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The First Question You Must Answer When Promoting Your Music
by Bob Baker
I'm going to use up this entire article dealing with one subject, because I think it's vital to the success of your music promotion efforts. Every day I see the same mistakes being made in this area and feel I owe it to you to drive this crucial point home.
Suppose you walked into your local record store and one of the employees (a complete stranger to you) came up and handed you a box filled with CDs and said, "Here, these are extra promo copies. You can have any CD you want out of the box."
Now let's pretend that you were not familiar with any of these artists. As you picked up each CD to consider whether or not you wanted it, what would be the first question to pop into your head? In other words, what basic question would you need to answer first before you could make an intelligent (and quick) decision on which one you'd take?
Would it be "Who produced this CD?"
Would it be "What record label put this out?"
How about "What are the names of the musicians and what instruments do they play?"
Would it be "I wonder how great these folks think their own music is?"
Hopefully, you've come to the same conclusion that I have. The first question that anyone asks when encountering new music is: "What kind of music is this?"
I've used this box of free CDs example to make a point: This is exactly the same position that music editors, radio program directors, A&R people and music publishers are in when they receive your unsolicited recordings along with dozens of others. Even though it's great to think that everyone already knows who you are and what you do, the sad truth is that most of your contacts will be clueless. That's why giving them the first (and most important) clue up front is essential.
Human beings need some way to process information and file it away in the proper place in their heads before proceeding to any follow-up questions, such as "Where is this band from?" or "What unique spin do they put on this genre?" Without creating a mental category or comparison to something fans are already familiar with, it's nearly impossible to get to these important follow-up questions. And if you can't move this sorting-out process along in a swift manner, your music marketing efforts end up dead in the water.
Why, then, do so many people who promote music either ignore answering this fundamental question -- "What kind of music is this?" -- or bury the answer so deep in their press materials that the reader gives up out of frustration before ever uncovering it?
Unless you are (or are working with) a well-known artist, the people receiving your promo kits will be in the dark as to who you are and what you play. Your job, therefore, is to answer that first all-important question right off the bat: "What kind of music is this?" It should be one of the first things people see when viewing your press package.
Here's an example I randomly pulled out of the overflowing box of review CDs in my office not long ago when I was a music editor. When opening the package, the first thing I see is a cover letter. Here's how it reads (I've changed the name of the person, label and band to protect the misguided):
"My name is John Jones, vice-president of Widget Records, here in New York. I'm writing to announce that one of our bands, the Losers, will be playing in St. Louis on July 24."
It's important to Jones that he announces who he is and what he does right off the bat. I'm sure this makes him feel good about himself. But how does this introduction move him closer to his goal of getting media coverage for the poor Losers? At least I know about the St. Louis date, something that should matter to me. But since I don't know what kind of music this is, I'm not impressed. On to the next paragraph.
"The Losers' music is already on national college and commercial radio."
Excellent. His mother must be very proud of him. But is this jazz radio? Alternative radio? Polka radio? Ten stations? Eight hundred stations? Huh? I'm still being kept in the dark.
"The Losers are a new band founded in 1994 in New York City. These shows are part of the year-long tour to promote their debut album."
More senseless background details before I even know what kind of music this band plays. But one thing I do know is that Jones sure likes talking about his band and its accomplishments. Now I'm starting to doze off from reading this.
"The Losers' music combines Celtic violin with punk-influenced distorted guitars and melodic rock vocals ...
What? A description of the music? Say it isn't so! And I only had to wait till the fourth paragraph to get it. And it ends up being a pretty cool description: Celtic violin with punk guitars. Now that's different. That's something I'd like to pop in the CD player and check out. What a great media hook for the band.
Unfortunately, the label's vice-president has done the group a disservice by burying this vital piece of information in a dreary cover letter. Most media people would have given up on it long before they got to the intriguing description.
But this never occurred to Jones. It was much more important for him to pound his chest and proclaim his name, title, city and the fact that his as-yet-undefined band was getting radio airplay. What a missed opportunity! Don't make this same error.
How much better it would have been if his letter went something like this:
When we first told people we had signed a band that combined Celtic violins with distorted punk guitars and melodic rock vocals, they told us we were crazy. But we proved them all wrong with the Losers, a band that is now on a major roll. Last month alone, over 325 college stations around the country were playing cuts off the band's new self-titled CD. And now you can experience the Losers for yourself when they come to St. Louis on July 24. I think your readers would get a kick out of hearing about this unusual Celtic/violin/ punk/melodic mixture ..."
This version (though it could probably be reshaped and made even stronger) pulls you in and lets you know what you're dealing with quickly and interestingly -- as opposed to Jones's dry resume listings.
Now take a look at some of the promotional tools you're using right now. What's the first thing you see? Your address? The band members' names? The record label name? Some vague reference to how impressive your music is without a specific definition of it?
Stop beating around the bush and start getting to the heart of the matter. Media and industry people are partly overworked and partly lazy. Don't shroud your message in mystery, hoping it will tease people and make them read further. Remember this important rule: No one will ever be as interested in reading your press materials as you will. So give them what they need up front, fast and simple.
And answer the most important question first: "What kind of music is this?"
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