The Pink Wafer Beginner’s Guide to Music PR
Every band and musician I know wants more fans. From the most savvy, business-minded pop artists, to the weirdest experimental mavericks. Each one of you wants more people to listen to and appreciate your music.
This isn’t to say that you necessarily want to be famous. Maybe you do. Maybe you don’t. But at the very least, you want to feel that people are getting something from your art. You want to feel like your music is making a difference to at least a few more people than it is now.
What’s more, most musicians want to make a decent income from their music. You put a lot of work into it. It’s your passion. The dream, for many of us, is to quit the day-job so we can spend as much time as we like on our passion projects. Every day you ask yourself, ‘how am I going to get there?’
For better or for worse, these are the desires that the music PR industry taps into. Music PR companies offer the possibility of getting your music heard by more people. They offer the hope of more streams, more likes, more fans. They offer the promise of helping you get to where you want to be. To achieve the success you’re hoping for. To help you on your way to reaching your dreams.
The aim of this article is to shed some light on the world of music PR. As a music journalist, I receive emails from PR companies every single day. I’ve also done some PR work in the past – it wasn’t related to the music industry, but many of the same principles apply. So I think that I have a couple of useful things to say. I’m not going to tell you whether you should or shouldn’t invest in a music PR campaign. But by thinking through some of the big questions, I hope to offer some guidance about whether it’s the right move for you at this stage in your career.
What is Music PR?
If you’ve read this far then you probably already know at least something about music PR. At the very least, you know there are companies out there who will help you promote your music, if you pay them. But what exactly do music PR companies do?
In most cases, you can break down the work of music PR into two main activities. First, music PR companies help to craft your story. They take an outside view of you and your music, and they do what they can to present it in the best way possible. They may describe your work differently to how you see it. In some cases, music PR companies may also advise on your visual identity – although this is less common. The idea behind all this is to make sure that when the PR execs reach out to influencers, the people on the receiving end – journalists, bloggers, and playlist curators – will be as receptive as possible to your work. Just to be clear, booking gigs and tours is generally completely separate from the work of a PR company.
The second main activity that music PR companies do is outreach. Once they have refined and crafted your story, they will send it out to their contacts. This process looks different for different companies. Some PR companies have a collection of high-quality contacts. Others don’t. But both approaches can work. So let’s take a look at how it happens.
The Two Types of Music PR Company
The biggest (and often best) music PR companies have contacts at major blogs and magazines who are primed and expecting to hear from them. The people at the magazines will open the emails they receive from the PR company, because they know and respect that particular PR firm. They know that the PR company will not send them any old trash. They know that the PR company will make their life easier, by providing them with quality new music that their audience will like. As such, they will listen to the track, or watch the video. And they will respond to the PR company. When they respond, they will either confirm a feature – or they will give a reason for why they don’t want to feature it.
Companies like this are generally more expensive to work with. But the higher cost doesn’t necessarily guarantee results for you. Because of the influence and reputation of the magazines they work with, unless your work is of a super high standard, it’s possible that you will spend big and get poor results. And it’s not necessarily the PR company’s fault. If they think there is a chance you will get featured – and there’s often at least a small chance – then, from their perspective, they have a good business reason to take you on as a client. In many cases, they will be happy to take your money. That’s sort of just the way it is. The music business is tough.
The other type of music PR company, who are generally cheaper than the first, take a slightly different approach. These companies generally don’t not hold the same sway with big magazines. They have few if any industry contacts. But this isn’t necessarily a problem. Because for these PR companies, it’s a numbers game. They have a list of journalists and bloggers, and they hit them hard. Sometimes, they try and learn which blogs and magazines like which sorts of artists. But more often, they take a pretty broad brush approach. Sometimes, it has to be said, it comes pretty close to spam. They hit up any and every music blog – regardless of the quality of the blog, and regardless of the relevance of the artist.
The approach taken by this type of PR company isn’t necessarily a problem. If they put together a really great press release for you, then in many ways, that’s the difficult part taken care of. It doesn’t always matter if they personally know a particular blogger or journalist. If they can get you into peoples’ inboxes, and make you stand out through an effective outreach email, then that’s valuable. Because, ultimately, blogs, magazines, and playlists don’t care about where they heard you first. If a spammy PR company gets you through the door, then that’s kind of all that matters.
