Had quite a few comments this week from people who found “Back To Basics” quite helpful, and a good way to re-focus at the end of a year. So this time, let’s go one step further– not just how to come up with a general “strategy” to get our music out there and earning money, but an even more specific concern that we all run up against sooner or later:
What Do I Say?
It’s fine to understand that we should be directing our efforts to getting songs out to developing artists (as opposed to aiming at inaccessible superstars), or that we need to create a network to help introduce us to the A&R people, managers and artists that we need to know. We may even have forced ourselves to open up a specific window of time each day to make our “sales” calls. But once we pick up the phone, and hear a voice on the other end, we’re suddenly faced with an inescapable moment of panic when we realize… we have to say something! How do you present yourself in a way that will make the call or the meeting or the two minute “nice to meet you” moment at a cocktail party into something actually productive?
In my Berkleemusic class, Music Publishing 101, there is an assignment on “Song Pitching” in which each student is challenged to actually pick up the phone and make a pitch call to the instructor, just to get the feel of what such a call is like. Inevitably, students greet the opportunity with initial enthusiasm, which quickly gives way to high anxiety, as soon as they try to figure out what they’re actually going to say. Especially when you’re still in the early stages of developing your career, it’s hard to imagine how you can grab someone’s interest without wildly exaggerating your experience in the industry. Clearly, the more you have going on in your career, the easier it is to present yourself to others. Nevertheless, there are a few basic principles that can help even a beginning writer put his or her best foot forward, once you actually have another human being standing in front of you, or waiting on the other end of the phone:
DO YOUR RESEARCH
Just because you are a beginner in the industry, you don’t need to sound like you’re a beginner in the industry. Knowledge is free, and in the age of the internet, it is immediately accessible to everyone. Before you call anyone, or meet with anyone, or go to an industry event, you MUST do your research on who it is you’re speaking with, or who you’re hoping to speak with.
Someone once told me that Michael Eisner, the former head of Disney, used to ask anyone with whom he was scheduled to meet to fax a resume or bio prior to the appointment. Of course, he would also have his staff google each person on his calendar, and he would expect a brief the day before the meeting. If the power players whom you dream of having an opportunity to meet are prepared to invest that kind of research time when they conduct meetings, you can be sure that they expect you to do the same.
At some point in the first two minutes of meeting someone, emailing them, or having a phone conversation, you need to send a clear signal that you know who you are dealing with. You do that by dropping a compliment to them for a recent success, by inquiring about the status of a current project, or at the very least, by tailoring your pitch to fit their specific needs. You don’t call an A&R person and offer to send songs in for an act that writes all their own material. You don’t call the manager of Avril Lavigne to pitch him your new artist who will compete directly with Avril Lavigne. You have to show that you understand not only who you are speaking with, their background and their current activity, but also their interests– what is it that they need or want? How can you help supply that?
Of course, some meetings– the scheduled ones or the phone calls– are considerably easier to prepare for than the chance introductions at an industry event or backstage at a show. Certainly, if you’re attending the ASCAP Holiday Party in New York, you can anticipate meeting some of the Writer Representatives, some of the major New York writers who are affiliated with ASCAP, and some of the A&R people from the top publishers. At a minimum, you’ll want to have done some basic research on those people, and have formulated a “wish’ list in your mind of the ten people with whom you would really like to connect. If you have a chance to go backstage at a concert, you should have researched the artist’s manager, A&R person, tour manager, music director, and booking agent, as those are all people you are likely to see there. If you attend a music conference, you can easily get a list of attendees and panelists in advance, and begin to plot out who your key “targets” will be.
Beyond that, the best preparation is to always be prepared for anything. You do that by always maintaining a wide knowledge of the industry in general. Every songwriter and publisher should read Billboard, Hollywood Reporter, Variety and the more specific trade magazines for specific genres. You need to follow the industry blogs and newsletters. Check out:
AnR Worldwide.com (http://www.anrworldwide.com)
Music Connection.com (http://www.musicconnection.com)
The Deans List (http://www.ascap.com/playback/2009/spring/action/Dean.aspx)
If you have a genuine knowledge of the music industry, that intelligence will immediately come through to any industry insider that you meet, and you will have instant credibility. Without it, you will eventually be exposed as a neophyte, no matter how thorough your research for that specific meeting might have been.
STAND AND DELIVER
While it’s important to convey a knowledge of the activities of whoever you happen to be meeting, that alone will not produce much in the way of results. After all, the point is to let the other person know who you are and what you’re doing. Often, even songwriters with plenty of background in the industry falter when the conversation leaves the area of small talk, and turns the spotlight on them. In a business as “schmooze” oriented as the music industry, you can not survive out there without a well-oiled, frequently updated, confidently delivered “elevator” pitch– that is, a thirty second explanation of who you are and why you matter.
