Building Your Support Team - Creating A Buzz
David Knopfler April 2002 NEMO Boston US.
About The Panelist.
David Knopfler - Dire Straits founder - author of "Bluffers Guide to the Rock Music Business", solo recording artist (eight to date). Has set up small labels, publishing companies, done rock-management in moments of palpable masochism, record producer, composer of film and TV work (nice work when you can get it), set up on-line selling CDs in 1995, occasional speaker at music events - In short found more ways to screw up than most.
These comments below were my preparation notes created for sitting on a panel at NEMO at Boston on 13th April 2002 most of which I didn't, in the event, find it appropriate to use, not least because the wonderful experience of seeing a number of live artists and musicians of a calibre beyond great at NEMO, made me kind of regret the degree of cynicism expressed below... However hopefully one or two kernels of truth will help you at least laugh at the madness we all find we will participate in, simply to have the privilege to pursue our art and our dreams.
So that said...
"Creating a buzz" or building a support team isn't something I know too much about except that he who has the highest spend, together with the best act, usually gets the best seat at the general crap shoot ;)
Island Records used to have a poster which said "a terrible thing happens if you don't promote.... nothing" and it's probably true. Advertising's own special law of gravity holds that if you aren't rocketing upwards, you will soon come crashing down.
If I can paraphrase something I read in Naomi Klein's wonderful book "No Logo"... With so much competition, the agencies would have us believe that clients must spend more than ever, to make sure their deafening pitch can be heard over all the others. This endless "biggering" process is described by David Lubars, a senior ad' executive in the Omnicom Group, with more candour than most. "Consumers" he says "are like roaches - you spray them and spray them and they get immune after a while."
However there is hope for those of us without corporate budgets (or indeed any budgets) -- we can at least instead be original - and you don't need to go to the lengths of Freud's nephew Bernayes (credited as being the person responsible for making smoking attractive to women) or Goebbels (credited as being a fan of Bernayes) to get your point across.
Let's start with a list of dont's
1. Speaking of Freuds - Don't necessarily depend on a Matthew Freud (famous UK Publicist) type - who while taking your cash (and lots of it at that) may guarantee not to help you sell any more records. At least that was his curious pitch to me once. Instead, what these guys do is "raise your profile" - A raised profile however does not automatically result in higher record sales, though a raised profile does at least improve your chances of getting a record deal if you don't already have one... As one record exec' said to me, with an irritating matter of factness bordering on smugness "talent is not enough"... unfortunately for us if the goal is to sell large numbers of units of the commodity that you will be seen as if you sign a record deal then it's also true, "talent is not enough" ... though I hate that expression.
At a previous music conference I asked "Hands up anyone who's here because they want a record deal?" and there were only two hands not raised - they were producers looking for deals for someone else. A raised profile will help you achieve this, so therefor once you've signed your name in blood step inside and try and get to star in a TV programme - and don't bother learning to sing or become musical - it'll cramp the flexibility they'll require of you in the grooming process.
Hack publicists tend to make for bland copy anyway - so if you can't afford one, at least you'll have the comfort of not being bland.
Speaking of TV programmes - Pop Idol will be making its US debut in June after the show's producers, 19 Television and Fremantle Media, clinched a deal with the Fox network. The format deal, for a minimum of 15 episodes, is thought to be worth at least $15 million dollars to the show's creator, Simon Fuller, the founder of 19 Television and a former manager of the Spice Girls. The Fox deal was brokered by the CAA agency, which represents 19 Television. The moral would seem to be "find a unique selling angle" - this certainly was a no-lose idea. The TV shows generates the celebrity and finds the talent - if the artist doesn't fly you still walk away a multimillionaire. The sex change operation and the former drug habits are passé these days for news interest and free publicity - so too are sharks and cows in formaldehyde - so ask your art school friends for fresher meat.
2. Don't rely on a record label to hype, brand, or promote you - their marketing team (frequently with smaller labels an individual and not a team at all) can tend to over-rely on their one sad clichéd box of tricks containing the same tired ideas - badges, stickers, posters, T shirts, postcards, sticky logos yadda yadda yadda and even worse - calendars - a calendar to help the Music Director of your local radio station know what day it is, next to his quill and ink pot would be invaluable to him I guess. So these ideas, like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic tend to get recycled from "the box" endlessly, depending on which priority drawer they've placed you - the cheaper they got you - the lower down the filing cabinet you'll be found. If possible try and get your promo budget written into your recording contract - the greater the bragging of the executive of the wonderful unique things their label can do for you that others can't in your preliminary discussions with them, the tighter you can reasonably expect to tie them up in knots with it in the actual agreement. Take them at their word but get it down in writing. It isn't always the case that you have to "take it or leave it" with the draft contract they will present you with - and if dealing with an Indie always write the first draft from your end - it gives you the advantage of dealer as the pot builds - Leave yourself room to use outside promotional experts if possible and name names if you know who it is you want them to hire for you. If you know of a wonderful indy radio promoter and the record company CEO has said - "yes we can get her" - then write it into the deal.
