Hello again, everyone. Welcome to the fourth installment of our PR Spotlight series. The first three weeks found us talking to a family man with decades in the business, a woman who had recently moved from a major label to one far more independent, and a twenty-something who is only a year into running her own business. This week we’re headed back to the West Coast to speak to another entrepreneur who spent years working in the record label game before deciding to step out on their own. If you have a recommendation for a firm or publicist you want to see featured in an upcoming spotlight column, please do not hesitate to email firstname.lastname@example.org and share your story.
Alabama is not the first place many think of when considering the history of punk and hard rock, but without that very state one of the alternative scene’s most influential publicists would not exist. Austin Griswold is the founder and head of Secret Service Publicity, but his career in the entertainment industry dates back much further than his relatively young PR empire. He first moved from his home state to California with little more than a dream and a Chevy Blazer, but in just over a month’s time began to find his footing in the industry. He continued to work hard and over time rose through the ranks of the business, which included years spent at Epitaph Records, before finally stepping out on his own company. We spoke with Austin about all this, as well as his advice to bands and aspiring publicists, and more. You can read his journey and insight into the business below.
On a personal note, I have worked with Austin and watched his skills develop for the better part of six years, which pretty much amounts to my entire professional career in music. He was one of the first publicists to give me a chance to work with known talent, and has always been there to help me if I ever had questions. His work with bands is second to none, and the insight he offers in this interview is just one of many reasons why he’s someone I would hope young publicists aspire to imitate in their own careers.
If you would like to learn more about Austin’s work, you should visit (and bookmark) Secret Service Publicity online. Any questions for Austin can be left in the comments section at the end of this post.
H: For those unaware, please state your name, the company you work for, and your role at said business:
AG: My name is Austin Griswold and I am the owner of Secret Service Publicity.
H: Let’s take it from the top! What is the first album you remember falling in love with, and how did you discover it?
AG: I can’t remember if it was Pearl Jam’s Ten or Metallica’s “Black Album.” Both came out the same year and that’s when I really fell in love with music. I think I was probably introduced in part by my older sister and brother but also friends at school. I remember stealing my brother’s issues of SPIN and Rolling Stone to learn about bands and would copy his taste of music.
H: At what point did you realize you wanted to turn your interest in music into a career?
AG: I played, or attempted to play, in bands at a pretty early age. I think from my early teens I knew that I wanted to be involved in music in some form or fashion. It probably wasn’t until I was trying to figure out what my degree in college would be that I decided on music publicity.
H: You have worked in entertainment publicity for a number of years. What attracted you to publicity work in the first place?
AG: It was easier than pre-med in college! No, I gravitated towards public relations my freshman year. I always felt comfortable writing and found I had a skill for publicizing. It was a natural fit for me and I knew I wanted to work as a publicist in either music or at the very least the entertainment industry.
H: What was your first gig in the industry (paid or unpaid), and how did you land the position?
AG: After moving to Los Angeles, my first official job was working as an intern at a film/TV talent management company called Untitled Entertainment. It was an eye opening experience. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do but I got a really good inside look at how a big Hollywood firm worked. I learned a lot, but the biggest lesson was that I needed to get a job that paid. Los Angeles isn’t a cheap place to live.
H: You hail from Alabama, but have spent the better part of the last decade in Los Angeles. When did you make the move to the West Coast, and what inspired the decision to pack up in the first place?
AG: After I graduated from University of Alabama, I moved back home to Birmingham and started interviewing for entry level positions at PR and advertising companies in the area. I quickly found that I wasn’t the least bit interested in doing PR for some fertilizer company or worse. I knew that if I really wanted to work in entertainment and music then Los Angeles was the place for me. In hindsight, I guess Nashville would have been a closer option, but country music wasn’t really my forte at the time. I had always been curious about LA and envisioned myself living there one day. So, I packed up everything I could fit in my Chevy Blazer and left. It took three days driving solo cross country and when I got there I lived in some crack motel on Sunset for about a month until I got my legs under me and my first apartment. It was worth it though!
H: You started at Epitaph records in 2007. Can you tell us a little about how that job came together?
AG: After interning at Untitled Entertainment, I got a paying job at a PR agency called Bender/Helper Impact in West LA. The company handled larger corporate entertainment clients like Dreamworks, FOX, Magnolia Films, etc. While college may have taught me how to write, BHI taught me how to be a publicist. It was like boot camp for PR cadets. I moved up the ranks there pretty quickly over the course of a few years, but my desire to work in music was strong as ever. I came across a job posting for Epitaph, interviewed and never looked back.
H: After a number of years in that role you decided to step out on your own with Secret Service PR. What lead you to this decision?
AG: Epitaph was a great company to work for. I learned a ton there and grew immensely as a publicist. I also got to work with punk rock legends. My boss was Mr. Brett from Bad Religion! Towards the end though, I felt that I wanted to continue my journey, continue growing as a publicist and experience new things in my career. I still have some great friends there and am proud to have them as a client.
H: As someone who has worked publicity in and out of a label setting, do you feel record labels are as necessary for a band’s today as they were when you started in this business?
