Your recording's complete, packaged and ready to shake the world. So what do you do about it? Big George looks at step one in the promotion merry‑go‑round.
The best advice anyone will ever give you on how to promote your act is "Don't bother. You haven't got a chance". The road to international stardom is paved with broken promises, missed opportunities and never‑had‑a‑hope‑in‑hell‑to‑begin‑with's. But if you let that sort of thing stop you trying, you didn't have the right stuff to begin with.
Promoting your act's latest (and most likely first) release is a major uphill struggle. Whether you're promoting yourself or paying for a professional plugger to do it for you, it's an expensive business. If you think you can do it with a couple of phone calls and one chance meeting with Chris Evans you might be right — but don't bank on it.
Rome wasn't built in a day, and Bono didn't buy a castle until his fifth album.
You see, promoting your act isn't a matter of playing your track and sending your photos and biog to the right person and then everything taking care of itself. To 'make it' (snigger — I'm sorry to laugh, but the concept of 'making it' is so alien to real life inside the music industry. Do you know, some people think that one play on the radio is 'making it'; others think that getting into the pop charts means you've 'made it'; I'm told that people actually still believe that getting signed to major label is 'making it', and an appearance on Top Of The Pops is the definition of 'having made it'. How wrong they all are) is rather more difficult, and it takes many forces working in tandem to even scratch the surface of success.
Once you've got a foothold with the media (whatever aspect and however it comes off), you have to push even harder and keep on pushing, otherwise you'll be trodden on by the next act right behind you — and there are thousands of them, all vying for that elusive top spot.
Glimmer Of Hope
Before Alan (Fluff) Freeman had even started as a DJ, a wise old man called Lao‑Tse said a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. So, step one on the road to 'making it' (ha ha ha, sorry) is being bloody sure that your product (get used to that word) isn't a half‑baked piece of self‑indulgent nonsense which only you and your Mum think is any good. It doesn't matter how small the recording budget was, if it's not in the same Poptastic ball park as the kind of records you want to push aside, you'll trip on your first step. A lot of people never get up from the horrendousness of that kind of fall.
But let's assume your music will be massive as soon as the general public get to hear it. There are many directions you can go in, but before you even start you need, at the very least, a biog or a one‑page write up on the band, its aims or philosophy, which should be short (and entertaining to read), and four really good photographs: two black and white and two colour. The photos should all be very similar in content and approach (you want people to make the connection between them when they see one in a local paper and another one in a magazine like Sound On Sound. Talking of which, how would you get a feature about your act in SOS?
Infiltrating The Ranks
Sound On Sound, as every reader knows, is the very best magazine in the world with regard to Hi‑tech Music Recording, so they're not going to be interested in a piece about how you choose your stage gear. Similarly, a fashion magazine would not be the slightest bit concerned with how you revolutionised the process of vocal sampling using time‑stretch parameters. So tailor your approach to suit whoever you're sending your stuff to, then call them two days after you've sent it and see if they're interested. But remember, every month every magazine has got three times as much copy as it can print, so if you haven't got exactly the right spin on the story you're offering them, it won't get in.
A much easier place to start your media blitz is your local newspaper — come to think of it, anyone's local newspaper. As everybody knows, the local press excels at profiling flower shows and highlighting the lack of community policing, but is it any good at helping to kick‑start a global music career? The answer is Yes! Not because of the in‑depth reporting it gives or its pioneering efforts to discover new musical talent, but purely because it gives positive press coverage, with a photo. Whatever you do, though, don't let the local paper take the picture, unless you want to look like a local counsellor opening up a new child‑care centre. Give them one of the four fabulous pictures from your press pack. Building a press portfolio is very important, as it helps you get ready for step one of the process of promoting yourself. So at this stage of your career, whatever you do, don't make enemies of the press; wait until your third album is number one.
It's All About The Music
Let's talk about your product. You will need copies on CD or, if your product is on vinyl only, at the very least a dozen CD‑Rs. You will need at least 200 promotional copies to send in the post; the CD‑Rs you would give to radio stations personally. Cassettes are a good thing to have as well, but they do not — and I repeat, DO NOT — constitute a front‑line assault weapon in the promotions war. They are good to give people to play in their cars, and that's the only place they'll be played.
