“Shhhh-it!”: Idolator’s Super-Secret Music Interview Talks Shop

Feb 12th, 2009 // 17 Comments

Every week in the “Shhhh-it!” AnonIMous Super-Secret Music-Biz Interview Series (S-I!AS-SM-BIS for, uh, short) we interview a grizzled music industry veteran via the meat grinder world of instant messaging. As many of you out there may know, I’m a recovering publicist with nearly a decade of experience in promotion and PR. Don’t hold that against me. This week I sat down with RecentlyDownsized, a long-time publicist and old industry bro/competitor who, like everyone in the music biz today, is moving into other realms of PR as a means of staying alive. Both Downsized and I worked primarily independent artists. We experienced the rise of so-called “New Media” and have watched as the focus of our jobs transitioned from more traditional PR work (getting reviews in magazines) to cross-promotion and marketing:

RecentlyDownsized: It’s been my frustration that online, radio and publicity are being morphed into one clusterfuck function
RecentlyDownsized: so not only are there too many cooks in the kitchen, but blogs and mags are being spammed 3 times as much all for the same projects.
RecentlyDownsized: no wonder they increasingly ignore me, ha-ha
StumpyPete1975: yeah
StumpyPete1975: I noticed my functions changing over the last five years
StumpyPete1975: at first it was “Can you get me in Magnet?”
StumpyPete1975: by the end, it was “Can you get me on the iTunes front page?”
StumpyPete1975: and I always thought that was marketing, not PR work
RecentlyDownsized: for me, it was “can you get us on a couple of blogs?” but now it’s “can you set up interviews in every town on the tour and make sure we have a sold out show in Boise, Idaho and merch bundles with Urban Outfitters?”

If it sounds like it was a gripe session, well, you’re right. More shop talk and self-reflection after the jump!

