Even in an age of streaming and social media, interviews, reviews, previews and features are still an essential part of building a musical career.
There’s a reason that press releases always have quotes from critics at the top: audiences want to know what journalists think. Reviews are still valued.
However great your personal website and social media, being featured in a respected, independent arts publication will do wonders for your profile, reputation, and your SEO.
So here’s my advice – as a music journalist – for how you can give yourself a better chance to succeed!
Research your writer
Before you fire off any introductory emails, it’s important to find a writer who’s interested in, and sympathetic to, the kind of music you make.
Read their work, find a piece about another artist you know or admire, and when you get in touch, mention that. Explain that you think they’d be interested in your own music because it offers something similar, if also – crucially – different and original. (You don’t want to be a clone!)
If you can also refer to a kind of article – the long-form interview, or preview feature – that the writer specialises in, so much the better.
Requests to feature types of piece the writer’s publication won’t usually include (such as requests to feature videos, to a site that never does that, something I receive almost daily) not only go straight in the bin, but tell me that the publicist (artists are usually more careful) knows little about what I write. So I’m unlikely to want to work with them.
What do you play? Who do you play it with? Why should we be interested right now?
These are the crucial questions that need explaining in your introductory pitch. And given that most of these pitches will these days be sent by email, make sure your subject heading contains the essential information about your act. It needs to stand out from the dozens, if not hundreds, of similar emails that writer receives every day.
In many cases, the journalist you approach will need to pitch their coverage to a section editor on their publication, justifying why your music deserves attention.
So help them out.
If you have just released a new album, or are starting a new tour, or collaboration with different players, or have won a competition, are starting a residency somewhere, and so on, mention it straight away. It’s news. News is what they deal in.
Selling your own music is perhaps the hardest part of the pitch, since it requires both self-knowledge and a boastful attitude that doesn’t come naturally to everyone. But explaining why your music is fresh, different, original, and NOW is essential.
How are you different from everyone else? What makes you fresh and contemporary?
These are the central questions. Succeed here, and you have an interested journalist who can really help you out.
Once you’ve explained, in a punchy couple of paragraphs, why your music deserves coverage right now, there’s a bunch of practical details you must include in your first contact. These may seem obvious, but I frequently see pitches that omit some.
Perhaps the most important are links to places the writer can hear some of your music straight away – if they’re interested, that’s the first thing they’ll want to do, so make sure you have a selection of your most representative tracks available on a private Soundcloud page or similar.
Video clips can be very persuasive, but they can also be awful. If it was shot by your friend on his phone, without professional recording equipment, lighting or editing, and it’s been watched by 14 people (I’ve seen lots like this), leave it out.
Other crucial information includes all relevant contact information:
- Your website
- Your live tour schedule, with dates and venues (perhaps the writer doesn’t have time for a profile or interview but would like to review your live show?)
- Album release details
- A discography for previous releases (if you have them)
The bio you send on first contact should be brief and only include a concise account of where you’re from, what you play, where you studied, where you’ve gigged and what you’ve recorded.
I have, truly and honestly, read all kinds of weird and wonderful artist bios that only come onto these questions on page three, after a painstaking account of how a childhood dream in which John Coltrane appeared like an angel got them playing sax at the age of five. Save these stories for your autobiography.
Most journalists will do the detailed biographical research once they’re already sold on your music. There’s no harm in having a longer biography on your website, but in the first instance, stick to the essentials.
Of course, if you’re starting out, then you won’t yet have a substantial collection of press cuttings to quote from, but it’s (almost) never too early to start inviting reviewers to gigs.
Although space for jazz coverage in the national press has been cut back, the situation at local level varies, and many areas will have a magazine or online publication dedicated to jazz in that region. These are usually of an excellent standard, and are perfect for your first reviews.
Once you start being reviewed, include brief quotations in your initial pitch, and link to the full review in your pitch. (Make sure you do this on your own website, too – this will improve your SEO).
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of a strong visual image.
When we think of jazz musicians – performers across popular music, for that matter – the most famous often have a look, an identity. Without trivialising the seriousness of the music, it is effectively a brand identity, and being known for a certain aesthetic attitude can help your act stick in an audience’s mind.
Dizzy Gillespie’s balloon cheeks and bent trumpet; Thelonious Monk, bent over the piano, fingers raised; Miles, shades on, looking down, trumpet lifted slightly – these all capture an essence of that player’s identity. In pop, think of Bowie, Prince, Madonna, or Michael Jackson, and an image instantly comes to mind.
Those are obviously tough targets. But think about what, visually, makes your act stand out, and you’ll be on the right lines.
Give Yourself Space
Perhaps the single most common difficulty publications have with artists’ portrait photos is not having enough space around the head. Visually, it’s important to have a frame around your face, and practically, the layout editor may need to crop the photo to create a simple head-and-shoulders portrait for a listings byline or similar. So make sure you leave some background.
Make it obvious what instrument you play (if you play two or more, include shots with each) and give the viewer some visual hints about your style, influences and genre: electronic jazz, club jazz, chamber jazz, retro jazz (and so on) will all have different visual contexts, and you can help make your act memorable by styling your photos accordingly.
If you’ve performed at a well-known venue or festival, make sure you get some good shots of that event – if necessary by paying a photographer to attend.
Avoiding Visual Clichés
A hip vibe definitely helps, but make sure it’s your own hip vibe, and not a visual cliché.
Check out the blog Jazz Musicians Standing In Front of Brick Walls for some hints about what not to do. Most of these photos are cool in their own way, but the brick wall setting has definitely had its day. And it doesn’t say much about what kind of music you play, either.
Practical Photo Sharing
Think about the practicalities of photo-sharing, too.
The musicians who make the process easiest will have a Dropbox – other online storage systems are available! – with clearly labelled folders of individual shots, band shots, live shots, album covers, and so on, all available both in web resolution and print resolution, labelled with titles, dates, photographer credits and so on.
Creating a photo album that’s not only high quality but easy to use can have unexpected benefits.
When I used to put together the monthly Vortex programme, I always needed a really striking, high-resolution photo for the front cover. Usually we’d go for that month’s biggest celebrity. Sometimes, though, that celebrity just couldn’t offer us good enough photos, and this created an opportunity to showcase a younger, less well-known but better-organised performer. Everyone in music is working to a tight deadline, and the great photo that’s ready to download immediately is much more likely to be used than the great photo that has to be asked for ten times.
Likewise, if a writer is putting together a magazine feature about an upcoming festival, for example, and can choose from a dozen different band shots, they will choose the one that creates the best impression for their publication. If that’s you, and as a result you are the face of the most-googled article about a well-known festival, that will have been worth what you paid the photographer many times over.
Refresh and Renew
Once your career is motoring, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to refresh your photo catalogue, but it’s worth making a point of updating the shots at least annually.
If, ahem, your appearance has changed noticeably over the years, remove any photos that give a false impression. (This might seem obvious but, sad to say, occasionally I could only cringe at what an artist or PR sent.) At least, if you’ve gone bald since the photo was taken, make sure you wear a hat.
Journalists Love A Breakthrough Act
As a music journalist, discovering an exciting new act is one of the best feelings there is.As acts who are about to breakthrough, you have a receptive audience longing to hear from you. But we’re also pressed for time and anxious that an exciting act can also supply the practical resources we need to make a good piece. So help us out, and we’re 95% there…