One of the challenges in being an independent artist is to get your music to a wider audience beyond colleagues and friends and many music PR companies advertise services to help make this possible.
I come from a business background and in 1980s and 1990s set up and ran a number of successful companies, which meant having to pay attention to marketing and advertising. Of course, there was no internet during this period, and most of the promotional work was done through newspapers. Back then I would spend at least 40,000 pounds on old school newspaper advertising alone, (that would be 80K plus now) so I am well versed in the whole concept of “risk v reward” when it comes to advertising and marketing. I do not however regard myself as a “Professional marketing expert” In 2000 – 2006 I wrote and recorded a series of spoken word and ambient CDs. I did all the marketing myself, but did have a distributer. This was pre streaming and I was earning between 600% and 160% net margin per CD, so tens of thousands of pounds. I also had one clip use on a film short played on national TV. In exploring music PR in 2021 I was interested to see how I could get my music to a wider audience and if any of these previous strategies would still work.
Since 2015 I have written and recorded 70 songs, released three albums and an EP and currently have three albums of very different material “in the vault” for future release. I’m very happy with the creative content to date, and especially happy with the three new projects. The challenge has always been to reach a wider audience. This article is about my experiences to date of music PR companies, including using paid services, as well as numerous discussions with industry professionals. My instinct is that the music industry is changing at some rate, and the old model of music promotion will need a radical update, but that’s just my gut instinct for now, I’m still trying to figure it out!
Music PR Company experiences with my first band
I have previously blogged about the excessive use of superlatives in ad copy, and how in my view this is lazy writing. One of the first companies I used for music PR back in 2015 with The Small Change Diaries offered a 50% discount on their services, so the usual campaign fee of £750 was significantly less. For this they promised at least two online/magazine reviews and to write and send a press release to “music insiders”
The ad copy was
“Ready to take your music career to the next level?
Our ultimate promo package has been specifically designed to help grow your fanbase worldwide. Our industry experts will work with you to optimise your online presence, land essential press coverage and make sure your music reaches new fans.”
I am realistic to know that in business you get what you pay for and with new artists with very little actual track record, there is not a great deal to market as they are just starting out. This means “convincers” (what people say about you) are essential and one of the aims of music PR companies is to get the artist more convincers in the form of blogs and articles that will then create more perceived credibility to a wider audience. The first campaign resulted in a couple of respectable online reviews but didn’t really make a noticeable difference to our popularity. With the following album I used the same company again who continued to offer half price options and this time the service was significantly worse. It became clear to me very early on that the contact I had for the PR was clueless about writing even a basic press release.
I gave her two great music industry quotes which she didn’t even include in the first press release. Ultimately I rewrote the release myself and vowed to not use them in the future. Yes it’s great to be referenced in online articles and blogs, but to date none of this publicity has brought any direct creative or financial benefits. That said, all publicity is welcome and its a case of figuring out if its cost effective.
PR music company promises of “articles”
One of the promises from PR music companies is to give artists “published articles” online. This sounds great of course and when most people think in terms of “articles” they usually think of this in the context of magazines. On the two instances I used a PR service I wrote what was extensively a press release on the band, with photos, and this was essentially packaged as “an article” Nothing wrong with that of course, but in every instance the copy is favourable and I’ve personally never previously come across any of these extensive blog sites for such online copy. Some of those who mentioned the band included Indie Buddie and Essentially pop magazine. Online research suggests that many Music PR companies deliver these “articles” which are always positive and rarely probing in terms of any actual interview. This seems to be one of the main promises from some PR companies to get artists to sign up for packages. That said with some digging any artist can directly get such articles published without paying the PR company. You may ask yourself “Do the music PR companies have a budget to essentially pay for such appearances?” That’s not to say these are not useful in creating a positive image, but rather to look at the true value of investing in this medium. One way to measure the success is to track if there is a direct increase in social media subscribers once these articles appear. As a Nashville producer once commented to me a few years back
“Its all about reach and engagement”
Here are a list of online publications where from $125 I can get “an article” published without buying a “music PR package”
Article Spotlight On 99.9 Jamz Tampa (www.99JAMZFM.com)
Spotlight On HOT 98.7 Detroit (www.HOT987FM.com)
Article Spotlight On WiLD 103.5 (WiLD103FM.com)
Article Spotlight On HOT 99.3 WQIS (www.HOT99FM.com)
Article Spotlight On POWER 103.1 (POWER103ATL.com)
Article Spotlight On 107.5 The Beat (107TheBeat.com)
Article Spotlight On HITS 102.5 Phoenix (HITS1025FM.com)
Article Spotlight On Awkward (www.AwkwardMagazine.com)
Article Spotlight On Vault (www.VaultWeekly.com)
Article Spotlight On Authentic (www.KnowAuthentic.com)
Article Spotlight On POWER 107.9 LA (POWER1079.com)
Article Spotlight On Revolver (www.Revolver-Mag.com)
Article Spotlight On GRIND Magazine (GRINDWEEKLY.com)
You may notice that all these music/lifestyle/fashion sites look very similar.
