Music publicists are here to help you, not to spam you, and certainly not to get rich off you. We talked to two of them about what their jobs are like.
Record stores, musicians, and labels arguably have pretty difficult jobs, but they all have one thing going for them: they’re not publicists. I’ve been lucky to know a lot of music publicists in my lifetime, many of them old colleagues from the college radio station, some new friends who give freely of music recommendations, and even some exes. Publicists are often the only point of contact a musician will have to a journalist, and if the pitch is bad, said journalist has been known to have severe vendettas against the publicist and the band, because we’re actually pretty horrible and judgmental people, not to mention lazy. This is basically the exact opposite of a publicist, who is paid to be nice and smart, while we remain content to be assholes. Anyway, in an attempt to let the publicists break out of their PR language and be real people with faces, I talked with Nathan Walker of Riot Act and Tim Jones of Terrorbird and Time No Place, because sometimes those guys just need a big hug to get up and send out a handful of emails to people who may or may not ever respond or make fun of them on the internet. These guys are pros, though, so maybe not so much.
VICE: Have there ever been ill feelings with regard to hoarding contacts, or is it just par for the course with the publicity trade?
Nathan Walker: Never any ill feelings... a good publicist is one who's well connected, a good communicator, and knows how to craft a pitch that's appropriate to the recipient. I wouldn't share my closest contacts with someone who I don't trust, to respect their time, and I wouldn't expect other publicists to do the same for me.
Does it ever feel like you're "in it alone"?
I work with two wonderful publicists at Riot Act, whom I trust to treat their clients, and the people we pitch, with the same respect. That said, at the end of the day, my clients are hiring me for what I can accomplish.
So your successes often correlate directly with how hard you work?
How smart I work is more so how I'd put it. A bad publicist could work hard and land a pitch in the inbox of the editor of Spin every morning. A smart publicist sends two a month and sees results. Basically, the more you research the type of music an editor or outlet covers, and the less time of theirs you waste sending them stuff they don't cover, the more successful you'll be. On top of that name recognition and a reputation for being helpful, respectful and having good taste in music also boosts your success.
On one of my recent Facebook posts, you made the joke that publicists are all just "jerks who love spamming." Do you think some people do see you that way?
In music, bands have a love/hate relationship with journalists and, likewise, journalists have the same relationship with publicists. It's really easy to write out a tweet or a blog post saying what an asshole such-and-such a publicist is because they were harassing you to cover their act. Or that they forgot to put you on the guest list for the show THEY invited you out to... What you don't see is a nice note saying "I'd like to thank ‘John Doe’ for sending me the new album from this band that I reviewed. Also, gosh, it was really lovely of them to put me on the guest list for that show last night!"
Because 80% (if not wayyyyyy more) that get national exposure have someone like me making sure the artist makes their interview, the writer has the record in plenty of time to review, that the guest list is figured out in advance so that they can roll in late to the sold out show...
How much do you think that has to do with our reliance on email and social networks for communication? Or is it because of something completely different? I just wonder if more face-to-face communication would remind us there were humans behind everything.
I think the human factor is a huge disconnect in the entire crumbling of the music industry. What's an mp3 worth... nothing. It's just a digital file that lands in your inbox or you download from a site. Worthless. People wouldn't swipe a 7" single off a band's merch table though. Also, getting to the point of it, the more I see individual music writers and editors in person, the more they correspond with me. Sorry if that's gross and business-like but it is the truth.
With guest lists growing, and people in the industry clamoring for free goods, do you ever wonder whether people actually love music anymore, or if they're in it for something else? Also, is there a better way than digital downloads?
People are in the music industry for many reasons... just like any of the more pop culture industries. Some for money, some for fame, some for the love of the medium, some for social aspects. Not trying to toot my own horn in an interview, but I pride myself in being a record nerd first, working as a publicist just kind of landed in my lap as an extension of constantly surrounding myself with music.
I'm sure that in the 60s there were just as many people working in the biz for reasons other than love of music as there are today. I personally attempt to send vinyl to folks that I truly believe will appreciate and write about a record. I want them to feel like they're getting something special and, knock on wood, I think they do.
Would you want to name any names of vinyl receivers, or is that too personal? Could you talk about ratios? I know from my time in book publicity that a publicist can shoot off hundreds of emails in a day. I wonder what a good hit ratio is for a publicist.
Going back to working hard vs. smart... each release has different factors influencing who I'll send the vinyl to. Maybe it's a band who's received loads of critical praise from Pitchfork? Then, of course, I'm getting the previous reviewer a copy on vinyl. Maybe it's a brand new band that has a stylish and elegant frontwoman, then I try to land it in the hands of fashion forward publications that cover music. In sending press releases, we make album announcements to a list of 8000 music industry professionals. In terms of personal pitches, I try to land at least one an hour.
