Music has what investors would call very low “barriers to entry” – in plain English, anyone can do it. Although it takes talent and many years of perseverence to do it well, and a heavy dose of luck to get to the point where you can do it exclusively for a living. The marketing side of the business can be described in this context as the art of making your own luck, or at least, helping things along a little.
Since being good is not good enough to make a living, musicians typically supplement composing and performing with teaching and writing. So it’s far from unusual for musicians to have experience of both sides of the marketing fence.
The music press, advertising and marketing industry is a strange old game, with its very specific and rather cute set of rules and conventions. This article should give you a bit of help understanding the rules to this game. As a consumer of marketing, it should help you to see through some of the tinsel that gets tossed around in this murky industry. As an originator of marketing, it might help you to be a bit more artful about how you toss your tinsel, or even (if you are so inclined) a few pointers about how to lie your arse off with minimal chances of getting caught out. Actually, an awful of people can see quite well with sequins in their eyes.
My own perspective? Positive presentation is fine. But I wouldn’t represent a chance encounter holding the lift door open for Ringo Starr as “supporting the Beatles”. If that sounds absurd, I can assure you that many would… It’s a flim-flam world.
GOT TO ADMIT IT’S GETTING BETTER…
It’s well known that most professional resumés contain, shall we say, a great many exaggerations. In a lot of cases, the job applicant is exaggerating through their teeth. “I was responsible for intradepartmental synergistic team building by providing key services during informal people-orientated brainstorming sessions” = “they sent me out for the coffee and buns”.
A certain amount of exaggeration is okay, and indeed expected. So total humble honesty isn’t the way to get your band booked.
I recently saw a band biog that read along the lines of “They were destined for stardom since the age of four, when as The Pottyheads their first hit Knicky-Knacky-Noo played to a rapturous living room. Since reforming at college to play for a cousin’s wedding, the band has gone on to take Little Twiddlecomb-in-the-Mould by storm”. Can’t see them selling out the O2 anytime soon.
There is the concept of “prisoner’s dilemma” here. Since a degree of hype is expected, total absence of boasting gives the impression you have nothing to shout about at all, rather than the intended noble honesty. But there’s really no place in a professional biog for the fact that at the age of five, little Beyoncina won a silver star at her school talent contest for her heartfelt rendition of The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round. If she’d been accepted into Julliard at that age, then by all means.
As with everything else in life, there’s a balance to be struck.
I ONCE KNEW A GUY, OR SHOULD I SAY, HE ONCE KNEW ME…
Music is a gregarious pursuit. If you’ve been at it long enough, you’ll have played thousands of gigs with hundreds of people over the years. And the law of averages will dictate that the spotty bass player you depped with fifteen years ago at the local youth centre went on to play with a multiplatinum Britpop sensation (although maybe just once – see below). The point is that today’s big names all scuffled around taking every gig they could before they were even any good, let alone having perfumes named after them.
It’s typical for a dodgy biog to include a “has played with” section. If you dwell on this for a minute, it does contain its own weakness. The question is: why not “still playing with”?
HEY TEACHER, LEAVE THOSE KIDS ALONE
A subset of the “look who I’ve been on stage with” category is teachers. We noted above that even the best musicians teach, particularly in the less lucrative genre of jazz.
So a biog containing the proud assertion “played with X, Y, J and F” can be simply interpreted as “studied at college A, B or C” and pins it down to a certain time period. Of course, this does indicate that the musician had the wherewithal to be accepted onto such a prestigious course in the first place, but it hardly ever means that the teacher regarded the student as a stellar talent and scooped them up into their own professional band. Sure, the student has played with them … in Practice Room 107b on the second floor of the annexe.
Oh, and get real. Anyone who studied at Guildhall has played at the Barbican, anyone who studied at Birmingham has played at Symphony Hall, etc.
BAND ON THE RUN
Doing a friend’s wedding in Cleethorpes, visiting your gran in Hull then going for a dirty weekend in Brighton does not constitute a “national tour”…
WHEN THE KIDS HAD KILLED THE MAN, I HAD TO…
Bands change names and lineups as often as their members don’t change their socks. And jobbing musicians play in many bands, constantly regrouping, and a lot of groups of musicians go out under different names for different purposes – rock gig, jazz gig, function, originals.
