Music PR

A while ago one of our For Folk’s Sake session participants mentioned they were thinking of hiring a PR agent to help with their promotion and asked if I had any opinions or recommendations. At the time I had nothing, but it did get me thinking on the subject and thought I’d share.

A few disclaimers to start:

  • All of these comments are purely my perspective and other people, even from For Folk’s Sake, may have other opinions
  • I have read other blog posts of this type which I disagree with, so presumably they’d disgree with me
  • Single data point. Apply salt to taste

To disappoint you up front I’m not going to express a hard opinion if you should or shouldn’t employ a PR, as I only see a part of what they do and have no visibility on the overall success (or not) of a campaign, and if it works out as value for money. What I can do is provide some transparency on the interactions I have and you can factor that into your decision.

I’m also going to cover some tips for sending out your own PR emails.

The numbers

My major contribution to the site is in the production of sessions. At time of writing I’ve recorded and published sessions by 26 artists. Of those, 16 (62%) were arranged via a PR agent and 10 (38%) were not. The most ‘successful’ agent is responsible for three of those artists and a few have placed two.

So a bias towards represented artists, but there’s a few statistical traps:

  • Artists who employ a PR are more likely to be further on in their development and therefore more likely to be producing something good enough to be featured
  • Although it’s not something I track, I’m pretty sure we get more pitches via PR than direct
  • The absolute numbers are quite small and so the ratio can shift quickly. If everything I have booked ends up happening the ratio will be closer to 50/50

The key point is that it is certainly not a requirement to have representation to get noticed, at least with us.

Ups and downs

The obvious benefit to a PR is they put your music in front of more people. The success rate for any kind of pitch is low, and a PR should know more places to contact. Also worth mentioning that the process can work in reverse. I have contacted PRs to solicit submissions for sessions, and a few of our sessions have came from that approach. It’s useful for me to have someone I can contact and get a list of artists who are actively looking for promotional opportunities. This is particularly useful for finding local artists who can step in at short notice if I get a cancellation.

The other big advantage is that PRs are more forthright and persistent than your average musician. Some direct-from-artist pitches are almost apologetic, and if you don’t respond to the first contact they’ll often never contact you again. A good PR will chase things. There’s been at least one time I’ve given a "maybe" response to a session pitch because I was all booked up and months later the PR has followed up on availability and we ended up doing a recording.

From my perspective the only disadvantage of working with a PR is that some agents put artists forward a bit speculatively, and there’s a greater chance of the session getting cancelled or dealing with an artist who isn’t really that keen.

Doing it yourself

If you choose to do your own PR, here are few things to consider. Firstly, everything is done over email[1], there’s no secret meetings of media and PR which you’re excluded from. In fact, in the last two years I have met one agent in person.

Secondly, to re-iterate, the response rate from all contacts is very low. In our case the blog is all volunteers top-to-bottom, everyone has a day job and site work fits around that and other real-life commitments. I spend too much time doing stuff for the site and could easily spend twice as much. Sometimes I worry I’m not being fair to the effort that went into artists’ creations, but it’s just not possible.

A lot of stuff we get is good but just doesn’t capture someone’s attention enough to become the one thing they follow up on this week/month. Replying to emails saying “I like it but I don’t have enough time to do anything other than express that sentiment” gets depressing quite quickly, so not replying becomes easier. I appreciate it’s hard to detect the subtleties in different kinds of silence, but don’t assume it was judged so terrible no-one could find the words to break it to you.

Writing an email pitch

A few tips for writing an effective email pitch. If any of this seems patronisingly obvious I can promise you it’s all based on problems I see every day (including from the pros).

Writing really compelling emails is hard, but what you can do is make them clear, concise and useful and let your music speak for itself. Most of these tips are really about not sabotaging the opportunity for that to happen.

Don’t bury the lede

Get your key information out at the top of the email. Firstly, I have no idea who you are so a quick description of yourself and your style. You don’t need to over-hype it, there’s nothing you can say in the description that will sell me more than ten seconds of listening. The question I’m really asking is "Do I need to read this email?". So "I’m a contemporary folk singer-songwriter in the style of X, Y & Z" is enough. Equally, "Experimental dronecore artist" is also useful, in the other direction.

Then say why you’re emailing, e.g. “I’m releasing an album next month which I’d love for you to for review”, “I have a new song I’d like to invite you to premiere”. Are you available for interviews, sessions, curated playlists? If so, say so.

Then your audio link (see below) and once that’s done, add whatever you want, e.g. press quotes, tour dates, life history, whatever. Feel free to make it personal, write in the 1st person and don’t try to make it sound like an announcement from an agency. Tell me a little bit about yourself.

