What a reviewer wants – An open letter
Dear [independent music artist],
First, I apologize for addressing you as a faceless, nameless entity lumped among all the other faceless, nameless entities whose attention I’d like to get but whom I haven’t taken the time to learn more about on an individual basis. I know that makes it feel like this letter isn’t actually aimed at you. I know you’re probably already thinking that, If I’d figured out who you are and what you’re interested in before I contacted you, we could already be off on a better foot. But, I hope you keep reading.
I’m writing this letter to you because I want you to succeed. I personally believe one of the most important things we can do in this world as human beings is connect with one another on a profound level – tell our stories in a way which makes us feel less alone and more empowered. There are a couple of ways we do this but since I don’t want to have an intimate relationship with you, I would really like to experience your artistic expression.
The thing is, you make it so hard for me. You make SO MUCH MUSIC and put it all out into the world, indiscriminately it often seems, regardless of how well it might connect with me; regardless of how completely it speaks on your behalf.
Here’s an analogy. You’re having friends over tonight so you decide to bake some cookies. The recipe you took from a recipe book written by a very famous chef you admire, makes exactly one dozen cookies. You follow it to the letter, but your oven is a little older than the oven of the person who wrote the recipe. When you put those dozen cookies in to cook, set the timer, take them out when it buzzes. Look at those cookies. All the cookies on the edges are burned. The ones in the middle are a little underdone. There are maybe one or two off to the side of center which are perfect. But mostly, the ones that are edible are edible primarily based on the fact that they’re not burned. You’re going to serve that whole tray of cookies because you have a dozen people coming over and you want each of them to have the cookies you made.
That’s dumb, right? You wouldn’t do that with cookies. You wouldn’t serve a tray of cookies to people you care about knowing that some of them are overdone, some are underdone, and maybe one or two of them are delicious, right? But that’s what you do with your music.
As a critic and a fellow practitioner of artistic expression (yes, I make my living discussing music, but I’ve made music my whole life – along with many years of dance – and I’ve discovered a weird compulsion for fiction writing), this is frustrating to me. I feel this certain sense that I owe you the eating of your burned and underdone cookies. Because you’ve shown such hospitality to share with me. But the burned cookies taste bad and kind of hurt my pallet. The underdone cookies are going to give me a stomach ache. It would have been so much more meaningful if you had said, “These three cookies are all I have, but they came out perfect, true to the recipe and to the spirit I had for making cookies for you in the first place. Let’s share them so that we can all appreciate the flavor.”
That might seem like a vulnerable and awkward way to present them, but as a guest at your party I’ll appreciate it a lot more. And anyway, cooking – like any form of artistic expression – is best when you allow yourself to be awkward and vulnerable. That’s when we all get to recognize the humanity we share.
Am I beating this dead horse?
Let me stop with the analogy.
I’ve been mulling over this letter for quite a while, because there are so many things indie artists like yourself have started to do that just rub me the wrong way. I want to talk about the relationship between the industry and the press, but I’ve been flustered by which direction to take this. I don’t want to just sound off and talk people out of ever trying to “get press” (a phrase I’ve come to deplore). But I also get frustrated with some of the interactions I have with folks in the industry who misunderstand the role of a critic versus the role of PR (two completely different things). I’ve been involved in some panel discussions at conferences through the years where this relationship has been discussed, but I always leave with the sense that this should be more of an ongoing conversation.
Then, this week, one of your peers – a guy named Matthew Francis Anderson – posted some questions in the forum on this site that made me realize answering them would be the best way to tackle this topic, which I’ve had buzzing around my head these last several months.
My answers to Matthew’s questions, you’ll see below, are a little harsh. I know. I figure as artists, we’re in the business of truth-telling, or at least opening people up to the possibility of truth-telling. As such, I didn’t see any point in sugarcoating them, since I feel like his raising of these questions implied he’d like an honest response so that he might better prepare himself for approaching the press as a songwriter in the future. I understand that impulse. I focused myself on making a living as a musician for many, many years, and I not only thought music critics were full of shit that whole time, but I also had absolutely no idea how to approach them. (Perhaps one begat the other? Who knows. I was never much of a game-player.)
A word about my job. First of all, I’m not here to give you press. Press is not something you get because you made music. The words I type on this page are – except for today – a service to my readers. My job as I see it is to explain the intersection between the art someone (maybe you) has created and the reality in which we all live. I try to translate the intricacies of musical expression for the layperson, using some intersection of music, history, culture, and current events (not necessarily political) to contextualize a musical project and explore what about it might resonate with an audience trying to decide whether or not to spend their money on the album.