How do you feel on an off day?
Like shit. I work in selling artists' dreams and hopes... when I'm hearing "pass," "not our thing," or nothing at all, I feel awful.
Really? Does it ever leak into your personal life at home, or can you keep it somewhere in your home office?
Ideally, I take on clients that I truly believe will not get a negative response, but I've been wrong on occasion. It absolutely does leak into my personal life. My clients, more often than not, become my friends and it's hard to see your friends not succeed at something they're working their ass off for.
Do you ever attempt to keep a distance between your clients because of that ripple effect?
The best I can do is insist on office hours of 8-5, and to make exceptions when needed. I also, personally, like to work with clients whose home base isn't the same city as me so that there's less social obligation involved.
Can we go back to how you fell into the business? How did that happen and when?
Basically, it started with me bringing a camera to shows as a way to fight the insecurity of being a teenager at what seemed to be a very close knit circle of friends. "Oh, I would be here with friends but, you know, I'm here to take photos. So..." Taking photos led to reviewing shows, led to reviewing albums, led to previewing shows, let to doing interviews, led to a job as a music editor, led to a night job working at a music venue, led to being a publicist. With lots of side roads working a thousand other jobs along the way.
Out of all those music jobs, which one would you take in an instant right now?
I actually am going to stick with publicist.
Aside from digital promos, and people asking for guest lists and +1s, what else has changed?
The number one reason I switched from editorial to pr... I get to pick four bands that I truly love and believe in and work with them for months at a time. As an editor, I of course got to cover the bands I love, but I also had to fill pages with bands that I felt "meh" about. The biggest change is the lack of outlets to pitch.
Even with all the music blogs sprouting up?
Music blogs are their own beast in that the content they're pitching is far different than magazine coverage. So, I should take back the comment about lack of outlets and change it to a lack of editorial content. The industry is far more of an artist-driven content scenario than it's ever been.
You used the word "content." Why use "content" and not "writing" or "journalism"?
In lieu of the critical review, the in-depth interview, the critic on the road with the band, content/writing is more skewed to things that the artists themselves can provide. Music sites are asking for song premiers, full album streams, live performances, essays, poetry, travel diaries, photo diaries and more, that are all generated by the artist, opposed to a music journalist. Bottom line... you don't have to pay a freelancer.
That suggest it's yet another way you don't have to pay the musician. How much should we pay for art?
What drives more hits... the brand new song from a popular musician that's on your site first, or a long-form essay on why that song is important. In the end, the populace just wants to hear the song. However much you can afford in contrast to your need... sorry to speak like an economist but truth be told, I need more music in my life than your average consumer. Other folks might need more visual art. I see beautiful paintings every day that I would love to hang proudly on my wall, but my lifestyle isn't such that I can afford a $1000 painting.
Should the price for art be different for a commodity of art? Would you say that most music is art?
I'm not sure I understand the first question. The second question, my opinion, is that there's the business of music and the art of music. They don't exist in a vacuum separate from one another and, sadly, the business of music has had a negative influence on the art of music but maybe it always has?
There's a saying in the old gypsy community about fortune tellers: once you take more money than you need for telling the future, your powers will disappear. Is it art that we're buying, or has it turned into commodity?
That's a wonderful saying! I think the successful end of the music industry (successful financially that is) has been commoditized. That said, I think there's some insanely talented artists currently making some of the greatest music ever made. Boundaries are being explored, pushed, and kicked down in every style of music and it's all at your fingertips with a little research.
First off, do you ever feel like you have rivalries with other publicists?
Tim Jones: I know a few publicists out there that seem competitive, but even then those rivalries are often "friendly." Most beef has to do with a client leaving an agent for another, depends on the person, but usually these things blow over. It's happened to everyone. Not the end of the world, there's so much good music out there. Personally, I don't really feel a rivalry with any particular publicists, but I do feel protective when I see someone is trying swoop a client.
Have you ever had anyone swoop a client from you, or do most clients remain pretty faithful?
Ya, I've been lucky. I don't think Ive had anyone leave unless we both felt like it was for the best (which happens). There have been a few clients that I wanted to keep working with that moved on to bigger labels that have in-house promo teams, so in those situations I understand. I try not to be butthurt about it. It's just business.
Whenever I see you at a show, you're working. What exactly is your workday like?
Ha. Well, it varies, but typically I get up 8:30am, check my emails, handle anything important, go get a coffee and dive in to my pitches. The busiest days are Monday though Wednesday, I usually don't stop until about 7pm (I set this strict time to stop by if can), do some "life shit" until midnight, am usually back on the computer writing, reading, listening, researching until I fall asleep (2am-3am). Even after a show I'll come back and work (even drunk) if I'm busy. Sometimes it never stops. I always do some work Sunday night for a couple hours just to plan and get ahead (drinking can make work fun again).
