This site is a blog for musicians and music industry people. It is a free educational resource and it is also the way I advertise my music consulting services. I am an entertainment professional with deep roots in the music industry. Throughout my music career I have been a major label A&R representative, a music supervisor, an artist manager, a reality show producer, a bass player and the head of a digital record label.
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Shirronda Sweet is an independent multi-media consultant and media relations specialist. She started her career as a music charts researcher at Cashbox magazine in L.A. and after several years, ended up moving to New York City to take a job as an assistant at an independent PR firm, Gallagher Communications. While there, she worked her way up to the title of publicist, handling projects with artists and acts including Master P, Big Mac (Biggie Smalls/Craig Mack), P-Diddy and Russell Simmons. Her success led her to Interscope Records, where she became a publicist for No Doubt and Blackstreet. She then headed to Motown Records, where she was eventually named senior director, leading campaigns for 98 Degrees, Nelly, Erykah Badu, Akon, Stevie Wonder, Brian McKnight and many other R&B and pop acts. She now runs her own company working with musicians across urban, R&B and pop genres.
I spoke with Shirronda about her diverse experiences and building a strong music PR campaign. She also shared some valuable tips about how artists can successfully release their music and other content and present themselves well to the press.
Thanks so much for taking some time to talk, Shirronda. How did you get into the music business?
I started off on a track to live in California, working at Cashbox magazine as a charts researcher, but I decided I didn’t like California much anymore after an earthquake happened. I reached out to a couple people I had met through the work I was doing. I told Serena Gallagher, a music publicist in New York City that I really wanted to come back to New York, but she told me she couldn’t help me until I moved back. I had never met her in person and basically knew her through talking to her on the phone about artists of hers that were on the charts. I met her in person when I got back to New York, and we hit it off. She eventually helped me get a job at her company Gallagher Communications. I started doing publicity from then on.
I’ve worked at a lot of different companies over the years. I started as an assistant to an aspiring music industry executive. But the record he put out never took off, so I started working with Serena as a volunteer helping her out with her business and eventually worked my way up to a junior publicist. One of the first jobs she gave me was working with Master P, who had that independent song out called “Ice Cream Man.” No one expected it to do so well. Back then, he was selling records from his car, which was a totally new concept, and he wasn’t being tracked by SoundScan, so no one knew how big the record would get. She taught me how to make the calls, send the records and be persistent. I started getting him placements, and the ball started rolling. He started putting his records in the stores, and he took off.
After I successfully handled project by myself, Serena promoted me to a publicist, and I worked with a lot of hip hop before I moved onto work with R&B and pop acts. I worked with her on projects like the Big Mac, which was Biggie Smalls and Craig Mack’s project.
Gallagher Communications was an independent PR firm and was dealing with a lot of smaller artists when I first worked there; the songs weren’t as big. Then, Puffy hired her to do PR, and the campaigns started growing. That was when the majors got more involved with her company and were willing to invest and keep following up on these records. I also worked with Russell Simmons on his Def Comedy Jam show.
How did you make the transition into the major label system?
Serena closed her company and went to Motown Records. I had met a lot of people in the industry during the time I worked with her, and someone told me that Beverly Page needed an assistant. She was a publicist and senior VP at Interscope Records, so I decided to move over there.
At the time, I really liked doing publicity, but all my experience was working at an independent company. Although a lot of the songs I had worked on were big, they weren’t attached to a major label. The majors didn’t look at the independent companies with real respect, especially not back then, so I realized I was going to have to start from scratch.
Beverly Page originally wasn’t looking for an assistant, but I’m a persistent chick. I saw that she was incredibly busy, so I just started picking up her phone for her and taking notes and messages while she was busy with artists. She was incredibly appreciative for the help, and I had basically shown her why she needed an assistant.
So, you created your own job.
Yes. And that was when I got into R&B and pop music. I worked with No Doubt, Blackstreet. She was the publicist, so I initially acted as her assistant. But she started giving me more responsibilities as time went on. And because I had worked at an independent company, I knew how to do everything attached to publicity really well. Beverly always said that when she hired me, she got two in one: a publicist and an assistant.
What she didn’t have time to do, she would pass along to me. For example, when she had to contact a lot of major publications, she would let me handle the smaller ones. That was how No Doubt came along. When she went on maternity leave, I ended up taking over a lot of the projects. And Theresa Sanders, who is now an independent publicist, came on board to fill Beverly’s shoes. I still work with her to this day.
After a while, I left Interscope and went to Motown. I started out as a publicist, then became a director and then a senior director and worked with 98 Degrees, Nelly, Erykah Badu, Akon – with his very first project – Stevie Wonder, Brian McKnight and a bunch of other pop and R&B acts.
And then you started your own company. I would love to know your insight on what it is about the artists you’ve worked with – whether independent or on major labels – that made them press worthy. What should artists be thinking about and getting organized when they are working on getting press for themselves and their music?
First of all, you have to have a personality. It’s hard to tell someone, “Have a personality.” But artists need to be able to talk about the things they like without getting too personal. I think getting too personal is what kills the superstar status. A superstar is someone who you feel is a little bit unattainable and on a pedestal; yet you still feel like you can understand their life experiences and that maybe it’s possible for you to achieve what they have. For example, we feel we know a lot about Beyonce, but there are still certain things she’s very private about. We all loved Michael Jackson in bits and pieces, but there are still things we thought we know that we really don’t know.
As an example, when you are an artist, you want to use tools like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram to show fans your new sneakers or your new style. And you also want fans to see you following other people on the different sites that you admire and who inspire you. You need to be able to talk about yourself and what you do as an artist and not just say, “I love music.” There are plenty of people who love music. But why do you love music? How does it truly inspire you and influence you? You have to able to talk about your passion and really show that passion.
Right now, there are so many platforms on which to have these conversations and so many more opportunities to talk about your passion than there were 10 or 15 years ago. You have an opportunity to reach so many different people all over the world instantly. And if you don’t have a publicist, you may not be able to do everything a professional publicist can do for you, but you can definitely lay down the groundwork.
If you’re an artist and really don’t have the money to hire a publicist, how do you get started and establish a base?
I don’t always recommend an artist do what a publicist or a marketing consultant does, because, at an artist, your strength is being an artist. It is hard for an artist to be a business person on his/her project. And somewhere along the way, the process gets convoluted. As a publicist, sometimes you do things for one artist that might not make sense for another artist businesswise. A publicist strategizes. I wouldn’t just say, “I have a friend that works at Rolling Stone magazine, and I’m going to put a story there” when I haven’t laid down the groundwork to get the artist to that level yet.
Do very big periodicals look down on small feeder publications? Do you have to lay the base at the lowest level before you can get to the next level up and so forth?
Well, magazines like Rolling Stone, Spin and People are not looking at your hometown paper. The only thing they want to know is whether or not you have a following. They will pay attention if all of a sudden they see people requesting and talking about an artist. Back in the day, publicists would have clips. Every time an artist did something in a magazine or newspaper, we would cut it out, put it on a piece of paper with other clips and make it look pretty. Then we would send a package out with the clips, a photo and a bio. Once other magazines saw that, they would think, “Wow. They have a lot of different stories out there. Now they are worthy to be in this publication.” It shows the artist has experience. You don’t just suddenly decide to try to get into People magazine when you haven’t even been interviewed by smaller publications. You can’t move through the process too quickly.
There is definitely a skill to being able to talk to the media. What are some of the basic “do”s and “don’t”s of media training? How can you speak to people in the press when an interview comes up?
Every artist is different and has different strengths when it comes to talking to the media. There are some artists that just have “it;” when they get in front of a camera, something just clicks, and they know how to work it. They look right into the camera and are dazzling. And often when the camera goes off, they are a completely different person.
That being said, there is a major difference between a TV interview, a radio interview and a print interview. For example, when you are participating in an on-camera interview, you have to find a way to connect with the person that is interviewing you and also with the audience you can’t see.
Are there interview “don’t”s that apply for artists across the board?
I’m not a fan of airing your dirty laundry. It always comes back. I am always reminding artists that they need to behave as if they are on a pedestal. The world doesn’t need to know all the details about who put you down throughout your life as you were trying to succeed. And I go back to Beyonce as an example, because I think she is a real superstar. She isn’t putting anyone else down. It doesn’t matter who put her down in her life, but she’s not putting those people down publicly. That makes us have empathy and sympathy for her.
Can you point to some of the specific things artists who have handled press really well in the past few years have done?
There are a lot of artists out there that do really well. I think the ones who do best are those who have really taken negatives and turned them around. They are able to be true to their identity as an artist and not give into celebrity and fame. There are people who are famous and then people who are just stars. There’s a big difference.
Are there any artists you feel have done particularly poorly with press?
Chris Brown and Justin Bieber. They just need to just stop and regroup, figure out their goals and what they want to get out of communicating with the press. Artists like this need to reconnect with how they got to where they are. When you are a huge artist, after a while, you start to feel like you’re untouchable. Everybody that is around you is telling you, “You’re perfect. You can’t do anything wrong.” You hear it so much from everybody, eventually you believe it’s true.
