In this edition of Building Your Dream Team, AWAL breaks down the who, what, when, where, and why of music publicists, and how they can help tell an artist's story within a broader cultural landscape.
Guest post from AWAL
Building Your Dream Team breaks down the fundamentals of an artist's operation through the 5Ws lens: Who, What, When, Where, Why.
It’s not easy to write your story the right way. Enter music publicists, battle-tested word warriors with an eagle eye view of the media landscape and thoughtful theories about how an artist’s music & narrative might best fit in the mix of it all. They play a critical role in establishing an artist's story within the broader cultural landscape, connecting dots across traditional media, online media, and brand marketing. Dig into their world.
1W: Who They Are
A+ music publicists often bring some mix of these traits to the table...
- A sixth sense for segmenting audiences and shifting cultural norms
- Knack for crafting, perfecting, and promoting narratives
- Deep knowledge of pop culture platform (& the folks who run them)
- Unbothered confidence / comfort operating in email warzones
- Relentless hunger to accrue contacts
- High tolerance for floods of information
- Trustworthiness (your secrets are there’s to protect) & punctuality
- Passionate belief in you (or their ability to position you in the world)
Across the board, a music publicist hustles hard. It’s not easy to keep up with the ebbs and flows of in-style Instagram accounts, ripe-for-repurposing memes, and staff changes at publications big and small. Some freelance after years of work at the Complexes and Geniuses of the world. Others spend time at (and start) boutique firms. A handful provide in-house, exclusive support to individual music companies and their rosters. The best build relationships today that open doors down the line for their clients.
In the wild, you’ll find people in search of a quick buck, promising pay-to-play blog spots and email blasts. Skip. You’ll also find good eggs who juggle big picture strategy, day-to-day press runs, and nitty gritty correspondence with fervor.
2W: What A Music Publicist Does
Music is a murky place. Publicists help teams chart a course to their desired destination by clarifying/sharpening an artist’s position in the market (what they represent, who they are, how they got here), then mapping how to put that artist in front of people most likely to care. Short-term wins (landing an album review on a popular YouTube channel) drive targeted awareness of a creator’s work. Bigger wins, while harder to measure, often happen later, and justify the (sometimes) steep prices good PR firms might charge.
Here’s a thought experiment to illustrate why. Imagine your album receives a glowing review from a website that peaked (in terms of commercial value and cultural sway) five years ago. The review might not directly translate to a jump in monthly listeners, but it could reach a smaller group of decision makers in high places. A good chunk of folks who work at music companies now (DSPs, synch agencies, brand marketers, etc.) would have been in high school during this website’s glory days and probably still consider it a mark of validation, or at least a frame of reference to contextualize what you’re doing.
- Across the board, a music publicist tends to cover these responsibilities.
- Help artists articulate their vision/messaging (“How do you want to be perceived?”)
- Help artists communicate that messaging across all channels, including socials
- Identify platforms/channels/people to associate artist with, given their creative goals
- Craft clear, persuasive bios that position a creator’s journey to third-parties
- Create press plans to amplify and improve artist team’s rollout strategy (e.g. the artist’s narrative, how a publicist will pitch an artist differently to different people while maintaining consistency, who they’ll reach out to, target features for the campaign)
- Manage correspondence with different stakeholders via email, text, IG, etc.
- Leverage, nurture, and develop their network on behalf of their client(s)
- Communicate key pathways (e.g. the steps between a FADERpremiere and a FADER Gen F, or a FADER Fort performance) to artist and team
Girl In Red and her team nail a coveted Fader premier for the release of her "we fell in love in october" music video.
3W: When You Need One
Some artist teams approach music publicists with momentum, assets, a game plan and a fully formed sense of self in the bag, leaving little else but a contacts hit list on the PR docket. Others enlist crisis management specialists to restore the wounded brand of an endangered star. Usually, managers of rising acts tap PR support for a cycle — e.g. a 3-6 month project rollout. Rarely do one-off, single-release agreements with a publicist make much of an impact. Generally, it’s wise to work with a music publicist when you can check off these boxes.
- You have a new project (music, fashion, etc.) to promote
- You have a goal (“I want to reach segment X,” or “I need to sell tickets in this market”)
- You have some traction to warrant the investment (streaming #s, social growth, etc.)
- You have a core message/branding angle (the foundation of a publicist's work)
- You can’t afford to spend time doing it yourself
- You have a budget (98.7% of publicists won’t work for free)
4W: Where to Find A Music Publicist
Even the most A&R-minded music publicists aren’t likely to respond to a cold email. There’s only so much time in the day. (That said, never underestimate the power of an out-there subject line.) Almost all quality artist-PR connections follow some form of referral. Usually, when an artist has reached the point where it makes sense to invest in PR, they’ll have enough contacts — other artists, managers, writers, lawyers, producers, etc. — to get in touch. Premature PR can create market dissonance. It’s odd, as a fan, to see someone with lots of press coverage and next to no following. Usually, that money is better spent elsewhere.
Want a head start? Get familiar with the landscape and, when you’re ready, engage (either in the DMs or at one of your potential publicist's client’s shows). Treating folks to coffee tends to yield more long-term dividends than a rushed ambush, but the ball’s in your court. As with almost everything else in music, there’s no one-size-fits-all path or perfect-for-all partner. Many firms specialize in media (social vs. publication), genre/mood (hip-hop proteges vs. alt-rock legends), region (EU vs. US), and value-add (e.g. fashion crossover vs. entrepreneur-in-training). Managers often double as publicists for the early, and even emerging stages of an artist’s career.
Lauren Aquilina and her team secure her 2019 kick off single with The Line of Best Fit.
5W: Why A Music Publicist Matters
PR offers yet another example of music’s many symbiotic relationships. No facet of our industry operates in a vacuum. Music publicists, in all their shapes and sizes, put in work on the ground level (premieres) and, for massive stars, on the top floor (monitoring macro conversations and perceptions orbiting an artist while presenting large scale ideas to change them).
Wherever you’re at now, this role provides a lesson or two in audience segmentation (who your art might resonate with, who you’re speaking for, where they are, how they consume art, what they believe in, how you align or don’t align with those values, etc.), strategic planning (how mini wins — a blog post — can unlock bigger successes — a SXSW slot for that blog’s showcase — when handled with care), and the power of perception (how visuals, songs, features, press, etc. all form associations in fans’ minds that make them more or less likely to hop on the bandwagon). Artists and managers who take time to think about these puzzle pieces will find themselves at an advantage in the long run.