On my own

I was at the bar Splash in Chelsea a month or so ago for “Musical Mondays” with my friend Mark, and an incredibly talented woman performed. It’s tough out there, I thought, if someone this fantastic isn’t a huge star. Or maybe I was just a few vodka sodas in and so thrilled to hear someone sing ‘The Trolley Song” that I couldn’t tell if she was good or bad?

Regardless, it got me thinking about doing one’s own publicity. A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about why you should hire a publicist. To sum it up: you hire a publicist because someone can do your PR better than you can, just like Fuji Sushi on 56th street makes better food than I do, and just like my accountant Pete can manage money better than I can. You hire a publicist because it’s good to have an intermediary force. Such and such artist is THE GREATEST OF HER GENERATION sounds better coming from me than it does coming from The Great One him- or herself.  You also hire a publicist so someone has the big career picture in mind all the time. When artists have multiple managers, record companies and presenters all pulling at them for their own needs, a publicist can advise on what press is right to do at the right time. The publicist also knows the artist’s schedule many years in advance, so ideally can space out press and enhance every opportunity.

I do think tasteful and effective publicity is possible to do on one’s own. I once knew an artist who created a publicist for herself. I forget the (fake) woman’s name, but this artist had an e mail address and listed a phone number and would handle all her own press as if she was a third-party publicist. In an age when writers Tweet at artists and say that they’re going to concerts that night and publicists are Facebook-messenging critics about coverage, I don’t think that level of charade is necessary. If you have a website, I would recommend creating a press@soandso.com account. List that e mail address on your website, and send out press releases from that account. That–albeit paper-thin–wall of the impersonal helps at first. A press release is impersonal, so it should come from a generic account. Should a journalist respond to the press release or cold e mail you from the contact page, respond as yourself and say you’d be happy to do the interview or arrange for complimentary tickets. Then, it’s personal, and fine to respond as yourself. If the writer is interested in your work, they won’t judge you any differently for handling these logistics personally in a professional manner. If they do judge you, you don’t want that person writing about you anyway.

Should someone want to write a profile of you or want to include a mention of you in a larger piece, USE THE INTERNET. The internet is your friend, and will tell you what the journalist’s end game is. Are you a not precisely thin opera singer and this person has written about weight and opera singers before? Keep it in mind. Are you releasing a Boulez CD and this writer announced the he would Never Love Boulez in a review in 1997? Keep it in mind. There’s not really a trick to this, I’m sorry to report. In my experience, the PR biz is 92% common sense and 8% genuinely believing that the rules don’t apply to you. OK I’m not very good at math, and left out some percent actually working for clients (or making music that) you believe in, but hopefully you see my point.

And speaking of our BFF The Internet, let’s talk about pitching yourself. I asked a handful of journalists, and they said as long as the pitch was well thought out, well written, and relevant to what they do, they truly don’t care if it’s coming from the artist him- or herself. The key, again, is doing a little bit of Googling on the journalist. Has he or she ever written about you before? If so, when and how? Does he or she have an interest in your kind of music or project? And here’s a basic one: if New York Magazine, for example, has never reviewed a CD in the magazine’s history, do not pitch them a CD review! A basic, “this is me, this is when my concert is/when my CD comes out, here’s how you can experience it, the press release is below, thank you for your time” e mail will not offend anyone, especially when you’ve clearly thought about to whom you’re sending it. Additionally, don’t take “no” for an answer. Sure, the first writer you e mail may not put you on the cover of Arts + Leisure, but if you get a no, ask who you should contact for listings, and if the writer would mind if you contact them about future endeavors. It never hurts to ask (nicely).

In a situation where you have a manager and not a publicist, or even if you’re managing yourself, I would contact the presenter press department and have a chat with them. A presenter who’s…presenting you, that is. Let’s not just call up ye olde Lincoln Center for fun. No need to ride them every day and ask what they’re doing for you, but a quick introductory call to say, again, “here’s who I am, here’s the press I was hoping for, here are my materials, how else can I help you sell my concert (or, in the case of a record label, my CD)” will be appreciated. Orchestra, arts presenter, and record label press departments are often very small operations, and these departments are overwhelmed with responsibilities. Even telling them that you have a Facebook fan page and Twitter feed, and that your YouTube clips are here and your streaming music is here, will be helpful. Ask what you can do to help them, and not what they are doing to help you, and I think you’ll find they’ll spend that extra time on your project. It’s human nature to want to do a better job for people you like, and in the case of concert presenting, for people who are willing to be doing their part to promote themselves.

Lastly, if you’re going to be your own publicist, you need to spend some part of every day paying attention to the arts journalism world. I know you would rather be practicing or composing or watching Mad Men, but it’s impossible to just jump right in and pitch yourself only when it serves your purposes. The classical editor of the New York Times is not going to roll out the red carpet if you grace him with a generic press release every once in a while. Set up a Twitter feed (you don’t have to Tweet yourself, if you don’t want, and can simply observe) and follow all the important classical writers. Another option is setting up Google Reader to follow journalists’ posts and articles, or setting up Google Alerts for the writers you like. Then, you’ll have a sense of what people write about and think about, who’s talking to whom, and how you fit into the larger artistic community.

And now that I’ve talked myself out of a career, I will perhaps go back to my Everything I Need To Know I Learned From Musical Theater book. Or move to Tahiti to sell sunblock.

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  1. says

    Self-promotion raises many issues. Some of the artists who work I most admire would not be in a position to eat at a fine Sushi restaurant, hire an accountant, or engage a publicist because they are too poor. It is helpful, of course, if artists have a well-managed public image, but what happens if they need to make artistic decisions (perhaps aesthetic or social) that might work against that carefully crafted image?

    Can a profitable public image become a sort of artistic straight-jacket? Far from trying to manage their own image, many if not most, artists find that they have little choice but to turn away from that sort of careerism. And even if a professional publicist might find ways to improve the image of more challenging forms of art, many of the artists who create it still couldn’t afford to hire them. In a world that is often less than ideal, a well-groomed public image can sometimes run counter to artistic integrity.

    There might even be a larger historical dimension to this. What are the long-term effects of the commodification of culture? What might that tell us about cities like Los Angeles, New York, and London?

    • says

      A very interesting article appeared in the Guardian yesterday about how the opera “Klinghofer” brought an end to Alice Goodman’s career. It illustrates what I mean about the conflicts that can exist between artistic integrity and an artist’s image as a commodity.

      The next opera that Goodman wanted to write was to be entitled “Waco” and was to deal with the 1993 gun battle between the Branch Davidian sect and US agents in which 76 people died. Of course, she never got the chance to write it. Goodman says, “It would have had a children’s chorus in it and would, of course, have had Janet Reno as a principal character.”

      We know what would have happened to that children’s chorus… The project would have been a real handful for a publicist. The article in the Guardian is here, and one of the most interesting I’ve read in a long time:


  2. says

    We’re taught that bragging is rude, but self-promotion is exactly that. If you choose the self promo route, you’ll need to get comfortable tooting your own horn, and the alternative publicist email/guise is a great solution. Another helpful idea (that I’ve yet to do!): have someone else write your bio. And if you can’t afford a publicist to do it, seek input from your close colleagues, mentors, mom…all of them can probably brag about you!

  3. abels says

    No one sang “On my own” better than Lea Salonga. She’s a legend. That 10th Anniversary Les Mis concert was goosebump awesome.