It’s definitely easy to lose touch with reality when everyone is telling you, “Yes.”
Just to switch gears, talk to me about which tools are helpful for artists that are just starting out on the indie level and doing their own publicity or working with a publicist.
Information about the artist is important. That can be a bio or a tips sheet – something to give important information about an artist. You also need photos. You need not just press photos, but candid photos of an artist that you can send out to different outlets.
Word of mouth is huge today. I firmly believe in starting out with the small publications and outlets first. People are definitely reading their hometown papers. You have to have a following in your hometown. It’s critical. I don’t know too many people who didn’t have their hometown locked down before they made it huge. You have to start out in your own area performing.
I see a lot of artists making a record, taking press shots, doing a video and then shot gunning everything out the door. I know every artist is different, but is there a good way to stagger the release of your new content?
You say “stagger,” but I call it “domino:” One thing leads to another thing, which leads to another thing. Once you hit the first domino, and everything else starts to fall down right in a row is when you have a great campaign. And this campaign doesn’t solely come from the publicity side; you need marketing, sales and promotion to all be in place and perfectly lined up. You get the photo, the music and some information about you together and service it out to different places. But if you have five photos, don’t service out all five. You want to save some things for exclusives and specific publications. And also, not all publications want the same type of photo. Some of them like standard shots, others like candids. It is so important to tailor your approach so the materials are getting through to the publications and people you’re sending them to.
You have worked in both urban and pop/rock PR. Is there a big difference between doing PR for the two genres?
There is. Rock artists are on tour a lot more than other types of artists. Back in the days of the old Motown, R&B artists were always on tour too. They were doing publicity and marketing like rock bands do now, and it kept them on the road, because, there is no press like having press in each market you’re visiting. It means you’re always being discussed.
You have a lot more mainstream opportunities for placements when you are a pop artist than you have if you are in rap. Unless you are a huge rap superstar, you’re not going to be able to get into some of the mainstream outlets. You find yourself a little behind. But there are still so many urban sites to go to. But the numbers are just not as big as with the mainstream. As a publicist, I need to get 10-15 of these smaller outlets to equal one major outlet in pop or rock.
You’ve been in the business for quite a while. Do you have any parting words of advice for artists?
Artists need to learn the industry and know what it takes to be in it. It looks so good on the outside, but once you’re in it, you realize just how important it is to know the business. So many people have been burned because they didn’t know, and others took advantage of that. You need to understand what goes into the business of running your career, from what a publicist does to what a publishing company does and how to work marketing and sales.
Also, a lot of artists think, “I’m going to make a lot of money.” But you just can’t be involved with music for the money. You have to be in it for the love of music and what you do. Then, it’s not so hard to accept the punches that will come at you because you are in this industry.
Jane Lui is an imaginative singer/songwriter who has successfully used YouTube and social media to build a strong following. Classically trained in piano and voice, she did not start absorbing Western music until her teens, when she began to explore music by artists like Allison Krauss, Bjork, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. Jane began to officially write and perform her own music in 2003, and her sensibility has been compared to Cat Power, Fiona Apple and Rufus Wainwright. Her music exhibits elements of electronica, funk, old-timey and folk styles as well as melotron, dixieland jazz, field recordings, gospel choirs, and music boxes. She has opened for Jason Mraz, Kate Earl, Jim Bianco and Vienna Teng. With 3.9 million views on YouTube, she has played at venues such as the Ford Amphitheatre, The Shrine and Walt Disney Concert Hall. Her album Goodnight Company was nominated for Best Recording in San Diego Music Awards 2011. Thanks in great part to her strong YouTube and social media following, she raised over $11,600 directly from fans through a PledgeMusic campaign. She has also toured the East and West coasts of the U.S., Canada, Sidney (AU) and London (UK).
Jane recently talked to me about how she came into her own voice as an artist and built a strong following through social media by forging personal relationships with her fans. She also shared some tips for artists that want to find and build their audiences on- and off-line.
Thanks so much for taking some time to talk, Jane. How did you first get into music?
I’ve known I wanted to be a musician since I was about six. I started piano lessons, then I eventually got into choir. But I didn’t start singing until much later. I got bad grades in everything except music. So, immediately, I felt like I was only good at one thing. I had to pay attention to it.
I took piano all the way through high school, then quit, because I just got fed up with the classical training. I didn’t like to practice, and I got yelled at every week by my teacher. She was amazing, and I wish I had practiced. But I really wanted to dive into singing.
In college, I never wrote songs. I didn’t grow up listening to a lot of amazing records. I actually didn’t even start listening to The Beatles until my late 20s. I didn’t know Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, etc., though I had heard of them. I grew up listening to Cantonese pop music until I was about 16. It was really synthy and formulaic. Canto pop is also always really ballady. I think I even fell into the rut of that for my first couple albums, which had a lot of really slow, melancholy ballads on them. My friends in high school were really into alternative music, so they were listening to bands like Toad the Wet Sprocket and Oasis.
College was when I started to really understand music, and I didn’t start writing until about 2003. I figured out that I really enjoyed writing music, and that I needed sing something. I started my solo career in 2004, following a very traditional business plan: I went to open mics five days a week, made flyers, booked shows at local coffee houses and brought my mailing list, made a low-budget album and sold it.
And how did this traditional route work for you?
I think it worked for my ten-mile radius in San Diego really well. But then I needed to do something else.
In 2008, I met David Choi, Kina Grannis and Paul Dateh, who are now big YouTube hits. Paul Dateh is a violin player and a really dear friend of mine, and David now has 38 million views on YouTube. Kina Grannis is the one person in the group who actually broke into the mainstream. I met them all through an Asian competition in L.A. I did an open mic that was put together by Asian artists. I had no idea that sort of thing existed; looking for an Asian audience was never part of my strategy. I drove two hours to play 20 minutes, and when I got there, they said, “We ran out of room in the show, but we really like you, so hopefully next time.”
A few months later they called me because someone dropped out, and I joined. It was at the Ford Amphitheater in L.A. and it was the first time I’d played in front of 1,400 people. I won, which was really gratifying. I never knew I could be on a stage like that and not die of a heart attack. But also, I had never had such a supportive audience.
Needless to say, you never know what’s going to happen when you take a random gig.
Yes. It’s crazy. Driving two hours to play 10 or 20 minutes can completely change your life.
Winning the contest put me in a larger competition, which was where I first met Kina, David and Paul. We were talking about the business of YouTube and what they were all doing with it. They were just starting to gain a huge following on YouTube, and I was baffled. Doing covers was never my thing before 2008 or 2009. Doing videos even was weird to me. I didn’t even have a computer with a video recorder in it. I asked them how they were using it, and they told me they were doing covers and posting them to let other people see what they were doing with them. They said, “It doesn’t even matter what the song is.”
I said, “Really? It doesn’t matter?” So I started posting bits and pieces of songs here and there. Then, I slowly got off my high horse of insisting I will only do originals. The tricky part about YouTube is that you have to do covers in order to get people to find you – for “searchability” – and then you can show them what you’re really made of. The important thing about doing covers is to do them your way, so when they look at your originals there is a thread connecting your different work together. That’s what I have found to be true and gratifying.
You’re not doing too shabby with YouTube yourself, with over 26,000 subscribers and 3.9 million views.
The most recent thing I did was with Felicia Day. I did a mashup cover of “Someday My Prince Will Come” and Maroon 5’s “Payphone.” My formula lately has been to pick a song I hate and a song I love. It’s fun to rip them apart.
Obviously partnering with other artists for collaborations has been really helpful to building up your presence. But what are some of the other strategies you used that helped you build up to 3.9 million YouTube views?
The truth is, I’m not a prolific uploader. I’ve never done what many artists do and promised to upload once per week. I’m pretty slow. I typically post one video every few months, which I realize is a serious problem, as I need to pick up the frequency. What works for me is that when I do put up video, it’s very noticeably a lot of work, and I do my best to make it the best it can be.
You consistently produce content that’s of real quality. It’s obvious you work on the editing and the performances.
I’m very meticulous about where I place my instruments and how I play them and try my best to make sure this comes through in the finished product. I would say, when it comes to YouTube, the branding and quality of sound are very important. And I think it’s evident that my subscribers like me, even if I am not a prolific uploader, because I do my very best to make each video a big episode.
And YouTube is one of the ways you communicate. Tell me about how the rest of your business works. How have you used YouTube to drive revenue?
I have three albums. And there was a time when I was working seven days a week. Right now, because I have three albums and t-shirts, whenever I put up a video, there’s always a peak in my sales, either by albums or on iTunes. And there’s always a surge of communication on all my social media channels. Album sales have been really helpful. But while YouTube doesn’t bring me any real sustainable revenue directly, I still get bookings from it. People watch the videos and say, “Can you come to our college?” And college gigs are awesome because they pay relatively well.
And are these opportunities that have come to you or that you have sought out?
