Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Business of Music – The Problems of Promotion

Here's a column I wrote for the fine folks of Sparrowheart Music and Media. It should appear there soon.

The Business of Music – The Problems of Promotion

By Sean Claes

I began writing entertainment around 1996 when I moved from Laredo to San Marcos, Texas to finish up college. Since then I’ve written for several magazines, Websites, and newspapers. I began contributing to INsite Magazine in 2003, became Managing Editor in 2005 and together with my wife bought it in 2008.

Why the bio? Well, lets just say I’ve been approached by more musicians than a Roppolo's Pizzeria on a Sixth Street Saturday night. Some have their stuff together, some don’t. And others just think they are the stuff.

I’ve put together a column talking about some of the problems I’ve seen bands go through when they are in their promotional gear. I separated it into three topics – Promoting your music, live show, and your band. Hope you get some benefit from this.

CD-less CD Release Show
This one is simple, but it seems many bands have had this happen to them. DO NOT SCHEDULE YOUR CD RELEASE SHOT UNTIL YOUR CDS ARE IN YOUR HANDS. I learned this one the hard way. INsite put a CD out in 2007 called This Is INsite Austin Music. The night before the show, the 1,000 CDs came back from being printed and the design firm that was personally assembling them one by one spent an entire night putting ‘em together. We just made it. We were lucky. I’ve been at a CD release show where there was no actual CD yet. Don’t be that band. Have the CD in your hands before booking the show.

It’s Not Personal, But It Should Be
OK, your CD came in. Now you’ve got a list of media folks you need to send it to. When you send a CD in the mail to someone hoping on a review, how about putting a little personal note in there? Media folks get buckets of CDs in the mail. If you knew how many CD’s I sort through each week to pick the ones I decide to actually put in my CD player, you may be stunned. I know for me, when I get something from the band that is actually hand written, I’ll give the CD a spin. I wont always like what I hear, but I’ll take a chance. That’s the entire reason to send a CD to media folks... so they give you a listen.

At Least They Spelled Your Name Right
So you finally got the CD into the hands of someone who is willing to review it. When that review is printed they compare your music to the sounds of two dogs have sex and then falling into a meat grinder. Ouch (on many levels). You march right over and want to give that reviewer a piece of your mind. DON’T. Consider this. If what they said was so wrong, people will see through it. There are a bunch of CD reviewers who think they need to bash something in order to make it in print. The other side is, perhaps the person just flat didn’t like it. He/she is entitled to his/her opinion. All I know is, YOU will come out looking like a whiny little baby if you try and put the reviewer in their place. Suck it up and move on.

How Do They Know?
Tell people when you have a gig. Make sure you use all of the electronic medias (Website, e-mail, Blog, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace...etc) to get the word out. But, don’t underestimate the power of “traditional” media. Print (newspaper, magazine), Radio, and Television are three options. These will cost money, but you can likely work deals with someone. For instance my magazine, INsite, has a special rate for local bands. I don’t want to turn this into a promo for the magazine, so if you want to know more, hit me up.

Then there’s always good old-fashioned posters and flyers. I like to tell the story of one of my favorite cock-rock bands, SINIS. They promoted their first show at Flamingo Cantina by handing out ten thousand flyers. They figured if they handed out that many flyers, they could get a couple hundred through the door. It worked. It was a sell out.

The point is, your efforts will be rewarded. The more people who know about you, the more chances that you’ll have more butts through the door next time you play.

Bring your merch to the show - Getting people to a show is the hardest part, but only half the effort. Now you want them to remember you in the morning. I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked into a show where a band I know has a CD/T-shirts/swag decided not to bring their merchandise. This is foolish on two levels.
1. Chances are, you’re not going to make much money at the door... so selling merch is where its it.
2. Every time you miss an opportunity to have someone walk away from a show with something of yours they can listen to, share, or wear, it’s a good thing.

Thank You Austin!
NEVER piss off the sound guy and ALWAYS thank the venue and bands who have played before you and who will be playing after. You earn your reputation as a live band. Austin is a HUGE music town. People learn quickly which bands are cocky little pricks who don’t draw a crowd and get into fights... and which bands rip it up onstage and know how to conduct themselves. But most of all, NEVER piss off the sound guy. He has the job to make you sound good. If you sound good, people might like your tunes... if they like your tunes, they might buy a CD... and come to another show... with more friends. Get it?

The Next Stevie Ray Vaughan?
In the last 10 or so years that I’ve been a entertainment writer I’ve come across no less than 25 guitarists that were touted as the next Stevie Ray Vaughan. You can play grooves that would make the entire fanbase of the immortal Stevie Ray Vaughan smile... but you’ll never be him... nor should you want to be. It’s got to the point that I won’t listen to a CD that claims that anymore.

It’s almost as bad as calling a band the “best kept secret” in town. You aren’t the next anyone... and if your band is a secret, you aren’t promoting well enough. Get on it.

Never Underestimate Who Your Audience May Be.
So you work at a deli to make ends meet before you hit it big with music. Mention your band to as many people as possible every day. The lady picking up a tuna sandwich might just be your future biggest fan, or the owner of a big club, or a magazine for that matter. Don’t judge a book by its cover either. She may not look like she’d be into your music, but if I walked into a room, nobody would peg me as a fan of New York’s Every Time I Die or Austin’s Grupo Fantasma but they are two of my top choices in those genres.

Another example? My wife walked into a UPS Store in San Marcos a few years back and Randy Rogers happened to be working there (This is a year or so before the Randy Rogers Band signed a major record deal and he was just beginning to play regularly at Cheatham Street Warehouse). He casually mentioned to her that he was in a band. She mentioned her husband was a music writer. I ended up reviewing his 2003 release ( for INsite Magazine as I was a contributor.

Being a genuine nice guy net him two lifelong fans and a CD review in an Austin magazine. Be that guy for your band.

Following Up
When you promote your band, make sure to hold every part of it accountable. What efforts resulted in paid tickets through the door? Did the $3 off at the door cards get used? Did the radio personality you tried to get the CD to actually receive it? Did the Marketing Director? Follow up.

There have been entirely too many bands that I’ve never even heard of and I’ve gotten a CD in the mail. No pre-contact. No follow up. Usually I don’t listen to them. Same is the case of the bands I see when I’m out at clubs. A lot of bands have a CD they’d love for me to review. Smart bands hand me a CD at the club. Smarter bands hand me a CD, and ask for my contact information. The smartest bands, get me a CD, get my contact information and follow up to see how I liked the CD.

If you are trying to make it in the music business, you need to treat it like a business. Make a plan. Make some goals. Give yourself a deadline. Make it happen. When you hit the stage or write the music or practice.. that’s all about the music. Don’t let business mess with that. But in the same breath, don’t let the stereotype of being a “musician” keep you from being in business.

Music + business = Music Business.

Sean Claes rocks like Slayer. Questions? Compliments? Free t-shirts (he wears XL)? Contact him at

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