Not long ago I participated in a panel discussion at a literary arts festival. The objective was to give artists tips on how to establish connections with journalists and bloggers. The audience at this particular event was mostly comprised of spoken-word artists and dramatists, but the discussion’s content could be applied to any creative medium. I’d like to distill some of the ideas that emerged from that interaction into a set of suggestions, which I hope can be useful for the District’s jazz community.
First, let’s talk about why it’s important in the first place for musicians to make connections with writers covering the jazz scene. The answer is simple: It’s necessary for reaching an audience. This does not mean that press coverage alone can lead to a long and distinguished career, as much of that depends on the quality and consistency of the artist’s creative output — and I can’t help you there. However, engaged listeners often take the time to find writers whose sensibilities match their own, treating them as filters that will increase the signal-to-noise ratio when it comes to finding new gems in an increasingly oversaturated music ecosystem.
The most important first move a musician can make toward building a PR presence is to get a wealth of multimedia content online. As far as PR goes, a musician’s goal should be to make the writer’s job easier; all other factors being equal, we journalists will likely give coverage to artists who require less digging, so establishing a web presence is the most important step an artist can take to help get the word out. These days, it’s not even necessary to establish one’s own web site; a Facebook page will suffice. Whether it’s on a registered domain or on a social media site, there are certain elements that the page should definitely contain: At a minimum, anyone visiting the site should be able to easily access an artist bio, publicity photos, sound clips and a schedule of upcoming performances.
Obviously, the most important among these are the sound clips because they represent the product that is being promoted. Fancy studio recordings aren’t necessary, but the quality should be high enough that it reflects the skills of the musician or ensemble. Luckily, we live in a digital age where relatively inexpensive devices can deliver the necessary fidelity. Live recordings from a gig that are posted on SoundCloud or some similar service will be enough. Similarly, the photos you post don’t require a $2,000 SLR camera, but they should be good enough that a blogger can post them on a web site. It’s worthwhile to post a few sharply shot, high-resolution photographs that can be used in print publications, should the need arise.
When it comes to writing a bio, the objective is to give the reader enough relevant information to learn how your music reflects your personal story. Here, judgment is important. If your upbringing and geography is important to your creativity, then that should be featured prominently in the writeup. That is also true of any other part of your history, whether it be your training, cultural background or the musicians with whom you have performed. Also, clarity is key. Give the reader an angle, but don’t get too cute. The $1 word is often far more effective than the $10 word; take care to avoid using too many adjectives that might sound good but don’t add any substantive information about you or your music. There is a delicate balance here, and if you are having trouble getting started, review the bios of artists that you admire and use that as an entry point.
Once all of this information is compiled, the next step is to reach out to the press. Take some time to go through the web and make a list of all the relevant blogs, newspapers and magazines that cover jazz. Younger or less established artists should start local and then work out from there. I prefer to receive information and recordings digitally, but that is not everyone’s preference, so make up a few physical press kits to distribute via snail mail. Generally, all of these outlets will have a staff list that the public can access. Contact an individual journalist rather than a general e-mail address whenever possible, but before doing so, take the time to read some columns to see if her interests overlap with your style. There is no point in sending a jazz press kit to a journalist who covers only metal festivals.
All of this work is extremely tedious, but absolutely necessary. Without taking these steps, you are the proverbial tree that fell in the woods. Hiring a dedicated PR person alleviates some of the routine, but also requires significant funds that only an established artist will have. Professionalism is also an undercurrent to all of this advice. All too often I encounter very talented artists who call themselves “professional musicians,” but nearly all of the emphasis is placed on the latter word with far too little placed on the former. A writer who gets treated with respect will return the favor. So please, never ever send me a press release with the subject line “OMG! [Insert act here] is coming to D.C.! Want an interview?” That has happened, and this e-mail went straight to the trash bin.
As with all professional endeavors, the best way to make connections is through building personal relationships. Those of us who cover the local jazz scene make it a point to get out there and see shows. So if you are at a gig and see me, Mike West from the Washington City Paper, or Patrick Jarenwattananon from NPR’s A Blog Supreme, don’t hesitate to introduce yourself or get an introduction from a fellow musician. All of us take pride in what we do, and we don’t bite.
Finally, don’t take it personally if you do reach out to us and don’t get the coverage you want. There are a number of factors that go into our decisions, many of which are well beyond your control. We get bombarded with hundreds of e-mails every week — press releases, interview inquiries, performance announcements, and copies of music for review. Plus, writing about jazz pays even less than playing it, so most of us have day gigs to subsidize our nasty writing habit. There are many days where there is just not enough time. That said, talented musicians who are dedicated enough to put in the leg work will eventually get noticed.
Sriram Gopal is CapitalBop’s monthly columnist. He can be reached at [email protected] His column appears on the first Thursday of every month.