“Were you listening to me, or were you looking at the woman in the red dress?” This famous line from The Matrix illustrates a basic concept: if you want to get noticed, you’ll have to stand out in 2016. With so much competition in the musical arena, we’ve decided to revamp our primer from three years back. Artists and labels, this is for you!
Since we launched this site in 2012, we’ve received over 10,000 viable albums for consideration and reviewed over 2000. Every week, we receive over 200 emails, and I read them all. In the process, I’ve gained some valuable insight, having learned from the best and the worst promotional efforts. While the outline below is tailored to our site, the advice is applicable across the board.
The scary truth: over 75% of the people who write to us have no idea what they’re doing. Most of our mail begins, “I’m a big fan/regular reader of your site” and continues with, “I want to tell you about a great singer-songwriter” or “Here’s my new rap single” or “We want you to do a video premiere for our pop artist.” Some are a bit more attentive: “I know you don’t review this sort of music, but …” Or people fail to follow the simple guidelines on our Submissions page. One artist has sent the same album 20+ times. Many labels send follow-ups that all begin the same way: “Hey, hope you’re good. Just wanted to see if you’ve had the chance to check out ___ yet?” (They must have read the same manual.) The good news: if you’re reading this, you’re already ahead of the game.
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 the necessary links. Make it as easy as possible to make a decision regarding the music. Be brief but specific. If you don’t read the site’s directions carefully, the people on the site will not read your emails carefully; it’s that simple.
Don’t: Send review sites group emails and say that your mailing list is so large that you do not 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 send a link without any words. Keep in mind that most sites have plenty of stuff to review without having to Google you to find out who you are or what you sound like. Don’t send a file without a cover letter. And if you’re not getting many responses, consider the possibility that your screen name, artist name or album name looks like spam.
How to Get Noticed in 2016: The Easy Way
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. Our annual Best Album Covers article is one of our site’s most popular features; do yourself a favor and check it out. People really do pay attention to presentation. I’ve often reviewed a half-decent album because of an awesome cover, and skipped a pretty good album because of a pretty bad cover. Conversely, the choice to use generic art as an ironic statement will usually backfire. We receive a lot of albums with blurry trees on the covers. Blurry trees are not cool. Neither are dark photos or black and white mountain photos. Not everyone has a friend in design, but anyone can take a decent picture. There’s no excuse for a poor cover.
Type matters. Hand-drawn can work well, as seen in the example on the right. Certain types are “hot” for a while (Comic Sans) but quickly become dated. Helvetica has become a not-very-inside joke, as well as the subject of a book and film. Your 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.
Not every album has a concept, but those that do attract positive attention. I love being able to tell friends about an album in a way that will interest them. For example: “An eight-hour recording meant to put people to sleep, which was launched with an overnight concert in which every attendee had a bed.” Or “A recording made in an Antarctic blizzard.” Or “A 50-track album of one-minute tracks.” If these sound familiar, it’s because each of them appeared on one or more of our year-end charts. Conversely, some overused and/or dull concepts include dreams, nostalgia, and life. The more specific, the better.
Lead with your best track.
Check the Soundcloud album play statistics: the first track gets the most clicks. If the first track 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 your best work, few people will ever hear it.
Provide advance notice.
Have you seen our News page? Or read our Winter Music Preview? The first contains samples of 52 upcoming releases, while the second contains a little something about 75+ upcoming releases. All of these artists and/or labels announced their information upfront, and their reward was free publicity. Everything we received by Christmas got mentioned. Everything. We can’t overstate the importance of this. Most sites review only a fraction of what they receive, so when an artist or label holds back all samples, or announces a release only on its release date (or in some cases, later ~ we’ve seen websites that don’t include information on their own releases, which we find befuddling), they only hurt their own chances of coverage; it’s like releasing movies without advance trailers.
How to Get Noticed in 2016: The Hard Way
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 2015 combined new instrumentation with pre-existing sources. Matana Roberts combined archival samples with layered lyrics and original music; Holly Herndon chopped her vocals into shards and sprinkled them over dance beats; Esmerine integrated Arabic timbres into post-rock. Each new element stood out, like a woman in a red dress amid a sea of black suits.
Do what others do, but better.
There will always be a place for music that is played well, even if it is not entirely original. Disasterpeace’s score for It Follows was a clear John Carpenter homage, but we loved it. Peter Gregson produced a pristine cello album. Godspeed continued to be Godspeed. Most of the eligible music we receive is good, but being good is no longer good enough in 2016. For example, we receive twenty ambient albums a week, but no one buys that twenty ambient albums a week; in order to get noticed as an artist or label, 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. Here’s a sobering fact: most internet users only stay on a site for 30-59 seconds. In the digital era, the decision to purchase is often an impulse. If the impulse vanishes, the purchase vanishes as well.
Finally, be friendly and patient.
Most reviewers don’t make money reviewing. They volunteer simply because they love music. Every reviewer wishes they could review more. No review site likes to see a release go unreviewed. And yet, they do, and they will. On the other side of the equation, most recording artists don’t make much (or any) money. They dream of a day when this can become 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. Make music because it inspires you ~ we’ll review music when it inspires us, when we have the time, and when our children aren’t sick and our workloads are light. We appreciate what you do, even when we don’t review you, so please appreciate us in return!
Wishing you wonderful sounds in the new year!