Published Jan 01, 2006Music publicity is a misunderstood area of the music industry. Whereas marketing campaigns will spend an allotted budget on advertising, retail promotions through record store listening stations, and other relatively controllable aspects of exposure, publicity campaigns will get records into the hands of the media (print, television, and radio). Provided they support an album, the media can potentially generate more excitement for a release than any marketing campaign, mainly because they tend to act as a forum of educated opinions, and is thereby considered more credible by music audiences. If you find yourself discovering an artist's music by reading an album review, a band profile, or an interview, chances are a music publicist worked hard to set that up.
The Life of a Music Publicist
A music publicist is someone who has cultivated a strong and reliable network of relations within the media, and will use these connections to promote artists and their records. Although there are several routes in promoting an album, many publicists will focus on print and television media, and campus radio. Some larger publicity firms have started implementing programs that target online blogs and chat rooms in order to publicise albums directly to web-savvy consumers, but that questionable practice is still limited to a select few U.S. firms and is not something that has taken hold in Canada yet.
A good independent publicist will have a current list of contacts within the media, retail, and college radio arenas that they can reliably work for tangible results. You are paying for their industry connections and their ability to get your album into the right hands. Their job is to maintain those relationships with music journalists, editors, television producers, and college radio programmers through the albums they recommend. In a way, they act as a filter for the myriad CDs that flood these people. A good publicist will at the very least get your album out of the envelope and into the CD player. If things go well from that point, then a publicist can work wonders.
The Basics of a Publicity Campaign
A publicity campaign normally begins when you have finished copies of your CD in hand. A publicist will require a certain number of promotional copies. The further in advance they have the promotional materials, the more freedom they have to do their job. Optimally, it helps to have promo CDs ready a good two to three months before the release, mostly because some magazines operate on a quarterly basis and need a longer lead time to determine their content. Given the amount of online leaking that goes on these days, many advances are being sent out much closer to release dates, but that two to three month period is still best to capture the attention of everyone. Quarterly magazines may only come out four times a year, but they sit on magazine shelves for a full three months.
After promotional materials are mailed out, a publicist will follow up to ensure that everyone has received their copies, and to garner initial reactions. Their feedback reports begin at this point, and over the following months every opinion, positive or negative, will be noted. Publicists will also aggressively pursue coverage, in terms of reviews and, for more established artists or those on tour, interview features. They will collect all press clippings and decide on what pull-quotes (the term for the most saleable line from a review or feature) are most attractive to use in subsequent promotions.
Promoting to College Radio
Getting college radio airplay may not seem like your biggest priority, but airplay has its ripple effects. Most college radio stations compile charts of the records that are getting played from their "new releases" bin, and these charts end up feeding back into a larger compiling system like CMJ (College Music Journal) in the U.S. or the Exclaim!-featured !Earshot in Canada. But your album has to be in that bin to potentially make these charts. Why are these charts important? Because they have sway with distributors who are on the lookout for any noticeable advantage an album can muster. Along with pull-quotes from publicity campaigns, campus radio play lists provide incentives for independent retailers who need some kind of litmus test to decide where their limited space and efforts stand the best chance of paying off. Independent retailers also like to know that an album is gaining attention from radio programmers because, like them, they are essentially the first line of discerning music listeners to hear a record. College charts also have an indirect effect on media outlets looking to select artists for coverage. Media are interested in covering artists and albums with a buzz around them, and a national campus radio chart is one of the quickest ways to determine what people are listening to.
Publicity runs can last anywhere from three to six months, sometimes longer. Depending on your budget, different publicists will offer different rates. Whereas some will work an entire project for a flat rate, others will charge a monthly stipend. At the low end, you can expect to spend as little as $500 for a basic mail-out and follow-up to media outlets. Though the average cost for a three-month campaign will usually run about $1,500, for basic media dissemination and coverage, it could be upwards of $7,500 for an aggressive tour and album promotion. Radio promotion will run extra on top of that.
Overall, a good publicist will do more than help you build a fan base. Their work and connections will build your press kit and make your record a bigger priority for your distributor. All these factors come in handy when applying for grants or building a career.
Dimitri Nasrallah worked as a music publicist at the Regenerate Industries publicity firm and the Force Inc. Music Works label group.
Frequently Asked Questions
My band have been gigging a lot around town. We have a decent following, but no album yet. Can we use a publicist?
Chances are if your band don't have an album out, you don't need a publicist yet. Publicists like to work with tangible promotional material such as finished albums, since it gives them a way to introduce you to the media. That said, the internet and CD-R culture has made grassroots promotion between like-minded regional communities easier than ever. Geared correctly, your band can make good by building an initial fan base this way, so a publicist will eventually have a wider platform of selling points to work from.
My distributor has an in-house publicist. What will that get me?
Virtually all distributors offer in-house publicity of some sort, though this variety is usually relegated to basic servicing an album to key radio, retail and media outlets without following up. This means that promo copies will make it to key radio stations and retail outlets. In print media, they may garner reviews. This will do just fine if you live in Germany and never plan on setting foot here to tour. If you're planning to capitalise on a tour, then it's best to hire someone who'll make your album a priority.
What if I can only offer 50 copies of my album for promotion? What if I have way more?
With 50 copies, chances are a publicist will service popular music-related websites, national publications, major urban weeklies, and several heavily trafficked independent record stores. The hope, at this level, is to try and translate the limited number of promos into as wide a potential audience as possible. A publicity firm working with a large number of promos will aim to make impact on college radio, service many medium-to-large weeklies, and heavily promote the album to specialty magazines. The key in either case is to manage the promotion effectively so that the artist's work is introduced to all the right people: those in a position to be tastemakers. Even if not everyone works or plays the album, these people now know that your band is out there. They may not help promote you this time round, but it definitely improves your chances for the next time.