Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Are Publicists Really Necessary?

The following piece is from a chapter in my book Life Lessons from the Horn: Essays on Jazz, Originality and Being a Working Musician. This is my take on publicists. Let me know what you think. And get the book if you have a chance.  

Producing my own recordings -- evidently like 90 per cent of other jazz musicians releasing recordings these days -- I think a lot about publicists. Are they really necessary in a day and age when it's so easy to connect with people from disparate parts of the world, virtually or literally for free? Not to judge harshly, but I see them as the last remnants of the system as it was when record companies were gatekeepers, deciding whose music gets released and who doesn’t. Publicists acted as their foot soldiers, working tirelessly to promote the musicians record companies deemed worthy of their backing. For a fee, mind you.

Today, when many musicians self-release their music, we hire publicists in hopes of gaining more presence for our recordings in the ever-more-competitive yet release-flush market. It's great to live in a time when anybody with musical ideas and access to recording equipment can put out a CD. It's also terrible that these days anybody with musical ideas and access to recording equipment can put out a CD.

Independent publicists are not inexpensive. They may charge from $1,500 to $3,000 per month, which an artist pays hoping one of the three major U.S. jazz publications, the New York Times and/or Wall Street Journal, someone reporting for the innumerable smaller publications, one of an army of bloggers or maybe even someone at NPR will review their recording.

To indulge in a little truth-telling: A rave review won’t pack a club or pay the bills.
However, reviews do play an important role in (1) helping to spread the word about our music to wider audiences, and (2) helping to serve as a means through music is held to certain standards, differentiating the good from the bad. Jazz reviews serve as the antidote to the commonly held idea of musical relativism that asserts that all music is the same, that it is no good and bad. And, essentially, that the colors black and white do not exist -- only the color gray. Jazz criticism does provide important platforms by which truly exceptional work can receive special accolades, gaining well-deserved attention. And this is a good thing. The positive effect makes us all try harder.

I predict that print publications will eventually fade, along with the industry paradigm they once supported (and which supported them). They probably won’t disappear altogether, but rather they will lose some of their relevance. Internet blogs can be a lot more interesting to read because they’re free to be interesting. Writers tend to be more concerned with expressing their true opinions about something or someone, instead of adhering to the aesthetics of an editor or publisher who’s worried about alienating advertisers. Blogs are not financially motivated, they’re free and operate under the age old adage that art and commerce don’t mix. The writing on blogs may be unpolished and unedited, but the ideas are often strong, compelling and original -- which is hard to say what’s in the print magazines, sadly.

Back to publicists: I understand the attraction of getting someone else to do your dirty work. We're musicians. We don't want to spend hours every day emailing journalists, magazine editors and radio stations with news about our new releases. We could be working on new music for our next releases. I'm sure we'd all rather spend our time in our practice rooms than at the post office or on our computers.

But one could argue that the existence of publicists keeps the level of the music low. Here me out: Basically we hire publicists because we want them to help us create a buzz about our recording. But the catch is: Sometimes the music is not buzz-worthy. This is harsh but true. Some music is very middle-of-the-road and doesn't deserve a $3,000 to $5,000 publicity campaign. Of course, no publicist is going to tell you that.

My point is that if we didn’t think there were a chance publicists could somehow pull off a miracle and have everybody raving about our music, who knows? We might not even bother recording it at all. We might wait until we've created something that is of more musical and cultural relevance.

Yes, that’s a tough one. That call's on us. We’d all like to think that everything we put out has musical and cultural relevance. I guess on a basic level we do assume that. From the mere fact that we’re participating in the music scene, we are, we believe, affecting it.

But what often happens is that we make a recording, then hire a publicist to promote it to the jazz media, then wait to see who takes the bait. Instead, we might first find an audience, then create a CD for that audience -- which would totally change the game.

That would put us in the driver’s seat, fostering community and allowing us to think about the longevity of what we’re doing, rather than trying win critical acclaim in the lottery of jazz reviews.  We might better become the shapers of our own future.

I once told a fellow musician about a project I was working on, and he said that there are probably 10 people in the world interested in the kind of music of was speaking of.  But I did not see that as a negative, because it’s that very type of person, on the fringes, who is actually looking for something different. If you’re offering something that speaks to them, they will most likely listen. Moreover, if those 10 people are enthusiastic enough about your music, they’ll tell their friends, and they’ll tell their friends, and that modest number of 10   multiplies into several hundred. And you didn’t spend a dime: no ad was bought, your friends were not spammed, your fans helped you spread your music.

I’ve noticed that publicists spend a lot of time going after what I call the Kind of Blue audience. These are diehard jazz fans and industry people who love the classics. They are only interested in new music if it sounds in some way like the classic records we have plenty of. We fail to realize that this audience already has a full collection. If they never hear a new CD for the rest of their lives, they’ll probably live just fine. It seems self-defeating to make chasing this crowd the focus of a publicity campaign, with the financing coming out of our own pockets.