I don’t always succeed. I admit my biases when they show up. I do my best to not comment on the work of my friends, for example, because what good would that do them anyway? If someone’s just praising you because they’re your friend, what does that say about your music? Are you actually connecting with an audience in a lasting, meaningful way if the only person you can get to comment on you is your friend? I don’t think so. So, I don’t write about my friends and I shudder when I see other critics commenting on the work of people I know to be their friends.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m well aware there’s a milieu of music blogger whose purpose is to write about their friends and people of whom they are fans. If you’re interested in getting these people’s attention, you should seek out their blogs and know the difference between how they approach their work and how I approach mine. (And how very serious critical academics – another area of criticism entirely – approach theirs.) There’s a place for fan blogs and their bloggers, and I have a huge respect for them. One of my very favorite music blogs – Sound on the Sound – is a fan blog, and it’s run by someone with impeccable integrity, who is heart and soul dedicated to great music. She will never try to convince you she’s a critic, though. These folks are the modern day equivalent of the mixtape-maker, the armchair critic, the chick in your friend group with the largest record collection. Those people have always played an important role in the music industry. I’m not one of them.
I have no idea who played bass in what band on that album with the great cover art. I have no idea who designed the cover art.
I make shitty mixtapes.
But I know when a song modulates for a reason, and when it modulates because the person who wrote the melody is either unsure of how else to build tension, or they’re afraid they may have lost your interest. So here I am. If I am truly the person you’d like to approach with your music, I hope you’ve read something I’ve written. If you had, you’ll know I don’t review albums very frequently. Like you, I’m a person who likes to tell stories. I’m not very good at saying what’s good and bad. I have guilt about it.
That said, there’s a difference in motivation between what I do and what you get out of it. We cannot exist without each other, and we might even be in it for the same reasons, but we have different jobs, you and me. Approaching me from the perspective of what you can get out of what I do is one of the best ways to make me disinterested in what you do. It tells me you’re in this for attention and not for the feeling your music might give another human being. Giving me the idea you’re only in this for the attention is the quickest way to turn me, personally, off to your music. I know critics for whom this isn’t true, of course. I’m just not one of them.
If you’re not at a level in your career yet where you can have a publicist – or if you just don’t want to pay someone else to do that for you – then you’re going to have a rougher go of it. That’s just the truth. I have a full inbox and a stack of 50 or more new CDs waiting for my review on any given day. There’s not enough time in the world.
The system I’ve come up with to keep me sane (I value my sanity almost as much as I value the existence of music in this world) places higher priority on albums by artists I already know about; albums by artists who have been recommended to me by people I respect (friends, artists, or other critics); albums by artists on labels with consistently impressive rosters; albums by artists who deal with PR firms I know to have discriminating taste; and albums by artists who have either recorded or toured with artists I already know and respect.
You probably don’t fall into any of these categories, which is the whole point. I’m a jaded critic with a great love for music, which I’m dedicated to preserving. I’ve learned from experience that my great love for music becomes really tried when I open my ears to absolutely everything. So, I’ve created a system of narrowing it down. There are exceptions, of course, and they’re often incalculable. But, believe me, there is nothing I love more than being shaken by great music. If it doesn’t fall into any of the categories I listed above, and it still shakes me, I’ll probably love it more than any of those other things.
Ok, now, in the interest of responding to the questions I hear from you all the time, I’ll tackle the ones Matthew posted on this site:
1.) How do you obtain the music?
People send me music either via email or snail mail. Sometimes people tweet at me with a link to their website, Bandcamp, or a YouTube clip. I have never clicked on such a link in a tweet unless it’s coming from an artist I already know and love. Tweeting at me this way is a waste of your time. Sometimes, very rarely, I go to a show and am blown away by an opening act. Then I hunt that person down, determine who handles their press inquiries, and contact them. This almost never happens but, when it does, it’s one of my favorite things in the world. The artists who appeal to me this way will likely have an advocate for life.
2.) How do people locate you?
I have existing relationships with labels and PR firms. The ones I value are people I actually know in real life because I’ve met them at a conference or festival. There are certain labels and PR firms who, far as I can tell, have exceedingly discriminating taste. I will listen to almost anything I receive from Signature Sounds, Rounder, Sugar Hill, Ramseur, Lost Highway, Anti-, SubPop, Nettwork, or Thirty Tigers. I will also listen to almost anything I receive from Conqueroo, Crash Avenue, Mason Jar Music, and Press Here Publicity. These people send me music all the time. I honestly have no idea how independent artists get my address and it kind of creeps me out. I like to assume a friend we have in common passed it on to them. They usually find my email through any of the sites for whom I write (this site, About.com Folk Music, Folk Alley, and our local alt-weekly Mountain XPress are my most frequent employers). Maybe people approach me at conferences or festivals or shows. I like talking to strangers – as long as they’re not creepy weirdos and as long as they genuinely want to interact with me rather than shove a CD down my throat. My email address is available on Facebook and my website. Anyone Googling me by name can figure out how to get a hold of me if they really want to. But, to save you the time, my email address is kim at nodepression dot com.