There is an argument to say that “all publicity is good” but I’ve never had anybody reference any of these online magazine/blog pages other than Music PR companies looking to sell publicity packages. It’s flattering to see the band copy and photos online, but the best press and radio plays have to date always come from my own efforts. I also recently found a company that for a fee (as suggested above) will let you choose which magazine you feature in. All you need to do is to write 600 words of copy, add photos and they will get the magazine to publish it.
Essentially you are paying for your own advert. I’d be interested in any feedback on this issue from anyone who has found such positioning useful in generating any new kinds of music opportunities.
The video that was too controversial to promote
The strangest reply I had in recent times was having a video refused “on faith grounds” by a music promotion company. Here is the video brilliantly put together by Nick Bloomfield and the reply refusing to action any promotion.
Thanks for sending your song in. We appreciate you choosing us for your promotion needs; however, we would not be able to promote this song/video due to our faith-based views.
We would still love to promote a different song from you in order to fulfill the promotion credit if you’d like.
Please respond with your song link to this email and we will review promptly.”
I was surprised by the reply, but appreciate that at least they have some filtering process for accepting clients!
Always do your research
In recent times I’ve started to look at this issue of promotion again and adopted a two-fold strategy. One is to contact established PR companies and quiz them on what they offer and the second is to pay established industry professionals for their time and ask targeted questions. More than ever it’s essential for artists to do your research in such matters and appreciate that its useful to have realistic expectations of what any company can do.
I contacted a UK company and we scheduled a call. Before taking the exploratory call, I checked out their record with companies house online and also did a full online search to see what others were saying about them. The companies house info showed a very low turnover figure, and I couldn’t help but notice that despite a very glossy website over a period of months online and on social media, they always had the following positions available;
- Director of Operations
- Head of Services
- Senior Publicist
- Influencer Manager
- Relationship Manager
- Brand Assistant
- Playlisting Intern
- PR Intern
- A&R Intern
- Marketing & Events Intern
I come from a recruitment background, so I know all about what is required to fill positions and this seemed like a lot of open positions which never seemed to be filled.
I checked out my initial contact with the company on LinkedIn and found she had only been with the company for 6 month, which in itself is not an issue, but in our discussion, she constantly tried to impress me by stating that they were soon to have an office in New York. Of course “an office in New York” can mean just about anything and I thought it strange that they would be expanding to the USA when they couldn’t fill the UK positions.
My key question for any music PR promotion company is
“What can you do, that I can’t?
So far, from my own experience I have been unconvinced that any low cost PR music company can do anything that I can’t do myself, but I am open to persuasion, hence the current research in talking to such concerns. I have a background in business which helps a great deal as well as a number of good friends who are longstanding professional artists. These are usually the best source of down to earth useful information and such advice is a very long way from what is presented in a great deal of Music PR ad copy. I’m also 100% happy to invest in good advice, but many such companies, in my view, hugely hype what they are promising and I’ve yet to find a single artist who wholly endorses any company.
What’s the PR strategy and the best fit for your music?
In the introductory call with one advertising agent from a UK PR company, I asked her what her company’s strategy would be in promoting my forthcoming album. To my amazement she responded that they only focus on promoting via Spotify and by contacting “magazines” which brings us back to the whole “articles” sell, which I’ve already mentioned in this article.
I passed on this company as there were too many alarm bells ringing and I was wholly unconvinced that they could offer me any useful assistance. Their starting package was around a thousand pounds for a campaign. Interestingly I recently saw an artist place a 2 star review on Google, complaining that they received very minimal results and the communication was not great as she had to deal with many different people.
Two days later the review had vanished and 6 other glowing five-star reviews appeared in its place. Make of that what you will… I fully appreciate that marketers and record companies are looking at “packaging artists” to get fans and developing an image is a big part of that. However, in my view the emphasis on image is so great that often the music is a secondary factor. A lot of artist promotions increasingly look like fashion shoot as point reinforced by a friend of mine in the USA who tours stadiums internationally signing off one e-mail with the wonderful comment
“Nick I’ve got to go now to the dreaded photo shoot”
An elephant in the room?
In one of my conversations recently with an experienced music industry head she mentioned
“We need to talk about the elephant in the room” I said “Ok, what does that mean?” She replied “Its more than a bit odd for a sixty year old guy to be playing with musicians in their 20s” (Rich Ferdi, I’m sure you will feel flattered to be classed as a 20 year old)
“Yes great isn’t it?’
