22 Nov, 16

How to Work on Press Like a Pro

There’s never been an instructional manual for musicians to get press, but looking for coverage now is more of a maze than ever. Show previews and album reviews now compete for space with song premieres and Snapchat takeovers. The world of print magazines, newspapers and alt-weeklies has expanded to websites, blogs, podcasts and YouTubers. How should musicians and writers connect? Why do some artists get reviews and features everywhere, while your emails keep disappearing into the inbox void? Do you really need to spend thousands of dollars on a high-powered publicist to cut through the noise? And do you even need press, when social media offers the chance to self-promote for free?

As daunting as they seem, there are answers to these questions. For artists willing to research and hustle, there have never been more opportunities to get the word out. To find out the best ways to reach today’s writers and editors, I spoke to three journalists about their preferences, workflows, and the moves they can’t stand (and as a newspaper critic and blogger, I have a few tips of my own).

Ben Kaye, News Editor, Consequence of Sound

At Consequence of Sound, a busy webzine that covers news, features, reviews and more, Kaye is focused on the new music section and its numerous premieres: that’s the chance for the site to debut a new song, video or album stream before it is released to the general public, or to the rest of the media in a PR email blast. Ideally, a premiere is a way for a site to have some exclusivity to draw in readers, while benefiting the band with exposure to the site’s existing audience. Setting those up means sending Kaye an email.

“Maybe this is a bit depressing, but my inbox has become a top source for new music [for me],” he says. "Of course, I still get suggestions from coworkers and friends, click around other sites to see what’s buzzing, and nothing sells me better than a live show. But in terms of truly new, ground floor, unestablished artists, getting pitched has become a big part of discovery for me.”

Outside of the inbox, it’s word of mouth and playing shows that gets Kaye’s attention, and he downplayed the importance of social media stats.

“There have been instances where I’ve passed on an artist multiple times and then get invited out to a show where I’m impressed enough to have my mind changed,” he says. “Live music is what got me into this gig in the first place, so if you can win me over there, that goes a long way. I’ve also figured out which other industry folks’ tastes I trust or run parallel to, so I definitely look toward peers a lot.”

When the pitch arrives, Kaye is a fan of having as much information as possible, in the form of a solid press kit. “I can’t tell you how often someone writes me panicking after a premiere’s gone live telling me there’s an incorrect lyric or an old picture,” he says. “I usually request the same five or six things: embed, image, quote, artist bio/album PR, and lyrics.”

He looks for at least a week of lead time, which helps him keep up with the mountain of requests he gets each day. And the earlier in advance, the better. Kaye says he covers “a wide range of things,” but artists should take a look at past premieres to see if their music would fit on the site.

“Your next band’s space-jazz ambient opera is probably not going to interest us,” he says. “I do get a lot of pitches that I find head-scratching.”

And what not to do?

“Get to the point; you’re not going to convince me to like an artist because you can write a dissertation about why I should like them,” he says. “This is my job, and I know what I like.” For audio, Kaye prefers streams: “Don't you dare send me a download; this is 2016—streaming is a thing, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to send me a private one.”

For upcoming artists, he advises, “It’s almost always a song-by-song basis.” Which means don’t get disappointed if he’s willing to premiere one song, but not the follow-up.

“You also have to realize how many new bands people like me are listening to on the daily,” he adds. “Based on sheer numbers, it also can be hard for me to give a song or album a complete listen...I’m looking at 50 to 70 new bands per day, so, upward of 300 in a given week.”

Kaye adds that follow-up emails are OK, to a point: "Two follow-up emails max."

Kim Kelly, Editor, Noisey Music

For Noisey, a Vice music publication, Kelly focuses on metal—but that niche attention doesn't mean every heavy band will earn a spot, either.

“Noisey’s metal coverage is very specifically tied to my own personal tastes…coupled with an understanding that we need to cover bigger bands, and buzzy bands, and legendary bands as well. My tastes run toward the extreme—black, death, doom, grind, crust—and shy away from mainstream, poppy, cheesy stuff, dumb metalcore/hardcore, kitschy nonsense, anything right-wing, and anything that touts gender as a selling point,” she says. “A quick look at Noisey makes it abundantly clear what kinds of metal we cover, and it always irritates me when I can tell that someone hasn’t bothered to take the time to do that.”

In an average day, Kelly says she makes it through 10 to 15 new bands. Here’s what she looks for in a pitch email. Like for Kaye, specifics are key.

