Publicists: The Good, The Bad, and the “Why Bother”

For most musicians looking to find an audience, a good publicist can be a really good investment. A publicist’s job is to spread the good word and let the world know that you exist, you have a new album, you’re coming to town, or you’ve done something notable. Attention is the key to finding your audience, and without an audience, why bother? A publicist generally promotes you to blogs, tv, print media, and radio dorks like me. We can take your image and your information, and pass it along to people who have come to trust us as a source of news and new music and ideas.

Now, it’s worth mentioning right away that I know that I’m not the most important man in Canada. I’m not even the most important man in my dining room right now, and I’m sitting here alone. I’m just a guy with an opinion and a bit of a platform to spread my brilliant thoughts on all kinds of things, but mostly music. Getting your music and your name on CBC2 or in The Globe and Mail is going to reach more people than being on Tell the Band to Go Home. I know that, and I don’t expect anyone to think that I’m more important than I really am.

But, I do have a purpose. I can count on some wonderful people with good taste to at least consider new artists and new ideas that I bring to them. A lot of the stuff that I promote and am passionate about isn’t going to get much notice on bigger platforms. But it’s also important to note that bigger outlets don’t have the same personal connection with listeners, and they don’t often give as much coverage to an artist as I do. Most of my listeners have been in my living room for a house concert at some point, and I’ve hung out and had a beer with them at shows. I also will play an artist over and over again, have them on the show for a good long segment, and will rave about them again and again (Del Barber! Christina Martin! Matthew Ryan! Check them out!) That counts for something, and even though I may not have the same reach as some of the bigger outlets, it’s worth tapping into.

A good publicist will certainly want to get your work and your name out to the bigger outlets, but will also have a relationship with smaller fish like me. Lots of them do, and I appreciate that. But I don’t think that all of them value that relationship or utilize it properly. This week I got two CDs that frustrate me for different reasons. The names have been omitted to protect the artists and whatever relationship we have/may have.

First up is an album that I absolutely love. It’s a group that I’ve heard of, but hadn’t heard anything from. I knew the reputation and have watched from a distance as they’ve set out into the world to spread their music. It’s not the kind of thing that I have taken the time to seek out myself, but that I’m very glad that I had the chance to hear. The interesting thing is, I know the publicist that represents this group, and I’ve heard absolutely NOTHING about the album/touring thus far.

This is a publicist who represents some artists that I know and love, and some that I might be interested in, but that I have the hardest time getting music and information out of. I’ve tried before and usually failed in frustration. This publicist does reach out to me once in a while, but usually it’s for something that I’m not terribly interested in or aware of, but that I’d be far more likely to support if other requests and opportunities had worked out better in the past.

Another release that I got is from another established publicist who I’ve dealt with positively before, but that I don’t often hear from. The problem here is that the CD is amateurish and not at all ready for a big push. There is some promise, but at this point, it deserves a pass, at best. The problem with that is that it reflects badly on the publicist and the type of artists that this person represents.

I want (and musicians should want) a publicist who’s going to get the information out to as many people as possible AND have the time and energy to follow up on it. I also want a publicist with a track record of only sending me good music, and only contacting me about things that might actually fit my show.

There are plenty of decent ones out there, but for my money (if indeed I had any), Ken Beattie at Killbeat Music is the man. If I had a CD, I wouldn’t hesitate to ask him to stand behind it, but he’s got the good sense to know that he shouldn’t. Ken’s press releases are well-written, concise, clear, and easy to read. Most importantly, they provide me with the information that I need in a way that I can use it, and, the key is, most of what he sends fits with one of my shows. Perfectly. Sure, he sends a lot more music and a lot more information than I need or could ever use, but an envelope that comes with his return address is far more likely to get my attention than one coming from almost every other publicist.

Why? Because he knows me. He knows what I like, what I do, and what I need. He also respects and appreciates what I do and what I stand behind. He’s helped me out many times in the past with interviews, information, and the occasional donation/bit of support. I respect that and appreciate that. He doesn’t reach out to me directly asking me to interview every artist with a new album or who’s coming to town, but when he does, I try to make time for it.

Lots of artists aren’t ready for a publicist or can’t afford it. I certainly understand that. The budget for a good campaign is huge, so it’s foolish for someone to try to launch one when they can’t possibly afford it or aren’t ready. But I get the feeling that a lot of publicists are open to just about anybody with the right amount of money to throw around. There’s a lot that you can, and should do on your own as an artist in the beginning, but there also comes a time when the right publicist can take your career to the next level. I can certainly see why you might start with one cheaper publicist and move up to someone like Ken, but at the same time, I respect artists who are willing to think forward and start with the best, even if it seems a bit premature. Reaching up isn’t a bad thing, and it sets you in the right direction.

I guess the point is (if there is one), you need to spread the word about your music and your career, and ideally, you’ll want to reach out to as many people and outlets as possible – the big players and the small fish like me, and you’ll want someone with a proven track record and who is willing to devote enough time and attention to giving you the support you need. And the support that you need is not like everyone else – Del Barber needs different support than John Prine does, but they appeal to the same folks, so you’ll want a publicist who knows where to find John Prine fans and how to reach them if he’s promoting Del Barber.

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