Bad Advice Musicians Hear, Part 4: Is Music PR a Waste of Money?

Today, we’re going to get into this bit of not-so great advice:

Paying for PR doesn’t work, and it’s a waste of money.

You hear some wildly contradictory POVs about music PR, depending on who you ask. Some people will tell you hiring a PR rep unlocks all kinds of doors and fast-tracks your music career (that’s the topic of a different post in this series). Some people will tell you the whole prospect of paying a professional publicist is an elaborate scam, that it doesn’t do anything for your act’s profile, and that it’s a total waste of money. Some people fall somewhere in the middle, but they often get talked over at parties by people who have more extreme takes. 

In my experience, most of the people who have insisted to me that hiring a publicist doesn’t work are musicians who have hired a publicist who ultimately didn’t perform to expectations. And these have been musicians I’ve known — I know where they play, I know what their music sounds like, we’ve been in the same social circles. So with those publicist-haters I know personally, I can kind of see into at least a little bit of their own blind spots.

In particular, you know who really gets bent out of shape about underperforming PR campaigns? People who are accustomed to solving problems by paying someone to fix the problem.

PR actually does not work like that; the artist has to hold up their end of the deal. The people I’ve known who have the hardest time understanding this are people who are financially well off, who come from affluent backgrounds in the first place, and who have an unrealistic perception of the degree to which a person can advance in life by checking a series of boxes. Because that’s how things have already worked for them: apply to college and get into a good one, take an internship senior year, take that experience and leverage it toward getting a good job, hit your marks over time and get promoted. It takes a certain amount of self-awareness to lead a life like that and truly internalize how many complex factors needed to line up in order for them to be able to methodically advance through life that way. Real life ain’t a punch card that lets you get your tenth cup of coffee on the house.*

Anyway, enough ranting. My point is that I’ve heard a lot of griping about the ineffectiveness of third-party music publicity firms from people who have a skewed view of what music PR does, and how and when it’s useful. In the sibling post to this post, I mentioned how a lot of folks misunderstand the goals of a music PR campaign: The goal is to get press. The goal is not to sell more records, or to book more/better shows, or to get on playlists, or to get you signed to a bigger label. The goal is to get good write-ups, which a publicist does by working their network of journalists and bloggers. 

It’s really important to add: If you want your publicist to succeed in promoting your act, you need to play along. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a band hire a publicist to run a campaign when they don’t have shows booked. Music journalists and bloggers are swamped, constantly. When I was a music journalist at an alt-weekly publication, I received over 100 pitches from publicists on an average day. Music journalists have to focus: What’s most timely? What’s happening closest to me? Generally, if you have shows coming up in a geographical area that is relevant to a publication/blog’s audience, that’s a strong reason for anyone to plug your band. If there’s no timely hook, that pitch is going to get de-prioritized. New records come out all the time. Outside of blogs that cover a specific subgenre niche, or blogs local to you, a band putting out a record is not in itself something to write about.

So, yeah, if you hire a publicist to promote your new record, and you have two shows coming up in New York City and nothing else on the books, you’re wasting your money. You’re not giving the publicist a chance to do their job properly. They’re going to do their job — reaching out to their press contacts — but your inaction is going to stand in the way of achieving the goals you’re ostensibly paying them to achieve.

Another really important thing to add: Yeah, publicity is almost certainly going to be a waste of your money if you hire a crap publicist. And there are a lot of crap publicists out there. Not a lot of publicists are going to level with you and tell you everything I said in the previous paragraph. But a trustworthy publicist really should say so. Unfortunately, there are loads of publicists who are totally fine taking your money and running a campaign for you that they know is doomed to fail.

There are also a lot of publicists out there with sketchy methods, and it’s important to work with someone who is transparent and ethical and who can explain to you why they’re doing what they’re doing. Here’s an example of sketch: Some years back, a former bandmate of mine had paid for a PR campaign, and complained he didn’t know what the PR rep was doing with his money. Funny thing is, he hadn’t removed me as an admin on his band’s Facebook page, and it certainly appeared that part of his money was going toward buying Facebook likes. Multiple times per week, this NYC band that rarely played out was getting “likes” from apparently overseas accounts that I am pretty convinced were all fake accounts. That’s a dumb publicist move. Don’t hire a publicist to buy you social media follows. What’s your whole-ass bot army going to do for you when you drop a new single?

PR can work just fine, if the circumstances are right for the specific PR campaign to go over well. Truth is, for your typical local act, the circumstances are usually not right to hire a publicist. And your typical local act usually doesn’t have the budget for an effective publicist, anyway. There’s always something you can do to pump up your band on your own. In the accompanying publicity-centered post I wrote, I mentioned I like the method of asking the best writer in your band (or a talented writer friend) to write a bio, and keep an eye on social feeds to see which publications are writing about acts on your level, whose music is in the same ballpark as yours, and/or who are local to you. Then someone needs to pitch that bio and your record (and live dates) to those publications. That should probably be the person who has the most emotionally invested in your band, because it’s a tedious task (personalizing emails helps, so the recipient doesn’t think they’re part of a giant bcc). See how it goes from there. Don’t expect a ton of responses — but you have to start somewhere.

* The funniest thing to me about this line of thinking is that these are often the same people who look at the hot buzz bands of the moment and try to tell you they’re only getting publicity because they paid for a shit ton of PR. 

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: Can a PR Rep Fast-Track You to Fame?

About Brian LaRue

Writer, Editor, Guitarist, and So On
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4 Responses to Bad Advice Musicians Hear, Part 4: Is Music PR a Waste of Money?

  1. Pingback: Bad Advice Musicians Hear, Part 3: Can a PR Rep Fast-Track You to Fame? | Hey, It's Brian LaRue

  2. Pingback: Bad Advice Musicians Hear, Part 5: Does “Getting Signed” Change Everything? | Hey, It's Brian LaRue

  3. Pingback: Bad Advice Musicians Hear, Part 6: It’s All Just About Who You Know | Hey, It's Brian LaRue

  4. Pingback: Bad Advice Musicians Hear, Part 7: You Can Do It All on the Internet | Hey, It's Brian LaRue

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