3. Don't bother to make a video unless you can afford 35 ml and it's going to have something wonderfully watchable and unique about it - - none of the stations like MTV will broadcast 16 ml - much less 8ml or video formats.
4. Don't believe the hype about the Internet - it has a billion addresses but only a small handful of corporate ones are being visited with any frequency and the most well trodden business model you can rely on with the Internet is the one that sends the business in question down in flames faster than a Fokker Triplane up against an F16. With only a handful of exceptions they don't make money - the user expects free MP3s. I sell my CDs online and one visit to the post-office a week, if that, with one shopping bag's worth is the whole deal. That said a personal website is a GREAT resource for your EPK (Electronic press kit) and your up coming gig schedule - so keep it current and assessable (In this instance don't do as I do but do as I say). I'm sure the other panelists will have plenty of ideas about what you can do for maximum stickiness - your fans are your best allies. If you play live A LOT then DO SELL CDs at the gigs - always worthwhile - and make yourself available to sign them and let it be known you'll be available - - it doubles the sales
5. Don't do prerecorded radio interviews unless the voice of all the holy prophets promise you the interview will be broadcast - a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush - live is better - and a live performance at the station is usually better than just playing a CD - not because it sounds good on air - it'll usually sounds abysmal on air - but because you'll have made friends and influenced people at the station by showing willing - By the same token don't take the word of an A&R exec' that they'll be there at your showcase - invariably they won't - so have someone meet them at their office - take them to dinner and get them to the gig in person.
Okay - lets move to the Dos
This business has changed beyond recognition in the last decade - Anyone interested in playing the game is having to relearn it all the time - however some things remain constant
1. It's a cliché - but be nice to the people you meet on the way up - you'll meet them on the way back down - 100% true - Duke from the Four Tops about two decades back gave me some good advice - he said always be nice to the guy carrying your bags - he could easily be the CEO of your next record label - In this business (which ain't rocket science) it's especially true.
2. Try and be original!! Or failing that try and be unoriginal in a uniquely original way (see Simon Fuller)
To those of you working in increasing concentric circles to conquer your county and your state - you're better off targetting only the three nearest radio stations that matter to you and your style of music in your area. My advice would be forget bribes or promotional items - or at least forget them unless they are SERIOUSLY EXPENSIVE - You're far better off giving a HUGE bribe to six vital people who can unblock your way, than 6,000 pieces of crap liable to insult the entire industry, to say nothing of the environmental issues.
3. Although clippings and quotable quotes are very useful in the CV when starting out, press isn't as useful as radio - and radio (at least in Europe) isn't as useful as TV. Equally, positive footage in the right place, is FAR better than formal adverts - only use the formal advertising budget to help bribe the editors to give positive coverage too. Better still spend it on paying your musicians the fees they deserve.
4. Notwithstanding the above advice - I'd also add that you should above all things make the work you care about - be passionate and be honest - it will carry you through both the hard times and the times when Mammon is trying to get your signature in blood - Everyone from the business side will try and adjust you to fit into a predefined mold they think you need to fit - Don't be arrogant and offensive in your polite rejection of their ideas - but appreciate that if you look at the really classic break out acts - Dylan, Mitchell, Hendrix, Beatles - they appear on the face of it to have done it on their own terms - they used a combination of genius and uniqueness - that's not to say they weren't styled and groomed - but that the styling and grooming was 100% sympatico to who they really were - the hype and marketing ENHANCED the truth of what they were really about -
If you are a Lithuanian goat milking yodeller who does bird impressions - - then don't get yourself signed up as a gangster-rap act - if you are a singer songwriter in your own right don't let the record company hype you as brother of, ex member of - - it just gives their audience a really bad marketing message - "they signed second best" - It's been my dubious privilege to have been signed at one time or another to no less than ten labels who have gone bust while I was with them - The one thing they all had in common - was that they all wanted to promote me primarily as ex-Dire Straits and as Mark Knopfler's brother and to a target audience not naturally mine, i.e. not to people who think art galleries are cool and who support public libraries and believe in higher education... supposedly too small a market. Be yourself!! If you are ridiculously dumb and your work is ridiculously trite - then target yourself to a ridiculously dumb and trite listener - if you are a reflective and intellectually inclined don't try and dumb down - you'll just feel uncomfortable - and we've seen what happens to uncomfortable politicians - they lose elections. The wonderful thing about being yourself is that you'll attract your own audience - and they'll like you for being yourself - and for doing what you like to do - just think of the money you'll save on security backstage - these audiences will all be people you'll enjoy meeting! You'll only need to hire one person to keep the record company at bay! ;) Actually if they are interested enough to show up at your gigs - count your blessings - that means you are "a priority".
