How To Spread the Word

BY Scott HonsbergerPublished Jan 30, 2012

Today's independent musician can sometimes feel, I'm sure, like they've got to take everything on all by themselves. But as any successful act will tell you, nobody does it on his or her own, and eventually, you need to build a team around you. At a recent industry conference, a young musician asked a panellist who was more important to have on your team first, a manager or an agent. Cheekily, the panellist replied: "A publicist."

Hiring someone to handle your publicity can be a great first addition to your team, since their work, if done well, can lead to attention from other industry players. Knowing their role is, of course, vital to hiring a good publicist, so what exactly do these folks do?

First and foremost, a publicist is there to help raise the profile for you and your music, generally through the use of media coverage. If you've ever tried to get a review in a major publication (or any publication, for that matter) on your own, you know that it's pretty tough to get their eyes and/or ears. A publicist can help.

A good publicist will have strong relationships with media outlets, so when you hire them, that's a lot of what you're paying for. They can, theoretically, pick up the phone or send an email and just say "Hi Bobbi, it's Jane" as opposed to having to introduce themselves. They'll be your advocate, and therefore your pipeline, into getting you coverage.

Publicists not only know the "who" to approach, but the "how." Writing a good press release isn't easy, especially if you have to write it on your own behalf. Having a well-drafted pitch can grab the attention of publications, especially if the artist has a unique angle or story. Publicists are masters at bringing these "pitch points" to the forefront, and that's a skill worth paying for.

In addition to having the ear of the media, publicists are (or should be) experts in the follow-up. Anyone can send a press release to a list of publications, but doing so is almost never enough to get coverage, even if you have an existing relationship. As your media liaison, a publicist should work your project until they get your desired results, or until the publications have given a flat out "no."

Speaking of "your project," publicists should be hired to work something specific, such as a new album, a tour, a video, etc. When pitching to media outlets, they'll need something to pitch, and so the more specific – and interesting – you can be, the better. The fact that you're playing every Thursday at the local might be exciting to you, but it's not something that would grab a reader's attention. If, however, you're playing every Thursday featuring a different celebrity athlete on drums, well, that may just be a publicist's dream.

Although the primary role of a publicist is to get media coverage for their clients, many publicists offer other add-on services: bio writing, brand development, consultation, social media implementation, etc. Like most roles in the industry, the lines are blurring as to what each team member can do, so it's important to ask where that line is with each specific publicist when looking to hire someone.

Finding the right publicist can be tricky, especially with the increasing number of them out there. So how do you decide? Joelle May, an independent publicist who runs ModMay Promotions, suggests a few things that can help.

For starters, looking at the roster that the publicist has worked with in the past will not only give you a sense of their achievements, but the types of acts, in terms of genre and career level, that they take on.

Get references from your peers in music, contact labels or managers you know and ask them for publicist [recommendations]," says May. "Do your research, don't be afraid to meet with multiple publicists, and see which one fits your individual needs."

Cost of services may end up being the big deciding factor. Publicity campaigns can take many forms, which of course means that the costs vary greatly. A three-month campaign will be cheaper than a six-month campaign; a campaign that works to TV and radio will be more costly than one that just works to print media; social media promotion and publicity will generally increase your price, etc.

In general, publicity campaigns run in the thousands of dollars more often than the hundreds, so you should make sure you're at the point where you really need to hire one. Most publicists will work within your budget, scaling services up or down to meet your needs, but as the saying goes, you get what you pay for.

Lastly, it's vital that your publicist be passionate about your music. You don't want someone representing you that isn't heavily into what you do, so make sure that the person (or people) that you hire has a selection criteria (i.e., they'll only work with artists they love) when it comes to taking on new clients.

One of the biggest challenges when it comes to publicity is the risk involved. A publicist can have a strong relationship with media outlets, write a great press release, and do all the right follow up, but in the end, each magazine, blog, newspaper will decide what to publish or not publish.

[A publicists'] role is to get your music in front of the right people," says May. "They don't guarantee media coverage. But if the publicist has a good reputation, there is a higher chance the person they've sent the music to will listen."

In the end, it all comes down to the music, which is the way it should be.

Scott Honsberger is President and founder of the Toronto Music Industry Association.

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