Being an independent musician is really hard.
It always has been, but increasingly the hyper-capitalist major label-dominated industry landscape has led to even more exclusion of anything that isn’t radio-ready hit material.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a poptimist who believes in the power of accessible music to uplift the marginalized and transform parts of the world, one relatable song at a time.
That said, music that speaks to our souls, nourishes us, heals our wounds, celebrates our most basic human victories and takes us on a spiritual journey, that isn’t necessarily radio-ready, is more and more sidelined.
While it’s fairly easy to self-publish music on Bandcamp, Audiomack or Datafilehost, etc. and manage your own publicity through direct contact with your audience by tweeting shaky, grainy videos of your mixdown screens; it’s really hard to access and participate in the ACTUAL industry. Building a sustainable career is still so hard.
Whether you’re a young Petite Noir, Brenda Fassie or Cassper Nyovest, or breaking new ground on our own new sound; you’re your own A&R, your own publicist, your own manager, your own booking agent, your own sound engineer, your own producer, your own songwriting publisher, etc. etc.
Knowing how to do all of that well can be such a complicated and daunting prospect, one that is made all the more difficult by bloggers who just write about their mates and publications who receive an avalanche of (not-that-great) submissions every day.
How are you supposed to break through that noise and get music writers getting what you do, and writing about your music in an interesting and insightful way?
Well, I’m glad you asked. Inspired by my own frustration with keeping up with all the milestones of the interesting and exciting musicians we write about here at Platform, as well as the thirst for knowledge and success that most Southern African musicians have, here’s an attempt at what might be a helpful guide for some on How To Get Your Music Written About.
Some of this advice will apply to you in different ways and is by no means gospel (shout at me in the comments), but bare in mind that this is written for the independent young artist without a team, and there are just SO MANY different ways of getting your music into the ears and hearts of your future fans, so pick out what parts you think will work for you, and remember that the most important thing is to be putting your all into writing the best cathartic music you can, performing it to an audience (of any size) and hoping that it changes someone’s life for the better.
Before you even start looking for strangers to write about your work:
- Be good (& invest in your community)
If you’re just starting out as a young musician, be careful of wasting your first impressions with people. When you’re working on new material or even your first batch of music you’re happy to put out to the world, make sure it’s good.
As an independent, it’s so important to have your best efforts out there, because the world is an unfriendly and unforgiving place that’s quick to write off a new upstart muso. To make sure you’re putting your best foot forward, seek out people who you think will get your musical explorations, and share your work with them first, and seek feedback.
Aside from the fact that it will get like-minded people invested in your progress, their initial responses to your work will give you the beginnings of an idea of what you could improve upon. Occasionally, the first song that a person ever makes gets picked up and spreads like wildfire, but more often than not, you’ve gotta work, work, work, work, work and screw it all up and scrap entire albums before you’ve created something that will actually be a positive and valuable contribution to the world – or whatever else your music-making dreams are driven by.
Depending on your intentions for your music, this testing and feedback process could take the form of sending private Soundcloud links to all your favourite fellow musicians, or it could be getting a free gig playing your songs out to the kind of audience you hope to engage with. It could be handing out flash drives or demo CDs on public transport to see what people think or just playing your songs to friends at home (make sure you provide snacks to pay for their feedback though, it’s hard work).
Also, as an aside, go out into the world (physically or online) and invest in fellow independent upstart artists and groups of artists with whom you identify socially, subculturally, musically, politically or otherwise. Those people might be your first fans, and if they recognize your consistent support of THEIR work, they’ll be much more willing to invest in you and your work when you start putting it out there. Do it sincerely and genuinely, and you might just make lifelong friends and comrades in this scary world (there might even be some writers in these communities, or monitoring these communities).
Once you’re happy with the song or group of songs you want to get recognized in the press:
- Be targeted and find your niche (and make friends with writers or pluggers):
Approaching the most appropriate publications for your vision and your sound is maybe the most crucial aspect of this whole process. Not all writers and not all publications make sense to cover the kind of work you’re trying to do in the world.