This can be a bit like the broom that’s had 13 new handles and 20 new heads. I know one ageing rocker who claims to have run a “veteran” band for over 20 years (through which, of course, many now-famous people have passed over the years). As I recall, it was never his band in the first place, at various times everyone else buggered off to do their own thing, it’s been in and out of mothballs over the years, and he’s the only one who cares about the name anymore.
A band, in short, can be much like a political party. There’s always some egomaniac who wants to impose their personality on it and if you don’t agree, there’s the door.
Incidentally, the bigger the band (by which I mean personnel, not commercial success) and the longer you can argue it’s been around, the more bragging rights accrue. Which leads us on to…
I WILL SURVIVE
If you want to be unkind, use of the word “veteran” in promo literature about a musician you’ve never heard of can be simply translated as “not all that good”.
This is where reverse snobbery can help. You can always claim what you do is art, and you’re above tawdry concerns such as, um, making a living. But I’m afraid musicians who openly profess integrity and claim that they never sell out usually exhibit cartoon dashing SFX as soon as they find anyone to sell out to.
There are many plugging away out there just enjoying what they do. But offer them a high-profile radio or TV slot playing the spoons and watch the “principles” crumble to dust.
It’s actually almost a racing cert that any musician who’s been at it for long enough will have enjoyed a little spell in the limelight. One of the HR managers at any given call centre is pretty much bound to have mimed on Top of the Pops with silly hair or played a duo gig in the lobby of a hotel booked for the Queen of Denmark’s third cousin’s nuptials at some point in their carefree yet passionate youth. How long ago, though?
And how much flim-flam is involved? I have, in all honesty, played excerpts from Schumann’s Piano Concerto at the Barbican. (It was a foyer jazz gig on a quiet night, there was no orchestra and I was doing a soundcheck.)
AH YES, I REMEMBER IT WELL…
Can you even remember the names of half the people you worked with 20 years ago? Neither can musicians. Time and memory play tricks on all of us, but once you understand that principle you can shoehorn any amount of bullshit into a press release.
The further back you go:
- The harder it is to check
- The less anyone cares
- The more inclined you are to romanticise the memory
What’s the comeback? The best a big name or big venue could say would be: “he might have played on that gig. It’s possible.”
This plausibility is further cushioned if your profile is so low that the powers-that-be are unlikely to hear about your, um, exaggeration, or even if they do, to care. So you can move down the food chain and impress people who are desperate to be impressed and don’t know any better.
I recently read a pianist’s biog claiming that he’d been the house pianist at one of London’s top venues. The band had a three-day support run ten years ago and he’s been blagging gigs on it ever since.
It is possible to get caught out on this kind of history massaging…
LET’S DO THE TIMEWARP AGAIN
A salutory lesson. Blag by all means, but do the maths. A funk guitarist I know once took to lying his age down by more than a decade. Fine – if he thought he could get away with it (he couldn’t, but never mind). Problem is that his biog contained claims that would have been suspicious anyway, but fell apart completely when you applied some basic arithmetic and realised that he would have appeared on stage with some of the ’70s greats when he was minus four years old.
FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE
Aspiring musicians will play a big venue on any terms for no money. So that for the rest of their lives they can say they’ve played there. Fallibility of memory can help here. I know of one pneumatically talented singer who pestered a certain big venue mercilessly for nearly ten years for a gig. They finally gave in, she’s never been asked back, but nor has she ever looked back, since she’s legitimately bagged the venue for her press release.
Final word to a curmudgeonly US booker of my acquaintance: “Right, so she’s worked before. Don’t mean she’ll work again…”
LEAVING ON A JET PLANE/I AM SAILING
aka Big in Japan. Or starred on cruiseships.
Who cares anyway, but virtually impossible to prove. Even in these internet days. Can be spun as “honing one’s craft”. A gap year, basically – though thankfully featuring far fewer tedious photographs of wacky japes.
If you do want to really go to tinsel town about your extravagant international exploits, probably best to cover your back by focusing on somewhere obscure where they use a different alphabet. “Big fish, little pond” bullshit is harder to trace.
And let’s be honest about cruise gigs. Is spending a year doing lifeboat drill, sleeping in a cupboard and noodling away at light pop classics to an ever-churning captive audience poleaxed into a slobbering stupor by 17 meals a day and mild sunstroke really something to brag about?
