When I was just getting started as a professional pianist, there was no such thing as “career counseling” for musicians or publicity pointers for pianists. Unless you were picked up by some major management, you were pretty much left on your own to figure out how to get your name out there. From what I could gather, standard practice in those days was to get at least one 8×10 black and white headshot photograph (a physical photograph, mind you) and to have a one-page bio. Mimicking the bios I read on recital and playbill programs, I followed what seemed to be a common formula:
- Your country of origin (particularly if you were outside the U.S.)
- Name(s) of prominent teachers you studied with
- Schools/conservatories where you studied and the degree(s) you obtained
- Competition prizes won
- Notable venues you performed in
- Notable orchestras/collaborative musicians you appeared with
If you were really organized, you put these materials into a nice folder along with a stapled stack of photocopied press clippings and reviews, and maybe even a CD or two if you were fortunate to have some good recordings ready to be shared.
Whenever a presenter was interested in engaging me for a concert, I would send over my “press kit”, and would see my stiltedly worded bio printed verbatim, or sometimes I’d have to endure 5 minutes of it being read out loud in smaller venues, word for word.
When personal websites were first available, mine was a bleak one page exercise in bare aesthetic minimalism, with a small scan of my trusty old black and white headshot (taken when I was 18, I believe – I think I milked that puppy for at least 15 years…) and my boring bio as plain text. I just put something up as a placeholder, always intending to get back to “really working on it” later.
Jump forward to today, and now in my new role as an online “presenter” through my weekly podcast, I find myself in the role of having to sift through publicity materials from other artists – some sent to me by their publicists, others directly from the artists themselves. One of the most fascinating things has been a complete shift in my perspective on publicity. In some cases, I actually make decisions on whether or not to have an artist on my show based on the quality of their publicity. Of course, some folks have the luxury of already having a “big name” and a reputation that precedes them, so their bios are more of a helpful, optional supplement to my show preparation. For the rest, though, it’s striking to see how many artists have stuck to the same old formula that I did back in the day (even young artists!), and how increasingly irrelevant that formula has become to me in my presenter role.
“A Musical Life” is a show that tells stories about making music and the things that move our souls. It’s designed to appeal to as general an audience as possible with the assumption that new listeners will have had little to zero experience with the artist or genre of music being shared. As a podcaster, I am looking for guests on my show who can address one simple question:
What makes them interesting?
Who you studied with, where you went to school, which competitions you’ve won or orchestras you’ve played with isn’t nearly as interesting to me as something you are uniquely known for. The key word here, in case you missed it, is unique. I am looking for artists with interesting stories that will grab and keep the attention of my audience. Exceptional artistic accomplishments certainly help (such as winning a Pulitzer prize or an Emmy award, or having a chart-topping album), but just as interesting can be stories of overcoming adversity, representing a unique musical style, mixing genres, or pioneering something completely new or radically different.
When you’re ready to revamp your bio and other sundry publicity materials, try to put yourself in the perspective of a presenter and think about what would pique their interest in you. What is your story? How would you describe yourself in one sentence in a way that makes you truly stand out?
A few practical tips
Make A Website
If you don’t have a decent website, that immediately makes my job a LOT harder to compile the research and information necessary to put together an interesting interview, and hence I’m much less inclined to consider you for my show. If you need help getting started, check out my free eBook on building a website or optimizing an existing one.
I’m surprised at the number of artists who neglect to add an “about me” or publicity page on their websites. This is where you add your bio, press releases PDFs, and links to your photo gallery, recordings, press reviews/interviews, and other media that represents your artistic output. Hint: making your media downloadable makes my job a LOT easier.
- Keep your background to a bare minimum for your main publicity photos. Unless it’s meant to be an artistic photo that could be hung in an art gallery, I just need to see your face and bust, preferably with a representative view of your instrument (where applicable). Plain, solid color backgrounds work best.
- Avoid extreme closeups. I need empty space around you so that I can add logos, titles, and other descriptive graphics/text. If I only have room on your forehead to do so, well…
- Try to have hi-res photos in both landscape and portrait dimensions. iTunes, for example, requires 1400×1400 square dimensions, while Facebook has a very narrow landscape dimension requirement, and Pinterest recommends a portrait dimension. You need to give your presenter options to be able to crop to fit these varying shapes and sizes. Here are some standard dimensions for other social media sites where I need to publicize new episodes:
- Facebook – 1,200 x 628
Twitter – 1,024 x 512
LinkedIn – 700 x 400
Google+ – 800 x 1,200
Pinterest – 735 x 1,102
Instagram – 1,080 x 1,080
- Facebook – 1,200 x 628
One advantage of working with a good publicist is that they will be able to help you tweak your publicity materials. But if you’re doing this on your own, then you need to get objective feedback from others – musicians and non-musicians alike. Remember, the goal is to impress others with your story and your image and to pique their interests. That can be very difficult to do if you’re stuck in your own perspective. Good businesses understand this well – that’s why they solicit feedback from their customers to improve their products and services, and especially their marketing.
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