AG: I think there are a lot of record companies that provide a great service to bands. Under one roof you’ve got radio, touring, marketing and PR support; services that would cost an independent band a ton of cash a la carte. There’s also a certain level of credibility and legitimacy that comes along with being “signed” to a label. However, is a record label a necessity to thrive in today’s music industry? No. There are a dozen different models to get your music distributed and promoted these days as an independent act. Today’s industry is like the Wild Wild West. There’s no order to the madness, and it’s every band for themselves. Only the quality of your music truly matters.
H: Where did the name ‘Secret Service’ come from?
AG: Good question! I had a list of names I was debating. I wanted a name that was exclusive and meant quality. It was much better than the alternatives I came up with.
H: Who was the first band you worked with at Secret Service? How did they react when you approached them about joining a new company with only one employee?
AG: My first client at Secret Service was actually my former label, Epitaph Records. They helped me get off the ground and hired me to work with Thursday and Social Distortion. Outside of that, I also worked with Bowling For Soup and Rival Sons. The manager and label that had hired me for those were familiar with my work at Epitaph. I think my small roster and proven track record of results gave them the confidence that I could get the job done.
H: You’ve been a resident of the sunshine state for a number of years, but now that you are your own boss you could theoretically live anywhere you wanted. What keeps you in LA?
AG: What keeps me in LA is that I really couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. It’s a great place to run my business since most everyone I work with is located here, most of the bands I work with tour through here and there’s a lot of media that is based here. On a personal level, I love this city. It’s where I’ve met most all of my adult friends and have made a life for myself. I can also go to the beach, hike a mountain, go to the lake and go snowboarding most anytime I want. And don’t get me started on the weather…
H: Having found success in leaving home, would you encourage others hoping for a career in the music industry to head out west themselves?
AG: I think it depends on what you’re looking for and how far you’re willing to go for it. It takes a thick skin to be young and just starting out in the workforce here. It’s also a small industry where jobs are few and far between. If you’ve got the dream and have what it takes then I say come on. There’s nothing worse than looking back and saying “what if?”
H: There are a growing number of PR outlets popping up around the country run by aspiring PR stars. What is one common mistake you see people make when they’re just starting in publicity?
AG: Not to sound discouraging but, if you’re just starting out in publicity I wouldn’t advise opening up a PR company. You probably don’t have the experience, knowledge or relationships required to do the job right. A foundation of fundamental public relation skills is a must in order to be successful in your career. If you don’t know how to properly write a press release, don’t have a grasp on grammar, don’t have the ability to communicate in a clear and concise way or have existing media contacts then you probably shouldn’t start a PR company. I’m never one to knock someone else’s hustle, but I find it alarming when “publicists” without any experience or knowledge bamboozle bands into paying them for services that they can never deliver on. Start at the bottom, develop a great work ethic and the needed skills and you should find success later on.
H: In addition to working with signed bands at Secret Service, you have been known to help unsigned talent as well. What do you look for when seeking new talent, and where do you go to find it?
AG: The main thing I look for in new bands is purely talent. One of the benefits from running my own PR company is being able to work with whoever I want. If that’s the raddest band I’ve ever heard with only two friends on Facebook, so be it. If I believe in them, then I will fight for them to the end. I find a lot of bands through word of mouth, going to shows, through social media and even submissions by other industry people.
H: As a publicist, what advice would you offer writers hoping to work with your clients?
AG: With any publicist, I’d advise developing a good relationship with them. You’ll likely be working with them on various projects for a long time. Just because you don’t get that interview you were hoping for doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. As a publicist it’s my job to decide what is in the best interest of my clients in terms of the media, and sometimes that means saying “no.” Don’t give up though, sometimes “no” just means not right now.
H: Piracy is one of the most discussed topic in the industry today. Do you feel album leaks are preventable? If so, how would you advise an artist to keep their music safe while still getting the word out?
AG: I think album leaks are preventable to a point. A good publicist will know who can be trusted and who can’t. Using a watermark service like Haulix gives me the piece-of-mind to send music to my trusted media contacts and while I know they won’t leak the music, I also know that I’m protected. Leaks happen from time to time and it’s unfortunate that one person would feel the need to derail months of hard work and setup, but that’s the reality we live in, in today’s digital age. You have to roll with the punches. In any case, once physical CDs are shipped from distributors to retailers albums inevitably leak. I think hiring a good publicist with experience and long-standing media relationships to be your gatekeeper is the best way to keep music safe and get the media attention you deserve.
H: When it comes to working with your clients, how do you prefer to share their music with press? What is it about this method that appeals to you the most?
I use Haulix to send music to press. It’s the easiest and most secure service I’ve used. It’s simple and straightforward and I know that if there is a leak that I can easily find out where it came from.
H: If you could change one thing about the music industry, what would it be?
AG: That’s a tough one. We’re living in a time where it’s really difficult for bands/artists to make a living. The days of big advances, massive budgets and touring support are mostly a thing of the past. If I could change one thing it would be to find a revenue stream that works for musicians. That’ll be my next on my list to tackle. Also, I’d put a death nail in the CD. Its day is done.
H: Your roster is as eclectic now as ever before. Do you have any plans or releases on the horizon you’d like to share with our readers?
AG: I’ve got some big plans on the horizon for 2014. I’m looking forward to the continued growth of my company and finding amazing new bands to work with. Right now though, I’m really excited about Balance and Composure’s new album coming in September. It’s ridiculously good!