There was a subsequent silence as we both concluded that we’d not be a great fit when it came to any music promotion, especially as I didn’t have the enthusiasm to play 100 gigs a year to “pay my dues”. As someone who runs eight websites, including two music platforms, I respectfully think there is a far better way in 2021 to reach an audience without driving up and down the M1 in the UK, with or without COVID lockdown restrictions.
The general exchange was very frank and I thanked her for some useful observations.
My next meeting with a PR specialist is this week. Here is part of the recent communication before the phone meeting
“Everybody’s situation IS different… but you’re still smart enough and ambitious enough to put new ideas into practice and jump into things you’re not 100% sure about.
That’s the REAL secret to progress – listening to the experts and implementing their advice, even if it’s something different or scary.
You got this – so let’s make beautiful music together. [Insert fist bump here]
We look forward to speaking with you soon!”
So far the style of the communications have been framed in a stereotypical USA motivation speak which sets my alarm bells ringing.
Following the previous e-mail, the day came for my break through session.
I’m not a fan of the term “break through” as it’s massively overused in my other non music profession and my usual experience is that those using this term tend to work in a very generalized manner. In the 7 days before the call I received five reminders of the appointment and I politely pointed out that I didn’t need 5 reminders. I also wondered why they didn’t use Skype or Zoom as with these mediums you have the chance to see a person’s responses rather than talking on the phone. I started with my question “What can you do for me, that I can’t do myself?” Immediately the caller started talking about saving money by teaching me to do my own production. I pointed out that I had already confirmed that that was not what I was interested in. After 27 minutes he admitted there was nothing he could do to help me and was perfectly polite and respectful.
What this reconfirms to me is that many such companies are working to a very strict template that may work for some people, but in my opinion they are not problem solvers and the general level of communication skills are pretty poor. They don’t ask targetted questions, so they fail to really determine what possible opportunities might be worth exploring. I’m surprised at how basic a lot of the advice is. I’ll continue to explore and keep an open mind but I am reminded by a comment from one of my producers who said
“Nick, they have no idea what they are doing especially since covid 19”
I would love to prove him wrong, by so far he’s bang on the money.
Music PR companies site errors and payment issues
I’m increasingly finding that many Music PR companies and promotional music services have major problems with their sites and online payment systems. I alerted one company that half their website links to their artist pages didn’t work at all. Yes, they fixed it, but it took almost 3 days to sort out what should be done in an hour by any reputable business. Another promotional service that was recommended looked like a good bet, so I decided to buy one of their services and test their claims. I press the “add funds” button and I get the following error message
Got Http response code 401 when accessing https://api.paypal.com/v1/oauth2/token.
Yes, when I raised a support message, they did offer to process payment manually, but 5 days on I have no replies on how to make this happen. It’s not a great advert for a business that claims to be in the world of communication/marketing is it?
The more I look into such concerns, I am finding a pattern of a lack of attention to basic business practice. Of course there will be exceptions to the rule, but this is my experience to date… Of course there must be many PR companies that do an excellent job for artists, but as I say “caveat emptor” – let the buyer beware.
Some tips I have found useful
If you are still reading and not descended into total despair by reading this, then there is some good news…
There has never been a better time to use existing mediums to get your work to a wider audience (when I say “wider” I mean beyond friends, family and colleagues. The caveat is that you need to be prepared to put in the time and also you will need to invest money into marketing. Below are some tips that have worked well for creating musical opportunities for my bands to date. They may not work for everybody of course as there is no magic wand despite what companies promise online. I always remind myself of the old saying in marketing
“You never get a second chance to make a first impression”
Any marketing strategy means careful consideration of what you present to the wider public and crucially the timing of how you present it. Effective marketing campaigns are all about well paced promotions and ensuring that the message fits with the product or service. An effective campaign, means paying absolute attention to how the message is delivered to create maximum impact. If there is a target date for a release, everything needs to come into play on that target date, or the message gets diluted. Also another big mistake is for an artist to release promo material before their material is actually finished, This often happens when there is a lack of realistic planning.
“The music industry” is no exception and of course many record companies like to style artists, to reach a very specific audience. I confess to not being a massive fan of this style of cookie cutter packaging because the packaging often becomes more important than the actual music. As with all business, its about finding the right partnership for success. This is exactly the same with music production. There are scores of people selling solutions, its finding the right person for you.
1. Have your own website that you own and can shape to communicate your own creative voice. There has never been an easier time to do this and companies like Bandzoogle where you can set up a bespoke site really easily. Developing a professional site landed my first band an opportunity to play at an international music festival in Europe.
