Can you give us a quick rundown of your background?
1988 – Got a place on first ever HNC Music Management course at West Lothian College – didn’t play a musical instrument so figured that this was the best career path if I wanted to be involved with the music industry.
1989 – Offered job at EMI Records in Business Affairs (was also offered job at Abbey Road Studios, but wanted to be at the centre of things as they were planned + executed – not particularly tech minded either, so studio work didn’t really appeal!) Really took first job that was offered to me so as to get a foot in the door + thought that it would be easier to move into PR once I was on the inside (classic terrorist tactics – subvert from the inside!).
1991 – Moved to Parlophone Press (still under EMI umbrella) in the same week that Blur + EMF signed to the label. Later that month we signed another young act called Radiohead. Packed envelopes + answered the ‘phones for a while.
1994 – Promoted to Senior Press Officer @ Parlophone Records. Looking after the brand new Oxford band called Supergrass. Later at Parlophone, represented acts such as Coldplay (worked with them from the moment that they signed to Parlophone), The Dandy Warhols, Crowded House, Megadeth etc.
1995 – Won 1st Prize in Music Week – PR Of The Year Awards for my Supergrass campaign – the band had basically gone from a tiny gig review in NME to the front cover of Q within 12 months! Really good fun being very close to the centre of the whole Britpop explosion…
1999 – Transferred to EMI/Virgin Australia (Sydney office) as Head of Press & Internet to set-up their first ever press office – kind of incredible that they had never even had a press office until that point in time… Represented entire EMI/Virgin artist roster – inc Robbie Williams, Janet Jackson, Coldplay (again!), Radiohead, Daft Punk, Blur, Mariah Carey etc.
2001 – Returned to UK + started work as Head of Press @ Best PR (one of the best independent music PR companies in the UK) – looked after acts such as The Futureheads, Sigur Ros, David Holmes, Jarvis Cocker, Belle & Sebastian, Fischerspooner (runner-up in 2003 Music Week – PR of the Year Awards for Fischerspooner PR campaign) and lots of others.
2003 – Moved to Isle of Wight with family.
2005 – Started up new regional music PR company, BLACK ARTS PR.
The burning question is going to be. Who was the biggest name you worked with?
I suppose that it would be a toss-up between Robbie Williams + Coldplay (I did look after the PR campaign on the Beatles – 1 compilation album in Australia, but that doesn’t count I reckon)… I felt like a proud dad when they headlined the Glastonbury Festival + still remember the days when they used to shuffle into my office, rucksacks over their shoulders having just left lectures at ULU. The other great story I tell is the time that I drove 2 friends of mine to Oxford to see them play + there were only 6 other people in the audience (Coldplay still put on an amazing show though). They had that special something – it was so obvious from the first time that I saw them walk onstage playing to their friends at ULU.
Where do you begin when working on a new client?
Every project is different really. The first thing to do is to create a bit of a buzz about the act – drop their name into conversation with a handful of tastemakers in the press + let them do the work for you. All journalists understandably want to think that they have discovered the next big thing, so you just give them a few clues really. It is really important to be sensitive to the act’s wishes too – some favour the slow build rather than the ‘wham! bam! thank you mam!’ approach. I’m a great believer in getting the music out there + then putting in the legwork, calling journos + finding out what they thought of the music. It is important to recognise supporters at an early stage and nourish that support.
How much input does the client have?
As much as they would like really… I would always encourage an act to pick up the ‘phone + let me know where their head is at re the press. This doesn’t happen all that often. You tend to hear things second hand through management + it can become a bit like Chinese whispers as everybody has their own agenda. You only really tend to start to run into trouble when it is the band’s girlfriends that are the ones calling the shots re the press.
Are there set strategies you use when working up a client? Or do you start from scratch?
Some of it is kind of routine and some of it is a bit like intuition – people forget that working in a record company is 50% just like any other office job (probably with more free CDs and tickets though). There is no written law on how to conduct a great PR campaign, but over time you start to get a good feel for the job, learn from your mistakes on a daily basis and hopefully get a bit better at the job all of the time. One of the things that I pride myself on is always returning ‘phone calls + e-mails promptly. If you get a reputation as a helpful and efficient PR this can have hidden benefits eg. when a mag has space to fill in the next few hours, they know that they can call you + sort something out very quickly so your band gets that space. I suppose you get to realise what works and what doesn’t. I always think that it is important to work the band up through the smaller ‘new band’ type features + small gig reviews rather than blasting in and demanding big stuff right away.
What’s the first rule of good PR?
It is the OPTIMUM amount of press that you are after, not necessarily the MOST press. It is crucially important to know when an act has done enough press and to back off for a while, even if it means turning down features. The hardest thing for a PR to do is to turn down front covers – it almost hurts…
I suppose some artists are easier than others to work with, Who was a pleasure to promote?
