Today, we’re going to get into this not-so-great piece of advice:
If you hire a PR rep, you’ll fast-track your band’s rise through the ranks.
When I was about 21, I asked an acquaintance of mine who was already in his 30s, “What do I need to do to get famous around here, anyway?” I was being only partially tongue-in-cheek, and he replied with about the same degree of tongue, “Do something exceptional and make sure millions of people find out about it.”
He wasn’t wrong. That’s pretty much the way it works, except for the caveat that you don’t need to do anything exceptional to get famous. People just need to find out about it.
It would seem as though there’s this serious chicken-and-egg situation at play when it comes to getting attention as a musician. You get attention when you get “discovered” and some record label or management company lines up a big promotional push behind you. But you need attention to get “discovered.” So what’s the actual make-or-break step in that process?
You could get that early attention organically, through building up an enthusiastic fan base by performing. But there are loads of cases in which the most popular local/regional bands never seem to break out nationally. So you could jump-start the process by hiring a publicist (a public relations rep) to spread the word and make you sound/look like a hot commodity. And a lot of people observing the rise of bands around them fixate on the publicist bit as the secret weapon here. You hire a publicist with good press contacts, you get more reviews for your records, you get more previews for your shows, your name catches on, more people come out to the shows and buy your records, bigger record labels start to take notice.
The idea that PR representation will take your music career to the next level has some grim implications about classism. PR costs money, and it costs a lot more for a sustained push than for a quick blast. That creates the impression that the music biz is a pay-to-play system where paying consistently works, directly or indirectly perpetuating a hegemony of rich kids in the industry.
There are loads of reasons why it’s easier for a kid sitting on a pile of inherited wealth to get their breaks early in their career than a kid who’s hacking it out on their own. But from what I’ve seen, I don’t think hiring a publicist early, as totally independent artist, is the major reason. Let’s not confuse correlation with causation here. The road to hell is paved with failed PR campaigns. The road to purgatory is paved with PR campaigns that were successful, but never changed the act’s audience size or standard of living.
Let’s break down that piece about a successful PR campaign. There are some common misunderstandings about what a successful PR campaign looks like. A successful campaign lands you a lot of positive reviews and plugs in music publications and blogs. That’s the function of publicity. It is not a publicist’s job to do your booking (that’s for like, a booking agent or tour manager), increase record sales (that’s a marketing function), or bring you to a bigger label (that’s artist management, or something).
When I was about 24, I asked an acquaintance of mine — a really good publicist for a lot of “indie rock” acts at the time, who I met because I was working as a music journalist and his emails always stuck out amidst the waves and waves of PR pitches I received every day — if I could pick his brain about how a PR campaign works. He said to me: “You’re not selling records. You’re selling the act’s presskit in exchange for more press. The more good press you have, the easier it is to sell the presskit to music critics. The strategy I always recommend is to start with local press, and expand out from there. It doesn’t make sense to go straight to the highest-profile publications, because critics there don’t have the time to listen to everything, and are paying attention to what’s catching on with slightly lower-profile publications.”
He went on to describe one of the bands he was working with — a terrific live band whose records I liked quite a bit, and who I’d first read about in Pitchfork: “Every time they put out a new record, every publication treats it like it’s a big deal. Everyone from the smallest blogs up to Rolling Stone and even The New York Times. And yet their records sell in the hundreds of copies. Not even the thousands. The hundreds.”
Years later, I have to recognize the sheer mastery of craft involved in successfully selling the presskit of a band whose record sales have been surpassed by some entirely non-famous bands I’ve known personally. This example is a truly exceptional one, but it goes to show how critical reception and financial success are in separate buckets.
I don’t want to make it sound like I’m saying PR isn’t important in getting your breaks. Almost everyone who makes music has to seek out press. For a band, PR is part of this complete breakfast. But paying someone to do the work won’t necessarily open all the doors for you. I’m a big advocate of asking the best writer in the band (or a friend) to write a quick bio, watching social media for signs of which publications/blogs are writing about bands on your level and in your sonic niche, having the person who is most emotionally invested in your band pitch your record/bio to those publications, and seeing how it goes. A lot of publications/blogs focus on music in their own geographical area, really, and aren’t necessarily going to write up an out-of-town band that isn’t touring through unless that act is squarely in their sonic niche. So if you’re not on the road, hiring a publicist should not be considered a substitute for being on the road. Spend your money wisely, when the actual need to spend actually arises.
There’s also a companion piece to this post, in this same series, where we’ll get into the money bit a little more deeply. People often will tell you that if they’ve spent money on a thing that didn’t work for them, that means the thing doesn’t work for anyone. And that’s just not a universal truth — there’s such a thing as an unwise purchase of an effective product or service.
More from This Series
Introducing: Bad Advice Musicians Hear (The Series) / You Need to Play Everywhere
Bad Advice Musicians Hear, Part 2: Start Your Own Music Scene
Bad Advice Musicians Hear, Part 4: Is Music PR a Waste of Money?