A guide to music PR (public relations) in 2020

Music PR hasn’t changed much conceptually since the dawn of pop music 60 years ago, in the opinion of Nathan Walker of Riot Act Media.

Artists are still trying to increase exposure for their music, and media outlets are still trying to sell ads — it’s the vehicles for achieving those goals that have changed. Of course, the more general music promotion landscape has evolved wildly and music PR (public relations) is just a piece of that puzzle. In this article, we focus primarily on pitching stories about artists and their music to journalists across print, online (including YouTube / video and podcasts), and radio while touching on broader opportunities and future trends in music promotion.

We spoke with Nathan Walker, who has been the owner of Riot Act Media since 2015 and with the company since 2009. He’s worked in music PR for 14 years and in the greater music industry for longer. Below, he shares the realities of today’s music PR landscape, how he’s able to help his artists grow, what journalists are looking for, and more.

Today’s music PR landscape

According to Walker, the tools publicists use have evolved along with technology, but not necessarily their approach. He says, “A publicist’s goal is essentially to connect journalists with interesting stories on interesting artists. We’re working to help musicians get press in a way that helps their career but also helps journalists get stories that sell magazines or ads on websites.”

He adds, “As a publicist, you’re a communicator to the press about music projects. How you go about doing that is different from 60 years ago. But you’re simply looking for good music and the people who will like it and want to write about it, and that hasn’t changed.”

So what has changed?

There are fewer outlets covering music

Walker says there are fewer outlets and journalists covering music in 2020 than ever before.

In the early 2000s and 2010s, we saw big spikes in indie music blogs, many of which have come and gone, allowing mainstream media outlets to continue to lead the space. Walker explains that independent publications can’t sustain as long as their corporate counterparts can because they’re run on passion, not profit. They’re sharing music and stories from niche genres they love, which may have a cult following but not enough to sell expensive ads that’ll keep the lights on and sustain the people running the show. They’re competing against media groups with teams dedicated to selling ad space that the writers don’t have to worry about. Solo bloggers don’t have the relationships the big media groups do.

He added, “Ideally, the coverage is good and exciting but that’s second to the fact that they need [website] traffic to be up. That means not focusing on niche areas of music, because the masses aren’t there.”

It’s tougher to build a loyal fanbase

Walker explains that when smaller, more niche publications or websites close down, “you’re losing the ability to create a backstory and develop a fan base for an artist from the ground up. You’re now competing with artists with hundreds of thousands of followers and tons of marketing money who are already touring and have far more support. There are more compelling reasons for outlets to cover these bigger artists because they’ll help them sell ads.” 

That said, Walker doesn’t hold negative feelings towards bigger outlets. He simply accepts the fact that they don’t have the bandwidth they did ten years ago to dedicate coverage to indie and niche artists. He points to NPR’s Tiny Desk series as an example. The program used to spotlight emerging acts only, but now there are sessions with Taylor Swift and Carly Rae Jepsen, for example. Today, they book acts six months ahead of time and most indie acts don’t plan their tours that far in advance. On the flip side, NPR needs to secure these bigger acts to prove to their funders that people are still paying attention.

He adds, “There’s very little benefit to being the first person to break an artist today. Before, there were few outlets for people to learn about a new album. Now, artists are releasing their tracks themselves. You can go to Spotify or Instagram; you don’t even need to read an article.”

That also means there’s an opportunity to get creative about how you promote yourself. But if you’re a new or niche artist, building an audience is a steep mountain to climb, requiring patience and perseverance.

Young people are discovering music elsewhere

Walker’s colleague Alyssa DeHayes teaches a class on music publicity and promotion at The University of Georgia’s Music Business Program and always asks her students (ages 19 – 23) where they discover music. For the past three years, her students cite Spotify, friends, or festivals as their main sources of music discovery, rarely mentioning a media outlet. Young listeners today can surpass music journalism entirely, unlike folks only two generations before them.

That may be a small sample size to draw any definitive conclusions from, but if you look at the landscape — the decline in music publications and blogs and the rise of streaming — it tracks. What concerns some (like your friendly writer of this article) is that there are a handful of major labels and corporate promoters who are booking the major festivals and who see the most success in streaming.

Additionally, discovery on many streaming platforms relies on algorithms that can keep you in a more narrow subset of music rather than expanding your horizons. That said, there are places within streaming platforms to find playlists featuring smaller or more niche artists, but you have to look for them.

Exclusives are (almost) a thing of the past

Adding to the previous point, once upon a time, you’d pick up a copy of Rolling Stone, read about the cool new artist, go to the local record store to buy the album or order the CD (depending on your decade), and then that’d be the only record you listen to for a few weeks. That outlet enjoyed being the one to run the story and break the artist; it’s what gave them a competitive edge.

Now, artists have far more control and freedom. They can release new music whenever they want (depending on if and what kind of label deal they have) to be immediately available for streaming. They can then tell fans all about their new song or album and completely control the narrative. Additionally, fans can hear their entire back catalog in a day. There’s no need to read anything.

Fans have direct access to artists

Beyond sharing their music directly with fans, artists can have direct, one-to-one or one-to-many conversations with their audiences. People are just as interested in devouring every bit of information about an artist as they were in the dawn of pop music, but now they can go to the artist directly.

