Some of the hottest questions asked by indie musicians are “How can I promote my music?”, “How can I get more people to listen to me?”, and “How can I get the labels, venues or radio stations to take notice?” The answer is simple: You need to understand a few basic things about music publicity. Once you have a better understanding about what publicity is, you’ll have a good head start. There are a few basic lessons you need to know up front:
Lesson 1: Publicity vs. Promotion
You always hear people talking about “promoting” their music, but it’s not often that you hear an artist talking about their publicity plan. Why is that? For starters, most artists don’t understand the difference. And in fact, what most artists are really looking for is publicity. Let’s explore the differences. We’ll use the example of a big event, and your aim is to get as many people to attend as possible.
First, promotion always involves work on your part, and unless you’ve got loads of advertising money available, it’s usually on a pretty small scale. In our example, it might involve designing, printing, and posting flyers throughout your town, sending e-mail newsletters to your fan mailing list, posting info about the event on your website, buying a small radio ad spot on a local or college station, and perhaps sending press releases if you think the media would care. Now, let’s pretend that you’re a major national act trying to fill the same venue. Do you think you’d have to do all of that? Probably not. Fact is, the media would catch wind that the artist will be in the area via a short press release or media phone call from a publicist. If nothing else, you’ll see brief mentions in the papers, people will be talking about it online, and the news will manage to get around via word of mouth. Either way, they’ll have just as many, if not more, fans show up than you will.
Why don’t they have to do the same amount of work? A lot of people want to jump in and say “money.” But that’s not entirely true. The fact is – a national act is newsworthy. You’re not. And why are they newsworthy? Because the labels backing them with the money tell us they are. We all know that labels have the money to “promote” their artists. What that means is that they’re able to dish out huge wads of cash to create an image that they think they publicize. The actual “publicity” aspect costs very little, and is often free. The secret for the indie artist is to find more cost-effective ways to build that image.
Contrary to promotion, publicity doesn’t have to involve a whole lot of work on your part, although you obviously have to put extra effort into building your image in the beginning. That extra effort is what will make up for the label-backing that you lack. You may have to draft a press release, call the media, and tell them why you’re newsworthy. More importantly, you need to find a way to make yourself newsworthy. Whether it’s getting involved with charity events, breaking a stereotype in your genre, winning a major award – whatever it is, you need to take advantage of it. If there’s nothing that distinct about your music as to make it worthy of media attention (from their perspective, not yours), then it’s your image that needs work. You’ve all heard of “publicity stunts” or “gimmicks.” Find something that works for you. Brainstorm, and then don’t be afraid to try something different. Aside from the investment of time, publicity is a much more cost-effective, and more effective in general, practice than promotion. Of course, it’s even better when you combine your efforts into both.
Lesson 2: Press Kits
If there’s only one thing that you do in relation to music publicity, let it be designing a great press kit. A press kit is the musician’s ultimate weapon and calling card. It can set you apart from others, make you appear more professional than you may care to admit being, and most importantly, it can convince the labels, venues, and media to give a damn about you. The press kit will likely be the most expensive thing to worry about in your publicity campaign, so give it some extra attention. Even if you have a great sound and a fantastic image, you’re screwed if your press kit sucks.
There are a few things that EVERY press kit should have:
- An artist bio stating the band’s name and general description of the music (Believe it or not, some bands put their logo, member names and bio before they ever give us their name!)
- Your demo with full cover art, inserts, and disc printing.
- A band photo (usually recommended that you use an 8×10, color glossy)
- Your Business Card (with your management/publicity contact listed)
- Press clippings/quotes if you have them (limit it to the best 2 or 3)
- Show listing if you’ve played any notable shows (don’t list a high school, sleazy bar, or some venue no one’s heard of â€“ only recognizable venues)
- Press kit packaging – can be a folder with your band’s name/logo, a custom printed folder, dvd case with insert, digipak, or something more customized.
- YOUR CONTACT INFORMATION!!!!! (It needs to be on everything, including the CD packaging, CD face, business card, folder or press kit packaging, and every single paper or item included!)
There are also a few major DON’TS with press kits:
- DON’T just throw your stuff in an envelope with no packaging (A one-sheet and a disc is NOT a press kit!)
- DON’T send your press kit to a generic address with no contact name
- DON’T send cassettes or CDs that are handwritten or have badly printed labels
- DON’T send singles – always have at least 4 songs
- DON’T include quotes from fans
- DON’T include a list of shows played at venues no one cares about
- DON’T send anything with missing contact info (you’d be surprised how often this happens)
- DON’T send anything where the quality isn’t up to par
- DON’T send merch with your kit (The only exception is that you can toss in a sticker if you want to, or use a sticker as your folder label. Otherwise, they’ll ask if they want to see more.)
- DON’T spend so much time focusing on making your kit “pretty” that you forget about content. How it looks on the outside is a lot less important than having things organized and professional on the inside.
