Press and PR for musicians: How to take a holistic approach with your campaign

Illustration: Najeebah Al-Ghadban

It takes a holistic, all-hands-on-deck approach to sell records or tickets, grow streams, and position yourself for meaningful opportunities in today’s crowded marketplace.

Yes, a glowing Pitchfork review might help sell out records, or a TikTok video might go viral. But more often than not, any win is the result of a cumulative effort to capture interest, raise awareness, and drive sales, streams, and profitable opportunities.

There are several elements that play a role in a successful release: press outreach, digital marketing, ads, distribution, playlisting, tours, residencies, word of mouth, sync licensing, and radio promo. I’d like to say that the most important element, however, is the quality of the music, and oftentimes it is. But sometimes, I just don’t get it. Though music is so subjective, I do know successful acts can often have a whole team behind them.

Since we don’t all have that luxury, below I’ve shared what I (with some help from PR expert Laurie Kearney of Riot Act Media) know about building a successful promo campaign around a new release.

Expectations, teamwork, and the truth behind successful press and PR

When artists are paying a relatively significant amount of money, they understandably want to see direct results. The truth is press coverage, even in the best outlets, rarely equates to record sales, streams, publishing deals, etc. It isn’t a golden ticket. Rather, PR is a piece of the puzzle that drives credibility, SEO, and awareness.

Ideally, all those elements lead to better coverage, a bigger fanbase, more streams / sales / tickets, and more projects. Press just happens to be one of the flashier, most public-facing puzzle pieces, making it so coveted. It’s also heavily gated and very competitive. We have more music available to us with way fewer high-quality music and culture-focused media outlets than ever, making public relations a highly challenging job.

We asked Riot Act Media publicist Laurie Kearney if, in her experience, top-tier press coverage can still lead to album sales. She shares, “It’s certainly not as common as it used to be! There are some larger websites where we do see this happen and it’s always great—but more often, I see actual record sales coming from a strong team effort between the label, artist, publicist, and the rest of that team. That means using socials effectively, touring, livestreams, having interesting merch or bonus content to offer, etc. This is also just my personal experience, as I tend to work more with newer, emerging, and more niche artists!”

All of this teamwork and collaborative effort happening in the background can make one big press hit look like it was the linchpin of success, but more often than not, it’s a result of an organic effort. It’s very likely that the writer behind that review was influenced by the quiet industry buzz around the release.

We asked Laurie about a campaign she worked on—MJ Lenderman’s Boat Songs on Dear Life Records—which got an 8.3 rating and was dubbed Best New Album by Pitchfork. The first run of LPs sold out almost immediately after that. She disclosed, “The MJ Lenderman LP success (via Pitchfork and other outlets) really stemmed from the efforts of a super strong and supportive team… Dear Life Records, for example, is incredible. On the PR side of things, I really tried to give writers plenty of lead time to listen in to the record, and once it resonated with a handful of folks, there was exciting organic growth from there!”

As someone managing acts in 2022, I find that keeping hopes high and expectations realistic will protect your emotional state, to a degree. Demanding a Rolling Stone or Fader feature as an up-and-coming artist will only win you a not-so-great reputation in the industry. However, expressing what you’d like to aim for helps your team understand what to work towards.

How to set goals for your press and promo efforts

What you want from a press and promo campaign will differ depending on the level you’re at. An established career musician will probably focus on album sales, ticket sales, and streams. An emerging or developing artist will have more rudimentary goals—things like building a fanbase from scratch or growing one beyond their local market. For the latter, they need their first press quotes and any substantial coverage that will lend them credibility in the industry.

Laurie shares, “For a lot of indie labels and newer or emerging DIY artists, seeing their work shared on a site is considered a ‘win’—a chance to widen their audience, even just a little bit, and develop a foundation of press that can be built upon. Ideally, you want to see some original content and strong writing that can be quoted, but sometimes even just having the basics shared can generate some new fans.” Everything is relative.

I’m working with an up-and-coming artist on her first release now. She’s unsigned and has taken it upon herself to hire a PR person, a radio team, and me. Her goal with the release campaign is to build a foundation and gain traction. Every new fan and follower is a win. What she doesn’t want is to yell into the echo chamber of existing fans, friends, and followers. Our strategy is focused on introducing her music to new and relevant people in the industry including other artists, as well as building streams and followers.

Here are some examples of what objectives could look like for the different promo channels:

  • Press: One single feature in a medium-sized pub, five notable placements, and a Pitchfork review (shoot for the stars: Pitchfork’s Best New Music title)
  • Radio: Coverage on college and community stations in every market we’re touring / playing shows (shoot for the stars: an in-studio performance at KEXP)
  • Social: Increase followers by 50%; drive clicks to streaming / purchasing (shoot for the stars: followed by someone who’ll actually help with your career)
  • Sync: Build a relationship with one rep interested in working with you (shoot for the stars: land a sync)
  • Streaming: Build up your stream count across tracks, and build a following (shoot for the stars: land on a playlist with many followers)

You get the gist!

How to choose your channels and outlets

If you hire an outside PR person, they’ll come with a giant press contact list. They’ll identify a handful of contacts they think will like your album the most and send it to them early asking for either a premier, feature, or in-depth interview or review. Single premiers almost always require a music video and are becoming less and less common. Outlets that still premier tracks are FLOOD, For The Rabbits, and a few others.