Just remember: it will take longer than a year of solid hard slog promoting yourself before you can even consider being a failure.
Promoting yourself is a giving thing, and that doesn't just mean the product — it takes a lot of time, effort and money. Think about how much you've spent on equipment over the years. If you're serious about getting somewhere in this business, what percentage of that cost do you think should be invested into getting you there?
Old Bands For New
You have to remember that the last thing the record industry wants to do is break a new act — they're too busy collecting the sheer profit they make on selling back catalogue. If you don't believe me, go into your local record megastore and count how many old records are for sale compared to new releases. By my unscientific reckoning (which took three hours counting on my fingers) it's 250 records recorded before the '90s to every one recorded in the '90s. Or, to put it another way, which will perhaps make you see sense and take the advice given at the beginning of this article: there are at least 2000 different back‑catalogue titles to every debut album on sale. And whatever theory you want to use to counter that conservative estimate, the fact remains that retail is everything. No amount of stories in magazines and local newspapers counts diddly squat compared to a punter paying hard cash (or plastic) for your music.
But enough of this defeatist talk: Rome wasn't built in a day, and Bono didn't buy a castle until his fifth album. As a matter of interest, probably as much money was spent on promoting U2's latest album as it cost to build the big stage with the lemon on top.
Let's see if we can get as far as step one of the process. You have got an excellent product (which isn't a lemon) and you want to promote it. That isn't just repeating what's already been said, it's trying to get a handle on what you want to achieve (although you'd better get used to repeating yourself over and over again, in meetings and when you do interviews). Ask yourself some serious questions:
- What do you want to achieve (apart from world musical domination) in the short term?
- Have you got more product in the can?
- Do you release it commercially under your own steam first? (For a detailed look at how to go about that, see the May '97 issue of SOS).
- Are you prepared to work hard on making the first step work?
There is never too much you can do beforehand — even going to the right places to be seen by the right people doing the right things. If you can create a buzz in the scene you plan to dominate, promoting yourself will be a whole lot easier.
Just Turn That Dial
The best way of selling your record by the lorry‑load is to get masses of TV and radio air time. To take TV first of all, if you're no‑one then there's no chance, unless you want to go on a sad talent show. TV producers have major labels courting them on a routine basis and these days the old pals act is more than just a nod and a wink, it's a shareholding. As for MTV and VH1, they play videos by Nirvana, Sheryl Crow and Wet Wet Wet. If you can find a way to get on TV, go for it: it worked for Frankie Goes To Hollywood 14 years ago, and look what happened to them (as shown above).
With regard to radio play, there are two areas to look at
- All the others
I don't include pirate stations, as they cover a very small area and have an even smaller (zero, in fact) impact on the general record‑buying public. Oh, for the days of pirate stations broadcasting from a rust‑bucket ship in the North Sea, playing music which wasn't corporate‑sponsored bland nonsense! (See Sounding Off, January '97).
Radio 1FM has a fantastic policy with regard to new music and embraces specialist shows where presenters can play their own personal choice, whereas local commercial stations have a playlist of 200 records (all safe, established artists) and DJs are allowed no personal choice — which, although disgusting, won't change at all in this century. Apart from Tina Turner's latest record, they play one or two Hot Oldies per hour. Hot Oldies mean the same old records coming round and around again, like Thin Lizzy's 'The Boys Are Back In Town' (you'd think it was the only song Phil Lynott ever wrote, which is another sick thing about local radio — no sense of musical history or quality). So, unless you can find a way of blackmailing the owner of a local radio‑station chain, you have no chance of getting local FM radio play, period!
This is a hard business, and the hardest part of it to crack is step one of the promotion treadmill.