OK – that is an interesting question because it is very easy to fall into the trap of believing that the artists that you represent are your friends! Big mistake… Although you might actually get to like some acts more than others, it is very important to always remember that they are work colleagues, just the same as if you were working together in an office. I know that this seems a bit bizarre, but if you can remember that, then you will not feel let down if they decide to dispense with your services at a later date. When the reviews are good then you are Mr Popular, but once the tide turns and some bad reviews start to appear, then the PR is the first and easiest person to blame (nothing to do with the fact that they might have just made a sub-standard record of course!) you can rapidly become persona non grata…
Coldplay was probably one of the most pleasurable acts to promote, as it was such a joy to work with them at such an early stage (they would shuffle out of uni lectures and into my office to do press interviews) and watch them just achieve so much in such a short space of time. I remember the first time that I saw them play live at a tiny gig in London + I looked at a Parlophone colleague and neither of us had to say anything – they just had it (and in spades!)…
I had lots of fun with Supergrass – they went from a tiny NME live review to the cover of Q magazine in almost exactly 12 months + I got to travel the world with them (at EMI’s expense – hurrah!)… Just amazing memories of spending time with them in Brazil (meeting Ronnie Biggs etc), USA, all over Europe, and also some great sweaty gigs in the UK too…
Is it difficult to establish what market sector an artist is expected to appeal to?
Not really – after doing the job for a number of years, you start to know which mags the act will appeal to, and if you are good at the job then you should really know which individual journalists on those mags will like them. Obviously, a complete waste of time pushing Belle & Sebastian to Kerrang! magazine – you only have so many hours in the day and it would be a complete waste of time and effort. I always say that doing PR is like carrying about a big index file of journalists in your mind – you never know who it is calling until you pick up the ‘phone + then you have to rapidly pull out that particular journalist’s mental index card and remember what they like and dislike when you are talking with them. All music journalists like to think that they have discovered the next big thing, so good PR should always be looking to help them out and put exciting new talent to them.
How do you target a specific audience?
Much as above really – be realistic about your targets. Write out a wish list of where you would like to see the act in the music press and then go about securing the right coverage in those publications. If you have good contacts then you should be able to speak with at least one person at each of these publications + you should remember that a hungry freelancer (who will obviously only be paid for any work that a mag commissions) can be worth their weight in gold at times, sometimes securing more than one feature for your act in different titles.
You just know where an act should be – a music PR should live and breathe music and read the press avidly… I just don’t think that a good music PR can afford not to subscribe to a mag such as NME which has the remit of writing about new talent on a consistent basis – you have to know what you are talking about or you will very quickly get found out. Many music writers have been doing this job for decades + they can tell when a PR truly feels excited about an act and when they are just going through the motions and doing a job.
How much pressure are you under in this job?
There is an element of flying by the seat of the pants to the job of music PR, but I think that pressure adds to the excitement really. No two days are ever the same in this job + that applies even more so now that I am running my own independent music PR company, as not only am I learning in the job every day, but I am also on a steep learning curve re running a business!
If you have a good grounding and work your way through the ranks (I started out stuffing envelopes at Parlophone), have a calm personality and don’t get rattled easily, and a passion for music then you should really have all of the necessary skills to deal with most things that get thrown at you. It is so important to learn from any mistakes that you make + you WILL make lots of them…
Is there much difference in the job since the move to the Isle of Wight?
Well, as I said previously, I have had to learn quickly about running my own business, but that has been an interesting experience for me. Getting to gigs now means a ferry trip, but things have changed so much now – all that you need for this job (and many others) are a laptop, ‘phone + a friendly postman and you are away… The IOW is not the cultural backwater that it once was – we now have the Nokia Rock Festival in June + the Bestival in Sept (I am doing PR on the Bestival and it will be headlined in 2006 by The Scissor Sisters + Pet Shop Boys, with one other headliner TBA soon – hundreds of other acts such as The Fall, Hot Chip, Mystery Jets, Kid Creole & The Coconuts, Devendra Banhart, John Martyn etc and great DJs such as Erol Alkan, Tom Middleton, Justin Robertson, Terry Hall (The Specials) and the man behind the Bestival himself, Radio One DJ Rob da Bank all playing there too – it is going to be a great weekend), and younger bands are now making the effort and taking that trip across The Solent.
Is there any advice you can give to upcoming artists (on a tight budget!) regarding their own PR?
Hmmm – be very careful… I have seen so many young bands try and do it themselves and make a right old cock-up of things… You need to work out who can be helpful to you at a basic local level (your local music journalists will be key players for you initially). Send demos to the right person at NME – a few words in there can be worth a million in your local paper re getting yourselves a record deal.
Any decent music PR company will be looking at doing deals with acts when they have a tight budget – I have worked the odd act for free because I thought that they were great, but that is the exception and definitely not the rule.
Just today I have taken on a great new act who are putting out a single in July through a London indie label + their manager has agreed to cover postage costs etc for me. I won’t take a fee because they are totally skint but have a lot of interest from major labels already. I was sent the demos and they sound bloody fantastic – very psychedelic, jangly sound that reminds me of Shack, The Coral, The Smiths etc – so I am willing to take a punt on them and do it for next to nothing on this occasion. The one thing that I did ask their manager was to please keep me on when they do sign a major deal (I will obviously start to be paid by the major label at that point). So, it is a calculated risk, but I think that you have to take these risks sometimes or you miss out…
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