2. Set up and more importantly maintain your own social media platforms, including FB, YouTube and Instagram, remembering that these are all companies in their own right and exist to generate income for shareholders, hence the need to drive traffic to a site you own, YouTube is especially crucial as it really helps with search engines finding you online. It’s also very helpful to get good viewing stats. Ideally it shouldn’t make any difference what the stats are, BUT if people see 30 views, it creates a very different impression than 1000+ views. It shouldn’t matter, but perception is everything.
3. Remember to use the power of the word of mouth to spread the news about your work. Often this gets forgotten as people search for “the magic wand solution”
4. Pay attention to making your presence to the wider world as professional as possible, using good photos and paying attention to online copy. Many artists don’t invest in good photos and forget the internet is a visual medium. Well constructed video is also essential. Enthusiastic hand held footage can be off putting. You don’t need to be the next James Cameraon, but I’ve seen footage where the sound is so bad the footage is unlistenable
5. Identify and work with like minds. I’m a big fan of collaborations and that’s one of the reasons I set up Music for the Head and Heart.
This is a platform from music lovers, for music lovers and to date all the live events have been sold out.
6. Do your research – talk to others about music promotion including companies that offer services, but ask the question “What can you do for me and who can I talk to who you have worked with to date?” Some companies will send written testimonials, but its far better to talk to artists to form a view of what to do next. Books like “Don’t make me think” by Steve Krug offer great advice on how to present online. YouTube channels like Rick Beato can be a great source of information from people who have experience in the music business. Yes Rick is opinionated, but I’ve learned a lot from listening to his experiences in the industry and he seems very grounded.
7. Be prepared to put in the time and keep all online presences up to date. I’ve lost track of the number of artists who start off in a blaze of enthusiasm and then abandon updating their social media. Any form of marketing requires constant attention and focus and the music industry is no exception to this rule.
8. Beware people wanting “to manage you” who may have more enthusiasm than much needed skills to properly do the work needed. I’ve known artists who have well meaning colleagues with no actual business/marketing experience essential to professionally manage artists. Just because you may be a fan of the music, doesn’t mean you have the objectivity and business skills to help promote the artist in an effective manner. I don’t consider myself as a marketing professional, but I’ve advised many artists on what I consider to be basic marketing elements. A key question for any promotion and or ad copy is to ask the question “What’s its purpose?” If you are not clear on that, then its best to think again. Also get feedback from others who fit your audience demographic. This is why smart companies use focus groups, before running full campaigns.
9. Make good connections with radio stations and all other music delivery mediums that resonate with your creative work. This is more of part of a long term strategy in my experience. Years ago I was delighted when BBC Introducing played 7 of The Small Change Diaries tracks, but it made zero difference to our public standing and I later realised few listen to that show. Far better is to get plays on radio stations where you are in a mix of similar music or even better fully established artists which are known to the public. That is in my view much better positioning
10. Enjoy the ride. I would never want to rely on an income from music and certainly never sign a record contract and be beholden to a record company. That said I’m keen to reach a wider audience regardless of what then follows. In my view this is all about “playing the long game” and not hoping for instant results.
Conclusion (for now)
Firstly I have a massive respect for any artist creating their own music and wanting to share it to a wider audience.
My observations to date are that it’s possible to spend a huge amount of time and money with music promotion companies with no real benefits, hence the term caveat emptor. That said, of course it would be foolish to dismiss all music promotion and music promotion companies, but rather do your own proper research. All forms of promotion requires good strategic thinking and focus. Many “music promotion companies” from what I see talk about “magic wand solutions” which don’t translate into any real benefits for artists.
I appreciate not every artist has the inclination, time or skills to do this marketing work themselves as it’s a lot of work. As someone who teaches communication skills globally and advises on branding, I have yet to figure an effective strategy for all the music I have “in the vault” at present, hence this exploration. Ultimately it’s about seeing the actual results that ensue and these can be measured in many ways including increased social media interest online, music sales and of course bookings for gigs. As an artist its a real buzz to see yourself in print online and to see social media applause, BUT what next? Once the whooping has died down, the question is how does all this attention translate into any real verifiable benefits? That’s the million dollar question and to date I have yet to be convinced by any such promotional platforms. I’d love to be proved wrong and welcome any evidence showing this to be true.
My instinct is that the best way forward is with artist collaboration and building a new artist led platform rather than rely totally on many historical delivery mechanisms. What is clear to me is that all such promotions take time, planning and this all reminds me of the classic music business saying
“It takes ten years to become an overnight success”
“These are my thoughts and opinions, if you don’t like them, I have others” (apologies to Groucho)
I just had a 90 min conversation with the head of a distribution company that made total sense, so rare these days. I will report findings…