RecentlyDownsized: I’m trying to stay anonymous here…I could tell you many stories about the demands of particular clients to be noticed when they have nothing new to say, or even WAY too much to say and want a play by play press release, repeatedly, for all of it.
RecentlyDownsized: In any case, with the economic climate in the world of media the way it is, these are but small complaints compared to the effort it takes to make a living in these times. Doing more and making less. My brain is swimming these days. No attention span at all. Too much noise.
StumpyPete1975: so much noise out there
RecentlyDownsized: I imagine other people feel the same way, which is why I have always resisted the top heavy information overload of too many press releases.
RecentlyDownsized: It actually makes me resentful.
RecentlyDownsized: Mostly it’s managers that want this (a zillion press releases) as if a band’s success will hinge on it.
RecentlyDownsized: and I think that people tune them out eventually
StumpyPete1975: I know I do
StumpyPete1975: it starts to look desperate (and sometimes it is!)
RecentlyDownsized: I have seen a big change in the relationship between myself as a PR person and blogs and sites. It used to be that people trusted me in a way, but so much ill will has built up by information overload and the totally entitled attitude of “tastemakers” that it’s just not such a fun place to be anymore.
StumpyPete1975: no, it’s not
StumpyPete1975: it used to be “thanks for the MP3″
StumpyPete1975: and now it’s “um, where is my CD and guest list”
RecentlyDownsized: It’s a chore, actually. And I LOVE music, which is how I got into this thing in the first place.
StumpyPete1975: I do, too, but I started to take the lesser-successful projects more personally
StumpyPete1975: some records I just loved and when they struggled
StumpyPete1975: God, it killed me
StumpyPete1975: and it affects you
RecentlyDownsized: Oh well, I’m looking forward to actually enjoying music again when I don’t have to think about writing reports on it and whether it got on Gorilla vs. Bear or not.
StumpyPete1975: HAHA oh man
StumpyPete1975: that guy
StumpyPete1975: we used to be pally
StumpyPete1975: and then one day I wasn’t cool anymore for whatever reason
StumpyPete1975: but let’s face it
StumpyPete1975: every site/blog/mag has their pet PR people
RecentlyDownsized: well, to be fair, he’s got promo people rummaging through his trash at this point. No wonder he can’t answer his email.
StumpyPete1975: a quarter of Forkcast seems to come from one publicist
StumpyPete1975: but I know that I didn’t work exclusively crappy stuff
StumpyPete1975: sure, we all have our ups and downs, but it’s not like one day you are terrible, you know?
RecentlyDownsized: If I had to work stuff I didn’t like, I would have left long ago. This job under those circumstances would be torture for anyone who thinks of themself as sincere.
StumpyPete1975: oh yeah exactly
StumpyPete1975: in my position, compromises were sometimes made
StumpyPete1975: but usually I rationalized it by saying I liked the people
StumpyPete1975: I liked what they were doing
StumpyPete1975: their philosophies, etc
RecentlyDownsized: or the label
StumpyPete1975: yeah, exactly
StumpyPete1975: and I passed on plenty of things from people I like
StumpyPete1975: that’s hard to do
RecentlyDownsized: not every band on a label is good, even if you love the label overall and most of their artists. Or if you throw them a bone and work on a tougher project with the hope of landing the one you REALLY want to work.
RecentlyDownsized: …only to be pitted against a shitload of increasingly desperate promo companies who will do it cheaper. Good times.
StumpyPete1975: the economy has really affected things
RecentlyDownsized: ya think?
RecentlyDownsized: (I jest)
StumpyPete1975: at first I didn’t notice
StumpyPete1975: but I started to see projects for cheaper
StumpyPete1975: slowly creeping in
StumpyPete1975: less and less money per project
StumpyPete1975: and then you have to take on more projects, which hurts everybody
RecentlyDownsized: exactly. Not fun.
StumpyPete1975: what’s funny is that I never had a shortage of projects
StumpyPete1975: because I think clients realize that in this crowded marketplace, everybody else has PR
StumpyPete1975: and if they don’t they have NO chance
StumpyPete1975: unless they get super-duper lucky
RecentlyDownsized: I think a lot of what is happening will, in the end, come back down to reasonable expectations and hiring people based on their relationships with their network of outlets. This “jumping through hoops” phase of adding anyone who claims to have a blog to the label’s mailing list will have to stop. It just doesn’t make any sense.
RecentlyDownsized: as I typed this, several bands I have never heard of spammed me. Probably via myspace.
