This is a post that I have been working on for a few months… I have been hesitating to publish it because it exposes the ugly man behind the curtain in music publicity.
40,000 CDs come out every year and that means hundreds of thousands of CDs will be mailed out for review consideration.
Where does all of this product go? This is part of the dirty and taboo subject that no one ever talked about. No one until now that is. Randall Roberts of The LA Weekly recently took a bold step by writing an article that exposes the truth about what happens to the thousands of promo CDs that get mailed to music journalists like him. It’s called:
“Often, nudge-nudge, wink-wink, the so-called “tastemakers” do just that. Of course, finding anybody in the music business to actually talk about this vast and ever-fluctuating underground economy is tough. Ask a publicist what he does with unwanted promos and there’s usually an awkward pause, as though you’d just asked after his porno collection. Few are willing to go on the record regarding their income stream for fear of being blacklisted, audited, or, Bono forbid, sued by Universal, which views every CD it sends out to tastemakers to be its property in perpetuity, long after the disc has languished in a crate somewhere.”
I spoke to Roberts at length while he was writing this piece and I was not quoted in this article but I think it is an extremely eye opening subject for those of you interested in the subject of getting national (or any) publicity and what you are up against on the other side.
As a recovering traditional music publicist and the owner of a digital PR firm, I meet with people at all levels of the music industry. And they are all mystified and unhappy with their publicity situation: They want more than they have and when they hire a publicist they are left feeling unsatisfied. I have heard complaints from all levels of artists, about all types of PR firms from the crème de la crème firms who handle household names to the smaller firms that work with emerging artists.
An experienced traditional publicist charges between $2,000 and $4,000 a month (before expenses). And artists, labels and managers always have the same two complaints.
1. Publicity costs too much.
2. They did not get the PR they were expecting to get in national publications like Rolling Stone and on TV shows like Conan.
As a person who was a traditional publicist for 10 years I have an insiders perspective on this quandary. And here is my two cents on the subjec: Doing traditional PR for independent artists is really difficult, and handling PR on a national level is the most challenging and one of the most discouraging tasks I have ever undertaken. It takes a Herculean amount of effort to create even a tiny ripple in the national press.
Here is an example of a 300 piece mailer
- 500 Press Kits in The Mail = $2,500
- 3 month retainer = $9,000
- Extra expenses = $1500
- Total = $13,000
A full national mailer to hit the key must journalists who are considered the the critical “tastemakers” is approx 200-300 packages. If the artist is going on a 20 city tour, that’s easily an additional 200 CD’s. So, a mail out for a new release with a tour to support it is 500 CD’s (and the PR campaign has not even begun yet). I’ll estimate $1 per CD, and it’s another $4 in postage and packaging. So that’s $2,500 in materials alone, plus most PR firms charge a premium to have the envelopes stuffed and they mark up for the hassle of dealing with the paper, the bubble envelope, the copies, and the dragging it all to the post office.
First: The publicist mails out the materials. They must go out three full months in advance, for what is known as “long lead” press: National magazines like Spin, Blender and Rolling Stone.
Second: The publicist calls and emails the journalists, who are totally overwhelmed by publicists who call them constantly leaving endless pitches.
Third: The publicist must get an answer from each journalist. This is the brutal part of the job. The publicist must get the journalists to give them an answer so that she can report back to the client.
Here are the common answers:
- “It’s on the pile,”
- “I can’t find the CD. Please send it again,”
- or simply “yes I received it.”
And the reason they don’t give you a straight answer is, they don’t want to say no, because they rely on publicists for the next new releases, and they don’t want to be taken off their servicing lists.
Here’s the dirty secret revealed in the LA Weekly:
One of the main reasons journalists don’t want to be taken off the list is them sell their CDs back to used CD stores, to supplement their incomes.
Here is a key quote from the LA Weekly article (BTW, the LA Weekly is a coveted newspaper that all publicists try to place their clients in).
“For a music journalist, these piles accumulate quickly and come with a fundamental set of problems organized around a single reality: There is a lot of music being released in 2008, way more than even the most voracious music hound could possibly digest. The bounty therefore becomes something you have to deal with, like a farmer stuck with molding grain as winter approaches. So then what? Do you throw it away, and let all that plastic end up in a landfill? Do you donate it to Goodwill, where some thrifty hipster will buy it for cheap? Do you give it to your friends? Do you sell it?”
One key thing this insightful article points out is the story of Augusto aka Roast Beast who is a CD power seller on ebay. He was sued by Universal for reselling promo music online and he won. the case.
Music blog idolator.com sums it up with a valid point:
“How was Augusto still on the promo lists for these labels—was he selling in-store play copies, or what? If anything, this whole case—and the thriving market for resold promos from people who are drowning in free music that they don’t want—is another sign that the way labels promote music to writers, DJs, and the like is woefully inefficient, and clearly in need of a major overhaul for more reasons than just saving the planet.”
Taking Money From Indie Bands &Labels
A record label owner my company works with used to make a healthy living distributing over 100 titles a year and selling a few thousand copies of each in a niche market. He told me that his number one expense was mailing out hundreds of promo CD’s which in the long run has damaged his business. The reason: Those very same promo CD’s were getting sold on Amazon and half.com by journalists and used record stores within days of being sent out and he never saw one penny from those sales.
Part of the Music PR Food Chain
I used to rent part of my office to my friends who ran a new & used CD store. Music journalists would come in often selling hundreds of new promo CDs to my friends. It’s part of the PR food chain. Releases I would be working were already back in my office before I could even call and follow up on the mailer that I had just sent out.
Music Journalists Still Demand The CDs
I’m a member of a list serve called the “PR list” which is a group of hundreds of music PR professionals and they recently conducted an informal survey about sending music digitally to music journalists versus sending CD’s. The response from writers was overwhelming. They insisted upon getting the full CD with the artwork in a jewel case with a spine or they wouldn’t consider a review at all. Why? Because used CD stores only will take CDs that include cases and spines and artwork as the LA Weekly article also points out.
But, Let’s Get Back to Our Publicists Steps
Fourth: The follow up. it took me an average of 3 to 5 calls to get a writer on the phone. And some times up to 10 calls. So for 500 packages and 5 phone calls average and 3 e-mails for package, that was 2,500 phone calls and over 3,000 e-mails.
That time doesn’t include the setting up of the interviews, the call backs and the missed phone calls with scheduling. So in work alone, that’s 2,500 calls, 500 envelopes and paper and endless packaging. And you can begin to see why $3,000 a month is not a lot of money from the publicist’s perspective.
Fifth: Reporting: As you are following up you have the other side – the client who has spent a LOT of hard earned money wanting to know: Where’s Rolling Stone? Where is Blender? What about Late Night with Conan? Where are my definitive answers?
So, that’s my publicist reality check…
Please do not get me wrong. I feel traditional publicity still has a place in this whole music business puzzle however the odds are stacked against you. I wrote an entire guide that delves into the nuts and bolts of hiring a traditional publicist – It’s called “The Musicians Guide To Choosing The Perfect Publicist and it’s available ion my website for free.” To download it please visit my site: http://www.arielpublicity.com