But there is one thing to bear in mind with these sort of PR campaigns. A lot of the blogs they target, and a lot of the placements they land are not going to have much impact on your career. There are tens of thousands of music blogs out there. But the number of music blogs that have any real audience or reputation is small.
I’ve been deep into music blogging for a couple of years now, and in that time I’ve got to know the world of music blogging pretty well. And I can tell you that most of these blogs have very few visitors. In case you haven’t noticed, organic reach on Facebook is tiny. You can publicly see that even many of the biggest blogs in the business have zero engagement on articles they share on Facebook. And the familiar Instagram ‘link in bio’ call to action is not very effective. Most music blogs aren’t on Snapchat or Tiktok. Few have respectable Spotify playlists. And few blogs get significant visitors through SEO.
Consider this. The likely outcome of a low-cost music PR campaign is that you will get a handful of features on small-scale music blogs, like the sort of ones I’ve just mentioned. The question is, how much is that worth to you? Really, it comes down to the bottom line. If you’re going to invest in music PR, what’s the damage to your bank balance going to look like?
How Much Does Music PR Cost?
We’ve taken a look at the two main types of music PR company. But how much is one of these campaigns going to set you back? Very few companies list prices on their website, which can make it difficult to get a benchmark, unless you go and reach out to a bunch of them directly. What’s more, you will sometimes receive the dreaded question in response: ‘what’s your budget?’ They may ask this question because the company is flexible (they can all be flexible, actually, if they want) and will work with what you can afford. But be warned – in some cases this can also mean, ‘how much of your hard-earned cash are you willing to pour into this, because we’ll take everything you’ve got.’
So what should you be paying? I’ve known of ‘mates rates’ music PR campaigns start for as little £200. This ranges up to and over £1000 for bigger companies and bigger campaigns. The best thing you can do to ensure you get the most for your money is to have an honest chat with whoever is going to be directly working on the campaign. Try and get them to reveal their opinion on your music and your chances of success. Can they see your latest release getting featured by their contacts and connections?
You may find it tempting to work with the company who say they love your music. But when you’re paying for a professional service, the personal opinions and tastes of the PR person aren’t really that important. What’s important is whether they know how to pitch to blogs and journalists. There are a lot of passionate people in the industry. Passion is cheap. What you want is someone who is both competent and brutally honest.
A quick word about freelancers. Aside from PR companies, there are a number of freelancers out there who work on their own. One good thing about freelancers is that they can’t try and hide behind the anonymity of a company. With freelancers, you’re never in any doubt that you’re dealing with a real human. That means that these folks are often transparent and honest. Sometimes they are cheaper, too, because they have fewer overheads than bigger businesses.
How to Measure the Success of a Campaign
Before committing to a PR campaign, it’s good to have a measure of success in mind. It’s unlikely that the company you are working with will be able to guarantee specific results upfront – unfortunately, that’s sort of just the nature of PR. Considering that the company will probably not be able to give you any guarantees, it’s important that you go into this with some expectations, and that those expectations are both informed and realistic. Otherwise, you can just end up throwing money at PR when it’s not really helping you get to where you want to be.
Most PR campaigns focus on getting you placements in blogs and magazines. Some will also help with pitching to Spotify playlists. So how many placements are you expecting to get for your money, and in what sort of quality of publication? Most PR companies will try to emphasise the social metrics of the blogs where they have achieved placements. These should be taken with a good pinch of salt. I know for a fact that there are music blogs that have purchased followers, and that have used bots to acquire new followers to inflate their social metrics. And as I mentioned earlier, social media algorithms on Facebook especially mean that the posts that they share will not be seen by most of their followers.
Of course, the social metrics of the blogs where you’ve been placed have to be taken into account to some extent. But don’t just look at the numbers. Take a look at their sites. Have a look at the quality of the journalism. Have a look at the quality of the other artists who are featured. Do the blogs have any other accreditations? Are they indexed by Hype Machine? Which blogs do you want to be featured on, and which blogs do you personally consider to be ‘good’ blogs? Trust your judgement, as well as the figures – which can easily be twisted. And ask yourself – what difference will it make if a PR company reaches out to this blog, rather than if I just did it myself?