RecentlyDownsized: …poor bloggers.
StumpyPete1975: haha
StumpyPete1975: you bring up expectations…
StumpyPete1975: managing client expectations is such a huge part of it
StumpyPete1975: I learned my lesson early when a client, nearing the end of the campaign
StumpyPete1975: said, well, I kinda wanted to sell 20k copies and get in Rolling Stone
StumpyPete1975: and I was all WHAT?
StumpyPete1975: I never would have taken it on then!
RecentlyDownsized: I’ve always been very careful about that.
RecentlyDownsized: it’s tough when you have a good band getting no traction.
StumpyPete1975: oh man, getting no traction
StumpyPete1975: you can just feel it when people don’t care
RecentlyDownsized: You are right, and you can’t MAKE people care. Hopefully if you have some kind of personal relationship beyond using contacts as targets of spam, there can be some influence, but it’s really increasingly difficult.
StumpyPete1975: particularly since the majors got into it in the online world
StumpyPete1975: that changed things
RecentlyDownsized: don’t get me started on them.
RecentlyDownsized: they are trying so hard not to succumb to reality (that mp3s exist) it gives me a headache. The promotions have to be so convoluted to avoid this reality and pretend it isn’t happening.
RecentlyDownsized: contests, and games and ecards and video snippets…
RecentlyDownsized: people just want to hear the fucking song. Without the gimmicks. Hopefully they will buy the record.
StumpyPete1975: oh man
StumpyPete1975: and digital watermarking
StumpyPete1975: what a joke
StumpyPete1975: one copy leaks
StumpyPete1975: boom it’s over
StumpyPete1975: you just wasted a couple grand!
RecentlyDownsized: when I think of how much money is spent avoiding the reality of the mp3, it just makes me shake my head and sigh.
StumpyPete1975: I had clients always wanting to release snippets
StumpyPete1975: I wouldn’t do it
StumpyPete1975: I flat out would not work a project without a promo mp3
RecentlyDownsized: until this changes, the whole music business is going to be increasingly desperate.
StumpyPete1975: the elbo.ws chart is lousy with major acts now
StumpyPete1975: coldplay
StumpyPete1975: kanye
StumpyPete1975: etc.
StumpyPete1975: I remember when I had some tiny bands on the top 10
StumpyPete1975: now it’s less interesting than the college radio top 10
RecentlyDownsized: I think they just get taken down and the blog posts start disappearing. The only company enriching themselves is Web Sherriff
StumpyPete1975: hey, they figured something out
StumpyPete1975: created a niche for themselves
RecentlyDownsized: What a shitty way to make a living, ha-ha.
StumpyPete1975: yep
StumpyPete1975: what do you think about managers?
StumpyPete1975: I heard you mention them before
StumpyPete1975: I met very few I liked
StumpyPete1975: and had some who were absolutely detrimental to their bands
RecentlyDownsized: Tough question…I really have a few I love, probably because I am on their good side. I don’t want to be on the bad side of a manager. They can make your life hell. (see “Moving Goalposts”)
StumpyPete1975: I find that a lot of them have no idea what we do
RecentlyDownsized: I think the inherent problem is that they are as emotionally involved as the band, but have to be thinking about the business side of things.
RecentlyDownsized: So it’s hard to give them bad news.
StumpyPete1975: and often their requests have no bearing on the campaign or are just unrealistic
RecentlyDownsized: I find bands can accept it more than managers who tend to think of themselves as indespensible figures in the success of the band.
RecentlyDownsized: (which is NOT usually the case)
StumpyPete1975: some of the requests you get from them
StumpyPete1975: Jesus
StumpyPete1975: they are about piddly squat stuff
RecentlyDownsized: they’re like helicopter parents
RecentlyDownsized: always hovering
StumpyPete1975: haha
StumpyPete1975: true story
StumpyPete1975: we got a top-of-the-page news story in pitchfork
StumpyPete1975: with a huge pic
StumpyPete1975: and the manager called up furious
StumpyPete1975: because Pitchfork ran a photo with the artist with blonde hair
RecentlyDownsized: I’ve had that happen many times
StumpyPete1975: not hey THANKS for that
RecentlyDownsized: promo is a thankless position
RecentlyDownsized: which is why you really have to be sincere, or it would suck beyond belief.
StumpyPete1975: you are paid to be the goat in the end
StumpyPete1975: the fall guy
StumpyPete1975: another typical story
StumpyPete1975: a label mailed off the mailing almost TWO months late
StumpyPete1975: switched release date three times
StumpyPete1975: and then said we had screwed up the initial part of the campaign
StumpyPete1975: we sent out press releases with no record out there
StumpyPete1975: thinking they were gonna be out
RecentlyDownsized: that happens to us all the time