It’s happened both ways. Lately it’s been a lot of them seeking me out. There are a lot of East Coast colleges that are hungry for L.A.-based musicians, especially within the Asian community. They want to meet you, understand how you do your thing and what it means to be an Asian American in a business where we are a minority. It’s not always all about the music with college gigs; it also involves a discussion of being an Asian American in the entertainment business, and that’s always fun for me to talk about.
There are also a lot of people asking me to do benefits and inviting me to do Walt Disney-related gigs. Even if I just do one or two big gigs like that, suddenly I will have other people saying, “She did well with this Walt Disney gig, maybe I could hire her for this other thing.” Everything perpetuates once you get the ball rolling.
Outside of all of that, I also do panels. I recently approached the UC Riverside Filipino department and said I was interested in doing a panel with my friends David Choi, Kina Grannis and Paul Dateh with a show afterwards. I told them how much we would charge and also approached other colleges. Some were interested and some weren’t, because it was an involved event with a fairly big budget. We ended up doing that twice, and it was so much fun.
I also book my own gigs in L.A., San Francisco, New York, Boston and San Diego.
Are Twitter, Facebook and your mailing list important pieces of your communication efforts?
The main way I communicate is through Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram and Twitter. To be totally honest, I have not written a newsletter to my email list in about a year. I used to send out newsletters, but then I realized I could post a permanent link to each newsletter on my webpage and anyone could go see it. It doesn’t have to be exclusive. I decided that the exclusivity of the email list wasn’t something I liked, and this other way has been really working well for me. I end up communicating personally with a lot of people who are already on my email list publicly. So other people see me talking to them. I used to get a lot of private emails, and I wanted everyone to be able to share in it.
I will often post lyrics on my Facebook to get help from people, and there is so much beautiful poetry posted. Other people read that and think, “Maybe I can contribute.” And then that just snowballs.
I’ve never looked at it that way. That’s amazing.
I know a lot of musicians are on Instagram, but how do you promote through it?
I just learned about this too. I’m doing a show soon, and my friend who is playing with me created a quick poster. She made it on the computer, cropped it and posted it on Instagram. She has hundreds of thousands of followers, and they can all look at it at the same time. It’s just another way of doing a flyer, but everyone can see it on Instagram, which everyone is checking ten times per day. I never thought of it before, but it’s really smart. On Twitter, you can’t see something like that without an extra click. But on Instagram, it’s just right there.
Since you’re using Tumblr, do you still have a blog on your main website?
I only do Tumblr because it’s already a platform where there is a built-in audience. I can Tumbl things I like in life, which shows off my personality and aesthetic.
And the re-blogging effect there is palpable.
Yes. And it’s neat for people to click on my archives and see what I’ve done for the past few months. It’s interesting to see a color palette-style of what I re-blog that are very congruent with my website and my branding. It’s unintentional, which makes me know I am being authentic across the board.
And do you have any general advice for people using all these online tools? You’re clearly not using them by the numbers, which I like.
When I was figuring things out, my instinct was always, “I should promote this show, shouldn’t I?” or “I should really talk about this CD, shouldn’t I?” I realize I have this strong impulse to not overtly promote. I want to do in a way that does not come across as me using people. I personally can’t stand getting posts that are forcing me to do something: “Check me out here!”
I’m definitely a believer in attraction over promotion.
Yes. That’s a great way of putting it. I think it’s important to post in a personal way, even if you are just posting about your dinner. Then when you do post something to attract an audience, keep the same voice; be gentle.
What I always tell people is if they behaved in a party situation the way they behave online, they’d get beaten up: “HI, I’M [BLANK], AND THIS IS MY MUSIC, AND YOU SHOULD LISTEN TO ME AND COME TO MY SHOW.”
Exactly. People can smell you being a poseur miles away. You really have to stay true to what you’re trying to accomplish and be a person. If you are fake, you will attract a fake audience.
Can you give an example of something you did to promote a show that was more about attraction than overt promotion?
I like to bake for the people who are coming to my show. I’ve done thousands of shows at this point and sometimes I can’t believe that people can decide to come to my show. It still blows me away, because there are so many things you could be doing on a given night: sitting with your friends talking at a coffee shop; watching a movie; watching the Rolling Stones come through town; riding your bike. There are a million things to do. People had to go through a lot to show up to see me. They had to look for parking, come to my show and pay a ticket price. I think that’s just crazy, so I feel like I want to gift them something. So, I like to give away cookies and brownies and cookies at my show just to say, “Thanks for the trek. I can’t believe you’re here.”
There was also a show where I baked, but I also really wanted the audience to give me input on their lives. I think we go through life missing thousands of stories of people around us, because we don’t have the time to sit down and talk to each other. I created a board called “Subliminal” where people could record their dreams – recurring dreams or anything that stuck with them. I provided glue, stamps, different-colored pieces of paper for them to write things down on. And they could write whatever they wanted, stay anonymous and pin them onto the board. I still have this board on my wall, and I draw inspiration from it for my music.
So, you actually weave your audience into the work you create.
At this point in my career I am done trying to do things by myself. I like the sense of collaboration, even if it is just people telling me their stories. There are millions of emotions I will never have the fortune or misfortune of feeling. I want to exercise empathy and learn from other people’s experiences.
I genuinely love helping artists find and tell their stories. And as I have expressed many times through articles I have written about the bio-writing process, I am delighted to have the privilege of watching musicians and songwriters discover the most remarkable milestones on their creative journeys, reconnect meaningfully with the real reasons they make music and share their passion with the world.
But I am going to be brutally honest: There are a lot of terribly-written artist bios out there – bios that are so ridiculous that I can’t hear the music over the sound of my own laughter (or uncontrollable sobbing). And your band bio might fit into this category. You may even know your bio is embarrassingly bad, but feel either totally overwhelmed by the prospect of writing about yourself, or simply too lazy to make changes. Maybe you are just unaware that a well-written bio is the most crucial piece of your written marketing materials and that it will be seen (and in most cases, harshly judged) by event promoters, magazine, newspaper and blog editors, venue owners, industry professionals and potential fans. Regardless of the reason you are not investing any energy into your bio, what the f&*k are you thinking?
Our rapidly-evolving technological world has made both computers and the Internet accessible to almost everyone. And, in my opinion as a professional writer deeply in love with the wonderful nuances of words, that has led to one of the most nightmarish consequences of the Digital Age– a consequence that has profoundly affected the way people write about themselves: The Internet has evolved into an untended wilderness, where everyone is encouraged to vomit out (completely unedited) thoughts no one cares about, all over a global audience. Thanks to fully-accessible blogging platforms, Facebook, Twitter, text messaging and a variety of other tools that give all of us permission to speak like 13-year-old girls and casually throw the beauty of proper language and grammar under the bus (and then run over it several times to make sure it is truly dead), there is a very blurry line between “some notes and unfinished thoughts to get me started on writing my bio along with some stuff I like about myself, which occurred to me in the shower this morning” and “my polished, professional bio, which I will proudly use to present myself as a serious person and artist.”
If you have writer’s block, or are not sure your bio is working in its current form, here are some of the bio f&*k-ups that I see regularly lead to the most abysmally-written bios. If you can avoid these, you’re on the right track.
1. “And when I was five, I invented the piano.”
Were you kicking along to the beat of music while you were in the womb? Did you start playing the violin at age three? And were you also making up sophisticated songs about your oatmeal in 13/8 time at the breakfast table and singing them into your spoon to the delight of your parents and jealous dismay of your talentless siblings? If you can answer these questions with a confident “Yes” (and you are not currently a child), then allow me to hand deliver a message to you: No one cares.
If you are an adult, your child prodigy years are of no real interest to anyone that will be reading your bio. Mentioning how amazing you were as a child will also encourage someone to gauge how far you’ve come since then, look at the state of your current career (or lack of career) and perhaps even think, “Wow, that’s too bad … what happened?” Plus, a childhood ability to easily pick up instruments and comprehend elements of harmony and melody is not a unique selling point for your story as an artist, because it is something that is shared by a majority of your contemporaries. Briefly celebrating the earliest environment that nurtured your talent can offer an introduction to you. But you need to connect with that moment you decided to pursue your art seriously and made the grown-up decision to turn it into your life’s work and illustrate the thrill of that decision as part of your bio. That is likely where your real adventure began.
2. “Since the beginning of time, there has never been a better singer writing more wonderful lyrics than [insert name of the best singer in the world here].”
Are you the best bass player that ever lived? Do you love to write beautiful songs more than any other unique songwriter? Are your varied influences as a guitarist pretty damn eclectic – more eclectic than anyone who has ever written songs that might be compared to yours? Well, who the hell do you think you are … (and while I’m asking, what exactly are you trying to say, anyway?)
During one of my recent bio-writing workshops at an art school, I shared my pet peeve of bios that make grandiose, assertive, clichéd statements that are not supported by any hard evidence (or by any truly descriptive adjectives or cliché-free phrases). One of the students said, “Yeah. You can only do that if you are Prince.” While I would argue that even Prince should not make obnoxiously-grandiose statements about himself, he probably has. And he can only get away with it because of his lengthy track record of proving his competency as a musician and performer and his “unique”ness as an artist, the unquestionably-loyal fan base he has built and the countless reviews he has received from reputable industry experts saying he is a pioneer in his field (and clearly explaining why).
