with the tribe of people who like that sound and you must be even better at crystallizing and expressing your individual musical contribution to that scene.
Characteristics that may define your genres or individual voice include lyrics, melodies, harmonies, rhythms, timbres, instrumentation, embellishments, technical mastery, or fashion. Tweak the right variables to express your individuality within your scene. In other words, press coverage only comes after musical mastery within your scene or the larger society.
7. You didn’t follow up.
Sending your music by mail or email with no follow up is unlikely to get you coverage. There is so much “white noise” and members of the press have a narrow bottleneck of time with lots of music getting shoved through it every single day. Many journalists get hundreds of submissions per week. They cannot possibly review it all, and certainly cannot listen to it all. Which ones shall they listen to: The ones with a warm body following up, or the ones haphazardly slapped into an envelope with no return address? The ones with the shy or rude or entitled voice on the other end of the line, or the persistent, creative, clever, diplomatic one?