How to get your band (or play, or movie, or book) noticed: Tips from an arts journalist

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On January 14 I visited The Beat Coffeehouse for a fascinating panel on getting ahead in the music biz. The Beat’s back room was packed with young musicians looking to make their big break—or at least to make a break. A panel of industry insiders including singer/songwriter Jenny Dalton, Triple Rock booker Kermit Carter, and Ed Ackerson of Susstones shared their thoughts with the rapt audience. As I listened, I had some thoughts that I decided I’d like to share with the audience from the perspective of a journalist who receives lots of press releases and promos from local and national acts. Granted, I don’t receive as many as City Pages does, but I certainly hear from many more bands than we can possibly cover.

The questions for the panelists proper were plentiful enough that I decided not to stick my neck out, but I held on to my scrawled notes, which have sat in a pile of crap on my desk until tonight, when I finally made it through my to-do list (moderate comments, check; rotate calendar entry, check; post articles, check) all the way down to “deal with pile of crap on desk.” Thus, my thoughts on how to break through the press-release crowd. These thoughts are aimed at bands, but by and large they also apply to producers of plays, films, books…you name it.

• Think of everyone you know as being a potential journalist. I’m not just saying that because I work for an organization committed to citizen journalism—it’s true. Your friends have Facebook and MySpace profiles, and some of them have Twitter accounts and blogs. Once you decide to get the word out, get the word out to everyone. Send them the press release, invite them to the show, ask them to forward the news and spread the flyers. In that spirit…

Dismiss no media outlet as too big or too small. Write to every editor, writer, and blogger you can find contact information for. Everyone reads everyone else, and a write-up in one place can lead to you catching fire—or at least earning a more attentive ear—elsewhere. Make it as personal as possible; rather than sending one big BCC blast, at least take the time to insert the recipient’s name, and—even better—say something that shows you know who he/she is. Tell him or her you liked that pithy writeup on Animal Collective, or that you met briefly at the Entry that one time. I just received an e-mail with the name of my publication in the subject line along with the band’s name (something like “The Clash / Twin Cities Daily Planet”); that was a nice touch.

• I’m going to put this one in italics as well as bold: make it easy for us. It kills me when I get an e-mail saying, “please open the attached press release.” It’s not that I don’t care what it says, but I have a full inbox, and you’re asking me to give you two more clicks that I could be spending on that e-mail from my boss or seeing what’s new on one of the blogs I follow. Whatever you’re trying to tell me, put it in the body of the e-mail and put the important stuff at the top. Here’s what I need to know: (a) Who are you? (b) Where are you from? (c) How long have you been around? (d) Where and when are you playing? What’s the cover? Is it 18+? 21+? All ages? (e) How many records have you released, and what’s your newest? (f) What do you sound like? (Keep it concise; I know “Tapes ‘n’ Tapes meet Beck” doesn’t do full justice to your complex and distinctive sound, but it gives me a ballpark and I’m almost certainly not going to read a thousand-word essay that probably doesn’t give me any better idea of what you actually do sound like.) (g) Who’s said what about you before? (Keep this concise too, but put it up front—if I see that someone whose opinion I respect gave you a good blurb, that makes me more likely to take notice.) Modestly-sized images are okay and, actually, probably help if they’re good shots—but for the love of God, please don’t send a 7MB JPEG or MP3. If I want those things later, I can follow the links that you should helpfully provide. Which brings me to…

• Freebies! Tell us what you have; don’t wait for us to ask. Can we offer a certain number of free tickets to our readers? Can we link to an MP3? Can you put me, a reviewer, a photographer on the list for a show? Are you (or your client) available for interviews, and if so, when? Will you send a copy of your disc? Which brings me to…

• Snail mail. It has its place, but electronic communication is essential. If you are in the fortunate position to be able to afford to supplement your electronic press release with a hard-copy version that includes a copy of your disc, that’s super…but first e-mail to let me know it’s coming, and I’m at least slightly more likely to take notice when it actually does. (That may not be true for everyone, but it certainly can’t hurt.) If you can’t afford to just mail out 20 copies of your disc, try taking a tip from publishers and sending an e-mail offering to mail a copy at request. If I get as far as actually asking you for a copy, I’m definitely not going to ignore it when it comes.

• Back online, your Web site should load quickly and be easily navigable. MySpace generally drives me crazy, but except for the fact that they allow bands to post massive and slow-loading profile skins, they do a good job of organizing the essential information: the music player loads automatically and is easy to navigate, and details about upcoming shows are right there, as is geographic information and a space for your bio. If you maintain your own site independent of MySpace, try to make it equally well-organized.

• Speaking of social networking, a principle we here at the Daily Planet are learning to apply to publicize our own site is “visit people where they live.” In other words, if they’re already on Facebook, reach them on Facebook. If they’re on Twitter, talk to them on Twitter. (You and your friends may not be on Twitter, but most of those writers and editors you’re trying to contact are, as are many of your current and potential fans.) Once you’ve built a relationship with people on services they’re already using, they’re more likely to visit your pimped-out MySpace or your sweet Web site—which does not have an obnoxious Flash intro they have to sit through, right? A Web site with a Flash intro is like a woman who hoists her cleavage or a guy who whips off his shirt at any opportunity—it bespeaks an underlying (and probably justified) insecurity.

• Editors and writers are not always the people responsible for maintaining a publication’s calendar; check the Web site and find the best contacts for editorial coverage and calendar listings. We ask people to register as users of our site and submit their event details directly, via a Web form; I hear from PR reps that this sort of arrangement is increasingly common.

Follow up. I don’t mean send a billion copies of the press release, I mean after you’ve sent something, done something, or otherwise established contact, follow up. Did they enjoy the show? Were they able to write anything about it? Is there anything else they need from you? It’s okay—in fact, it’s good—to be persistent just so long as you’re polite, personal, and concise. We deal with annoyingly unresponsive press people all the time, so knowing that there’s actually a human being who actually checks your band’s e-mail account is a big plus.

• Last but not least (by the use of which phrase I am violating my own rule to avoid cliché), be distinctive. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but think of doing a little something to make yourself stand out. This was a theme that came out of the panel, and I agree. Jenny Dalton was a good choice for the panel, since she’s a model of effective and appropriate self-promotion. Her latest record comes with an accompanying book of creative writing. Why? Well, why the hell not? Her record release show featured the up-and-coming theater troupe Lamb Lays With Lion. Why? Well, why the hell not? Her Web site is informative, attractive, and easy to navigate. She offers her fans blog entries and podcasts. She doesn’t live on Twitter—unlike, say, me—but she posts occasional tweets that are interesting and personal rather than saying, “What?! You haven’t bought Rusalka’s Umbrella?!” (On a related note: From the stage, you do not need to announce more than once that your merch is for sale at the table in back. We know. I appreciated the frontman who grunted, “We’ve got CDs and stuff in back. Buy that shit!” and went right into the next song.) And think of our audience—you know we certainly are. When Jenny Dalton played at the Kitty Cat Club the weekend after Christmas, she sent an e-mail noting that it would be a good thing to do with out-of-town family: quality music, a fun and attractive venue, and a low cover charge. That was an excellent pitch, and I used almost her exact language when plugging the show in our arts newsletter. My sister read the newsletter, and sure enough, she and her boyfriend were looking for something to do that night with his family who were visiting from out of town. Voila. In conclusion: You’re awesome! Right? Right! I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

Photos by Becca Wigchers.

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