While I'm here I'd better say something about "the single" - There are two types of recordings - one type is called "songs" - the other is called "singles" - songs that can potentially translate into the H word... HITS - The record company are only willing to pretend to be interested in the first kind, if you've supplied them with plenty of the second. There are historically very few exceptions to the rules of what a single must be and if you want to follow the road of the exceptions, remember they only happen about once every five years - and they are usually startlingly exceptional and great - the rest of the radio friendly market place will be requiring a track that's the right length - strong hook lines - good production value - a consensus man in the street view that it's catchy - a Hollywood movie to support it and an incredibly famous and beautiful person to sing it etc. Without that statistics teach us that your team will probably be pissing in the wind. Don't delude yourself you have a single just because you believe you have a great album. If you want hits, rather than songs, you could do worse than to sit down and deconstruct classic hit songs where you love them or hate them and work out exactly what it is the producer has done to make it so compelling that radio can't stop playing it. The formula alone won't make it a hit - but you'll learn something from doing the exercise. "Sacrifice" by Elton John is a good one to use for this.. though Bill Goldman's adage "Just remember - nobody knows anything" applies to hit records as much as hit movies so stick to your guns - be persistent - pro active - and tenacious - someone has to occupied those hallooed hit slots - why not you?
While it may be true that marketing and hyping appeals to the irrational hidden wants of the consumer - don't believe everything the marketing people tell you - the public are therefor by definition going to be fickle and what market research told you they wanted yesterday mainly tells you they probably won't want it tomorrow. Don't be too desperate to turn yourself inside out to hitch a ride on a trend - Trends are short-lived whereas Van Morrison has been making records for five decades. Also turnarounds are long and getting longer - 15 months in some instances so be careful to pick future trends if that's your angle.
5. Work with people you like and who evidence honesty and integrity. Those who honourably always try to do what they say they'll try to do and who you don't have to contrive a rapport with. It'll pay huge dividends not only in the quality of your life but in the enthusiasm you'll feel for doing your work. If you enter the devil's courtyard and make Machiavellian calculations when doing business, you'll only have yourself to blame if your filofax fills up with people you don't want to speak to and who equally probably don't want to speak to you. It doesn't cost anything to interview promotion and marketing companies - beauty parade a few but don't be too quick to be dazzled by promises - they are par excellence the experts at convincing you that parting with your cash is the best route to fame and fortune.
To repeat myself slightly, for those of you who don't feel they HAVE to be bigger than Elvis - Trust the margins - The mainstream is over-rated. if, like me, your work is essentially reflective and you know your audience are essentially going to be the kind of people who when looking at say the subversive work of Goya and "get it" - work that nearly had him on the rack under the inquisition - then so be it - that's your audience - forget the others- build the base with those you have a REAL AFFINITY with. You may well wind up on a different kind of rack to that your record company had been hoping for - but at least you'll have the satisfaction of knowing it was a principled decision and you'll not see Dorian Grey in the mirror ;)
Kind of off topic - but a good piece of general advice to young-uns starting in the business is the three golden rules - look after the money - look after the money - and look after the money.
Last - but not least...enjoy yourself - if you aren't enjoying yourself nothing will compensate you - and the work will not take you in a direction that is productive - that's not to say there won't be revolting and impossible challenges to overcome - but enjoy yourself while overcoming them - - follow your heart... but keep your head in tow.
David Knopfler © David Knopfler 2002
Panelists were from audience left to right
Jeremy Goodwin Director at mockingbird.org
David Knopfler Recording Artist and jack of all trades.
Wayne Martin President and founder of Sound Marketing Solutions
Karin Lee - Moderator and President of Evolution Promotion
Mat Thomason - President of United Entertainment Incorporated
Ben Mount - HiFrequency Marketing
Other useful links for further research
Interesting expose at Salon.com of how radio's 'pay to be played' appears to operate
Clear Channel dissected at Salon.com
Universal have found a creative way to close their shortfall in CD sales - use the unsigned talent to pay for it
Actually the clips from the various Presidents are quite interesting
Record Labels & Companies Guide: info on the majors, independents, and everything in between.
Additional FOOTNOTES to myself.
Karen usefully outlined who the support team would ideally be in her email.
Branding and advertising?
"Think of the brand as the core meaning of the modern corporation, and of the advertisement as one vehicle used to convey that meaning to the world." Naomi Klein "No Logo" - The public don't however really care about the branding of the label or it's parent corporation - - With say "Pink Floyd" the brand is "the artist" even if membership is ever changing.
By the logic of the market and Globalization, record companies should be dispensing with signing Western acts altogether - they should sign their artists in countries where musicians are paid even less than we pay ours - since they seem to believe the product is all about branding and perception anyway - - why go to the trouble of signing expensive troublesome talent at all? The logic is worrying. I recently was offered cheaper musicians by a record company anxious to reduce a tour budget - As an Artist I find the notion that the people I work with to create my art should be as interchangeable as rubber tyres on a car, very offensive. At a microcosmic level - my little problem reflects a wider logic of the inconvenience of local democracy to Capital - China is enjoying high growth because it provides the ideal model of society for Capital - no democracy or union power or civil rights to interfere with Capital's inexorable strategic objectives to improve margins. Is there a moral? Be careful where the logic of marketing and branding and advertising takes you.