The old adage is true: it’s all about making a solid first impression. Any label or artist still operating under the old standard (“If it’s good, they’ll like it”) will find themselves floundering in the digital era. Apart from the obvious (word of mouth, airplay, film inclusion), there’s only one simple rule to remember:
Get them to click.
Get them to click on the email. Get them to click on the link. Get them to click on the sound sample. Get them to click on the Buy button. If possible, get them to click on Subscribe ~ then repeat.
As simple as this rule is, it’s amazing to see how many artists and labels ignore it. In the past year, we’ve received over a thousand submissions at A Closer Listen. I reviewed nearly 400, and at least sampled everything that came in, as well as over a thousand others that did not. In the process, I’ve gained some valuable insight, having learned from the best and the worst of promotional efforts. While the outline below is tailored to our site, the advice is applicable across the board.
First, the worst: no names, just stories. One label told us that reviewing their work was a privilege, and that if we did not accept their “gift”, they would never contact us again. (Thankfully, they have not.) Two labels promised to send promos (even though we said digital copies were fine) and never did. One artist called us “stupid” for focusing on instrumental music. Another wrote that it was a shame that we did not review his album because it was voted #1 on a local radio station and was sold in a local store. And one asked if we had listened to his album yet – two days after his initial email.
So let’s start with subtopic #1: The Initial Contact.
The Initial Contact
Do: Mention the name of the recipient. Follow the directions on the site’s contact page. Provide all necessary links. Make it as easy as possible to make a decision regarding the music. Be brief but specific.
Don’t: Send review sites group emails and say that your mailing list is so large that you don’t have the time to address emails personally. Many sites will conclude that you must be really popular and that you really don’t need any more coverage. Don’t address inquiries with a simple “Hey,” “Hi”, or “Yo”, or write, “I have a new release, maybe you want to check it out”, while providing a link to a press release. Keep in mind that most sites have plenty of stuff to review without sleuthing. Don’t send a file without a cover letter. And if you’re not getting many responses, consider the possibility that your screen name looks like spam.
Cover Art: We all know that you can’t judge a book by it’s cover, and the same may be true of albums; but a book with an appealing cover gets picked up in a bookstore by a person who may want to read the inside flap, and then possibly purchase the book. In like fashion, an album with an appealing cover will entice reviewers or fans to read more, and perhaps listen, and then possibly review and/or buy the music. Nayt’s album art feature was our site’s most viewed article in 2012. People really do pay attention to presentation. Conversely, the choice to use generic art as an ironic statement will usually backfire. If stuck, look through your own photos, digital or physical, and let a few friends pick a winner. Even better – choose a few and include them as bonus art. Or ask your illustrator friend for a favor. There’s no excuse for a poor cover.
Typography: Yes, type matters. Hand-drawn can work. Certain types are “hot” for a while (Jokerman, Comic Sans) but quickly become dated. Helvetica has become a not-very-inside joke, as well as the subject of a book and film. Typography can send a message as clearly as art. For more on type, pick up a copy of Simon Garfield’s excellent treatise, Just My Type.
Concept: Not every album has a concept, but those that do attract immediate attention. Remember the simple rule above: get them to click. A well-presented concept will get prospective listeners to become actual listeners. A few examples of great concepts from 2012 include: Wist Records’ Book Report Series, which pairs Penguin Classics with CD3″s based on the literature; Flaming Pines’ Birds of a Feather series, each focusing on a specific bird; Makunouchi Bento’s Rinbo, celebrating monsters from Japanese legend; Atay Ilgun and Alper Yildirim’s Aokigahara: The Black Sea of Trees, reflecting a Japanese forest known for its suicides; Tyneham House, a tribute to a disheveled manor house that became a radar station and artillery target; and Spheruleus’ Cyanometry, a series of ambient pieces that echo the work of the cyanometer, constructed to measure varying gradations of blue. Examples of poor and overused concepts: spring, the ocean, dreams, nostalgia, life.
Lead with your best track. Check the play statistics: the first track gets the most play. If it doesn’t make a good impression, listeners won’t move on to the next. It’s not fair, but it’s human nature. If you hide the best track, few people will ever find it.
How to Get Noticed in 2013: The Hard Way
Be original. It’s hard to be original without straying so far off the beaten path that no one will follow. Keep in mind that most original music builds on what has come before; artists don’t need to reinvent the playbook. In fact, some of the most original sounding music in 2012 combined new instrumentation with pre-existing sources: Night Shift’s Trespasser’s Guide to Nowhere and Lilacs & Champagne’s self-titled debut. It’s also safe to say that Swans’ The Seer did not sound like anything else – at times, it didn’t even sound like Swans!
Do what others do, but better. There will always be a place for field recordings and music that are done well, even if they are not entirely original. GY!BE’s Alleluia! did sound like old GY!BE (and in fact, it was), but we loved it. Tan Frio el Verano didn’t break new ground with Primavera, but their compositions were excellent. We’ve heard lots of river recordings, but Craig Vear’s ESK stood above them all. In 2013, being good isn’t good enough. No one buys 20 ambient albums a week; in order to get noticed as an artist or label in 2013, one will need to stand out.
The final, crucial step.
Okay, now someone wants to buy your album or EP. Wow! This is great news. Unfortunately, many artists and labels fumble this ball on the goal line. Either the site is difficult to navigate, the Buy link is hidden, the potential buyer has to email the artist or label to make the purchase, or the potential buyer has to register with the site and/or fill out a long personal form in order to make the purchase. Remember again the simple rule:
Get them to click.
That’s click, not click and type for a while, fumble with card information, figure out a password, and/or wait for a response. In the digital era, the decision to purchase is often an impulse. If the impulse vanishes, the purchase vanishes as well. If your site continues to cause problems, get a new one; that’s what we did!
Finally, be friendly and patient.
For the most part, reviewers don’t make money reviewing. They volunteer simply because they love music. Every reviewer wishes they could review more. Nobody likes to see a release go unreviewed. And yet, they do, and they will. On the other side of the equation, most artists don’t make much (or any) money making field recordings or music. They dream of a day when this can be their profession. But they, too, do what they do out of love for their art. And when it comes to the fan, few people are able to buy all the music they want, or even listen to all the music they would like to hear. We’re all in this together. With a nod to Elvis Costello, peace, love and understanding will go a long way.
Wishing you wonderful sounds in the new year!