How many times have you read about a cool new band who are about to change the face of music forever, usher in a revolution in popular culture and destroy everything we thought we once knew about art, style and ideology? How often does excitement fade to envious bemusement upon hearing the band’s EP and realising that we haven’t finally discovered the next Velvet Underground or The Clash, but rather a new King’s of Leon, if the King’s of Leon came from Hertfordshire and the singer’s mum writes for The Guardian. Sometimes, the hype machine is turned on before a band has even played a gig or released a demo. A band can have created less musical output than an average 7 year old with a new recorder, yet can still command the attention of the music press. Many new, undiscovered bands quite rightly wonder why they remain unknown while other, equally shit bands are showered in praise and press coverage. The answer, of course, is PR.
It is not the aim of this article to analyse the PR industry or the state of the music industry as a whole, but rather to offer up an idea to help new bands and musicians who are faced with a hypercompetitive market place. That said I would like to briefly explain where PR fits in the machinations of the industry, though you probably have heard this before.
The reality of the postmodern music industry is that the traditional barriers to entry have been removed and almost anybody can make and release music if they have a laptop and a bit of time. This creates a problem for traditional and new media because the sheer volume of music available is overwhelming and publications on a tight budget do not have the resources to give it all a fair hearing. John Peel’s famous assertion that he would listen to everything that was sent to him would nowadays be almost impossible.
There has also been a slow decline of the organic, grass roots, physical buzz that used to accompany the best new bands. This has largely been replaced by a hype that takes place online, and it is largely the role of online media to generate this buzz. We cannot therefore fairly accuse the music press of lazy journalism in not scouring the land for the coolest new bands because bands can barely exist outside of the online space, and what is cool or trendy is largely cultivated and manufactured online by this very same media. These changes are part of the march towards digital consumerism that the music industry has so far famously struggled with.
Cutting a long and interesting story short, the music media has come to depend on PR companies to act as gatekeepers through which bands must pass before the media will begin to cover them in any meaningful way. Rather than sift through the 100s of daily emails from new bands, an editor will probably rather listen to a trusted PR contact, who may deliver 1 or 2 exciting bands per month and may even deliver them along with a nice lunch, booze or other bribe. PR agencies represent the outsourcing of filtering and allows the media to concentrate on reviewing, critiquing, analysing and championing music.
So where does this leave you? Traditionally, part of a record label’s remit would be to fund a PR campaign but every young musician, except the very fortunate, knows that we no longer live in the record label paradigm. Young bands know that they have to do things themselves and as a whole have made excellent headway into many areas, such as recording, distribution, social media etc. Where independent bands are failing is in the world of PR. If it is your strategy as a new band to record the greatest album of all time and send it off to one thousand record labels and media publications and hope for glory to be bestowed upon you then you are going to fail. PR is king. You simply must have a viable PR strategy in order to succeed.
PR agencies cost money. Lets assume that you don’t have any investment in the band yet and you are all broke. Lets also assume that you don’t have any siblings or parents in the music industry (nepotism is a form of PR – maybe a debate for another article!). Don’t stack the odds of success in favour of the few wealthy individuals who have private means and who are able to financially invest in their career from the outset. (Maybe this is another factor that renders the music industry largely the domain of the privileged).
What can you do? If you are sure you are onto something good with your music, you may need to take drastic steps to raise capital:
Yes it goes against everything you represent but imagine the reward. Stop rehearsing, stop partying, stop writing music. Get everyone in the band to work hard and work solidly in the day job for as long as possible. Do this as early as you can, before your first release. Make it an initiation into the band. If you are all committed and dedicated to your music, what will half a year be in the long-term. If every member of the band can raise a few thousand pounds each this will give your first release some amazing traction. (NB lonely singer songwriters might have to work longer!)
If this all seems like too much hard work, or you just cannot tear yourself away from the music, get a loan.
The point I’m making is that if you invest in a PR campaign early on in your career then you may make life a lot easier for yourself down the road. As most of you will know, a lot goes into releasing an EP or album and it will be painful if your masterpiece is released but never heard. Yes you will have to pay for it, but getting a buzz around your first release will pay dividends throughout your career. If a crap band with no music can get hype, then the sky is really the limit for a really great band who believe in themselves enough to invest financially as well as emotionally in their art.
What do you think? Should bands invest financially early on or should that be the remit of labels and agencies?