The Best Of British
Luckily, Radio 1FM does not exist to please advertisers by aligning them to established hit music which supposedly reflects well on their companies. The BBC radio has a forward‑thinking policy that plays more new music than any other station in the world. But a lot of it is still playlisted. Records on the Radio 1FM 'A‑list' will be played between 20 and 30 times every week; on local FM stations the A‑list will be a lot more conservative and be played as many as 60 times a week. To get onto the A‑list of any station you have to be part of the establishment or be flying up the pop charts at a turbo‑charged rate. And that doesn't mean entering the chart at number 79 and then dropping out the next week, as is the case with so many records these days. Entering the lower end of the chart might, just might, propel a record into the 'B‑list', which will get you between eight and 20 plays a week. But records that go onto the B‑list and are dropped the next week tend never to get heard of again.
The most you can hope for, to start with, is an appearance on the 'C‑list', which will give you between four and 10 plays per week (depending on whether the DJ broadcasting likes your record, as C‑list plays are the only list mainstream Radio 1FM DJs have as personal choice). But, unless you can back this up with a positive shift in record sales and/or mainstream press, you'll be off the nation's airwaves in a week.
To get onto the Radio 1FM playlist there's one man you have to get to: Jeff Smith. Every week he will see around 20 different professional pluggers for 10‑20 minutes. They will play him their latest offerings and then he'll take the records to a playlist meeting with various programme producers to finalise the week's lists. Apparently, if you try hard enough there's the chance he will give you five minutes of his time, although he didn't return any of the 10 friendly calls I left on his voice mail.
This is not the case with the many and varied specialist shows on Radio 1FM. These are not dictated by playlists at all. Which is one very good reason we should be very proud of the BBC. Shows like One In The Jungle, The Essential Mix, and Westward's Rap Show, and DJs such as Pete Tong, Andy Kershaw, Danny Rampling and (the greatest human being in the entire music industry, who ought to rule the planet, not just because of his eclectic musical taste but because he is the toppest bloke on the planet) John Peel are able to programme their own shows. And that means playing your track!
Getting a few radio plays on a specialist show might not mean your record going platinum, but it can lead to other things. Major record companies might not be forthcoming in signing and developing new acts from scratch, but they're always picking up new records with a bit of profile in their quest to own as many small labels as possible. A couple of plays on Radio 1FM can often be the impetus for your record to be picked up by a major for a label administration deal or for distribution. It can also help to get your track licensed for a compilation or loads of compilations, which can be quite a nice earner and can greatly assist in further releases.
But before you ring the BBC and ask to speak to one of the DJs in person and demand they play your record, STOP! Don't blow it by being a pain in the butt with a pile of crap and the wrong attitude. Do some detective work. Find out who the producer of the show is. Don't just think you can call Tim Westward up and he'll agree to play your track every Saturday for the rest of the year.
Know what to send: some people only play CDs, whereas John Peel has a passion for vinyl. Some like to know a lot about who you are and what you do, others just want the record. Professional pluggers know these things — it's their job. If you're doing this yourself you will have to find out for yourself. That alone will take time and effort.
Just Hanging Around
Hanging round BBC Broadcasting House in Portman Place is definitely a wise move. If you keep your ears open and your mind alert you will find out who's who. You will see people taking boxes of records in: these are either record company reps, producers or DJs. Now's your chance to impress — without seeming like a mental axe murderer. Knowledge is power, and outside the most famous and revered broadcast building in history is a good place to go about gaining some.
Most (but not all) of the current breed of stars have never needed to hang around outside the BBC with the autograph‑hunting anoraks. They use professional pluggers, but that costs serious money — or does it? The Spice Girls allegedly didn't pay a penny to the company that plugged them. They, or the muscle behind them, made a percentage deal from their record royalties. I tried to get this rumour confirmed or denied by the relevant parties, but the response was a series of "no comment"s and non‑returned calls. Funny, that — but from what I could gather everyone was blissfully happy to have been involved in the arrangement.
This is a hard business, and the hardest part of it to crack is step one of the promotion treadmill. As well as getting radio play you have to generate record sales, press, public interest, foreign interest and TV coverage. When no‑one seems the slightest bit interested in you and your music, it will hurt, bad. But that's not to say all is lost: you may be going about it the wrong way, on the wrong day. Keep trying. It took the Pet Shop Boys 18 months to break their first record, 'West End Girls', and look at them now — financially secure for life, doing what they want to do, adored by millions of people across the world... that can't be bad.