“Hi, we’re Band X from City, Country. We play Genre, influenced by Band Y, Band K, and Band Z. Our lyrics are about XXX, we formed in YEAR, and our new record is coming out via Label on Date. We care about X, X, and X.

“We’re looking to set up a premiere/feature. Here’s some other press we’ve gotten. Here’s a link to our Bandcamp, Facebook, and YouTube. Thanks for your time!”

For email pitches, Kelly says to follow up twice, but wait “at least three days” between notes.

“If you don’t hear back by the second time, assume it’s a pass,” she says. “When people email me 24 hours (or less!) after an initial pitch, I tend to write them off as green or annoying, to be brutally honest.”

Keep those pitches to the inbox, too—not on social media or over the phone, and definitely not on weekends or after working hours.

“They need to remember that writers are humans who enjoy time off work, too, and that writing is work,” she says.

Kelly does look out for emails that come directly from bands, rather than publicists.

“In a lot of cases, I prefer working directly with bands,” she says. “I always make a point of checking out band emails, provided they seem like they actually know who I am, or at least know that I cover a specific genre—inapplicable things go straight in the trash.”

Outside of the inbox, Kelly looks for word of mouth, live shows, and seeing new names on flyers or tours with bands she knows and likes.

When that happens, “I’ll definitely look them up,” she says.

She’s also interested in bands with a political message she identifies with.

“That’s a personal preference, because I’m a political person, but it surely can’t hurt when a band actually has something to say,” she says.

Kelly’s interested in artists with both “interesting stories”—what journalists call an angle—and quality music, and sometimes one can compensate for the other.

“A band could have the most intriguing, unique story in the world, but if the music sucks, I’m not going to cover them,” she says. Still, “there are times when an especially interesting story can elevate a so-so record into warranting coverage, but since the fundamental point of all this is to tell stories, I don't see an issue with that.”

Whatever you do, do your homework before sending that pitch over.

“Something I run into a lot is when bands (and publicists) have no idea what I prefer to cover, or even that I have a certain genre specialty,” she says. “My spam folder is awash in indie-pop demos and hip-hop mixtapes...Do your fucking research.”

Laurent Fintoni, freelancer, FACT, Bandcamp and others

Fintoni says he’s less reliant on his inbox than he used to be, looking more for recommendations from friends and music that pops up in his Twitter feed. He gets mainly emails from publicists and labels, with “25 percent or so” of those being something he might write about.

“I have over the years struck up relationships with artists who”ve just regularly sent me things without being pushy, just more, ‘Hey this is what I’m doing,’ and maybe asking for advice. I find that’s the best, it gives me time to get into them,” he says.

As far as the pitch itself, he’s looking for just a “bit of background and audio. I can figure out the rest myself and ask if I need more.”

Press kits are helpful, as is making that information easy to find, whether on a band site or social media page.

“Personally, I enjoy knowing more if I connect to the music. At the same time, over-the-top one sheets and the likes are also a turn off,” he says. “Writers are also human beings, we’re fickle and weird in our own ways, so I don’t think you can ever hit it right all the time. Perhaps it’s a case of doing you in an honest way, putting out what you feel comfortable with and think represents you.”

Fintoni is in a position to cover what he likes “thanks to a handful of publications who trust me,” like FACT, which runs his column on new artists releasing music on Bandcamp. But he thinks it’s easier to pitch with an angle. Keep in mind that writers often need an OK from editors who have their own stipulations for what fits in a publication and what people will actually want to read or click.

“Editors want an angle,” he says. “Sometimes there isn’t much to work with backstory- or angle-wise. In these cases, I’d say trying to get reviews might be better, and it gives time for a story to build. You don’t have to rush it.”

His list of don'ts: “The whole 'being friendly’ in an email when it’s coming from a total stranger is my worst turn off —‘Hey how was your weekend’ or things like that. Bad p.r. writing (there’s a one-sheet tumblr somewhere that is testimony to that). Being pushy.

“We’re just normal people and we’ve only got so much attention to give to things,” he adds. “If you don’t get a reply, one follow-up is cool, but after that, let it go. If that person wants to get in touch, they will.”

As it’s clear from talking to even a few journalists, everyone has their preferences. As a writer who does a lot of listening in transit, an album download is more convenient for me than a private stream—then again, Kaye says “don’t you dare” send him files. Maybe send links to both and give us the option.