After your PR person secures a few specific press opportunities, they’ll send the press release to their entire list. Many of these outlets will copy and paste from either your release or another outlet that’s covered your work. So, it’s very important to fact- and spell-check everything. If one of the first outlets covering you gets something wrong, get your PR person to issue a correction immediately. It’s wild what some of these outlets will come up with. I’ve literally seen some publish false information instead of fact-checking or doing a little research. Of course, that’s not all outlets… but it is some.

I’m not sure if it’s always been this way, but in today’s world, I suggest doing some of your own research on which media outlets should be covering your music, and asking your PR agent to share a list of who they think will be interested. As you’re reading coverage of friends, artists you admire, and acts with a similar sound or fanbase, make note of who’s covering them in a thoughtful way. Keep a running list to share with your press person when the time comes. Also, follow those people on social media when you discover them, read their works, and take note of what stands out. Just don’t be weird about it.

How to create an effective press release

Another important part of a release campaign is your album bio, typically written by a third party who’s excellent at writing about music. Pieces of this bio are often used in the press release to describe the project, so it’s important that it represents your work in a way that aligns with how you want to portray your music.

Take a look at the acts you admire or ones who have a similar fanbase or community, find the bios you like, and reach out to those writers. Alternatively, you can ask friends, other artists, or even family members. John Andrew’s mom once wrote an adorable album bio for his band, The Yawns. Whoever writes it, make sure they’re either someone you trust or someone you trust to have a connection to your music. I’ve read album bios that were clearly phoned in—or the writer just wasn’t connecting to the music—and that’s no good.

As for your press releases, try pushing for an early draft from your press person, and no matter what, make sure you review it before it’s sent to anyone. A reality today is that a press release is a collaborative effort between the PR person, the artist, and their manager if they have one.

Work with your team to identify what about your release—album, single, EP, etc.—will make a journalist interested. Then, get more granular—what header is going to make them want to keep reading, and what subject line will make them open the email? If you have a list of top journalists you hope to reach, read their recent articles, see what types of titles they’re writing, and observe what they seem mostly focused on at the moment.

Speaking of copying and pasting, most outlets will copy and paste at least sections of the press release they receive. Some will copy and paste from other outlets. So, if there’s a typo, misspelling, or incorrect piece of information, it will spread from the original source over and over again. Laurie shares, “It’s frustrating when writers copy and paste or don’t fact-check (for example, having clients be misgendered, or having names spelled wrong, etc.). It’s my job to request any corrections that might be needed in those cases. I also try to avoid the repeat copy / paste publications for more priority premieres and releases, and focus on sites that may be able to provide some genuine feedback.”

The pitch

When pitching publications, Laurie advises to other PR professionals, “Keep them short, sweet, and to the point. Writers are super busy, so respect their time! Include your own voice in there when possible—something you love about the track or album you’re pitching. Riot Act uses a ‘fan first’ approach, so we don’t take on projects unless we genuinely believe in them.”

Outlets to consider

We covered some of the traditional music blogs above. Unfortunately, many of the smaller niche blogs from the 2000s and 2010s have shut down, but there are always new projects to keep an eye out for. Although their audiences are relatively small, they usually offer more thoughtful insights to a loyal and dedicated fanbase and can offer more value than the large websites that are copying and pasting a release, in my opinion.

There’s also radio. Personally, I’m far more interested in community and college stations than I am in terrestrial. If you have the time, you can pitch those music programmers yourself as they’re typically pretty accessible. However, hiring a team is usually worth it as they can help get your music in front of the DJs who are most likely to play your songs on-air and maybe even book you for an in-studio performance. They often target outreach around a tour, but can customize a strategy as needed.

Regarding in-studio performances, Laurie says, “Those performances are a fantastic way to engage local fans! And, especially more recently, bringing live music events into the homes of folks who may not be able or aren’t ready to go back to in-person concerts is really valuable and appreciated.”

In respect to playlisting, I know distributors (like Redeye or Secretly) manage a lot of that work because they have personal relationships with the people in charge of editorial playlists on Spotify or Apple Music. For better or worse, playlisting is an important part of a digital campaign today, so as you’re building your team, make sure to ask your manager, label, or distributor what the plan is.

Looking ahead

Lastly, there are lots of branded opportunities popping up. There is no ‘selling out’ anymore. If you want to build a career in music, you have to go where the money is, without losing sight of your values and ethics. Tech in particular is offering some interesting ways to merge the two industries and create some profit for artists. With that comes a whole new genre of media outlets to reach out to: tech and art publications.

Laurie tells us, “I worked on PR for a huge visual arts showcase that happened this summer that used augmented reality, installation, and some sound aspects, so I’ve been digging into sites like Wired, Gizmodo, Verge, Hi Fructose, and Beautiful Bizarre—it’s been fun exploring possibilities with outlets that are interested in the overlap of visual art, music, and technology!”

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October 5, 2022

Shannon Byrne Shannon Lee Byrne is a freelance writer focused on the music industry, creativity, entrepreneurship, culture, and mental health. She's also a copywriter, marketing strategist, and podcaster.