I hear about a lot of PR campaigns that cost around £500 and land 4 or 5 placements. Sometimes one of these blogs will have great social metrics. Often, they won’t. I can’t help but feel that those metrics don’t make much difference. Many times, the post will get 100 Instagram likes, and 1 Facebook like, and the only person sharing the article is the artist themself. You’ve no way of knowing how many people actually read the review or feature, unless you contact the blog directly for a Google Analytics screenshot, which they are not likely to give you. So ask yourself, how would you feel if you got this sort of return on investment from a PR campaign? Have a good think about this one before you commit.
Confessions of a Music Blogger
I’ve considered going into music PR. It’s a tempting prospect. For one thing, music blogging, which is what I spend a lot of my time doing, is generally unpaid. On the whole, music bloggers just do it for the love. Music PR, on the other hand, can be a decent earner. It’s a tempting way of getting to work in the music industry, and actually earning some money from it.
The reason I didn’t go into music PR is this. I know how hard musicians work, and how desperate many of you are to make it. Personally, I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the idea of profiting from the hopes and dreams of aspiring artists – especially because, in most cases, these hopes and dreams will not come to fruition. And that’s the sad truth. The music industry is extremely competitive. I am always mindful of the fact that music PR companies depend on your dreams. Without your dreams, they wouldn’t exist.
There’s another thing I want to share about my experience with music PR. I mentioned earlier that I receive emails from music PR companies everyday. The truth is that I read almost none of them. I am interested in specific genres of music – namely, jazz, hip-hop, alt R&B, experimental, ambient – the list is quite long, actually. But the vast majority of the PR I receive does not relate to any of the many genres I’m interested in. This means that most of the emails I receive are simply irrelevant to me. They’re junk. Quite often, I mark them as junk in Gmail. And that’s it – the PR company is forever banished to my junk mail folder. Do I worry that I’m missing out on hearing some amazing new music? No way. I’ll find new music another way. I’m just pleased to have less spam in my inbox.
As a music journalist, I have been added to dozens of PR company mailing lists that I never signed up for. Some PR companies are polite enough to first email and ask if I am happy to be added to their list. It’s nice that they ask. But in some ways it’s a strange question to ask. The answer that I give is that I would be happy to go on their list if they will send me music from the specific genres that I’m interested in. It’s a bit like a person handing out flyers in the street who asks ‘do you want a flyer?’ Well, what’s the flyer for? Whether I want it or not is entirely dependent on the content. An effective music PR company should do their research to find out what journalists and bloggers are looking for, and contact them only if they feel the artist they are representing is a good fit. Otherwise, it’s a waste of everyone’s time. Here’s an idea – before recruiting a PR company, ask them if they do this 😉
Should I Buy a PR Campaign For My Music?
This article is in no way intended as a smear on the music PR industry. Many music PR companies are made up of hardworking, competent people, who want to help you succeed. Some of these companies will help you to get further along in your journey. However, the reality is that sometimes – maybe often – a music PR campaign will not get you the results you want. You’ll get something from it, sure, but it won’t be what you hoped for.
Sometimes this is the fault of the music PR company. Sometimes, they didn’t write a great pitch. Sometimes, they were just unlucky. Sometimes, they weren’t a good company in the first place. But sometimes, the problem is your music. A good, honest PR company should tell you if they think your music isn’t good enough. But put yourself in their shoes. If they think you have a chance, they will of course be tempted to take your money and take a shot at helping you. Before agreeing to work with a company, you should try your best to get an honest opinion out of them about how well they think they can help you specifically. Listen to them for any feedback they give. And remember that any company who promises you the moon are also trying to make a sale.
So, to all the passionate musicians, hustling to make it – I wish you the best in your journey. And if you do go down the music PR route, I hope you find a company that can genuinely help you. Have an honest chat with them. See what they say. Make sure you feel comfortable with them, and that you trust them. And most of all, make sure you know – specifically as possible – what you want to get out of it.