Look at your own bio. Does it humbly describe the sound and feel of your music using tangible adjectives that conjure up a taste, a texture or even a smell (though hopefully not an unpleasant one) that someone that neither plays nor composes music can understand? Does it capture how your music makes your fans feel? And if the tone is a little cocky, do you have some real press quotes from legitimate online or print publications (and not My Mom magazine) to back up that attitude? Yes? Great … now prove it! (Also, might I remind you that there are only 12 notes; get over yourself.)
And as a real-world example to illustrate the point of this particular f&*k-up, here is a bio an artist friend of mine recently asked me to critique. His name and location have been changed for his and your protection (and yes, he fixed it!):
“Flibberty Giblet is a walking contradiction. He is a singer-songwriter, but he has very little in common with most singer-songwriters of today. His tableau of jagged sound stands out like a sore thumb against the airier tones of the Atlantis folk scene in which he thrives. But as dark as his jumbled and oft-disturbing lyrics can be, his melodies are every bit as gorgeous.”
3. “Thanks for describing the water while I’m drowning.”
This may sound unbending, maybe even impossible, but your bio has to get to the point before the first word. (And this f&*k-up is actually an outgrowth of f&*k-up #2.) If the first few words of your bio do not immediately start setting the stage for your narrative, and if your name does not appear in the first sentence, you have already failed. I hold pretty solidly to the guideline that the longest a bio should ever be is somewhere around 750 words (1,000 if you have a creative purpose that necessitates more words and moves the narrative along compellingly). And ideally, this 750-word masterpiece should be an “opt-in” after you have presented a short-form, 250-word bio first and that short introduction piqued further interest. People reading about you have thousands of other artists to read about and even more music to hear, so you have no room to go on long-winded tangents or define the words you are using to talk about yourself.
Sometimes when an artist is particularly blocked about the details that make his/her story worth following, I ask for some examples of music bios that the person enjoys reading, just to get a feel for style and give that person some inspiration. A very young R&B artist I worked with a couple years ago on a bio went through this exercise and sent me a few bios of fairly big hip hop and R&B artists. I was shocked to find that each one of them was worse than the one before it (and even more shocked to find that these bios had come from professional writers). The common problem amongst all of them was the amount of words that were wasted on “posturing” and desperately trying to convince me that the artist was “the best of all time.” Sometimes, the bios spent several sentences or even a paragraph defining a word used, like in the case of this bio, which started with a dictionary-style definition before it even identified the artist it was talking about:
“Natural can be described as innate or instinctive in essence, disposition or temperament. Quite simply, natural can be summed up as God-given or God-inspired because it comes so easily.” (Wow, that is quite simply put! I always wondered what “natural” meant. Thanks so much! Now, what if I don’t believe in God? And, wait … wasn’t I reading an artist bio?)
Present yourself and your music as objectively as possible, then respectfully let readers draw their own conclusions. You won’t make lifelong friends (aka, build a fan base that will support you for life) by strong-arming someone into liking you.
4. “We’re all with the band.”
It is human nature to wonder about the names, birthdays, hometowns and sexual orientations of all the members of your favorite band. It is also human nature not to know the name of the bass player (and not to care enough to even consider asking).
The tendency for a lot of bands when crafting their bios is to ask each member to put together a resume which includes details like education, past bands and other accomplishments, likes and dislikes and then throw all these resumes together to create a total frenzy of information that is ultimately irrelevant to the current band’s mission and music.
While you certainly want to give your fans and others some personal details about you and your band mates, so you can get them invested in your success, the bio needs to have a focused story and purpose. Start your band’s tale with why and how you came together as a group. How are you connected to each other, and why do you make melodic, ugly, dark, dirty, gritty or [insert a description of your sound and sensibilities here] music together? Save your pet peeves, favorite colors and favorite place to eat cheese for a blog post.
5. “My name is Sybil … no, wait! It’s Gertrude.”
If I ever butt heads with an artist while writing a bio, this fifth f&*k-up is the one we most often disagree about: Having multiple professional bios that serve different purposes. Succeeding in the music industry involves a lot of diversifying, and while possible, it is still a rare privilege to make a sustainable living playing your own music. To make ends meet and support a still-growing career, many artists must take up jobs as session players, songwriters for other artists, etc. I sometimes work with artists who are either afraid their persona as a solo artist (or a band leader) is not “professional” enough to get them work in other areas of the industry or just think their roles are so all over the place that they are not connected enough to put together; thus, they want to create several different bios in order to present each of the different “hats” they wear.
I understand the feeling of needing to pay respect to each of your different personae as well as the fear of publicly embracing all the different aspects of your very-diversified artist career. But multiple personality disorder is no fun for anybody. When you cannot find one way to celebrate your many different dimensions, you are communicating exactly the opposite of what you want to communicate to potential employers or collaborators. Instead of saying, “I am 100-percent committed to working hard at making music in all its forms, and I have a deep skill set that reaches into many different areas of the music business,” when you have many different bios, you are basically saying, “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, so I’m just doing a bunch of stuff to see what sticks.” Or even worse than that, you are saying, “I will be whoever you want me to be,” which will invite some pretty unsavory and counter-productive characters into your world.
As satisfied and refreshed I feel after reading a beautifully-written bio that invites me into an artist’s rich, inner world, I feel that much more physically and spiritually ill when I find one that misses the mark. Hopefully the above can help you find a direction for your own writing process. If you are still struggling, reach out to your friends (or even your fans!) for feedback. And remember, there is no shame in hiring a professional bio writer!
So you want to learn more about marketing your music on YouTube? Good! Because statistically speaking, you’re doing it wrong. According to Alexa.com, YouTube is the third most visited site behind Facebook and Google, so you really can’t afford to mess up your YouTube strategy.
It’s amazing to me how musicians are all over every latest update on Facebook and Twitter but often forget about using YouTube as a social network. That’s not to say that they don’t use the platform to upload videos and share them on their website and other social media profiles. But a vast majority of musicians forget all about making sure that there is the highest possibility of discovery and a pleasant user experience on the platform itself. Your average musician’s YouTube channel is the digital equivalent of this photo:
Don’t worry! I’m sure the average YouTube user who is exposed to more music videos than he or she can count on an average day will spend untold hours seeking out your cover of Colour me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up” in all that mess.
(As an aside, if you are really covering that song, your YouTube presence is the least of your problems.)
With the above photo (and hopefully not that song) in mind, let’s talk about making sure you are increasing the likelihood of getting found on YouTube.
Making Discovery on YouTube More Likely
Tags and Titles
One of the biggest mistakes artists make on YouTube is not giving any thought to the possibility of discovery. This often starts with poor title choice. You need to make your video titles descriptive and based on what someone (with no personal knowledge of you or your music) would be searching for. No one on YouTube is going to type in “slowjam-ver.3 no vocals recorded in Doug’s basement.”
Your video title should include your band name, the song name, the venue or location (if it’s a live performance) and a few other specific keywords that describe your style and sound. If it is a cover, the artist you are covering’s name and the title of the song should come before your own, because the earlier the keyword is in a title, the more likely it is to populate in search results.
You should also be considering channel and video tags. Tags are keywords that help people find your video when they type in a YouTube search. So, what are fans looking for your video typing into YouTube and Google? If you are a developing artist – chances are they aren’t looking for you (yet), so keep in mind that your project name is only one of several keywords that will help you out. As with video titles, video tags need to include details like venue names, your band name (both correct and incorrect spellings), song names, city, stage, genre, etc. Appropriate tags make it much more likely that you will come up first in a search for your song or band.
To add tags to your YouTube Channel, look at the “Settings” tab.
To add tags to individual videos, click on “Videos” from the drop-down menu at the top right-hand corner of the YouTube page.Then click “edit” next to the video you want to tag.
Oh, and while we are making sure things are well labeled, be sure to link your website and / or other social media profiles and a buy link in your description.
A few more tricks of the trade: You will notice that when you visit a popular video, there are often video responses. Video responses are basically a comment on someone else’s video that uses one of your videos as the reply. On very popular videos, these responses won’t always get served up to every viewer on every viewing (because there are usually several responses), but leaving responses does increase the chances of getting traffic from a video that you believe has viewers who will appreciate your content.
Similar to video replies, playlists can be used to help your video get stumbled upon more often by viewers who are looking at other videos. Again, you should select videos that you have decided will have a similar audience to your video. It is not uncommon when viewing a video to have a playlist that shares tags with the video you are watching populate on the right hand side. For example, if I am looking at a Pearl Jam video, I notice that the very-poorly-titled “YouTube Mix” populates on the right side. With an even more relevant title like “Favorite Grunge songs” you would increase the chances of discovery when someone clicks on that playlist.
Subscriptions and comments
This is a pretty basic tip for any YouTube user, but you should follow channels of similar artists and interact with their videos. You do not need to make this your life’s work, but it can get people back to your channel if you spend a bit of time each week being aware and participating in the conversation around other videos in your genre. (And an important note: This strategy works better with mid-sized and not huge acts).