Just remember: it will take longer than a year of solid hard slog promoting yourself before you can even consider being a failure. This article has only looked at how you go about taking step one: the next thousand miles can be the most exhilarating or heart‑breaking you will ever endure, but if you're not prepared to start on the journey, you will never get to the destination. In the words of another wise old man, Dr John: "Quitters Never Win & Winners Never Quit"!
Just Plug In
Whilst researching this article I spoke to half a dozen different promotions agencies and individual pluggers. Apart from one freelance plugger, all of them wished to remain anonymous, not because they said anything contentious, but because they didn't want loads of unsigned acts ringing up them up in order to get promoted. They all said that they have to believe in something very strongly before they'll hawk it all over town, and that their reputations were worth more than the money they might make.
As for the one plugger who didn't mind their details being given out, although their rates were the lowest they are dodgy and untrustworthy and haven't got access to any of the right people — in short, they would f*** up you and your career.
So if you want to get in touch with a professional promotions company, you'll have to find them yourself. The best way to do this is to pal up with a radio producer and get hold of the list of all the reputable pluggers in the business. And before you say anything, pal‑ing up with a radio producer is the sort of thing you will have to do at some point — the sooner the better.
As for rates, it seems that the average rate for a professional operation to promote a single for a month nationally (which means Radio 1FM and some of the London‑based pop stations) is between £1500 and £4000. For this, you will have someone enthuse about your track to the right people at the right time. Every relevant DJ and producer will get a copy of your record (which you will have supplied free of charge).
For regional promotion, the cost goes up to between £3000 and £5000, and for that around 400 DJs across the country will receive your record and a phone call asking what they thought of it. But very few promotions companies deal with stations based outside London, the reason being that most local FM stations are run by advertising‑hungry corporate companies who only play established artists, chart records and occasionally songs which are being played by London‑based stations. In other words, of the 600+ singles released every week, regional stations will only play the Spice Girls, Oasis, etc, and not yours at all. Sad, but a fact!
Doing It The Easy Way
One sure‑fire way of being seen by the entire tabloid‑reading nation, which includes the producers of daytime TV programmes, music‑press assassins and media whores from every nook and cranny, is to have a film star, soap opera star (preferably a female character who is going through a torrid storyline) or a premier‑league footballer in the band. For maximum media‑bility someone from the band should be going out with them. A Max Clifford‑type approach would be: they should have a fight outside Stringfellows night club on Saturday night so the story (with pictures) could hit a tabloid on Monday. One of the couple should book into a clinic early evening on Monday and issue a statement saying they are too upset to talk. That would be Tuesday morning's headline. Next, the other one should punch a foreign photographer: this would make a top story and get the entire British press on their side. On Wednesday, one photographer should get a zoom lens picture of a kiss‑and‑cuddle, making up‑type scene, which would give you the rest of the week to sell the exclusive story to at least five Sunday newspapers: her side, his side, a couple of parents (one saying they're great together and the other saying they should never have met), and someone else from the band dishing out the shock‑horror studio exploits. It would get the record (remember that part of the deal — your music) played across the airwaves for at least a week.
That sort of coverage is orchestrated on a regular basis. This doesn't mean that it works, but it's the staple diet of most of the tabloid gossip columns. Of course, it would make the entire music press your enemies for ever, and what better way is there of selling platinum amounts of albums than by being slagged off by the weekly music press?
George Promotes Himself Onto Radio 2
I've been made spokesman for the BBC's 75th anniversary CD, which I feel is one of the high spots of my career — although I can't help wondering whether they chose me because all the other composers appearing on the CD are either dead or tax exiles. My first publicity appearance in this capacity was the Richard Allinson show on Radio 2.
We started by talking about the greatness of dead composers like Eric Coates, and very much alive ones like the delightfully 'Wilde' Debbie Wiseman (whose latest high‑profile job was the score for the Stephen Fry Oscar Wilde biopic) — then the phone went. It was the top brass saying that we weren't allowed to plug BBC products on the Beeb. So we spent the next 25 minutes talking about my favourite subject: ME.