Selling Out 101

Instant stardom or your money back

The beginning of the year is a good time to clean out the closet. This week I got rid of about 200 CDs from my personal collection. After digitizing my music a few years ago, I shoved quite a few of my CDs into the dark, as if they were going to improve like wine. So I purged like Stalin.

But after all of this cleaning, one area of clutter remains -- in my office. I suppose it's my fault, the way I let it all pile up. But you tell me: What do you do with a copy of Jackyl: Live at the Full Throttle Saloon?

The world of music publicity is full of detritus like this. Sometimes you can recycle it. And while it's easy to toss aside the Jackyl, it's harder to toss aside something from a local band, even if they do everything wrong.

Here's a guide for local musicians on getting their name noticed. Consider it a companion piece to the hilarious, caustic advice of the Creepy Crawl: Top 39 Annoying Things Bands Do ( I promise to be gentler than they are.

1) Be professional. I understand: You got into music to get away from the suit-and-tie drudgery of the workaday world. But guess what? You still have to act professional if you want gigs. If you're really in it for art-for-art's-sake, just tuck your albums away like Emily Dickinson did with her poems. But if you want gigs and media attention, you have to act like you want it. The whole Kurt Cobain "I hate you guys, now put me on the cover" thing died with him. Be as scuzzy as you want onstage. But offstage, putting a little effort into getting noticed beats a day job.

Forget the whole concept of "selling out," at least when you're starting out. It's okay to be suspicious of U2 for padding their pockets with ad dollars when they're already millionaires, but trying to be successful at what you love isn't selling out. It's living the dream.

2) Say "cheese." So many bands' Web sites (on which I'll elaborate in a moment) have a pictures section full of blurry, fan-taken live snapshots. Why? Dish out some dough to have some professional pics shot, and then post some high-resolution files of them on your site. Every publication in the world wants you to do this. Mailing photos is a waste of time and paper. Folks, it's the 21st century.

Have some fun with the pictures, too. Most bands' photos offer up fewer smiles than a Civil War-era tintype. If you can't think of anything better than standing around and scowling, then find a photographer who can.

3) It's called the Internet. I'm not telling you to have a Web know that, right? This is telling you what not to have on it. Clever, hard-to-navigate sites with floating, unlabeled icons are no good. There are plenty of places on the Web where people can go to be entertained. People are coming to you for information.

Don't (do not) host your site on or any other pop-up-ad-heavy site. Again, if you're serious about getting heard, pony up the few bucks to get a better host.

Aside from the photo, there are only a few things your Web site must have: MP3s, tour dates and contact information that works. For some reason, most hip-hop bands have great paper and mail publicity with horrible Web sites, while most rock bands are the opposite.

4) Be your own promoter. You don't need a press agent, at least not yet. While there are a few people in town with skillz (such as former Riverfront Times music editor René Spencer Saller, who does press exclusively for Undertow Records, and celebrity press agent Jane Higgins), you don't need anyone. Here's what most press agents do: They compose poorly written press releases, send e-mails and make phone calls. Which part of this can you not handle yourself? And, for the love of God, when you are writing that press release, please don't compare yourself to bands that are way, way out of your league. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground? Um, no. Try naming someone you really sound like.

I also recommend e-mail and the Web over phone calls and mail, just because it's the way people interact these days. It's easier to respond to. Also, it is far less annoying to receive five emails from a band as opposed to five phone calls.

5) Be your own promoter, dammit! The RFT is not your press agent. Playback isn't either. Same for Kevin Johnson at the Post-Dispatch and the folks at KDHX (88.1 FM). You are responsible for generating buzz for yourself. Meet people. Go to other bands' shows. Press the flesh. Hand out as many free CDs as you can bear to part with. Get in good with local club owners. Keep doing this, and you'll get noticed.

Don't buy into the myth of "the scene." There is no scene. There's just a bunch of bands, each trying to get people together to listen to their music and sharing the music they love with each other. Promote yourself. Promote your friends. Don't promote a concept.

6) Be shallow. Don't judge a book by its cover, people tell you. But if I gave you twenty CDs a day from people you'd never heard of, you would start judging by the covers right away. Cough up some dough (are you beginning to catch a theme here?) when it comes to CD art -- especially if you're planning on mailing the discs to strangers. Find a struggling art student or designer to get something cool on the cheap. Locally, no one does this better than First Flight Records, whose CDs are gorgeous to look at. They get noticed. (Fortunately, the music's usually pretty good too.)

7) There is no "try." You can ignore all of this, of course, just as you can ignore the fine folks at the Creepy Crawl when it comes to club relations. That's fine. There are plenty of places for bands who just want to have a good time and rock out for their friends. But if you want people to notice you (and I suspect you do), then you have to commit yourself to it. No one else is going to do it for you. While there's always a chance that Robert Christgau and the head of [insert dream record label here] will wander into your unpublicized, unpromoted show and hand you the full rock-star package, no strings attached, it isn't very likely. But if you're professional and hard-working, something good will happen.

Unless you suck.

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