By Michael Raine
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of Canadian Musician
From the megastar on the cover of Rolling Stone to the up-and-comer interviewed for a popular blog, there may be a lot more to those media spots than you realize. There is likely a media strategy laid out months in advance and carried out by a publicist working their web of contacts. Sure, some artists do it successfully themselves, and others ride a wave of grassroots buzz, but they’re the anomaly. Generally speaking, if an artist has ambitions of being known beyond their city or region, at some point, they’ll hire a publicist. But at what point?
Are You Ready?
First and foremost, and this should be obvious, the artist needs music that is ready to be heard and live dates in support of that music. Until there is music that can be proudly shared and distribution for it, as well as live shows, any publicity will only lead to a dead end.
“I think the crucial question is, do they have something to promote?” says Samantha Pickard, president of PR agency Strut Entertainment, which has led Canadian publicity campaigns for Taylor Swift, The Weeknd, The Rolling Stones, Dean Brody, and many others. “I think in this day and age that many, many emerging bands of all genres can basically do a lot themselves. This is an age of self-promotion and artists are able to do a lot of the initial outreach to blogs and online media themselves. I definitely recommend that if money is an issue and you don’t have a ton to talk about.” Pickard says that doing some self-promotion gives artists knowledge of what it entails and an appreciation for the job that a publicist will eventually do on a larger scale.With this initial outreach, the artist’s goal is to get a handful of public voices on their side. As Sari Delmar says, paraphrasing Bruce Springsteen, “It’s hard to start a fire without a spark.” Delmar, who is the founder and CEO of AB Co. (Arkells, The Dears, The Sheepdogs, etc.), says that when there is media traction already, even on a small, regional level, it is a sign that many more media opportunities can be found. “That is always ideal for us when we get calls that say, ‘There is some organic buzz. There are these champions that already exist in the market, so how are we going to capitalize on that?’ We say, ‘Great, you’ve got these five people who love you already. Let’s get their articles to go up and then we can go and talk to our massive database of media outlets and get them excited.’”
Finding a Good Fit
Before we get ahead of ourselves, an artist does not necessarily have to be ready to hire a publicist on the spot in order to reach out and set the groundwork for a future working relationship. All three well-respected publicists Canadian Musician spoke to – Pickard, Delmar, and Killbeat Music Founder Ken Beattie – say it’s not uncommon for them to meet with artists that are not immediately ready for their services, but whose music they like and could see working with in the future. It is also important for the artists to do their own research about who they want to work with, seeking referrals from other artists and agents. For the artist/publicist relationship to be mutually productive, the publicist needs to be genuinely excited about the music because, as Pickard says, they must be the artist’s biggest cheerleader. The artist’s first question should always be, “What do you think of the songs?” If the publicist is lukewarm on the music, move on (diplomatically and respectfully, of course).
As well, Pickard adds about assessing a publicist, “Go further than just ‘so and so recommended you.’ Make sure the artist does their due diligence when choosing their team when it comes to PR. They have to make sure they’re talking to past clients. I think that a past client is a much more solid referral to find the right publicist than, say, an industry reference or referral. I think that is a really important part and sometimes it can take you two or three weeks to even get a publicist to book a phone call with you, which is why the three-month mark is really important.”As Pickard says, and Delmar and Beattie agree, the general rule of thumb, as far as ideal timetable, is to begin three or four months ahead of an album release or tour. As with anything of this nature, the more time to strategize and execute a plan, the better. “A lot of that work is pre-release, that is when you’re setting everything up and coming up with strategies and start sharing the album,” says Beattie – “especially if you’re starting from ground zero with a band that no one has heard about. You’ve got a lot of leg work to do in those first three months.”
Assuming the publicist loves the music and is open to working with the artist for the right reasons, the artist must make a second judgement on whether the publicist has adequate room in their schedule. “In my experience and the way I run my agency, no person should be working more than four music projects a month,” Pickard says of Strut Entertainment. “That is low and I know a lot of people in the business are working 10 or 12 because they are charging so little that they need the numbers to make the money, but make sure that your agency or person is available to you and has enough room for you.”
What They Want
From their position, what will publicists want to know and see from a potential client? In a nutshell, they’ll want to see your assets and know what plans there are for more. This means your music and live dates, press photos, a good bio, videos, and your web and social media presence. A publicist can help with certain aspects, such as press shots and a bio, but the artist needs to demonstrate that they have at least some of this taken care of and a plan for the rest.
“One of the first things we ask an artist is, ‘Do you have a tour plan?’ Not everyone has an agent, but if they have already done some tours and are able to book their shows in the proper places across Canada, or at least in some key markets, because, again, we can only do so much if we don’t have any tour dates,” says Beattie, whose Killbeat Music has recently worked with Kalle Mattson, Cowboy Junkies, Tobias Jesso Jr., and more. “I also always ask, more so now than ever, what their video plan is, and also what their asset plan is, because there are less and less publications reviewing records. The way to cut through all the noise is you have to be building your story and the way to do that is to be building assets.”
As Beattie notes, the publicist may need to approach a media outlet a number of times before they bite, but the publicist can’t keep going back to them with the same stuff. They need to show that something is happening, whether it is a new video, new single, or new live dates. There needs to be a reason to keep going back to the media.
The Bottom Line
Cost is understandably a major concern. So how much is an artist looking at? First, it depends on the length of the contract or agreement. A respected publicist will be completely honest about what you need and not pressure you into a contract term that is longer than needed for the goal or assets. “Any publicist who is professional, well respected, and understands the music landscape will give a band a reality of, ‘You only have a single and a video; you only need me for one month,’” says Pickard. “If you have an EP, you might only need me for six to eight weeks. You only have a one-month tour and an album? You might only need me for three months.’”
In terms of actual dollar amounts, this varies significantly and is often determined on a case-by-case basis, with most publicists happy to come up with a plan to accommodate an artist’s budget. That said, Pickard gives the range of $1,200 to $2,000 per month plus taxes as an average price range for a solid publicist. “You’ve got to be really careful. If you’re an independent artist and someone is asking you for more than $2,000 per month, or is offering to do it for less than $1,000, there is usually something wrong,” she adds, noting that artists can alleviate some of that financial burden by applying for the multitude of government grants available to musicians. Grant recipients are often required to spend a portion of the money on publicity.
There is a lot more that goes into a hiring and then getting the most out of a publicist, so do the research to find the right person, know what you need, and have what the publicist needs. As Delmar says, what most often leads to frustration on both sides is a lack of communication and clear direction.
Everybody needs to be on the same page and transparent in their work, needs, and expectations, working from the same game plan and toward the same goal.
*Michael Raine is the Assistant Editor of *Canadian Musician