3.) Are hard copy press kits still en vogue, or only electronic?
From the amount of them I get, I have to imagine hard copy press kits are still en vogue for some people. I don’t like them. I like the environment and trees and extra space on my desk – so that I don’t start feeling claustrophobic – a lot more. Electronic is the answer for me. I love SoundCloud and Bandcamp. If you’re only on MySpace, I find I desperately want to ignore you. I’m ok with YouTube and Facebook if it’s all you have, but I have to be honest. Artists who use SoundCloud, Bandcamp, and Vimeo look to me like they take their craft seriously and are willing to put some time and energy into the way they come off. This is important in the arts, since half the meaning is derived from the impression it makes on people. Of course, that said, I’m well aware of a few bands and artists who have impressed the hell out of me in a live show and have absolutely no idea what to do with the internet. There are exceptions to every rule. The most important thing in all of this is the music. If you don’t have that nailed, you’re wasting your time and money – and my time – trying to get the word out.
4.) Do you simply look at the CD cover and decide if you wanna listen to it?
If it’s a hard-copy disc by an artist I don’t know and love, bad cover art will totally drive me away. I am a shallow human animal. Seriously, though, any means by which I can filter out what might not appeal to me, just means I have more time to enjoy the good stuff.
That said, the new Zoe Muth EP ‘Old Gold’ is one of my favorites this year and its cover art is BORING. I know Zoe through the Seattle music world but, even if I didn’t, I know Signature Sounds has never put anything out that I didn’t like. When it’s coming from a label or organization I respect, I will listen to it even if the art is awful. If it’s coming directly from an artist who has never toured or worked with anyone of note, though, the album title, song titles, and cover art has to grab me hard.
5. ) If the first song doesn’t grab ya, are you done with it (aka, how important is track #1)?
More than likely, yes. There’s so much music in the world, I’m totally okay with skipping out on albums that aren’t good from start to finish. If you put songs on your album to fill space and make the track listing round out at 10 or 12, that’s going to come across. To me that says, again, “I care about fulfilling a length requirement – which is arbitrary in this day and age – than I do about whether anyone actually gets anything at all out of listening to my music.” It’s that cookies scenario I was talking about.
I know that’s a little harsh, but there are plenty of artists who make albums which are, from start to finish, beautiful, entire artistic statements. If the first track doesn’t grab me, I might keep going, depending on my mood. But if I skip through (as I often do) to track 4 or 6 or 8 and those don’t grab me, I’m going to write the whole thing off as an album with maaaaaybe one or two good songs and a whole lot of waste-of-time (yours and mine).
6.) Is it common to get a CD with a letter/bio/press release that pre-describes it for you, ala “She writes likes Springsteen…Sings like Adele.” If so, do you like it this way? Although such a hint may not make your mind up for you, do you find such things help you decide if you even want to listen to it all?
First of all, you don’t write like Springsteen and you don’t sing like Adele. There is a reason these people are ridiculously famous and you’re not (yet). Please don’t inflate your import. If you grew up listening exclusively to Springsteen and Adele, spent your high school years in a Springsteen-Adele cover band, and finally decided to see what you could do writing original music which speaks for you, then tell me that.
But yes, most of the CDs I get in the mail include a bio of some kind. People who send me digital streams via email usually lead with a press release…
Here’s a personal issue I have with promotional bios lately: more often than not it seems they talk in hyperbole (i.e. “She sings like Adele”…not likely). They also tend to eliminate any actual story about where the artist is from, when they discovered a gift for music, who influenced them, what they want people to get out of the music, etc. I don’t even bother reading bios that use a million adjectives to tell me what the music sounds like. If what’s on the CD doesn’t tell me what the music sounds like, then why have you made a CD?
I want to read a bio which tells me biographical information about the band or artist and why they made the album in question. I want to know if it was produced by anyone I already know and love, if anyone I already know and love played on it, if they’ve ever toured with anyone I know and love. Did someone I know and love say something nice about their work? If I’ve never heard of you before and you played Newport last year and got nominated for a JUNO, sharing that info in the bio is probably going to spark some interest. For whatever that’s worth.
I hope all this helps, [independent music artist]. If you think I’ve been harsh, just know that I believe genuine, honest personal expression is the most important thing we can give each other in this world. It can be the most lasting and profound gift we have to offer, as long as it’s not motivated by marketing. I want to hear what you have to offer, but I don’t want you to spend more time on trying to get my attention than you spend on making the music itself.
At the end of the day, I’d honestly rather never hear about you or your band – and know you’ve dedicated yourselves entirely to genuine creative expression even if nobody outside your community ever notices – than to hear about you only because you invited me over to serve me burned cookies.
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