Music Publicists Explain How COVID-19 Is Making It Harder to Help Artists

"It feels really strange to also be like, 'Hey, would you like to write about this brand new band? By the way, our entire society is crumbling.'"
April 3, 2020, 10:00am
Recording artist and publicist Gabriel Birnbaum (Photo by Ellen Askonas)

There's no part of the music industry that's been left unscathed by the spread of coronavirus. So much of the music world, from touring artists to touring crew and venue workers have been hit by widespread show cancellations, business closures, and a crippling loss of job security and steady work. It's a precarious, uncertain time for any worker, especially those in music, and publicists are no exception.

As the already shrinking music media ecosystem publicists rely on is rocked by coronavirus-induced layoffs and furloughs, it's even harder to land coverage of and promote the artists they represent. VICE interviewed six to hear their experiences and to get a sense of how publicists have been coping and adapting in this evolving crisis. Read on for their stories.

Alyssa DeHayes (Publicist, Riot Act Media)

While a few of the albums I'm working on decided to move back to fall or 2021, most of my clients have decided to stay the course with their timelines, or only shift by a few weeks. I respect everyone's decisions as touring is so vital, but I do worry about the implications of a crowded fall as well, especially for emerging artists. Canceling tours and SXSW was tough for a lot of our artists, but we all understand what has to be done for the greater good, and we plan to still handle press for those future rescheduled tours without charge. I feel like it's important to continue to do everything in my power to support their art so I've been working longer hours to hold up my commitment to them. That said, the longer hours are partly just because I need to take my own short brain breaks throughout the day. I've been trying hard to word pitches in a low-pressure way, since I don't want to give anyone inbox anxiety.

I've been trying to pitch and follow-up with journalists as gently as I can. In one digital promo servicing I offered to mail out plant cuttings if anyone needed some houseplant cheer for their apartments (no takers, but was worth a shot, right?) Seeing writer friends of 10+ years laid off is heartbreaking. I'm scared, stressed, and handling groceries for my parents and an elderly neighbor to try to keep them safe at home, and in a way, working takes the brain off that. I’m seeing an uptick in press checking out new music from us, and that makes me hopeful.There does seem to be an outpouring of support for artists and understanding how important music is for humanity right now.

Talia Miller (Director of Publicity, Rough Trade Records)

There is a lot of balancing going on. Right now I'm really lucky that I still have a job. My job is to support artists as much as possible, which includes promoting new releases, promoting new music, and even in times like this promoting live streams, which definitely feels a little strange right now. Artists really need that support more than ever because so many of their main revenue streams like touring, selling records, and merch are going away. It's really important to keep supporting them in any way you can. Making sure that people are still aware that they exist and trying to work with these artists to figure out other ways to get their music out there is really hard. The pandemic is on a level that nobody's ever seen before. This is totally unprecedented territory and it feels really strange to also be like, "Hey, would you like to write about this brand new band? By the way, our entire society is crumbling." Journalists are losing their jobs and the ones that do still have them are finding it hard to concentrate. It feels really inappropriate to keep pitching like, everything's normal because it's not.

A lot of our releases have been moved. There's just a lot of discussion about when things are moving to, switching release dates and figuring out what we're doing with the things we haven't announced yet. As a label, we're trying to plan as far out as we can to look at how it's going to affect us not just now, but six to 12 to 18 months out. You're seeing so many releases in this moment move to the fall. So much of the calendar year of releases has been condensed into this shrinking window and that's going to hurt smaller bands who might get overwhelmed by the bigger releases.

Gabriel Birnbaum (Publicist at Clandestine PR)

There are many downsides, which are pretty obvious, but there are also some of the positive elements that come out of all this. I think it's humanized everyone for each other a little bit, similar to any other public disaster. Publicists are not always seen in the nicest light, but I've gotten into a lot of actually really nice conversations with writers because I think we're in a similar boat since we're kind of codependent. I've been talking to a lot of writers beyond the typical deadlines and pitches. On our end, we're trying to be really human to everyone. We're keeping track of people who get laid off or are furloughed and send them artist bio work their way if we can to try to help them while they're out of work.

As far as the success of PR at the moment, I think it's a little bit hard to focus for everyone given how insane everything is. People are distracted, but people also are stuck inside so it's been better in some ways and worse in others. As someone who's also a touring artist, I lost a tour but I feel quite lucky that I don't entirely rely on touring income because a lot of my friends do and they're in such a rough situation right now. It all depends on when live music can return. This has shown us how sick the music industry is, where the money flows and how vulnerable artists are. We've known this already for a while, right? But it's so fucking clear that this is untenable.

Josh Zanger (Bloodshot Records)

Being a publicist at a label and somebody who works at a small independent label, we wear so many hats. If I did PR at a boutique PR place or at a bigger company, I would solely be focused on doing that alone. But everybody at the label has been having to do numerous different things to both address the coronavirus, keep tabs on each other, and help out in any way we can. At Bloodshot, we've only had one person in the office per week packing up and shipping orders. So most of us are just checking and replying to emails remotely. It also seems like everything else is kind of put on hold too. It seems like a lot of the publications or writers who I usually reach out to, they're just kinda on radio silence at this point. We're pushing back or talking about pushing back and album releases because if we put out an album and there's no tour, that's taking away a huge portion of that revenue for them and for us.

Our Bandcamp orders are really sturdy, partly because of that great day where the platform would give all of their share of profits to the artist. Our website orders are healthy too. People can't go to record stores so they're going straight to the source for this. And while that's helpful for us, we also know that that's detrimental to so many of the independent record stores that are so crucial to music and the community at large. One of our artists, Rookie, had an album come out right when this all started to get serious, they had to cancel their tour, and it's affected them. But they've been doing live streams, which I think is one of the big positives out of all this.

Jacob Daneman (Pitch Perfect PR)

It's such a weird time to talk about new music, but meanwhile, music publications continue to cover music, which is great. I hope they continue to have the capacity to do so. I want to respect everyone's boundaries particularly with publications that don't specifically cover music, more general interest publications like the New York Times or NPR. Going forward their coverage is going to be completely focused on the pandemic and because of that, they are going to be covering arts and culture stories less. But in terms of just kind of relating to people it's actually been really lovely. We're all going through this. This is really hard. We're all trying to kind of continue to do our job with the understanding that nothing is normal. Having that mutual understanding is what makes us human.

Even though the music PR world hasn't been touched as hard as the world that relies more on live music, I'm sure people will start to see invoices not get paid. I'm hoping that's not the case, but there's a very real understanding that could happen. Those of us who can should do everything to support those people who are having a harder time.

Caitlin Pasko (Clandestine PR)

The biggest challenge obviously is the lack of live shows right now and how that's affecting our artists, especially independent acts who don't have a label backing them. SXSW being canceled was a huge loss. You think about the artists, like Horse Lords on Northern Spy, who were just about to release an album and had huge momentum going who had to cancel tours, lose out on all that exposure, and not be able to sell their record on the road. It's just a huge loss. Even before this, the industry was moving away from song premieres at publications and the new thing lately has been playlists. So many artists are releasing a quarantine playlist or doing a livestream. Things will be a little slow in the music industry for a while with so many people pushing back their releases and scheduling things for the fall and winter. One of my artists is pushing back a show to January and they're the third hold on a date at the venue. Everyone is scared right now, especially since we really don't know how long this is going on.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.