Publicists Reject New Claim That Best PR Is None At All

A recent headline in The Atlantic - "For Indie Bands, the New Publicity Is No Publicity" - seemed to scream "music blog."

Since we Rocks Offers spend a goodly portion of our day weeding through emails and phone calls from publicists and aspiring artists, as well as the environmental catastrophe known as one-sheets and bios that are stuffed into every envelope along with a CD, we were actually thinking this "no publicity" concept might be something we could get behind.

Yet once we read through freelancer Jason Richards' piece, we pretty much wanted to slash our wrists and be done with the circus that surrounds the music business, and perhaps move to Idaho and work on a potato farm. In a nutshell, Richards uses bands who don't do interviews, don't post photos of themselves, and don't do the usual huge mailouts that have long been de rigueur in the business, citing groups like Cults and Crystal Castles, who have blossomed into buzz bands without the usual campaigns, to support his thesis.

According to Richards:

"Mystery" is quickly becoming the default PR strategy for breaking indie acts. Over the past two years, groups like WU LYF, the Weeknd, jj, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and Shabazz Palaces have drawn attention even as they've turned down interviews, concealed their likenesses, and, in some cases, withheld their own names.

Beyond this, Rocks Off won't bore you with a long, drawn-out synopsis of every stream of thought about the subject, which Richards explores admirably. But we did reach out to a few battle-hardened PR veterans with whom we have frequent business with - and respect for - to get their take on the article.

Sharyl Holtzman works at Paramount in Los Angeles, but she does some PR work for bands like Candy Golde, the Chicago supergroup that recently released a 5-song EP.

"Now more than ever there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to publicity," Holtzman says. "On the Internet, you're facing the Wild West, a tremendous oversaturation in tandem with the old-school rules of print, particularly national magazines. What artists need to do is tailor their publicity efforts specifically to their audience and goals. Working with the internet - whether it's an online magazine, blog, column - is still publicity.

"Publicity isn't solely defined by interviews and reviews; artists want/need an audience to know they - and their product - are out there: Contests, getting a song streamed as part of a product promotion, having something written from a different angle. For instance, in the Candy Golde EP I just did, it just so happens both Bun E. Carlos and John Stirratt are involved in the coffee business. Bun E. has his own line, John was the taste-tester for Wilco. All qualify as PR.

"A subversive 'no press' approach isn't anything new, and really is only effective for particular types of bands/music," Holtzman continues. "We're still doing the same job, we're just using different tools, and amending them accordingly. The Internet requires a particularly smart, focused approach in order to leap over the overwhelming and often extremely poor, low quality of material available to people.

"You have to use social networking, email blasts; phone interviews, Skype, video conferencing. You still need to do your homework - know who the smart writers, bloggers are; which publications have an excellent online readership; develop a look for your postings so they pop; and, try to remember not to post them every minute like the world is Twitter."

Heather West of Chicago publicity firm Western Publicity noted that she formerly worked with Kathryn Frazier, the owner of Biz 3 Publicity whom Richards quoted extensively in his article.

"The idea that a band like Cults became a successful buzz band without publicity is really naïve. From what I've heard it was carefully orchestrated - even a quick search reveals that a publicist was hard at work," says West, who supplied the link to Cults' rooftop gig.

"There are some bands who will be better served by a more secretive campaign but, in my opinion, publicity and promotion are publicity and promotion, regardless of how coy the delivery. I think Kathryn pretty much nailed that in the article," she adds. "I work with a lot of new/unknown bands and a lot of obscure performers, and I have never had the sense that my work had anything other than a positive effect.

"People like to be intrigued, and there is an art to that, but theorizing that publicity is no longer necessary or is an impediment seems facile."

Cary Baker of Conqueroo in Los Angeles is someone to whom Rocks Off occasionally refers artists when asked for a publicist recommendation. Baker has a lifetime in the music business, and is a pretty straightforward, no-nonsense guy. His opinion:

"An MO of 'no publicity' may work in indie-rock circles with precisely the right combination of art, luck, social networking, touring and buzz," he says. "But I seriously doubt such a strategy can be masterminded this way without putting the project at some risk.

"For many of my artists -- a little older, slightly less Pitchfork-worthy -- the old axiom applies: If you don't publicize, a terrible thing happens: Nothing."

Jeff Smith, lead singer of the Hickoids and president of San Antonio-based Saustex Media, is likewise often referred to as "a no-bullshit guy." A German promoter Rocks Off met last week said that's exactly why he has Smith handle the U.S. promotion for any tours for the bands he sends here out of Germany. Smith's take on Richards' article:

"Pretty disingenous. Are you and the the other writers at Houston Press trolling the internet listening to bands that only have two plays on their MySpace?" asks Smith. "I don't think so. There is a tastemaker [professional or otherwise] behind the scenes of 99.9 percent of any such 'success' stories, which seem pretty unquantifiable now anyway.

"Pitchfork is for know-it-all smartasses who haven't ever actually done any drinking, smoking, fucking or fighting," Smith adds. "Internet nerds who can only get excited because they don't know everything about a band are akin to pathetic fetishists who can't get it up unless some outré scenario is being played out in the boudoir, cathouse, etc."

Smith finishes with one last zinger.

"Any press is still good press, unless it's Best In Texas."

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