StumpyPete1975: date switching
StumpyPete1975: with long lead times=failure
RecentlyDownsized: …or a long-lead publicist who sends records to online sites 4 months in advance of release…hello?
StumpyPete1975: haha
StumpyPete1975: sometimes we had to do that
StumpyPete1975: because online people are getting slower and slower
StumpyPete1975: like, I consider Pitchfork long lead time now
StumpyPete1975: but, yeah, blogs? no way!
RecentlyDownsized: Personally, I don’t attribute it to that, but rather a mentality that they are so fucking important they need it far ahead of everyone else. And everyone else is getting it before release date. To be really super duper important, a blogger must have the record before it’s even in the hands of the label.
StumpyPete1975: what disturbs me is the paucity of voices out there, individual ones
StumpyPete1975: I like a lot of blogs, but I read about the same 20 artists over and over on so many of them
StumpyPete1975: and the press-release repeaters…I mean, you take the post and put it on the report
StumpyPete1975: but does it help?
RecentlyDownsized: only to the bean counters I suppose
StumpyPete1975: I always looked at it as rather it be me than someone else
StumpyPete1975: terrible to get competitive like that but that’s how it is!
RecentlyDownsized: When I see a band crack into the non-music-wonky world, I know that makes a difference, but at that point the blogs have ceased to care about it. I always find it kind of funny that the top selling track from most albums on iTunes is the one that is put out there for free on the blogs. That is kind of illustrative about cracking into the mainstream I suppose.
RecentlyDownsized: Most people in the world don’t give a shit about music blogs
StumpyPete1975: I know!
RecentlyDownsized: but they serve their purpose.
RecentlyDownsized: and bands and labels have started to invest so much energy in them
RecentlyDownsized: and money
RecentlyDownsized: for the past few years
RecentlyDownsized: and it’s not everything
StumpyPete1975: to me, a well-rounded publicity campaign has a bit of everything
StumpyPete1975: quantity and quality
StumpyPete1975: some big write-ups
RecentlyDownsized: a tour
StumpyPete1975: and small stuff wherever you turn
StumpyPete1975: god, and, yes, a tour
StumpyPete1975: tours are so helpful
RecentlyDownsized: without some live dates, it’s really hard.
StumpyPete1975: well, it’s the easiest way to justify a press release
RecentlyDownsized: and it’s really tough for unknown bands to get booked.
RecentlyDownsized: another important reason for labels
StumpyPete1975: nothing against Sub Pop
StumpyPete1975: they don’t have a monopoly on good bands
StumpyPete1975: but their credibility brings them so much
StumpyPete1975: that you would think they do have a monopoly given the press they get
StumpyPete1975: being on Sub Pop, Merge, Beggars, etc.
StumpyPete1975: it helps
RecentlyDownsized: Agreed
StumpyPete1975: I think we have seen some Horatio Alger stories recently
StumpyPete1975: some CYHSY
StumpyPete1975: etc.
StumpyPete1975: that makes people believe it’s a meritocracy
StumpyPete1975: but it ain’t
RecentlyDownsized: (from what I understand, CYHSY had a publicist as a manager, so they didn’t fly out of nowhere)
StumpyPete1975: oh yeah totally!
StumpyPete1975: listen, it never happens out of nowhere
RecentlyDownsized: Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon played with Rosebuds for a few years prior to his breakout
RecentlyDownsized: so he know the lay of the land as well.
RecentlyDownsized: there is always some reason
StumpyPete1975: yep
StumpyPete1975: and whenever a band seemingly jumps out of nowhere
StumpyPete1975: Vivian Girls, etc.
StumpyPete1975: I guarantee you they are a) from Brooklyn
StumpyPete1975: or b) have a good PR person
StumpyPete1975: or both
RecentlyDownsized: agreed
StumpyPete1975: the New York cabal continues
StumpyPete1975: people act like it isn’t there, but it SO is
RecentlyDownsized: like a big fetid stew of promotion
StumpyPete1975: do you think that the Vivian Girls go anywhere if they are from Wisconsin?
RecentlyDownsized: I doubt it
RecentlyDownsized: unless they were really hot
StumpyPete1975: maybe
StumpyPete1975: let’s talk hotness factor and stuff
StumpyPete1975: how much sexism have you encountered?
StumpyPete1975: I’ve seen it pretty bad
StumpyPete1975: with female artists and the way that male writers slobber on them
RecentlyDownsized: I think female artists really get the short end of the stick in this business, especially in terms of age (but also level of hotness)
StumpyPete1975: agreed
StumpyPete1975: I have guys comment on pictures of female artists
StumpyPete1975: but male artists never get that
RecentlyDownsized: unless they are iconic like Chrissie Hynde or Aimee Mann
StumpyPete1975: yeah, been around for a while
