Monday, Aug. 24, 2009

Essential Press and Publicity Advice For Local Bands

By Evan Rytlewski
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Yesterday I sat on a media/press panel for local bands sponsored by WMSE, where bloggers from Fan-Belt and Muzzle of Bees offered helpful best practice tips for securing coverage. Since the conversation was heavy on procedural and technical practices, though, there were a couple important tips I wasn't able to share about how bands can make the most of their media exposure. Most musicians seem to grasp the fairly intuitive process behind getting a write-up in newspapers, magazines and blogs, but many struggle to grasp the following, far more important advice:

Define yourself.
It's up to each band to market and brand themselves as what they want to be. Like it or not, you're going to have to determine a genre to classify yourself as—you can't just say, "we're eclectic," or "we play everything," because that doesn't tell the listener anything. You're also going to have to settle on a couple bands to cite as influences or points or reference. Bands understandably hate this step, but if you skip it, somebody else will do it for you. The first blogger that writes about you may decide you sound like Radiohead, even if you loathe Radiohead, and since music writers are prone to recycling the words and thoughts of their peers, that comparison will reappear in countless other write-ups. Suck it up and create your own identity while it's still yours to create.

Use MySpace. For Real. Music writers are checking your MySpace page whether you know it or not, so keep yours professional. Don't use it to classify yourself as "Crunk" and "Melodramatic Popular Song," post YouTube non-sequiturs and describe your influences as "yacht rock" or "Britney Spears barfing." These jokes aren't funny anyway, so play it straight and just give these invisible writers the basic information they need. And be specific. Citing "Television, The Stone Roses and Pere Ubu" as influences is far more helpful than citing "rock."

Give writers an angle to work with. Think it was a coincidence that Vampire Weekend dominated so much ink last year? It wasn't. Singer Ezra Koenig freely admits that the band's African jangle was derived as much from a desire to stand out from every other guitar rock as it was a genuine love of world music. And the band's preppy attire? It was every bit as conscious as the White Stripes' red/white costumes. Vampire Weekend created their own sound and image, and music writers ate it up. Local bands don't have to be so obvious about standing out, but they should have an understanding of what sets them apart from every other band, and play these differences up.

And finally, be prepared to engage in a smart conversation about your music. Great songwriters should be able to talk for hours about their music and the meaning behind it—and the ones that do are rewarded with far more interesting, insightful write-ups than musicians less forthcoming about their craft. Week after week, though, I'm amazed at how poorly prepared (or reluctant) local musicians are to discuss their actual music. The truth is, if you can't talk intelligently about the themes, motifs, meanings and history in your songs, a writer usually won't be able to, either. You may still get that write-up you were hoping for, but it won't be particularly provoking, and it certainly won't pique the interest of any new listeners. It will be dead ink.

Keeping in mind that not every write-up can be a sweeping, analytical think piece, I encourage bands to re-read the press they've received. Do these write-ups smartly detail your music, your mentality and the story and meaning behind your songs? Or are these features just empty words; a recitation of simple facts, like what year you formed and what line-up changes you've seen, capped by an interchangeable quote about how much playing music means to you?

I'm constantly amazed at how much music writing barely addresses the actual music—you can read article after article on a band and not even grasp a sense of what that band sounds like—and though these uninformative pieces are primarily the blame of lackluster music writers, musicians also need to ask themselves, "did I give this writer enough to work with?"
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