Essentially, there are four basic approaches you can take to your thirty-second bio– and they will change all the time, depending on the person to whom you’re speaking and your current activity in the industry. If you can, try to prepare a quick pitch for yourself around each of the four angles– just to have in case you need it. But if you’re relatively limited in your experience, accomplishments or current activity in the industry, you may need to work your way down the list, until you find an angle that works for you. Here are the four approaches you can consider. You can talk about:
1. What’s happening.
“I’m releasing a new album.” “I’m playing a show next week.” “I’m nominated for a Grammy.” “I’m traveling to Europe to work on a project in France.” Clearly, this is the easiest and most straightforward angle to take– its success will depend entirely on how interesting or relevant what’s happening actually is. Do not lie. You can stretch a bit, but if nothing is happening, or what’s happening will clearly not be of interest to the person with whom you’re speaking, then move on to idea #2…
2. What you’ve done.
“I wrote the first single for Madonna’s last record.” “I was in a band signed to Mercury.” “I toured with Charlie Daniels.” “I DJ’d at Pacha.” Past credits are never as strong as current activity, but depending again on their relevance, the level of achievement, and how long ago they happened, they can still pack a mighty punch. There are plenty of industry types who have been living off one hit project for a decade. If you’ve only got thirty seconds, you go with your best shot. If you’ve got a big past success on which to hang your hat, by all means, get that into the first two or three sentences out of your mouth. If not, then read on…
3. Who you’re with.
“I write with Keith Urban.” “I do some programming for Howard Benson.” “My friend Dan at ASCAP suggested I call.” “My lawyer has mentioned that I should meet with you.” “I worked at a studio with Dan Huff.” “I studied guitar with Pat Metheny”.
It’s always helpful to have a name that you can pull out. Most credibility in the music industry is through association– if you can indicate that you are part of the hot buzz scene, or that you work with people who are established, or that you have a team of industry players around you, or that you share a mutual acquaintance with person to whom you’re speaking, you will be viewed as an insider. As we discussed before, this is why it’s so important to build your network on every level, with other musicians and songwriters, engineers, club owners, or local radio people. Without a lot of current activity or past accomplishments, you will need a little help from your friends.
4. Who you are.
Now we get to the angle that is the hardest to pull off, and also the one where far too many songwriters and publishers find themselves. When faced with concocting an effective thirty-second presentation about “who you are”, you may realize that it would be easier to go out and generate some current activity, or add some people to your network, than to try to figure out a way to describe yourself that sounds interesting and engaging. Still, it’s a good skill to learn– the ability to present yourself in a way that is consistent and interesting will serve you well in many walks of life. What is unique about you that will engage a person meeting you for the first time?
Maybe it’s your background or family (think Paris Hilton, Ivanka Trump or Jakob Dylan). Maybe it’s where you come from (“the new writer/producer from Norway”, or “the new DJ from France” or “the new urban writer from Atlanta”). Maybe it’s a funny experience you had that led you into the industry, or charity work that you’re involved with, or political causes you’re associated with. Perhaps its something quirky in your industry background (“I started out in hip-hop, but now I’m writing an opera…”) or in your approach (“I use only vintage gear from the Eighties” or “I primarily play at private listening parties in people’s homes”). But you have to find something that will give someone a quick idea of who you are, something identifiable that they can remember, and a reason to at least follow your statement with a question, which can lead to more conversation.
If you can’t find anything that fits into one of those categories, it may be time to do some serious soul-searching. If you don’t have any current activity of interest, no past accomplishments, no friends or colleagues in the industry, and nothing unique about your personality, work or background, it’s hard to know why anyone would be interested in speaking with you.
Someone once commented to David Letterman that he could be a bit hard on his guests. He responded, and I paraphrase, that anyone coming on his show came to promote a project or themselves or both–if they can’t bring along one funny story or observation, or at least an interesting topic for discussion in order to fill five minutes of airtime, then they deserve what they get. It’s cold– but the same is true of making pitch calls. Remember: you’re the one making the call, or pushing for the introduction. It’s your obligation to have something interesting to say.
Next week, we’ll take a quick look at what to do when you run into problems in getting your music out there– and believe me, you will. In the meantime, to all of you who support this blog throughout the year, here’s a big Thank You for all your comments and encouragement. Have a Merry Christmas, a Happy Holiday, or good vacation, whatever suits you.