So, there are some ways of increasing your chances of getting discovered on YouTube. I will be back soon with some tips on making sure your channel is presented in a way that once you are discovered that people don’t run away screaming.
For more tips about using YouTube efficiently to promote your music, you can check out an interview with Roy LaManna, founder and CEO of Trendsetter Media and Marketing: How to Make a Good YouTube Channel.
Julia Rogers is the Editor in Chief of MusicianCoaching.com. She is a classically-trained musician, published author, journalist and music writer. She also writes about business strategy, social media and emerging technology for corporate clients, including The Huffington Post, Entrepreneur and American Express. She was previously a grant writer and development/marketing strategist for several New York City-based non-profit Arts organizations and has written business development materials and produced online media for a variety of small technology companies. As a songwriter, cellist, bassist, singer and pianist, Julia plays out regularly in New York City in various original projects. She has been working with MusicianCoaching.com since 2009.
Because I write so many bios for “DIY” artists, I invest a lot of my time helping people discover how to tell their compelling stories and define the specific qualities of their music and personalities that make each of them different from every other musician out there. Something interesting I have realized as I take people through the challenging self-discovery process is that a lot of artists, at all stages of their careers share a common issue: They are reluctant to celebrate their accomplishments. And they often feel uncomfortable announcing even the major milestones – like EP releases, show and tour announcements, notable press interviews, etc. – that are the product of their hard work as they invest in their growth and development.
Part of this mental and emotional block artists experience is based on crises of confidence that are understandable given the saturation of the modern music market and the fact that the world trains all of us (thankfully) to be modest and realistic about our place in it: “Why is what I do important when there are so many other people basically doing the same thing?” But as someone who aspires to truly make a living making music, the pull to avoid inviting fans and potential fans to applaud your successes and join you on your long and winding journey is also the result of simply not knowing which of your plot twists are newsworthy.
Last year, I wrote an article about how musicians can get the attention of music journalists writing for blogs, magazines, journals and other publications and inspire them to invest in the story of their on-going evolution. Despite all the wonderful online free marketing and PR tools that are available to you as an artist and all the chances you have to engage meaningfully with the press and your fans, sometimes when you have a major milestone to announce in your career, you need a formal press release.
Even if you are not reluctant to announce your accomplishments and are sharing your story on a regular basis through Facebook, Twitter and email newsletters, as well as through your music and compelling live shows, sometimes all this engagement is not enough. As I have repeated many times to artists I work with and in the articles I have written about communication and marketing, just throwing some tracks up on Facebook, expressing your excitement on Twitter about a track you recorded or emailing your mp3s to someone at Pitchfork with a subject line that basically begs an editor, “Listen to my music” will not make you the darling of blogs, podcasts, online music communities, music websites and magazines … nor will it get you to Madison Square Garden, Carnegie Hall or the Grammys. And, yes, you really do need to go beyond your current fan base and get the attention of media “influencers” in order to forge ahead successfully.
When you are managing your own career without the help of a PR firm, you must think like an entrepreneur and build marketing strategies that not only show you are a professional, but also drum up excitement about your music and your unique “You, Inc.” brand. And to be a successful entrepreneur, you have to figure out stunning ways to call attention to your bright, newsworthy items as an artist through press releases.
Once you’ve found that exciting item, shout about it! Hiring a professional, experienced press release writer to put together your announcement for you is a great way to capture the moment objectively. But when you are a self-funded music entrepreneur, hiring out is not always an option. Below are 6 tips to help you craft an eye-catching, personal press release that can act as a compliment to your on-going marketing strategy.
- Understand the purpose of a press release. A press release is a written statement to the media that announces a news item, such as a scheduled event (a live show, a record store appearance, a radio performance and interview, etc.), an award or the release of a new “product” (a single, an EP or a full-length album). Some people also use press releases as a way to generate a feature story, because writers, reporters, bloggers and other press people are more likely to consider a full-length story on a band if they first see a formal press release.Many consider press releases to be part of “old fashioned” PR strategies, but when used in conjunction with technology-based promotional strategies, a well-written press release acts as strong support for the other elements of an artist’s press kit and overall marketing campaign. It provides yet another way for you to tell your story as a musician and enrich your brand by shedding light on the fact that you are in motion, proactively putting yourself and your music out into the world and working hard to hone your craft.
- Your press release should have laser focus. The best press releases are short and to the point. The headline needs to go beyond the mundane “Artist Plays Guitar on Stage in Front of People” and provide some juicy detail without being overly clever. (Here is an example of a headline I recently wrote for a pop/country artist releasing her debut album: “Homegrown Pop Singer/Songwriter Kelly Campbell Releases Sweet Therapy EP.”) Also, the first short paragraph – the “summary” – of the most compelling press releases is not more than three sentences long. These sentences need to draw readers in and keep their eyes moving down the page while still expressing all the very specific details about what has happened or will happen.To stick to the “short and sweet” rule, only announce multiple events within the same press release if they relate directly to each other – for example, an EP release combined with an official release party or an extended regional or national tour.
- Cut the “BS.” Use real, meaningful language in your press release – not lofty, empty “BS” that you think will sound impressive – to describe your event. Using big words and industry terms, name dropping or otherwise “padding” your release to convince others that what you are doing is important is just going to make you look like an amateur.Even major PR firms – especially those that churn out a lot of press releases – can fall into the pattern of just “going through the motions” and plugging in information, forgetting that while press releases do follow a set format, there is still a lot of room for creativity and meaningful “audience” interaction within that format. The gist of the two most commonly-made announcements in press releases are “Band Releases Record” and “Band Plays Show(s).” The ability to tell an absorbing story about events that happen often in the music industry within the parameters of the press release format is certainly a challenge. But your job is to grab the attention of and provide something valuable to those that will read hundreds, if not thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of press releases in their lifetime, so you simply must.
- Freshen up your bio. Your biographical information is an incredibly important part of every press release, but resist the urge to just directly copy a section from your professional bio verbatim. (And if you do not have a professional bio, please read this article before you even think about writing a press release!) Add a few special details to your artist bio section that offer readers a new spin on you and your music. For example, if you are releasing an EP, you can provide a bit of insight into your songwriting and recording process, which will make people feel more personally connected to you and also compel them to want to buy your music, come to your live shows and interact with you.
- Gather strong press quotes. Press quotes provide essential third-party endorsement of you. Of course, you may very well be sending out a press release because no one has ever formally reviewed your music (aka, you have no quotes), and you want to get people to talk and write about you. Often a very exciting and objectively-written bio can make up for lack of quotes about your band. However, also consider reaching out to popular local bands and musicians you have collaborated with on shows or other projects and ask them to jot down a few thoughts about you and your music, or about the experience of playing with you live and then include the best one or two as quotables for your press release.
- Rally around your press release. As with anything else you put out into the world – whether new music, a new website or live performances – your press release will not magically get attention just by existing. You need to rally around it with engaging email and social media interaction. Many musicians use services like PRWeb, expecting that they will pay the fee and the press release will get read by fans and everyone else they want to reach.Services like PRWeb act as tools to help your press release filter through some of the other meaningless noise that shows up in Web searches for the type of music you play. But they cannot provide the genuinely sincere touches that you provide when you energetically write about your event on Facebook and Twitter and respond personally to the excitement of champions for your music. Even when your press release finds a permanent home on the Internet, you need to keep momentum going in the weeks prior to your notable show or album release by reaching out to your fans regularly and sending personal emails to those journalists and music industry professionals that will be thrilled to be among the first to discover you.
So, what about you is newsworthy enough to warrant a press release? The truth is, almost anything you do or that happens to you; you just have to put a spin on the happening that expresses why people should care. Of course, you are not going to formally alert the media the first time your band gets through a song without stopping, every time your band’s drummer shows up for rehearsal on time, or when you finally get more than 10 people to show up at one of your gigs. But you can and should announce anything that really gets you revved up about playing music – especially those memorable events that give fans and potential fans the opportunity to experience your excitement right alongside you.
One of the most disturbing things I’ve learned through the process of working with artists to craft bios that, ideally, fully and compellingly capture the spirit of their music and the essence of them as unique individuals is that many of them – and I might even say most of them – have never truly asked a very important question: “Who am I?” And those that have asked that question are often coming up with an answer that is dead wrong … and then building their entire brand around the identity of an imaginary stranger they have created.
Of course, soul searching is not easy for anyone. Many people devote their entire lives pursuing philosophy and determining the reason for their existence and still come up short. And “Who am I?” is an especially bold, nerve-frazzling question for an artist, band or anyone in a creative field to ask, because the answer gets communicated through every recorded song, live performance, Facebook status message update, tweet, email, professional interaction with music industry professionals and personal interaction with fans. (No pressure!)
As an artist, you need to know what your unique brand/identity is and be able to express it in a confident, authentic and consistent voice in order to connect through your music, engage meaningfully with fans and have a successful, long-lasting career. Are you comfortable in your own artist skin? Here are five ideas to consider as you are developing a consistent artist brand, voice and identity.
