Friday, May 9, 2008

Random music #12

Music writing #12: publicists

I've covered some of this, but with music writing, you deal with a lot of publicists. Publicists are a pretty unreliable and often loopy bunch. While some of them are highly professional but personable people, who are busy managing a variety of needs for their entertainer clients. Others are lying dip shits who shouldn't be trusted to operate a toothbrush by themselves.

You never know what you're going to get and just because the musician is well-to-do doesn't mean his/her publicist is worth a damn. Their actual abilities vary from artist to artist. Some are very powerful and have input into their client's career. Others are little more than secretaries. What the publicist can do is only relevant in what they can promise and actually deliver. Most can either submit interview requests or can schedule interview time based on a pre-set calendar of available time. Some can help acquire show tickets. Some can even help arrange backstage passes. Many can do these things and be completely overruled by the road manager, the agent or whoever simply says so.

Part of the job of the publicist is to apologize when they've promised something that someone else has decided at the last minute they're not going to deliver on.

What you can count on:

When writing about their client, it is pretty common for them to offer to send materials like a bio of the artist, a couple of pictures and maybe some other press clippings. Some musicians come pre-packaged with an agenda, a topic that's supposed to be a hot button for them. Usually, this is whatever album they've just completed -which makes sense, they're on the road to get paid, not because they like living on a bus. Occasionally, there's a bit more. For instance, Grammy winner Mark Cohn's hot button was getting shot in the head, which very literally broke his writer's block.

These are things they'd like to talk about or the record company wants them to talk about. Hot buttons are sort of tricky because while they might be able to give you something interesting, chances are it is the same thing they gave the last ten people who spoke to them. This is not always a bad thing. The point is not to write to be unique to the artist, but write to be unique to your reader. Still, if the particular topic has been covered extensively, I tend to creep around it and go for something else. Mark Cohn, again, was willing to talk about getting shot and had been talking about it for a month or so before he got to me. What was more interesting was while he'd been okay with talking about it in the beginning, to use it as a marketing trick, the shtick of delving into a very terrifying experience over and over was eating at him again. He wanted to stop, but he was aware he really couldn't.

The bio, by the way, is automatically suspect. Don't trust anything printed on the paper, not the musician's age, not where he's from, not how he got into music, not that he even writes his own lyrics. The facts are finessed to suit the image and the present. It's not all lies, but it's probably not all true either. Entertainment is not interested in truth for truth's sake. The truth is less entertaining than illusion. The bio is still useful, just not absolutely accurate.

Aside from the bio and the pictures, often the publicist offers a copy of the latest album. Up until very recently, the prevailing thought is artists perform to support the sale of the recording. That may be reversing with the album being used as a means to promote shows. If they offer to send the album, accept, but don't count on it actually showing up. Often it does, but a lot of times, you never see it in the mail.

If I had to buy every album for every band I ever interviewed, I'd be living under a bridge. While, it is standard practice to listen to the album before you talk to the musician, I've fudged on occasion. There have been times when I haven't heard a single note someone has ever played, but been stuck with doing the interview anyway.

Publicists promise and will tell you they sent it Priority Mail or Fed Ex. They will never remember what the tracking number was. It's the equivalent of them saying the dog ate their homework. They flaked out, forgot or decided it wasn't worth the postage. Realistically speaking, if the post office lost so many packages per person as were supposed to make it to me and didn't, there would be a congressional investigation.

In the end, publicists can be useful, but don't rely on them. You're still very likely mostly on your own.


Anonymous said...

Touring has always been where the acts make money.
Album sales are secondary.

primalscreamx said...

If you say so. I've always heard the albums were where the big money was (through sales, radio air play and commercial licensing), but you could make a living on the road. In fact, a number of older artists have gone back to the road because their albums aren't really in circulation and their songs aren't getting played on commercial radio --meaning they aren't getting paid for that either. This was, for instance, why Merle Haggard and Ray Price were out with Willie Nelson last summer for The Last of The Breed tour. That's what they said anyway.