StumpyPete1975: you always get the aside “(and she ain’t so bad-looking, either)”
StumpyPete1975: and I found myself hoping that the women in bands would be attractive
StumpyPete1975: because it would help my campaigns!
RecentlyDownsized: I don’t know, I ‘ve seen the “I’d hit it” comment attached to boys, girls, animals, objects on Brookyn Vegan, ha-ha.
RecentlyDownsized: Sad to say, I have had to ask about a female artist’s hotness factor as well. It’s an unfortunate reality in the world of entertainment, unless there is a freak element.
StumpyPete1975: so lame
StumpyPete1975: also gayness
StumpyPete1975: but that is different because it opens up some new pubs
RecentlyDownsized: we have a whole list of gay friendly outlets
RecentlyDownsized: but not one for “homely yet talented chicks”
StumpyPete1975: yeah exactly
StumpyPete1975: and some artists don’t want it out there and some do
StumpyPete1975: but gay mags?
StumpyPete1975: they aren’t exactly down with the uglies, etiher
StumpyPete1975: I had to send over pictures of a few artists so they could vet the hotness of them
StumpyPete1975: some passed
StumpyPete1975: some didn’t
RecentlyDownsized: oh man, that’s horrible. Yet I can relate.
RecentlyDownsized: I usually only ask about it if I am sitting on the fence as to whether or not I think their sound will fly within our network of outlets. I know that if a female artist is good looking (or a freak) it can move the needle, particularly in the blogosphere.
StumpyPete1975: yah it’s true
StumpyPete1975: look at Joanna Newsom or St. Vincent, etc.
StumpyPete1975: all talented
StumpyPete1975: but all lookers, too
RecentlyDownsized: I am hating myself as I read this interview, by the way.
StumpyPete1975: hating yourself?
RecentlyDownsized: for being a party to it
StumpyPete1975: I know
RecentlyDownsized: (not the interview…the judging of people’s artistic talent as it applies to their looks)
RecentlyDownsized: I guess we have a similar issue with old dudes. Not ugly per say but old.
StumpyPete1975: haha
StumpyPete1975: yeah, old guys
RecentlyDownsized: Hipsters are such ageists
StumpyPete1975: guys with names
StumpyPete1975: it’s hard to be Justin Vernon
StumpyPete1975: better to be Bon Iver
StumpyPete1975: make a fake name for yourself
RecentlyDownsized: 3 names is the kiss of death!
StumpyPete1975: indeed
StumpyPete1975: man, we could go on forever
StumpyPete1975: getting paid
StumpyPete1975: that’s one of the things that I think people don’t realize is such a big part of our job
StumpyPete1975: everybody is hunky dory until payday comes
StumpyPete1975: and then they cry poormouth
StumpyPete1975: and you did a bad job
StumpyPete1975: you ever have that?
StumpyPete1975: where all of a sudden you did a bad job because you are asking for money?
StumpyPete1975: (like it matters…our contracts say pay up either way)
RecentlyDownsized: we have usually resolved that by continuing to slave on, unpaid, for a longer period of time, since they have been so unhappy (note sarcastic tone).
StumpyPete1975: comped months…I’ve done it, too
StumpyPete1975: and yet it’s never appreciated
StumpyPete1975: it’s what’s expected!
RecentlyDownsized: sadly yes.
StumpyPete1975: and, to be honest, I feel like the big publicity places
StumpyPete1975: they wouldn’t play with that
RecentlyDownsized: Often, if I feel I haven’t been able to deliver for a band in a given amount of time, I will work longer for the campaign of my own accord and because I want them to be happy with what we do. But it sucks when the client plays these games to blame it on something.
StumpyPete1975: it’s never on them
RecentlyDownsized: the big publicity places are going to HAVE to deal with that coming up. competition is so brutal and a lot of talented peole are out of work.
RecentlyDownsized: they know it. I’ve seen it in the proposal process of late.
StumpyPete1975: well, I will say this
StumpyPete1975: big, small, whatevs PR companies
StumpyPete1975: I see them fail on things as much as anybody
StumpyPete1975: all of the money in the world can still not make a record a hit
StumpyPete1975: majors flop just as much as indies
RecentlyDownsized: totally
StumpyPete1975: with even higher stakes
StumpyPete1975: and I would tell potential clients this
StumpyPete1975: you can go to Big Publicity House X for their cheap deal
StumpyPete1975: but you will be last in importance for them
StumpyPete1975: and 9 times out of 10 they were ignored
StumpyPete1975: at least with me they could have been ignored for cheaper!
RecentlyDownsized: haha
RecentlyDownsized: I think some of the bigger places take less important clients (who pay) and just deal with them in aggregate with other paying clients they don’t really care about. It’s sad when that happens.
StumpyPete1975: yes
RecentlyDownsized: I’ve seen it happen a bunch
StumpyPete1975: me too.