Tell a story. “Storytelling” is a simultaneously over-hyped and under-utilized branding tool. In the world of business and branding, it is the way you focus the messages you send out around a central theme and create consistency. Your story gives people additional reasons beyond your music to invest in you emotionally and financially, which is why, as a musician, you need to have an interesting narrative that moves forward and grows with you as your career develops. The special story of your personal relationship to music and who you are artistically is concisely summed up by your mission statement, which you will be communicating through every aspect of your website, press pack, social media pages and other marketing pieces. (If you need a refresher course on the topic of your mission statement, revisit point #1 of the article “5 Tips about Writing Your Own Band Bio.”)
While it is certainly important that your story have a plot, even more important is that it has real conflict and tension and engages fans and potential fans emotionally. That doesn’t mean your story must be wrought with gripping drama, have a clear beginning, middle or end, or feature an arch nemesis (and if it does, you probably want to leave him/her out of your self-promotional process). But it should have a theme. For example, did you discover you wanted to become a professional musician while you were struggling through medical school/law school/clown college? Tap into that. How does your music reflect that moment of change, and how did that turning point in your story shape your journey as an artist? People make their biggest decisions with their heart (or “gut,” or whatever you’d like to call it) rather than with their head, so when you tap into others’ emotions with your story, you compel them to not only learn more about you but also spread the word to others about your music. It goes without saying that your story also needs to be authentic and credible, as people are more likely to respond to you when they feel you come from an ethical and honest place.
If the concept of telling your story terrifies you, the good news is, if you write and perform music, you are already a storyteller. Narrative is the way all of us make sense of the world around us and our experiences so we can create memories that piece together the diverse and ongoing events of our lives; so, even if you were not a “creator,” telling stories is innate to the human experience. Relax, let your story flow and you will unlock a huge opportunity to connect with your audience on a very deep level.
Keep all your media and marketing materials consistent. When putting together official websites, album covers, Facebook fan pages and press packs, many artists let their creativity take over and forget that one of the most important aspects of branding and voice is consistency. Throwing every idea you ever have and every photo you ever take out into the universe without considering how it will contribute to your career aspirations and business plan will just cause mass confusion. Sometimes consistency can feel repetitive and constrictive, especially when you’re repeating the same words, images, color schemes and ideas over and over again. But it is necessary. Business experts will tell you over and over again how in order to be perceived as professional, your Facebook fan page needs to match your website, which needs to match your Twitter account, ReverbNation or SoundCloud page or anywhere else you’re presenting yourself and your music online. And this is absolutely true.
But why? The way fans and others experience you needs to be consistent in order for them to understand who you are and feel comfortable in the space you’re creating for them. Whether fans are visiting your official website or holding your physical album in their hands, each page, piece of artwork and blurb needs to be clearly-identifiable as yours, with a specific look, feel and style that ties in directly to your identity and speaks to them in a way that only you can. You need to use the same fonts, colors, images, backgrounds, page layout and voice in everything you put out into the world, even newsletters, email and promotional posters for your gigs. When fans feel comfortable in the space you’ve created, they will be more likely to click through the pages of your website, listen to your music and watch your videos, without you having to pressure them.
Do you want to test out what you have? Gather up all your artist collateral – your press pack, website, album(s), Facebook page, Twitter profile, anything and everything – and ask yourself some questions: Are the visual design elements – colors, fonts, photos, images, etc. – the same across platforms and media? Is your mission statement clearly visible and the same in all places? Which messages and values is it conveying about your identity as an artist? Are these messages consistent with the type of artist you want to be? If you looked at all your artist materials, knowing nothing about yourself, would you be able to describe your fans? Does what you talk about on social media align with what you hope to communicate through your music and your own personal values?
Listen to feedback from your fans … but NEVER betray your authentic self. You have likely (at least partially) chosen a career as a performer because you want to entertain and move others through your music. Thus, it’s very hard to ask that “Who am I?” question without considering who others want you to be; a portion of your brand has to be shaped by your fans, because your growth as an artist partially depends on them.
I often hear artists say that they don’t understand or even like the type of people that like their music. While certainly we, as musicians sometimes have to embrace fans in unexpected places and follow the saying “beggars can’t be choosers” in order to make a living at our craft, we cannot abandon our core identity. If you don’t believe in what you are presenting – and if it doesn’t square with your principles and the type of music that truly inspires you – you’re not going to enjoy your job. If you don’t understand or openly dislike your fans – who are ready, willing and able to love you – your disdain will come through in your music, your marketing materials and your professional and personal interactions, and no one – not even those fans you don’t like – will want to invest energy or money in you. (And if any of what I have just said rings true to you, it’s time to take a step back and either make an effort to get to know and appreciate your fans or rethink your passion for music.)
So, certainly, listen to your fans and create music, products and experiences that speak directly to them. But always stay true to your mission statement and be the authentic “You”-brand you that you claim to be.
Silence the noise. You hear some version of this statement all the time: “You have to stand out above the noise in order to get your music heard.” But most people don’t understand what this statement really means and attempt to sing more loudly and more often than everyone else, believing that is what will get them ahead and set them apart from the hordes of talented professional musicians vying for attention in an intensely-packed market. They update their status messages 20 times per day, record a new song every week, send out lengthy newsletters, book three shows per week and indiscriminately email everyone they think might listen to them, cover their story or advance their careers.
While staying active and diligently working hard at your craft through practice, recording and live shows are certainly essential to developing as an artist, standing out and rising above the din is really more about subtraction than addition. Too much noise prevents people from hearing your true voice. We live in an environment where, thanks to the magic of technology, we are always being bombarded by information, even when we are in the comfort of our own homes. Remember that if you feel frantic and overwhelmed as you try to scream above all the other bands out there, your audience is experiencing the same – or even greater – system overload. Pare down your interactions, the language of your emails, the music and videos you release and get really selective about your communication; focus on writing and releasing the best and brightest songs and using the most succinct and meaningful language to promote yourself and communicate to fans. And remember to remove the noise from your own life as well every once in a while by seeking out some solitude, so you can hear your own thoughts, the sound of your own voice and plan your next move.
Know how and when to promote yourself. You may have an amazing band with even more amazing songs. But if no one knows about it, you are not going to have much success moving your career forward. A lot of musicians put their songs up online, sit back and wait for that glorious ‘90s-style moment of “discovery” when an A&R rep or a label head will appear out of the darkness of a tiny bar or coffee shop, tell them they are the future of music and save them from the stormy sea of promotion and business management, finally freeing up all their time to write and perform.
That kind of help is not coming. And even when some help comes, you have to educate yourself about PR and marketing so you can be your own life raft and reach out to others about booking shows, buying your music or becoming a champion for your band. Taking control of your own voice and becoming skilful at self promotion is the only way to build a sustainable career, even if you eventually seek or get support from outside forces. Remember that everything you do to promote yourself should stem from your mission statement (which of course stems from your relationship to your music), so get clear on that first. From there, you can steadily build out the other elements of your press kit, such as your bios, testimonials and press clips.
There is a very fine line between bragging and promoting, and you have to learn how to walk along it. Just remember, it is always better to push your brand than not. You will learn – often through trial, error and the responses you get – when you have gone too far … or not far enough.
Developing your own voice and brand as an artist is an on-going process that will continue for as long as you make music. But if you are fully present in each moment and aspect of your career, it will emerge naturally and help you navigate each challenge and triumph.
Julia L. Rogers is the Editor in Chief of MusicianCoaching.com. She is a classically-trained musician, published author, journalist and a contributing music writer at Bitch magazine. She also writes about business strategy, social media and emerging technology for corporate clients, including The Huffington Post, Entrepreneur and American Express. She was previously a grant writer and development/marketing strategist for several New York City-based non-profit Arts organizations and has written business development materials and produced online media for a variety of small technology companies. As a songwriter, cellist, bassist, singer and pianist, Julia plays out regularly in New York City in various original projects. She has been working with MusicianCoaching.com since 2009.
Katie Hasty is the managing editor at HitFix.com, a consumer entertainment news site. She first got involved with the music business while in college at Northwestern University, where she wrote for a variety of entertainment periodicals, websites and trade publications including Stop Smiling, Venus Zine, Punk Planet and Kirkus Reviews. For five years, she worked at Billboard, where she was an online editor and columnist and also ran the “Now Hear This”/”Billboard Underground” section, which focused specifically on unsigned/independent/DIY artists. Throughout her 10-year career, Katie has held many different positions within the music industry including music supervisor, A&R consultant, music contest judge radio correspondent and concert promoter. She is also the main songwriter, singer and guitarist in the Brooklyn-based band Numbers and Letters.
I recently got to talk to Katie about the experience of being on both sides of the music business and what catches her attention as a music journalist when she is looking for artists to cover. She also shared some tips about what bands need to do in order to create a solid media presence and turn more people onto their music.
Thanks for taking the time to chat, Katie. How did you wind up in the music business?