Do you think that type of schedule affects your personal life? I'll venture to say that it does from personal experience, as when we were dating, you didn't get home until 8:30pm, and I went to bed at 10.
I think it definitely does. And not in a good way. For starters, my sleep schedule is fucked. I usually go to bed around 3am and wake up relatively early. It burns you out and often doesn't allow you much brain space for much else for your life outside of work, including your relationships. It causes a big strain, especially if your significant other is not on the same schedule as you. Really makes you feel like your lives are quite separate even though you are "together." I don’t think it necessarily has to be that way, but you really have to try hard to re-arrange your priorities and manage your time to make it work. Myself, I haven't figured that out yet.
What do you think musicians and bands don't understand about music publicity?
I actually think that now everyone has pretty easy access to "tastemaking" sites/journalists/bloggers/etc. There are plenty of artists, musicians, and labels that completely understand music publicity and do a really good job of it up until some point. It's just many of them don't have the time to keep up on who's writing about what or to do PR themselves (which is time-consuming).
That said, there are a lot of people that have really no clue though and don't pay attention to that stuff at all. I think many don't quite understand a few things...
-Music writers can often (usually) take a long time and often need a lot of reminding to check out something they were anticipating already.
-Most of these people we're writing to don't get paid much (or in most cases at all), reviewing your record is not gonna be the first priority in life.
-Many don't understand how much music is out there and how few relevant outlets there are.
Are music writers a thorn for publicists? Nathan mentioned that places to pitch seem to have been dwindling, so maybe this figures into the equation? How many pitches do you send in a day?
Pitches: 10-30. (I'm not counting the record follow-ups into the pitches...talking features, or premieres, or something specific.) I curse these damn music writers everyday, but I truly also understand what it's like on their end, too. This is what's happening...there are less publications/outlets that matter and there are more publicists and musician/labels doing their own publicity than ever before. Music PR is bottlenecking, and it's harder than ever to get through sometimes. Which actually takes me back to you first question now I think about it more...I don't really have rivalries with legit PR companies, but I think that there are a disturbing amount of folks that have started "PR companies" that have no fucking clue of how organized you need to be or how you have be smart/strategic in these campaigns instead of spamming and trolling these people you're trying to get to lend an ear. TROLLS
Yeah, I get about three pitches a day for books that cover the myriad ways time-travel secretly brought WWII to a close, despite the fact that I edit a photography magazine. Do most publicists make the jump to go in-house? Are you trying to do other things while we're doing this interview?
No, sorry. I'm not doing anything else. Ya just got me thinking for sec. [interviewers note: I may or may not believe this; Tim will multi-task a breakfast if he can.]
What does a bad day in PR look like for you?
Only spam in my inbox:(
There are a lot of artists who've selected to do self-released singles and albums on sites like Soundcloud and Bandcamp. You've got a music label now that seems to have taken advantage of that shift, re-releasing their stuff under the label and giving it better promotion. In publishing, we always say that the agents have become the new editors, and the editors have become the new publicists. Are the publicists the new label?
Ha, yes that's how the label got off the ground...however, now we have physical product and mostly brand new releases, so the model is evolving. Don't know about the publicist being the new label, sounds kinda douchey, but I guess there is a sliver of truth in it, as good PR agents are always A&R'ing new artists to work with. But I think a reputable label co-sign holds more klout than any publicist.
I can tell you work in PR, because you spelled clout like the social networking meter site with a "k."
Sorry, got my social network ranking/standing on the brain:(
What's your Klout score?
Good question. I should check! [EDITOR'S NOTE: Mine's 64]
You don't know?! I accidentally signed up, cuz I thought it was a Twitter thing, and I was trying to learn Twitter. Told me my score was like a 25, and it made me sad for 25 seconds. What should we pay for music?
Fourteen! Hahaha. Wow. I shouldn't be in this industry. Thanks, klout. Music should be more expensive. I'd release a $100 EP if an artist wanted to.
Do you think that value should be equivalent to how much time and perfection the artist offered to the music?
(oh phew). I’m at 40 if I add my Twitter. Thought I was gonna die for a second.
I'm glad you were still thinking about your klout score. Dedication.
That seems so subjective. Seems like the value has to come from the listener, like how much that song or album is worth to them. However, you give someone the option to name their own price, they will almost always CHOOSE to get it for free or cheap. I think labels/artists need to not be afraid to put a value on their music. It will make the listener think much more about that choice and hopefully re-evaluate what this particular thing is worth to them, what music is worth to them. If nothing still, that is just sad.
Thanks, Tim. Should be all I need.
I really thought you were gonna ask on the dirt...like which publicists give blow jobs to which writers and HOW.
Can you tell me which publicists give blow jobs to which writers?
I will post a list on Reddit if I ever leave this field of work.
Previously: Grumpy Record Store Clerk