What a lot of this comes down to is research and respect. Musicians expect writers to sit with their music and give it a fair shake; by the same token, writers' work is easier when artists do their homework. Thinking about whether you’re a good fit for a publication, understanding what exactly they do (the type of music they cover and the type of writing they do: reviews, interviews, exclusive track premieres...), and providing the resources (music, images, press kits, release dates) is key. The less effort it takes to write about you, the more likely it becomes.

To build on these comments, here are a few more things I’ve learned as the music critic at The Oregonian newspaper (and an MP3 blogger since 2005).

Get your photos right

Every time your music gets press, there’s going to be an image with it. Make sure that image is high-resolution, easy to find (i.e., with a link to download it in your email pitch), and credited. Just as you wouldn’t want your songs attributed to Steely Dan, photos are also someone’s creative work and intellectual property. Especially at bigger publications, which could face a copyright lawsuit, that means we literally can’t post them without the owner’s name attached. That’s probably the photographer. Rename your file “band-name-credit-photographer-name.jpg,” upload it somewhere to link to in your emails and press site, and you’re done! Almost every week, I have to ask a band or publicist to send me an image—and then I have to follow-up to get the credit. This is more work for everybody. Do it right the first time.

No attachments

Whatever you do, don’t fill up our inboxes with file attachments. Upload them elsewhere, like Dropbox or Google Drive, and send the links. This saves you time and your own inbox space by having one link to send over and over instead of attaching the same MP3 to 500 emails.

Tag your files

That means in the files themselves, and in the metadata once they go into iTunes or another player. Kid3 is a good app for editing this information. Artist name, song name, album/project name, year. Songwriters, featured artist and production credits are a nice addition. Again, doing this once saves everyone a lot of time later.

The rest of the press kit

Many writers like to go deep on producers and other credits; having a full, finished list of credits helps us give, ahem, credit where it’s due. Same goes for lyrics. Providing these doesn’t mean writers won’t ignore them, or get information wrong, but it does mean you’re in a position to correct them with authority if they do. All this stuff matters a lot more than sending out links to your Facebook and Instagram—also helpful, but we can Google those.

Be careful with the press bio

If you do start getting coverage, whatever angle or backstory for the album/mixtape/release you settle on could come up in hundreds of blog posts and interview questions. Make sure it’s something authentic and interesting enough to talk about so you don’t spend the next album cycle shaking it off.

Be serious about what you’re offering

Don’t dangle an interview or a song premiere and then get too busy to talk, or place the track elsewhere. Sometimes shit happens, but it takes one click to move on to the next email.

Journalists are not a fan club

As Kaye notes, one piece of coverage from a writer doesn’t mean more will come in the future. Though the lines have blurred between newspaper writers like me, who have specific ethics guidelines, and amateur bloggers (also like me!) looking for free tickets to a show, don’t call what we’re doing “support”—even if we tell you we love the music. It’s reporting or reviewing, which means no strings attached.

Share your wins

As Fintoni notes, there’s no rush; keeping writers in the loop on your achievements, whether it's a big gig, a new release or a video that went viral, provides opportunities for us to check back in and take another look. Bands making moves are the easiest ones to write about.

Work together

Consider teaming up with other bands in your scene to put together a press database; there are only so many publications out there, and no reason for bands who might share stages and rehearsal spaces to be digging up the same emails and contact info. (Hiring a publicist is also an expensive shortcut for this.)

Managing expectations

It’s important to realize what press won’t do for you. With fewer readers, print preview articles like the ones I do every Friday don’t have the same power to get people out to a show that they once did. Music websites now draw a lot of their readers from social media, where people are clicking on a single article and not scrolling through a homepage or reading every music blog post on Google Reader.

As far as I can tell, it’s much harder to get people to stumble onto a band they’ve never heard of than it was during the ’00s blogging days. So a track premiere or an interview on the most popular website doesn’t mean you’ll land thousands of new fans overnight—you might even do better with a niche site with listeners more devoted to your sound or to new band discovery. (Or on a Spotify playlist, to be honest.)

The local Portland bands I’ve talked to say getting press helps build reputation: it can help a booking agent or other industry folks know you’re serious, or put your name onto their radar. It also leads to more press. Kaye, Kelly and Fintoni all say they’re looking for trusted recommendations; writers are always reading and seeing who other writers, our peers, are talking about. Look at each article you get as a step forward in that department, and don’t be afraid to mention them in your next round of pitches. You’ll get there—one headline at a time.

By David Greenwald, distributed under a Creative Commons CC-BY license.

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