Published Jan 01, 2006To start: a little myth debunking. No amount of press, from the smallest zine to the coolest national freebie, will make or break your band. Media love is just one element in a bigger picture that includes recording, touring and distribution; radio promotion, for example, is a completely different beast. But press attention can help get your name out, and promote your CD or show. And yes, while print is no more than next week's birdcage liner, clippings can help open industry doors: club bookers will give you more serious consideration, grant applications are strengthened, and face it, press are lemmings. Journalists can be insecure, and never want to feel like we're missing out on the next big thing, so press attention does tend to garner more press.
Good stories come in different forms.
Despite what many seem to think, magazines are not charities for musicians: independent, Canadian, avant-garde or up-and-coming. Our goal is to make the most interesting read possible yes, music is one of our subjects, but words and storytelling are our business. As a result, sniffing out a good story can, but does not necessarily start with a great record. Being good will always bring press, but giving good quote can be just as effective, regardless of the recording input. (Yes you, Stink Mitt.) Even being anti-press can work. If you've got some buzz going, playing hard to get can be even more effective and make self-important journalists crazy. (Speaking of Godspeed You! Black Emperor we'd love to profile Constellation Records in our Label Life section. Please get in touch.)
Don't spend any money.
Put the giant padded envelope down. That order for fancy folders embossed with your band photo? Cancel it. Your plan to include something "wacky" in the package is probably misguided. Exclaim! receives upwards of 100 CDs per week, and fancy folders, glossy paper, rubber spiders or lollipops have never impressed, only annoyed. (There are exceptions, like when MGM sent out small shovels to accompany their DVD release of The Great Escape if you don't have their budget, don't bother.) Worried about looking pro? Almost all major labels send a single CD with a photocopied one-sheet bio. Total postage? Two stamps. When you're looking at between 20 and 50 press outlets in Canada not including campus/community radio counting pennies counts.
Think locally, promote locally.
If you've never played outside your town, journalists outside its limits aren't likely to care. However, keen young zinesters, bloggers and community radio hosts are eager for experience and so should you be garnering press attention and giving interviews isn't as easy as it appears. (My first interview for Exclaim! was with four band members and lasted two-and-a-half hours for a piece that was shorter than what I've written so far. I learned my lesson.) If your local daily or weekly paper has a notably keen music writer or editor, know who they are at the very least to make sure they're invited to your next show. Take the same approach when you get your first gig two towns over.
Know your target.
If the last music coverage your daily newspaper did was announcing Celine Dion's Las Vegas show, don't waste your time, postage or CD. If you are good enough to build an audience, there is an outlet somewhere that will be keen on you too it just might not be an immediately obvious one. Use the channels and resources as a band that you would as a fan to find a journalist or outlet that jives with your artistic vision.
Time your assault.
The biggest unseen factor in press is timing, and sometimes great bands can be its victims. Any Toronto critic will tell you that despite what "industry" wisdom might offer that the week of a big indie festival like NXNE or Canadian Music Week is the worst time for a small band to get attention. There's simply too much competition. Likewise, smaller independent records between September and November will likely get lost in the avalanche of major label holiday product. Tour the country in February, and many weeklies, desperate for anything interesting that week, may well come calling. But the best timing is giving journalists the opportunity to find their own right moment and that means advance notice. Booking a gig for next Tuesday and then cold-calling your local weekly is going to get you absolutely nowhere.
By being somewhat organised, and asking simple questions, the press game can be easier to navigate. But even the most military-strict operation needs to be backed up with some interesting music, so remember: make better records and the press will flock to you.
James Keast is the Editor In Chief of Exclaim!
Frequently Asked Questions
Should I buy an ad?
If your sole motivation in buying the ad is that you think it's a necessary component to get editorial coverage: don't. At Exclaim!, and at pretty much any reputable media outlet (there are disreputable ones), sales and editorial are church and state as Editor In Chief, I don't even see what ads are in the magazine until I do a final page check the day before the magazine hits the streets. Besides, press earned is so much sweeter than press purchased.
What about MP3s?
To promote your band online and to a world-wide community? Absolutely you should have MP3s. For press? Ask first, at least. Even the biggest music fan/editors are still essentially assignment editors that means we don't listen to all the music that comes in, but merely pass it on to contributors. A physical CD can be easier to distribute and keep track of for editors and writers alike. We're not all Luddites, but trying to do all your promotion online may not be totally effective and mailing a burned CDR probably won't hurt.
Why isn't the editor calling me back?
This won't be true for all outlets, but from Exclaim!'s perspective, any press outlet owes an artist two things: acknowledgement that the music arrived, and an explanation of what their process is. (At Exclaim!, music goes to writers based on their interest, genre-wise. Each writer decides what to write about or not, and pitches features and profiles back to the editor.) Send an email and be patient we still have a magazine to make. Return phone calls from a magazine editor are a miracle that ranks just below the second coming an email response is much more likely.
Are photos really necessary?
Yes. But not necessarily a print sent in the mail. Photos are a huge expense, and most magazines don't need to scan print photos any more a web site with high resolution (300 dpi, or dots per inch), large (4 by 6 inches), high contrast downloadable photos is what you need. If a press outlet really wants to cover your band and needs photos, they might send a photographer, but sometimes space to fill on a listings page, and an easily accessible online photo can get you a wealth more exposure.
I've done all that. Why aren't I getting press?
Probably one of two things: target and tenacity. If you build an audience, press will come; if you have an audience, chances are there's an outlet that's covering it. (Be it zine, blog or speciality mag.) When you're reading a mag you like, contact the writers that seem to fit your tastes and approach there is no monolithic "good" or "bad" in music criticism, only likes and dislikes. Go after the people you think might really get what you're doing. If you have no audience, sadly you might suck. There's nothing we can do about that.