I wrote about music and entertainment prior to joining the work force. I was a contributing writer and editor for magazines like Stop Smiling and Venus Zine while I was in college at Northwestern University. I knew I wanted to get into entertainment feature writing while I was in college, and I switched from being a magazine major to an online major during my last year. You didn’t have to specify one or the other, but I was convinced my life was going to be in magazines until I started taking HTML classes and also saw that there was more growth in the online market.
The very first job I got was also the very first job I ever applied and interviewed for, which was online editor for Billboard Radio Monitor. It had a couple different names at the time, but it was the radio arm of Billboard magazine. My interest in radio initially came from my dad, who worked in the radio industry for more than 30 years in Kansas City. And then that interest in commercial and non-commercial radio grew further while I was in college. I worked with Billboard Radio Monitor for about a year, and then I was bumped up to associate editor at Billboard.com in my second year. I was at Billboard for almost five years total. I also worked with Billboard magazine during that time, which obviously provided me with a very informative business perspective. And Billboard.com was purely geared towards the consumer side, so I was exposed to an even mix of two major parts of the industry.
About three and a half years into my time at Billboard, I started working on and running the “Now Hear This” section, which was the unsigned band section. It eventually became the “Billboard Underground” and had a whole video series attached to it. We concentrated on artists that had formed their own labels, self released their own music or found some other way of making money playing music on their own in an industry where that was becoming increasingly difficult. Because, as you know, you don’t just put out a CD and immediately make money off it.
I ran that section for about a year and a half and then transitioned out of Billboard. I worked for a few weeks for Michael Goldstone over at Mom and Pop Records as it was finding its feet and launching. I was working as an A&R consultant. I would go to shows, and he and I would sit down and talk about music. That was what I did in the interim between Billboard and HitFix. Doing that was just not something I could do long-term for Goldie, but it was gave me some really good insight, because I got to see what the process of starting a label looked like. It was eye opening to see what he was looking for along with the qualities artists need to have and what they need to do on the branding and business side before they even consider working with labels of any type.
Then, I moved onto HitFix. I got that job through an old professional cohort, Melinda Newman, who used to be the L.A. bureau chief for Billboard. She had been doing part-time work for HitFix writing about music, and they needed somebody to run the music section right away, so I joined them in 2009. I’ve moved from full-time freelancer to full-time employee as the company has grown. When I started working with them, there were five full-time employees, and now there are over two dozen.
And you’re also a musician and play in a band called Numbers and Letters.
Yes. It’s based off my songwriting, and I play guitar and sing. I’ve had the project for about five years. We put out an EP in 2008, and since then, we’ve been putting together a full-length album. Right now, we are finishing up mixes, and we have plans for a music video. We are going to see what kind of partnerships or other creative things can come from this record within the next few months. This summer, we’re going to start really pushing live shows, tours, etc. We toured in Scotland in October and have toured the Southeast, parts of the West and bigger cities in the Northeast like Boston and Portland. We’ve had little fits and starts.
Having a full-time job but being able to work from home is extremely flexible and very helpful when I have a creative project I really want to do something with. But then again, I still have a full-time job, so I still have to work for a certain number of hours in the day. I know other bands that aren’t committed to jobs or have part-time positions are often able to get out albums quicker or play more shows. But for us, it’s all about making sure it’s good timing for everyone. If I’m going to put out a full-length record and have any kind of support for it, I want it to be on my terms and done right.
I feel like my perspective has really been changed by my work at Billboard and with Goldie. Even as we speak, Spotify is blowing up, people are working more with Facebook, etc. How people hear music is changing on a daily basis, and I’m very much aware of it.
The reason I wanted to speak to you is because you are a musician and have also had experiences on the business side. You are someone who has been a gatekeeper and has insight as to why certain things get written about and others don’t. I have a lot of people who approach me and ask whether I do PR, which I don’t. A common statement they make is, “I want to be in Pitchfork.” And I’m not saying that Pitchfork is the Holy Grail, but it’s one of the bigger periodicals. In your opinion, how to press stories grow? How does a story get noticed by a periodical the size of Billboard or HitFix?
When you get written up on Pitchfork or by any of the bigger magazines or blogs, the results you see from that exposure vary. It may not add up to much, although it is helpful when you want a good pull quote to have accolades from certain websites or writers. The results could just depend on the day or what picks up and runs and feels viral. That has to do with who you choose as a publicist, for starters. I think there are a lot of publicists out there who base their experience on the fact that they have an impressive number of clients. But what they actually generate for those clients what you need to look at. If a publicist has 200 clients but can’t get them any traction, the publicist is making money but the artist is not.
So, part of making stories grow is getting a publicist that has a good roster and can commit to whatever your publicity cycle is, whether you want to generate excitement about an album pre release in a short period of time like two months or you want to accomplish that in three months, six months or nine months including a tour. That could end up costing a lot of money. But if your publicist has a good voice and a good rapport with writers and has people working under them or with them that are courteous and can answer questions and hit people back quickly, this can be critical.
Successful exposure starts with the publicist and the personalities you choose to work with. When it comes to getting the attention of a journalist, I know I first look at which publicists have the best roster. Then going from there, I look to see if there is a compelling story and if you can hear that story in the music and really connect the dots. I also look for emails with really succinct subject lines that find a unique but clear way to say, “Here’s the reason you’ll listen to this artist.” That reason could be, “This artist sounds like so and so, and I know you like so and so,” “This artist opened for another well-known artist,” or “This artist worked with this really important music video director.” No matter what, it has to be more interesting than, “This artist has worked really hard, and we think their songs are good.” I don’t think there’s any artist out there that won’t tell that story about themselves. I want to see a unique angle and something I haven’t seen already – something that I know people will be excited about when they hear it.
As an artist, you want to make yourself stand out. That can’t be reiterated enough.
When you were doing the “Now Hear This” section of Billboard, you were dealing with people who were really under the radar. How can artists get your attention when they can’t afford a publicist, besides just having great music?
I look at fan response. MySpace numbers obviously haven’t mattered for a long time. But you can see people’s responses to a band on Facebook and the kind of enthusiasm they generate. And this applies to artists that have publicists and those that don’t and artists that have legal representation and publishers but no other deal in place. It’s easy to pull up the fan response. Facebook is a good example of a place where you can get an immediate response. Whenever a band puts something out, you can immediately see the kind of impression they’re making.
It also has to do with pace makers outside of labels. If an artist’s music has gotten placement without having a traditional model, that means a lot. Joe Purdy and Skybox are both good examples of that. There are a lot of bands who don’t have the need for a label because they’ve been able to generate enthusiasm outside of the realm of just putting out records.
The “Now Hear This” section was always a really unique section, because it was geared specifically towards unsigned artists in a business-oriented magazine. Bands that read that section and were familiar with Billboard in general would send me really specific pitches. These pitches would be geared towards this column or towards my specific tastes and interests.
So, clearly someone who has done their homework on you and the periodical that pitched you with a reason why you might find their story compelling would get your attention.
Exactly. If your aim is Pitchfork or specific blogs that you personally read and enjoy, cater your pitch or your subject line or what you’re sending specifically towards that publication. Working at HitFix, I know I am working for one of many general consumer interest entertainment online magazines, so I don’t expect a love letter. But I do expect bands to know they shouldn’t just say, “Why don’t you do a full feature on me?” We are a news site. If you want a feature, we’re going to need some media to run along with it. There are assets that are important to me. I rarely have an hour and a half in my busy day to write up 900 words on a band I think is amazing, with no media. I’m going to need assets like an MP3 or a SoundCloud – something I can grab onto and run with.
Asset management is really important. If you’re an artist and send me a zip file full of your assets, and I’ve never heard of you, I’m not going to take time to download and put that into my iTunes to listen to it. Just send me a link to a few MP3s that I can stream. If I want the record, you need to give me an easy way to listen to it. Don’t send me the whole record in the attachment of your first email. That’s not the way I want to listen to music.
I still get tons of mailers from publicists, and I listen to about 95% of the ones I get. While I was at Billboard, I got about 100 CDs per week. Now it’s more like 30 a week. With MP3s, I’m much more prone to listening to a stream on a SoundCloud or a Facebook page than I am to download an MP3 from an email, wait for that to download and then load it into iTunes. I don’t necessarily want to give part of my hard drive to a band I don’t know. Streaming music is quick and to the point. If your music is so good, give it to me up front.
Some publicists spend more time making sure their signature is tricked out and their press page is looking awesome than they spend sending me an MP3 or a stream of their artist’s tunes: “Will you write about this artist? We didn’t include a link to their music, but, hey – they’re really well liked.”
All of us are busy. We want a tight pitch, a pitch that is specific to our site and the assets up front.
When people come to me and say, right off the bat, “I want to get written up in Rolling Stone/Billboard/Pitchfork,” I usually say they should start with more entry-level blogs to get pull quotes and then work their way up. And I might be wrong. Is there a snowball effect?