- DON’T try to say that you’re completely unique in your bio. You’re NOT! Someone, somewhere, sounds a lot like you. If you don’t give people an idea of what they can expect, they won’t want to listen. (See a good example and a bad example in the boxes to the side.)
Lesson 3: Establishing Your Image
If you don’t take responsibility for your image, than someone else will – and you probably won’t like the result.
A musician needs to decide early on what kind of image they want to go for. All members in the band should be comfortable with that image. Saying that you just want to “be yourself” is fine – if you’ve got amazingly unique personalities. If you’re on the ordinary side, you need to find something to focus on. Did all members of the band start playing at an extremely young age? Did you all attend and meet at a prestigious school? Did you all come from extremely varied backgrounds? You need a story. If you don’t have a story to tell, you don’t have much to build an image around.
Lesson 4: Working with the Media
As an independent artist, the big venues and labels aren’t on your side. Your fans are on your side, but as much as they may love you, they’re not likely to help you get major exposure. That’s where your local media comes in. Your local paper, college radio station, or even cable TV station could be the best friend you never knew you had.
Small independent radio stations love to break the next big thing. Papers love human interest stories. And time on a small local cable station can always be bought for ads or even live performances. Some local TV stations even have their own independent music programs, so check around!
There are a few important things you need to know about working with the media:
- You have to be able to write a press release (if you don’t know how, look around online – there are tons of examples)
- You have to show reporters respect – they’re often overworked and underpaid. They’re on tight schedules, and if you call them when they’re “on deadline” you should expect them to be more than a little bit cranky. You can always call ahead to introduce yourself, find the name of the specific person you should be working with (ie a paper’s music section editor), and to find out their editorial calendar (basically how far in advance from an event you need to send your release).
- Don’t EVER send a release a day before (or even just a week before) your event, and expect to see a damn thing done to cover it.
- Don’t expect the media to jump on an invitation to cover your live event. It may be better for their schedule (and they may be able to cover it perfectly fine) with just the information in a well-written press release.
- Always make sure you’re speaking to the right person. Don’t call a managing editor or program director if you can talk to a music editor or music director.
If you show the media the same respect that you want to be shown, and you give them something that’s honestly newsworthy to work with, you’re much more likely to form a good working relationship with people who have the potential to help forward your career.
Lesson 5: Your Publicity Plan
Your publicity plan is really just a written report detailing how you intend to run your publicity campaign, what research you’re basing your decisions on, and what you intend to get from your work. While it might sound easy enough, it’s time-consuming, but well worth it. Taking the time to draft a realistic publicity plan can help to keep you on track, and will instantly put you ahead of your competition, because you’ll not only know where you want to go – you’ll know how you intend to get there! There’s not a particular format that you have to follow, but you should be sure to address a few important topics. Let’s look at the most vital parts of any type of PR plan.
- Situation Analysis: You need to be serious about what problems you face and what opportunities you have. It’s important to do a bit of research about the your local scene and where you genre fits into it right now.
- Objectives: List all of your highest level goals that you want to achieve by following your publicity plan.
- Strategies: Your strategies are the broad methods that you’ll use to reach your objectives. (i.e. Will you target print or broadcast media outlets? Will you focus more on selling your music online or selling physical cds? Will you play any venue that you can, or will you focus on venues more specifically tied to the image you’re shooting for? What is the image that you’re trying to project? Is there a way you can get your fans more involved? Etc.)
- Tactics: Your tactics are the more specific methods you’ll use to reach your goals. (i.e. What specific media outlets, falling into those included in your strategies, will you target? Will you write and send press releases? Will you call to get specific contacts and editorial calendars? Will you create your own media database or hire a professional to provide you with one? Will you sell your CDs at online retailers, small record shops, at shows, store chains, or some combination? What do you plan to do to help portray the image that you’re going for? How will you expand your fan mailing list? Will you design your own newsletters, or hire someone to take care of it for you? What professionals do you intend to bring into your project to make your strategies happen, if any? Etc.)
- Your Timeline: You really need to have a concrete amount of time in mind when you draft your plan. When do you want to reach your objectives? Figure out your end date, and work backwards from there to schedule any other intermediate goals and methods of gaining exposure.
- Budget: You need to be realistic about money. Don’t schedule things that you can’t afford. Be creative and find less expensive ways to do things if you need to. But no matter what, don’t ever forget to budget!
Once you realize that the promotion you’ve been doing isn’t enough, you’ve decided on an image that you’re comfortable with, you’re armed with a killer press kit, and you’ve got your media contacts and publicity plan in hand, you’re well on your way! You’ll have the tools you need to be a professional band, you’ll have a greater appreciation for the business side of the music business, and you’ll set yourself apart from every wanna-be band surrounding you. You can’t be afraid to take responsibility for your own future. No one’s going to step in and hand you a free ride. Gaining publicity isn’t easy – but it’s the most important thing that any indie band can do if they seriously want to forget about 9-5.