PUBLICITY 101: The Broad Focus

With the third year of our blog still finding its footing, we thought now would be as good a time as any to introduce our latest guest contributor. Rey Roldan has lead an incredible career in music PR that now spans multiple decades, and in the coming months he will be sharing some of his vast industry knowledge with us through his very own bi-weekly column. Enjoy!

“I loved the opportunity, but I only liked a handful of the bands,” texted a friend recently about a job at a growing indie label that I had recommended her for.  The label was a solid company – full benefits, allotted vacation time and a publicity team… and the bands – mostly indie rock with a smattering of alt-country (which she abhors).

“You should look at the job first, and THEN the bands,” I typed back, trying to convince her that she needs more experience. “And besides, you like a lot of the bands.”

“I know, but I want to love ALL the bands,” she replied.  “I want a job at [INSERT HIPSTER LABEL HERE].”

I stared at the text message and almost did a facepalm.  I typed, “Like THAT will ever happen”… but I deleted it before sending.

While there’s a really great advantage to only work bands that you love as a publicist, many publicists don’t get that dream job in the early part of their career.  Learning the craft is more important than loving the bands you’re working. But if you’re able to combine the two, you’re golden.

For some, like Amy Sciarretto of Atom Splitter PR, they’re able to achieve just that. “Most of my career has trafficked in hard rock and metal, as a writer and a publicist,” she says. “I have ventured outside the genre somewhat, and I have worked with artists that are not metal. But I do have that specialty.  You really do get to know your base and your ham ‘n’ eggers and go-tos. You tend to develop awesome strong relationships and friendships with people you work so closely with. I find that the outlet and I can get really creative as to how much we work together. We’ll come up with new ways to publicize a release or a band, for maximum exposure for the artist and the outlet.”

The big advantage of working a certain genre is that writers and editors trust that you know what you’re talking about. If they’re working on a story and need a band that fits your wheelhouse, then they know who to go to.  Being a trusted name in your field is a huge accomplishment and Sciarretto, by far, is one of the most trusted people in the metal and hard rock world.  When one thinks of metal publicists, her name is at the top of that list.

In a lot of ways, it also makes it like one-stop shopping for a writer who is working on a genre-specific story to find appropriate artists.  “You usually know what to expect when you’re getting a pitch from a genre-specific publicist,” says writer John B.  Moore of Blurt, New Noise, Innocent Words and others.  “But if I’m writing for pubs that aren’t likely to cover that genre of music, I usually don’t bother even opening the emails from those publicists.”

“Speaking for myself, I found it easier to do publicity within one genre of music,” answers Jim Smith, Sales and Promotions Manager of Metropolis Records. Once a genre-specific behemoth in the industrial/goth/electronic/avant-garde label world, Metropolis has been slowly shifting and evolving into a much broader spectrum of artists that still includes many of those bands like Frontline Assembly, Skinny Puppy and Covenent, but now includes legendary 70s punk and postpunk artists such as Gang of Four, The Rezillos, Membranes and even 80s stalwarts Alison Moyet and Ali Campbell of UB40. “When we first started out as a label that catered to a very narrow field, the shrinking media market combined with the challenges of developing new relationships in other niche music markets presented a slew of new challenges. When we were more specialized, we had a stable of press and media people that we had long-standing relationships with. Now, it’s an ever present challenge to get publicity outside of what we have been pigeonholed into.”

Broadening the palette into much wider and colorful strokes instead of gothic black is how Metropolis is evolving.  For writers too, a wider view offers more colors to choose from. “For me, it’s all about the music, not the genre label,” says William Dashiell Hammett, a freelance journalist who has written about a myriad of artists across a multitude of platforms.  “It’s great to be able to work with people who can draw knowledge from across the musical spectrum and make comparisons those too focused on one specific style would never consider.”

In my personal experience, I’ve been lucky in my career to go through phases that took me through from a legendary artist-driven label, I.R.S. Records (The Go-Go’s, R.E.M., Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine), to a buzz-heavy alt-rock label in Mammoth Records (Squirrel Nut Zippers, Juliana Hatfield, Jason and the Scorchers), to a blues/rock label in Silvertone (Buddy Guy, John Mayall, Stone Roses), to a pop/urban labelJive (Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, A Tribe Called Quest), to a high-powered boutique PR firm KSA PR(Sting, Duran Duran, Fiona Apple), to a major label Island Records (Hanson, Ryan Adams, Mariah Carey).

Now with my own firm, I thrive in a diverse roster of talent that covers all those genres without heavily concentrations. You’ll find English Beat, KMFDM, Dashboard Confessional, Yellowcard, The Fratellis, andBlackalicious all cohabitating my roster. For me, being able to switch gears is what keeps my job interesting. It’s a challenge to talk about the heavy alt-country of The White Buffalo in the same breath as the piano house music of Game of Thrones actor Kristian Nairn (“Hodor”).

Rounder Label Group’s Director of Publicity Regina Joskow (a sage in the publicity realm) has had a similar wide-ranging history as me, having handled widely eclectic rosters as well as a highly specialized and focused clientele. “I’ve worked on both sides of that fence. I think that it’s probably easier for a publicist to work with a broader range of music and with more broad-based journalists, rather than work within a specific genre where you really, really need to know your stuff,” she explains.  “Metal writers and the metal community in general can be very welcoming, but in certain genres – say, jazz or classical – you really have to be educated. So if you’re already really knowledgeable and passionate about the music, you’re in good shape. But if you’re not, you really need to get educated. Jazz writers (at least the good ones, and there are many good ones) tend to be extremely knowledgeable, and in order to get any respect from them, you need to have to know what you’re talking about. You can’t just fake that.”

Moore adds that it’s not about the genre a publicist specializes in, but from the publicist’s knowledge of what kind of music he covers. “Ultimately the best way to get my attention is to read what I write and learn the types of bands I cover. I have a handful of publicists that I have been working with since the late 90s and I read every single e-mail they send me and will listen if they say ‘I think you’ll dig this,’ simply because they have learned my tastes. Also, never underestimate the ego of a writer. If you are even half way pretending to follow my stuff, I’ll engage with you.”

As for my friend who turned down that job? She was just handed two country bands as clients and she hatescountry.  And her dream label?  It just extended its publicist’s contract for two more years.  She now wishes she went for that other job.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.