Of course, there are still plenty of artists who don’t share much, if anything, on social media, and plenty who do interviews. Journalists continue to provide and provoke a fresh perspective that can only be achieved by someone other than the artist themself.

The rise of the non-media outlet

There are other magazines and publications covering emerging, underground, and niche artists and genres. Some of them are traditional media outlets, others are not. Bandcamp Daily is different, for example, because its goal as a business is to bring independent artists and labels onto their platform so it behooves them to focus on independent music on their blog. As a result, they’re providing interesting, in-depth features of artists on their platform. These publications may not accept pitches as traditional media outlets do, but it’s worth considering your relationship to them as an artist.

Why music journalism still matters

It’s a harder world in music PR and journalism today, but both are still important. As long as music exists (and theoretically, it should forever), people will be writing and talking about it. As an artist, if you’re looking to connect to an eager audience excited for new music, it’s worth building relationships with the outlets and journalists who are fans of your work. And as mentioned above, a journalist’s goal is to find a new, intriguing angle or perspective on an artist’s story, which benefits the artist and their fans. Additionally, not all artists want to tell their own story; some would rather turn to media to do the work for them.

How to garner press coverage today

Securing traditional media coverage today means knowing your audience, crafting an effective pitch with a compelling angle, making all pertinent information easily accessible, and sharing good music. Whether you’re an independent artist tacking PR yourself or a label or music PR professional, we hope these tips help.

Craft an effective pitch

First and foremost, journalists are looking for good music. However, because there’s so much being produced today and it’s all so readily available, it helps to have a compelling story to tell. This could be something about the artist’s relationship to music, how a band came together, or how they learned their instrument. Or, it could be entirely unrelated to the music.

Walker shared a few examples of unique stories he’s been able to share about his artists. A drummer of one band runs a chinchilla rescue out of his home in Chicago, which got a big feature in The A.V. Club. One female artist released a debut solo album that did very well, and then kind of disappeared because her dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer and lived three more years than expected; he didn’t have much savings, so she was his live-in care-taker. When she opened up about that, NPR’s Morning Edition ran a story about what it takes to be a family care-taker. Tricycle: The Buddhist Review will be releasing a piece on an artist who’s a Buddhist monk and folk-rock band member about their life balancing both, because that’s a great story.

What about your (or your artist’s) story tends to surprise and intrigue people? What gets people asking questions? Consider this as your angle.

Not everyone will have a unique angle — some artists just make great music. Often times, that’s all you need. Publicists often receive praise when a campaign sees successful coverage but Walker divulges that typically, those are the easiest campaigns. When the music is so great, he only has to send the press release and the music speaks for itself.

When it comes to the details, provide journalists with all the information they need as soon as possible. Always include:

  • A link to stream the music in your email (not the press release)
  • Release and / or tour dates
  • Links to their full bio, photos and credits, and social media accounts

The fewer emails sent back and forth, the better. Have all of this ready and available in a media kit on the artist’s website in case someone needs to run a last-minute story.

Avoid gimmicks in subject lines. Keep it simple by stating the type of coverage you’re seeking. That might also include the name of the outlet you’re pitching to, the artist and label names, and any pertinent release dates so they know if it’s timely or if they can check it out later.

Know your audience

Walker says he reads a lot of the work from today’s music journalists and follows them on Twitter. He has an idea of what they like and cover. He’s been doing this long enough that when he signs a new artist, he’ll immediately have an idea of who’ll be interested in them. He says, “Paying attention to what they like is more important than pitching frequently. Ideally, the one album you pitch them is the one they want to hear.”

He adds, “I’m only as good as my worst client. A journalist can’t possibly listen to every record they’re sent. So if they take a chance on mine and hate it, they’re going to be more hesitant the next time they see my name in their inbox.”

Consider lead times

Keep track of various lead times for print magazines, radio, TV, podcasts, blogs, etc. Print and many video series and podcasts have much longer lead times than a blog article. Help set your media contacts up for success by pitching them in a timely manner.

Focus on quality over quantity

One of the biggest mistakes new publicists make is approaching music PR as a numbers game. Choosing only the outlets that are a genuinely good fit for the music you’re promoting and crafting a personalized, thoughtful message will go a long way.

Worth noting is to steer clear from pay-to-play publications. You should never have to pay someone to write about your art. It will be obvious and come across as insincere, and potentially hurt your reputation in the long run.

Who should run your PR

If you’re an independent artist looking to do your own PR, we hope this article helps! If you’re part of a group, consider having the person who’s the strongest communicator lead the effort. Or, more importantly, the person who’ll enjoy it the most.

Sometimes, it makes sense to hire the expensive agency to get coverage in top-tier publications. Or perhaps the medium-sized one that specializes in emerging artists or specific genres. Other times, it makes more sense to hire your friend who runs a DIY music venue who knows the local press well. It all depends on the type of music you’re making, who your audience is, and where you want to go.

For practical tips on how to craft a press release and pitch media, check out this guide from Sonic Bids. Have questions or personal stories about your music PR experience? Share them in the comments below.

January 28, 2020

Shannon Byrne Shannon Byrne is the founder and host of The Process podcast, an interview series exploring the process of survival as a creative. She's also the brand writer at Splice.