Are you a grizzled music industry veteran that wants to go anonIMous with us? Email us at tipsATidolatorDOTcom.

  1. Anonymous

    Tours are so important it’s almost scary, in terms of pitching articles these days. Space is, increasingly, so tight in publications that it’s all about what’s local – and it’s mostly when one artist or another will be temporarily local that a feature/review/whatever is likely to get picked up in my experience. (This is in terms of alt-weeklies, obviously.)

  2. Lucas Jensen

    @raycummings: Oh yeah. In fact, I think they are almost more important from a PR perspective than from an actual money-making angle.

  3. Anonymous

    Amen this is one of the best Shhh-it so far. Except for mine of course ;)

    So many things are right on.

  4. Anonymous

    2010 De Capo, anyone? Good job! Keep em coming, Lucas!

  5. Lucas Jensen

    @NDFSEA: Haha…really?

    Uh, okay!

  6. Anonymous

    it’s a great series, man – i’m learning a LOT. seriously.

  7. Lucas Jensen

    @raycummings: Thanks. This one was very near and dear to my heart, being a publicist. If you ever have any questions about that world, just let me know!

  8. jt.ramsay

    I’m literally drafting an email to PR that I ‘work’ with to explain how to pitch me. I’m trying to be constructive, although I do make a point of saying that sending me tour dates or an mp3 to stream just doesn’t cut it.

  9. jt.ramsay

    I wanted to note that I think publicists made this bed. It was easy when bloggers just wanted to have contact with the music industry which meant they cut and pasted and just obediently posted mp3s. It was simpler then.

    Once bloggers had expectations and demands, the job got tougher, but PR is very slow to adapt. I rarely find myself agreeing with Arrington over @ Techcrunch, but I think it’s time that publicists evaluated the diminishing marginal value of shooting off a million emails a day that freelancers and editors automatically delete.

    Lastly, I think the best way for publicists to succeed in creating value for their clients is to find creative ways to slow the hype cycle down by working with editors more to figure out what works now.

  10. Lucas Jensen

    @jt.ramsay: If only it were so easy to coordinate with editors. And you really think that WE made the bed? You basically state that it was bloggers who were obedient to publicists (whose standard MO is not that much different than before), and yet it’s the publicists’ fault for their initial sucking up to them? It’s never the outlets’ fault, right? They are just passive actors in all of this. Little naifs being pushed upon by the mean PR people.

    And do you think it’s better now? I’d say that blog content is demonstrably worse! I see less writing than ever and even more copying and pasting! PR people–at least the good ones–don’t want this kind of content because it doesn’t help our artists very much.

    And, sure, shooting off a million emails a day doesn’t work, right? Uh, the most successful PR people I know send out two press releases a day at least. Sorry, but if everyone else is doing it, and it’s working for somebody than you have to play the same type of ball or your clients get left behind.

    What’s the other option? A million personalized emails that also get deleted? Editors and writers LOVE to talk about how it’s “supposed to be done” but they don’t pick up the phone anymore and they still ignore the types of emails that they want to see. You can do everything the “right” way and still get ignored.

    Good PR people are NOT slow to adapt. I started promoting to blogs in 2004. We see an “in” and we take it. It’s what we are paid to do.

  11. jt.ramsay

    @Lucas Jensen: That hasn’t been the case for me. Most of the people who pitch me still think I write for Philly Weekly, despite being in my current job for nearly two years.

    I agree that blog content is worse, but when tour dates and mp3 streams are what constitutes news, how good could it really be.

    Here’s the thing for me: I’d love to focus on music for music’s sake more. I know gossip is the thing for a site like the one I run, but I think there’s the possibility to have that traffic stream support more substantive opportunities for artists.

    But I can’t have that conversation with publicists who simply don’t see the value in putting their artists in front of a huge audience.

    I’ve been offering a huge “in” since 2007. Wrote every PR in my contact list. I’m still getting asked if I can preview shows at the M Room.

  12. sparkletone

    This was both highly entertaining, kinda awesome and yet kinda depressing.

    Poor publicists.

    It’s hard out there for a pimp.

  13. Anonymous

    @Lucas Jensen:

    yes. ha ha. it is very educational / redemptive / awesome read.

  14. Lax Danja House

    I had to laugh. Mere minutes after I read this post, I got an email from Candlelight Records saying they were moving to digital watermark promos to take advantage of the “security advantages.”

  15. Anonymous

    Actually JT, you are on my list and I have written you several notes (personal) which have been ignored. This is after you moved to Comcast, so unless you have a new gig, I think I’m up to date.

    Just sayin’.

    But please, enlighten me with your new PR Guide. ;-)

  16. the rich girls are weeping

    As a writer who’s gone completely apathetic thanks to the PR crush (among other things), I’m glad to know it’s not just me. However, as someone who’s doing pro bono press work for a friend’s band, it makes me realize that it’s going to be a lot harder to get people’s attention now than I realized. *sigh*

  17. I realize in your page the rss feed says invalid location please fix this if you have the time

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