Figure out which other artists and music communities you think you’re doing a similar thing to – sound-wise, subject matter-wise or otherwise – and track down which publications are covering those scenes. Further to that, find out which writers at those publications are writing about your kinda thing – maybe they even write for multiple publications and could get coverage published there too? Those are the writers and content-creators who are going to be most valuable to you.
Cultivate Twitter friendships with these writers (before plugging your own shit), and reach out to them and support them and the good work they’re doing. They’ll likely be more inclined to listen to your stuff if you’ve proven your opinions and value.
A reciprocal relationship goes a long way.
Once you’ve got your list of publications and writers to pitch to:
- Be prepared, be detailed and professional:
The number of times a week we receive a submission that is just a link to a Soundcloud release from last week (or even sometimes last month!) is staggering.
Who are you? Where do you perform/play? Who are you working with that we might know? What does your sound do that we should take note of? What value are you bringing to the world and why should we take notice of you? Is there an interesting story behind the creation of your work? What do other people in your music community say about your work? Who is your song about/for? What does your music do to make the world a better place? Where can we see you perform in the near future? What are your goals and plans for after this release? Who do you want to work with?
While you may not have good answers for all of these questions, the kinds of answers that these questions might bring out are things that will help a writer or editor understand what is so special about you.
(Sidenote: If you don’t have good answers to any of these questions, maybe it’s a good idea to start thinking more about your music’s place in the world… Maybe there’s more work to be done… but also, maybe we just don’t get it and that’s our bad.)
Once you’ve got all the information a writer might need to begin the process of unpacking you as an artist, think about what else a writer would need. For example:
– Images for the article: We need pics of you, usually at a higher res than 1000px wide, and preferably landscape for most publications, but portrait shots can be included. If not pics of you, then include album artwork or track artwork, no matter how basic. There are a bunch of young illustrators, designers and photographers at a similar level to you in their own field, so there’s always an opportunity to collaborate and contribute to their career somehow in return for a discount rate on creating imagery for you. Reach out to them and invest in them too.
– A stream-able preview link to the music. They’ll be more info about the issue of timing in point 6, but in short, rather don’t send an entire file to a writer. Rather upload the track(s) privately to Soundcloud or Youtube or similar and share the private link. Having to download a song/album (or, a whole video!) is just too much data and way too much of a mission.
– Correct details for everyone who worked on the song, helped make the video, or put together the press pic/album art. We want to credit everyone where we can, so give us that info!
If you’re submitting the stuff over email, write up your email for each publication (yes personalise each email, writers and editors appreciate the effort of not feeling like we’re on a blast list of 6000 emails), and make sure there are no spelling errors and grammatical mistakes. Make sure all the text is formatted for best impact, make sure the size of the images isn’t too big for people’s inboxes (some are limited to a maximum of a 2MB email), that all your links are correct, etc.
Remember that the less work the writer has to do to get to know you or understand the release, the better, so keep it concise and only include the most important info. (NB: Don’t bury the main link to the song/album/video in a whole bunch of text or amongst other links. Make sure it stands out!)
Once you’ve got all your bits and pieces polished and ready for sending to the publications and writers:
- Be humble AND interesting
So, this is a tricky one, and maybe the most appropriate time to get your friends or people from your community who believe in you to help you out.
When you’re telling us about yourself and about your music, avoid grandiose bullshit like “I’m the next big thing” or “this is the next banger for MetroFM”, but rather tell us about what actually makes you and your music interesting. We’re not interested in your popularity, we’re interested in your artistry and the way your work fits into the world, into your community, into the work of those came before you and inspired you and the current crop of music-makers and performers. What is it that makes you and your music important?
So, you’ve put together your approach. You’re ready to start pitching, now you need to:
- Be connected (and engage with music writers)
A lot of young artists complain about gatekeepers. This is an ENTIRELY valid complaint, given accusations of payola systems for some radio stations and other corrupted industry players who should be working to make music healthy, equitably accessible and sustainable.