I READ THE NEWS TODAY, OH BOY
- “The UK’s answer to Paganini, dressed head-to-foot as a banana!”
- “Reinventing the Great American Songbook with an irresistible Norwegian grunge slant!”
- etc, etc…
Sounds pretty good, yes? Course it does. It was written by the band. Such quotes are taken from listings, not reviews. The listings agencies solicit information about bands so they can sell it on to hundreds of papers, magazines and websites. They nominally have to exercise a bit of editorial judgment, but mostly they don’t have the time. Therefore, they actively encourage bands to describe themselves, so they can just check for swearing and hit ENTER (thank fuck I don’t have that problem here). Include listings copy in your biog by all means, but be aware that it always has the smell of listings about it.
As to genuine published reviews, consider the magic of diaeresis (those innocuous little three dots “…”) and creative omission. Is this being used to helpfully shorten a longer text or is it being used to hide something?
A wonderful, extreme case of this was a composer of my acquaintance who used to quote a long passage from a published write-up. The quote started off talking about him, then contained the magic dots, then started talking about how amazing the music was. The dots, in this instance, were concealing a whopping three and half sentences in the original copy, during which the reviewer had moved on, and then had nothing but fulsome praise for the work of someone else!
Or, as he might have retasked that last para: “How amazing the music was. The reviewer had … nothing but fulsome praise for the work”.
I’m an old hack by trade, and I find it quite shocking how infrequently anybody checks sources anymore. Harrumph. And here’s a note for aspiring rock journalists. I am perfectly aware that writing about music is ultimately something like knitting about geography. But describe anything as “like X meets Y in Z on acid” and I’m adding your name to the lengthy list scrawled on my wall in crayon with my feet.
GOT TO ADMIT IT’S GETTING BETTER
Probably not what you think. This is about quotable endorsements. A total fabrication could be worth the risk, since many high-profile pundits (whether or not they are terribly discriminating) are only too happy to call anything fabulous. Simply because it gets them a mention.
But let’s be charitable. People involved in the entertainment business know that exposure and experience are key to developing a career. And many like to be supportive (whisper it, but even Morecambe and Wise were a bit ropey to start with). They all like to be seen as having a keen eye for up and coming talent.
(And if the band never get anywhere, no-one will remember the endorsement anyway. Bit of a one-way bet, really.)
THIS IS THE END, MY ONLY FRIEND
Social networks! MySpace used to be the thing for bands to promote themselves. Until the penny dropped and people realised that it all boiled down to bands promoting themselves to other bands. “Love your site, you London jazz guys are cool – come down and check our filth rock band in Baltimore tomorrow night!”
Farcebook is already going the same way. As for Twitter, well gig updates are fine, but I’m afraid most people aren’t remotely interested in what a bassist had for breakfast. In fact, here’s a note to everybody: please stop posting pictures of your dinner – I don’t care!
A good dedicated website is enough – just somewhere to point people at, should they express an interest in your music. Might get some bookings, you never know. Unless you’re Slash or Adele, don’t bother trying to interest people in life as you see it. Perhaps even then.
PROMISE ME SON, DON’T YOU DO THE THINGS I’VE DONE
Be aware that once a YouTube video or comment post is out there, it stays out there. It’s far more likely to prove an embarrassment in the future than to catapult you to instant viral success. So be a bit careful about what you put up, even if just for a laugh. And never post pissed! Doing the Harlem Shake in dayglo giraffe costumes may seem like a good idea at the time…
THE GREAT PRETENDER
I suppose the whole of this post could be boiled down to two key principles:
- The most convincing and (crucially) maintainable lie is a creative interpretation of the truth
- Everyone’s at it, but not everyone’s very good at it
DREAMS CAN COME TRUE
Yeah, it can happen. Course it can. Be aware that when you’re craving publicity to get going, you tend to get the occasional encouraging nugget of positive response, but as soon as you “make it” the seesaw tilts and the haters will surface. At that point, you’ll hopefully have a team behind you to handle the resentment and trolling – don’t try and do it for yourself. God, do some people have a hatred of success…
I’d be interested in hearing below about any outrageous examples of flim-flammery you’ve come across. Just be sure to change the names to protect the guilty…