Let's face it: Some CDs are best left as musical business cards, simply letting people know who we are and what we do. I can be totally content with that. Every recording doesn’t have to make a big splash. That sort of thinking is carried over from a time when record companies tried to break a new artist by outspending other companies promoting their flavors of the month. Imagine a visual artist holding a showing at a gallery every time he or she completed a new piece.

Publicists exploit our somewhat naive desire to want to build a career from one or two recordings. I don’t want to demonize them, I know they’re just offering a service, and if the artist has his or her act together, having a publicist can be beneficial for all parties involved. It can be a great partnership. But that’s often not the case if we just hand over our product to them, without any direction or purpose other than "get me some publicity."
I feel that musicians have come a long ways since the days of putting their demo tapes into the hands of a&r (artist and repertoire) executives, hoping they would listen to it and deem him or her worthy of being contracted. In hindsight, it’s pretty humorous that we gave these people so much power. However, we never really gave them that power, they just happened to be arbitrators of circumstance.

Marketing guru Seth Godin often talks about creating music that’s remarkable. Not remarkable as being extremely good, but remarkable as in being worth making a remark about. To do so takes imagination, patience, and most of all courage. You have to be willing to go out on the limb and fall on your face. Or as Wayne Shorter says, “Go down with the ship.”

My own experience with a publicist produced great results. The money it cost was well spent. I'm not convinced that was because my publicist ran a great publicity campaign. What happened with my CDs, I speculating, is that they went into the mail along with several others that week the publicists were hired to promote, and when someone took the bait, then I won. If not . . . oh well, maybe next time. In many cases, I did win, and I received a lot of positive press. You never know how journalists and editors are going to respond to our music. Our worst fear may be that our CD ends up in the hands of someone who finds the same faults with our music that we do. We’ve all been there -- praying that no one hears how we fluffed the eighth note at the end of the 13th bar of the third chorus of the sax solo.

Many musicians have argued that the amount of money they make from CD sales does not justify the price of a publicist. On the surface, that seems a logical claim. If you spend $3,000 on a publicist and sell only 20 CDs on CD Baby and Amazon for $15.99, what’s the point? I empathize with those who take this position, but it is shortsighted.

Let’s look at what a publicist’s job could be. A good publicity campaign should be in conjunction with a record-release tour, so as you travel from city to city, state to state, country to country, the publicist could work to plug your record in everywhere you’re playing, trying to get you radio spots, television appearances and features in local publications by any means at their disposal. Unfortunately, the industry has changed. There aren’t enough clubs and concerts to support the extensive tours that used to be viable with support funds from record labels.  

This used to be the recording artist paradigm:
1.     Labels would sign artists
2.     Artists would record and release a CD
3.    Labels would work with managers in overseeing the artist’s career
4.     Managers would work with booking agents
5.     Booking agents would work with music presenters to get the artist gigs, and with labels to get tour support to supplement the income from the tour
6.     Publicists would work with various media people wherever you played, which helped get people to your gigs and perhaps to the record store to buy your record.

In our current business model, only numbers two and six are still in widespread practice. Yet the publicist’s price remains the same (and now musicians, not record companies, pay it). This is why see ever more musicians ask “Is a publicist worth it?”  If you only look at publicist’s services = CDs sold, the answer will be a definite “no.”

However, if you look at it as publicist’s services = more awareness of you and for your music, then the answer is yes. Without the other components of the recording artist paradigm, you can’t have the same expectations of results from the publicist’s work. Now, exposure is the only thing that they can really offer you, and CD sales are but a small part of that of that exposure. You see financial rewards in a more indirect way.

A rave review in the New York Times might make more musicians aware of what you do, and they might be more inclined to hire you for their own gigs. By you working with a wider range of musicians, you’re also being exposed to more presenters and bookers, and by getting exposed to more presenters and bookers, you can get more work for your band. By working more with your band, more people will hear and learn about your music, consequently buying more of your recordings. So hiring a publicist can pay off financially, but indirectly.

Even viewing things from this perspective, it’s hard to say definitively that a publicist is worth their price.  Maybe only time will tell. I imagine people, myself included, won't abandon the idea of hiring a publicist to promote their new releases anytime soon. But I do know this: If publicists have only cookie-cutter approaches, like the much used  “let me put it in the mail and see what happens” strategy, they will find themselves on the sidelines along with a&r reps and many record producers watching an industry move on without them. Just as musicians and artists have had to change how we go about things, so do they.


  1. This is very useful information, Sam. I recommend your book "Life Lessons From The Horn" very highly. Best, Heath

  2. Thanks, Heath. Our conversation compelled me to post this.

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