BUT, that can’t be your cop-out for not doing the work of connecting with people, building a network of music industry people at various levels, and (like I said in the first point) investing in your musical communities. Connect with – and figure out what value you may be able to offer – writers and editors and publishers who provide coverage of the kind of work you create.
Read the publications you hope to get published in, and reach out to the writers of those publications (but not ONLY when you need something from them). Some publications are writer-run, but most are run by editors and publishers who quite simply CANNOT get through and keep on top of all the music and goings on in the music world, and rely on a network of permanent and freelance contributors to keep a holistic view of the scenes they’re interested in and find the stories and new music and important artists to cover.
By now, you’ve prepared your music, maybe you’ve even got some physical copies pressed, your images, videos and whatever else in the press pack is all good and ready, you’ve got your story straight, and you’ve primed a few relationships with a few writers and publications.
So you’re ready to let people know that things are coming, please remember:
- Timing is EVERYTHING:
Send your press releases BEFORE or ON THE DAY of the release of new music, NOT AFTER the release. Pliz!
— prone to shakery (@IANMCNOBODY) July 17, 2017
A huge challenge for publications in the digital space is being one of the first people to break a new story. In Platform’s case, we believe that new singles, new videos, and new albums all deserve a lot of attention, consideration and care to write about. It’s very difficult to do this if we’re receiving the information and getting our first listen of the music at the same time as your audience, because then we’re rushed to publish something very quickly and without enough consideration.
If it’s a new album, or a big single or video, we may even want to publish a long-form artist profile on you. For every minute that passes after something is released, sadly it begins to lose its cultural moment, and that makes it difficult for a baby publication like ours to allocate parts of our tiny budget to a story that won’t get the kind of attention it deserves or could have gotten.
It’s partly our responsibility to scan the landscape and follow the artists we’re interested in and the sounds we’re excited about, but it really helps so much if we’ve got at least a couple days, or preferably a week or so, to listen, assess, consider and write some really insightful and well-considered coverage of your new material. This applies to all publications, and who knows, maybe you won’t just get a little mention in a news piece or a listicle, but a long-form piece about you and your work. Help us help you…
- Be a team player:
We’re all struggling, so be a mate and share the link to the articles written about you with your communities, send it in emails to all your friends and family, make it the bio on your Instagram profile, share it in the gigs you’re going to play, etc. etc.
We all know that digital publications survive (at least partially) on the ads we can sell off the volume of our web traffic, and even print publications survive on how many copies they can sell (a higher number of copies sold means more ad revenue, which means we can pay our writers for better and more far-reaching coverage). Help us out. If your article gets a lot of traffic or your tweets gain us lots of followers or whatever, there’s a good chance that’ll get noticed and the writers and editors will want to work with you more. We’re all on the same team, most of the time.
Speaking of which…
Lastly, if you can, build a team:
All of this is made easier if you can share the workload with other people. Some people form little micro-labels, some people work a day job so that they can afford to pay publicists, managers, social media gurus and PR people to help, some people just rope in their friends and family (again, another useful byproduct of investing in your musical communities), so there’s no ‘correct’ way of doing this, but having reliable people in your corner helping with various aspects of building your vision is so helpful.
And remember, when building a team, manage their expectations and also, make sure to be selective about what each team member can actually contribute to the effort – maybe it’s writing, maybe it’s access to media people, maybe it’s a connection to festival bookers, maybe it’s sales skills, maybe it’s social media prowess, maybe it’s a hard-headed belief in what you do and an unwavering determination to learn whatever skills are needed to support the movement.
Disclaimer: this won’t work for all publications or writers, and it may even go against the preferred practices of some of them, but this is how we like to engage with artists. Again, sometimes writers will find a diamond that’s badly packaged and not even pitched to press, but just singularly brilliant, and that track or body of work will FLY into the blogs and publications and catch fire and build a career, but those stories are just so rare and unlikely to rely on THAT being your only method.
It may not be what you signed up for when you followed the calling to be an artist, but putting your all into this DIY method of putting your best foot forward could be the difference between getting a couple of plays on Soundcloud on the day of release, and touring the world with your music, or whatever your dream looks like…