Audio link, every time

Every email you send should have a clickable link to a representative song and it should be a one-click play. My first choice would be Soundcloud, but YouTube is fine too. For YouTube don’t turn on adverts (if that’s still an option for you). I’ve received emails where the only streaming link is a video with a thirty-second unskippable pre-roll advert. Reader, I deleted them.

Bandcamp links are less common but are perfectly fine, and who knows someone might even click ’buy’. Spotify isn’t so great as it requires registration, Apple Music/iTunes/Amazon Music are no use.

The worst I’ve seen was from an agent that used a system called CRight. The email said "Click here to play" which took me to a registration screen. Feeling generous I registered and it sent me an email I had to use to confirm, then it wanted me to add even more account details including a password with bank-levels complexity requirements. I gave up at that point.

For any streaming links always state if the link is OK for sharing immediately, it’s embargoed until a particular date or is for internal review purposes only.

For albums, including a downloadable review version (via Dropbox or similar) is a nice gesture, but the stream is more important for the first contact. Asking someone to download a massive zip of wavs to hear anything is a bit much, and in my case means I can’t do it on the train.

Send it to yourself first

Create a secondary Gmail account and send your finished email to that before sending to anyone else. Check the formatting and click all the links. Also, check the links. Seriously, check the links. Oh, and check them on a browser you don’t normally use so you’re not linking to something that’s only accessible because you’re logged into a site.

The all-time champion for broken emails was someone who sent an apparently blank email and then another one a week later. But it was only blank on my phone, on my PC I could see it as someone promoting their video, but the link didn’t work. Turned out they were using some nasty mail service which translated their whole email into a single image and sent it out. My phone wasn’t displaying the image as it was remotely hosted (often used for user tracking) and the link wasn’t clickable because it was, well, a picture of a link.

On this occasion I was so curious how this horror had happened I did mail the person back and got a working link and it was actually a pretty good video. It breaks my heart to think of the amount of time, money and effort that this person must have put into it for no-one to see it because they screwed up the email.

Send it to the right person

Our site has different editors for albums vs live reviews vs sessions vs other stuff, so you should send to the right person. However... I personally don’t mind getting copied on other things, particularly when it’s well targeted content from the artists themselves. For comparison, many professional PR agencies have no respect for our division of labour, or even our genre scope. If I’m getting announcements of new RnB videos and Italian trance remixes then being cc’d on an album submission for an independent artist is not my greatest concern. If that still feels wrong to you, you can always game it a bit by combining your album announcement with live dates, a session pitch etc.

Obviously don’t annoy people by spamming, or endlessly nagging for responses, but don’t put yourself at a disadvantage by being excessively restrained. Different kinds of announcements have different levels of importance. New live dates are quite low importance because gigs happen all the time, so don’t go crazy announcing those. But albums only happen every few years, so if you plug your album a few times and also announce your singles/videos from it, that’s OK.

If doing a re-announcement vary the time. Sent the last one lunchtime on a weekday? Send the next in the evening or on a weekend.

Lastly, always use the right address for people. Sometimes things arrive to my personal email address, rather than my blog one, and they just get lost, not out of spite, but because they won’t be in the right folder when I’m doing my admin. Similarly, avoid using bcc for bulk mails as this can break mail filtering, and things will arrive in the wrong folder. A service like Mailchimp will send individually to each recipient without exposing your full mailing list.

Live dates

I spent some time as live reviews editor for the site which involved collating all the live dates we were sent. It’s a slow, painful process so try and make it easy for the poor sod on the receiving end. Each line: Date, Venue, City. UK date format, no block capitals. And definitely not just a poster image with the dates in it.

If you’re offering guestlist passes for review please give plenty of notice. I used to send out the updates to our reviewers once a week at the very most. If you sent me an email on Monday asking for reviews for a show on Wednesday no-one got that offer. We would make live bookings for some shows months in advance. If you’re ready to take press enquires for a show, feel free to pitch it immediately. If it’s a long time in advance, you can mention it again nearer the time.

Press kits

I am the most reluctant writer on the site and having to write any kind of blurb is a massive disincentive to engage with something. Anything that makes my life easier in terms of writing is a good thing.

To give a real example, some time ago I ran a premiere for a song. It was a nice song that deserved the exposure, but in practical terms what made the difference is the artist made it incredibly easy. The contact email she sent included her bio, the background of the song, tour dates, song links, press-cleared photographs, the lot. It took me about 10 minutes to get the post up.

The difference between the press pack she sent and “Here’s my song, would you like to premiere it?” is just huge. I could answer the email knowing it wasn’t going to turn into a load of hard work. Now, obviously she had to invest all that effort up front completely speculatively but such is life.

It’s not just me either, I see news posts on other blogs where I recognise 90% of the words from a press-release email we also received. The churnalism is real.

Last thoughts

Quick reminder that all of this only relevant to my experience, but hope it was some use.

  1. Although there is one person who phones, it’s very odd [Back]