Absolutely. People at Pitchfork and other major periodicals and sites are taste makers in their space. It’s their job to stay informed. And they do sometimes pull artists out of thin air. I think it’s easier to pitch the small sites, not because they have nothing better to do, but because they might have specific interest in your particular type of music. When you start small, there is a stronger possibility you will have an intimate interaction with the actual blogger him/herself. And it’s also easier to get that contact information. A lot of bigger websites that don’t run the emails of the editors themselves – HitFix included.
And, like you said earlier, Pitchfork isn’t the Holy Grail, but it can help determine the difference between a Kanye West and a band that is totally unsigned and just has a lot of buzz. People started writing about Lana Del Rey last summer, and then there was just a groundswell; very organic enthusiasm grew. If a few websites start screaming about an artist that they like, the bigger websites are going to pay attention.
From your perspective as a performing musician, is there anything you’ve learned about playing around a major city like New York and putting together tours that you wish you’d known when you first started?
I’ve been a performing musician and a professional music writer at the same time for the past five years, and I know you can often get silence from the other end, whether you’re not getting the turnout you want at a show or aren’t getting someone to email you back. But you shouldn’t take that too personally. Silence on the other end does not mean rejection. Having a lower turnout than expected does not mean people don’t like you.
As a critic, a writer and a music fan, there’s just so much out there and so much saturation, especially in the New York market. There are 20,000 people screaming for your attention. And just because things are tough here doesn’t mean that your creation has been rejected. It’s about plugging away at your craft, being persistent and having total faith in the material.
You should also be aware of the saturation. In New York and other large markets, you have to keep a level head and keep moderated expectations because of that saturation. I was recently watching that new NBC show Smash. Everyone who wants to move to New York and perform on Broadway has to know it’s going to be hard as hell, and it’s the same with the music market here. I and a lot of other New York City-based artists could go and move to a small city in the U.S. or even overseas and be a superstar in that city. It’s going to be a lot harder in a bigger city, and you’re going to be surrounded by a lot more pressure to succeed.
It’s about making what you have as good as it can be – making sure that every song, every performance and every bit of press is you and the very best version of you. Because there are a lot of labels, fans and people who love music enough to call, “Bullshit” on something that is not worth their time. In New York, L.A. or Austin, just being okay isn’t going to fly. For example, you might have great songs but no presence. You just have to work a little bit harder.
But on the other hand, I think the difficulty of getting heard here is why people, myself included, enjoy the energy around here. I like the energy of people who are making creative works and succeeding. That is a reminder that there is a possibility for my work to be accepted and to be passed on to other people by fans who love Americana, alt-country or folk music. It’s about finding an audience in a huge population. They’re there. You just have to find them.
To learn more about Katie Hasty and the music writing work she does, visit the HitFix.com website.
The following article is a guest post by Julia L. Rogers. Julia helps me behind the scenes at MusicianCoaching.com. She is a classically-trained musician, a published author and a contributing music writer at Bitch magazine. Julia plays out regularly in New York City in various original projects. She also writes about business strategy, social media and emerging technology for corporate clients ranging from the Huffington Post to American Express (and writes artist and band bios!).
As an artist or band, you’re going to be repeatedly forced to explain yourself. And if you are incapable of communicating – in words – who you are, what you sound like and why someone should care, you’re not going to go very far. In short, you’re going to need to write a bio.
The most important thing to remember is that your artist bio is not a rambling autobiography or the introduction to your future memoirs: Your bio is a professional sales tool. But many new or emerging DIY artists cannot necessarily afford to pay a high-quality professional bio writer and are tasked with writing their own. When you sit down to write your bio, you need to know that it is just a small part of a much bigger picture: your marketing strategy. Your marketing strategy must communicate what you have to offer to your fans. And you need to show your value in terms your fans can understand.
If you want to be taken seriously as an artist, you have to have promotional material. And your bio is one of the most critical components – if not the most critical component of your press kit. (Sorry, but no one cares about your music if you can’t introduce yourself properly.) Your bio represents your first opportunity to spark interest in someone who will be a champion for your music. Besides communicating essential information about you, a well-written bio portrays you as a professional that has some understanding of the business you’re in – music. And when you take some time to thoughtfully craft it, you convey to your fans, to press, media and labels that you are serious about making music your career.
The following are some tips for writing a riveting bio that will make people want embrace you and your music.
- Clearly define your mission statement. Before you even think about writing a bio, you have to have a firm grasp of your story and of what your music sounds like. This concise description of your music and who you are as an artist or band should not exceed a couple sentences; in fact, some of the most effective band mission statements are phrases of about 5-10 words. Think about your mission statement the same way you’d think about an “elevator pitch” in the business world (and as a serious artist, your career isa business!) – how you would describe your band if you got into an elevator with someone who asked, “What’s your band like?” or “What kind of music do you play?” and had only a few-floors’ ride to explain yourself.If you don’t already have a mission statement, and the prospect of summing yourself up briefly terrifies you, think about what your devoted fans might say about your music. Who do you sound like? Which qualities set you apart from other bands within your genre? You can even enlist the help of your fans with a fun survey via email that asks them to describe you and what your music means to them. Because the best band bios highlight a band’s individuality in a language that speaks directly to fans and potential fans, having a mission statement that provides an unobscured view into what others say about you and the music you create – and not just into your own perception of why others should love your music – will most effectively speak to those that read your bio. If you use this statement as a powerful intro, you’ll have a better chance of captivating others and propelling them into the subsequent sentences and paragraphs.
- Skip birth and childhood. Unless you are currently a child prodigy, if the “history” / “experience” section of your bio starts with any version of “I was born …” and goes on to include, “Then I played ‘Earthquake McGoon’ in the Louis Pasteur Elementary School production of Lil’ Abner …” you must regroup. Even if you believe to your core that your music career was launched when you played a singing tomato in your first-grade class’ play about the food groups, stick to relaying experience that directly relates to your current band / solo project and the type of music you play. Additionally, if you are in the process of writing your bio and find yourself having to type some version of the sentence, “Unfortunately, the band split due to artistic differences, and she left to pursue other projects” one or more times, you should probably backtrack and edit yourself.Another major sign of an amateur-circuit band bio is that it contains a series of mini bios that relay each band member’s age, influences, years of experience, former bands, etc. Make sure your audience knows the names and key roles of each of your band members and stop there. You’re not trying to sell your band on the talents of pieces of the whole.
- Highlight personal stories and anecdotes. While your band bio does need to be professional, it also needs to tell an interesting story. If you look at a random sample of band and artist bios on Facebook, you’ll notice that most of them are dull, predictable and follow a standard formula. They will likely include the following statements in some form: “The Nantucket F**kers will rock you as you have never been rocked before;” “Candy Kandy has loved to sing from a very young age;” “The members of Bobbi Kennedy and the Politicians met in high school and have been playing together ever since.” (Fake band names have been created to protect thousands of guilty parties, and apologies to any real persons accidentally named.) Musically-inclined people meet and end up playing together all the time, so if that is the most revolutionary event in your band’s saga, you need to realize that it’s already been played out thousands of times. Most band “meet cutes” are not very interesting to anyone outside the band, and most “how he/she got started” artist stories would sound exactly the same devoid of personal, unique and potentially funny details.Start your bio with your mission statement – your opportunity to tell your audience what to expect and enrapture them enough to get them to keep reading – and then make sure all the particulars that follow about your history and playing experience could not belong to anyone but you. There are a lot of talented, hard-working musicians out there; thus, without traces of your inimitable personality, your musical aptitude and your many years of study and practice alone are not necessarily going to make for an extraordinary narrative.
- Use your long-form bio sparingly. Your long-form (long) bio is best kept to no more than 750 words. (And it really should be about 500 words.) Your short-form (short) bio should be about 250 words. As a rule of thumb, your short bio is just your long bio stripped of a detailed history, focusing heavily on your mission statement and current projects like recently-released music, collaborations, etc. When you’re determining where to use each bio on your website, social media pages, and in your press and promotional materials, keep in mind that people in general have very short attention spans. You should definitely include both your short and your long bio (in different but inter-linked places) on your official website. But most of the time, your short bio will suffice for your social media pages and even when you’re sending out music and information to the press (especially unsolicited). Those that want more from you will ask, and then you can send them the long bio. Plus, one of the purposes of your Facebook page and other social medial pages is to redirect fans to your website, where they will be able to read the finer points about you and your music, merch, etc.
- Plan to update all your bios often. When you are an active, engaged artist your story is dynamic and always unfolding. And your band bio is a way to inform others what is happening now. Thus, you need to keep your short and long bios up to date. If you experience a big milestone – if you land a big show, get management, book a tour, sign on with a label or celebrate any other major success – you need to revise your bio immediately. However, you should be revisiting your bio at least once per month, even if all that happened to you was that everyone showed up to rehearsal on time and none of you got the swine flu that was going around. A well-crafted bio is a forward-looking document that reflects where you are now and your plans for the immediate future. If you don’t update it frequently, others will think you’ve become inactive.
Above all, remember that your band bio needs to have a positive tone, be straightforwardly enlightening and filled with positive comments – and even second-party quotes — about you. The narrative has to be interesting enough to get the reader to not just listen to your music, but take action and a vested interest in your success.