BY PHIL HOOD
At a trade show not long ago I found myself talking to a young drum maker about his marketing. At some point I asked him, “When you’ve got a new product or sign a new artists, do you send out a press release?” As predicted, the answer was no. I said, “Stop right there. There’s dozens, maybe hundreds of websites that will run that for you if you just give them some relevant news to work with. Why wouldn’t you take advantage of that?”
A little later I found myself chatting with Amanda Cagan of ABC PR about this issue, and others in the public relations world, and I thought it would be a good idea to go behind the scenes to learn how a PR pro works a record or tour.
Cagan has been in the business since 1990. She cut her teeth working for the Mitch Schneider Organization and the shop that later became PMK/BMC, both legendary outfits in the business. But in 2002 she got the itch to open her own firm. On May 1 of that year she started ABC PR (after her own initials), setting up on her dining table, but, as she says, “still doing all the things I’d done before, setting up interviews, calling press contacts, and figuring out exactly where musicians could have the biggest impact in the media.”
She has since worked with hundreds of bands and today her artist list includes artists such as Styx, Dredg, Collective Soul, The Winery Dogs, and many others. She likes to keep the business simple, relying on a network of industry friends who are also publicists and function as her “virtual water cooler.” Working alone, she says you sometimes miss having a coworker down the hall to pitch an idea an idea or complain to. But it’s inspiring to come into her spare bedroom “office” every day and get into the groove of keeping tabs on the music industry, checking email every three minutes, and staying in shape to seize media opportunities for clients at the drop of a hat. I first interviewed Cagan last fall when she was working to launch one of her new clients, Big Village, Little City.
DRUM!: What is the key to working with so many clients?
Amanda Cagan: I’ve been lucky to find people that I work well with, people who gel with me and me with them. You need to have the human-to-human relationship between client and publicist. You’re telling their story and working for them. Especially with east coast clients I know I can slow down when it gets to the end of day back there. I have to know what they need, what can wait for them, and what needs to happen right away. They count on me to do that for them.
Has acquiring clients changed over time?
It hasn’t. It’s still a referral business. If I’m working with a manager on one band I hope they’ll come to me on their third or fourth or fifth band. Or I’ll get referrals from other PR people who are too busy. Or sometimes I’ll just go after a band that I really want. If they don’t have a publicist, I’ll send a note to the manager, agent, or label and let them know I’m interested.
When you start work with a band how do you try to get that relationship started?
Every band is different and it depends on the genre. So let’s say it’s a metal band. At first I’m thinking of my metal contacts and putting a proper list together for the band. There is a whole stable of outlets to pitch, especially when sending music out. The music is the be-all and end-all, getting it to the right person at the right time is crucial.
What is different about working popular established bands versus new artists?
Established bands have an audience and some outlets will jump on them right away. With a new band the media has to be cultivated. Once I’ve got the music and the media assets I’ll send it to outlets and give it a week or two. Then I’ll really get aggressive and try to set up interviews, and see what impact the music is having on the people I’m sending to.
How hard do you have to push an editor, like at Drum, or a website or TV show, to get them to listen to a record?
Frequently. That could be because there is way too much music coming out, or some people get so many releases they may just miss one. I have to be diligent and I will get back to people every couple of weeks. Some publicists send a record today and then call editors the next day saying, “Hey, did you listen to it yet?” That’s not realistic and if you have a relationship with the outlet it’s not needed.
Once they’ve heard the music I really start to pitch coverage. That involves sharing the news, the new videos, and what the band is doing. If after three or four follow-ups you don’t hear anything you have to figure you’re near the end of the road. But persistence matters. Sometimes there is only one main outlet that covers a particular style of music that the artist plays. Then I have to be really aggressive. Either they’ll cover the artist or it’s a bomb.
Styx is one of your artists. I can’t think of anyone from their era who tours as much as they do?
They’re incredible and still sound as good as they ever did. The tour constantly. In between big stories [Styx’s Todd Sucherman will be on the cover of the Spring 2019 issue of Drum] they are constantly doing interviews with local newspapers, weekly entertainment papers, and they go on lots of websites. Even if they were in the city the year before people still want to interview them.
Their new music does not sell like a band getting old. It sounds like a new album from their golden period.
That’s true. And they still get new fans. For me it’s not just about appeasing classic rock writers, it’s appealing to new fans. Tommy Shaw and Lawrence Gowan are brilliant. The fans just love them.
What’s been the biggest change you’ve observed from 1990 to now?
Print outlets have gone away one by one. There was a time in the ‘90s when I was working with Korn that I was really trying to get coverage in Tower Records’ Pulse magazine, Request magazine, Musician magazine, and others. These were outlets we would clamor to be in. Korn ended up being on the cover of all the magazines because of how huge they were.
Today, there’s often just one or a few magazines in a genre. Like there’s two metal magazines, or one singer-songwriter magazine. The number is reduced and it affects the print campaign and the coverage space. If I have a band that is on the cusp, a band that could be as big as Korn was, those covers may not be available to them because there is too much competition for that space, or the timing is wrong, or the editor doesn’t like them. The influential classic rock bands depend on the technical musician-oriented magazines, too, because they can get coverage there. The publicist’s challenge is that when a weekly goes down, like Village Voice, then there’s one less outlet to use for concert coverage.
So what’s the option?
Well, at the same time there are more outlets than ever. With new music you have to look for niche outlets that are online-only. For [many of those sites] it doesn’t matter that the music is not on the radio, or that the band may only have a few thousand likes instead of millions.
And, print publications that are online are important. Houston Press is digital now and I pitch them as aggressively as I used to when it was in print. Most of the people outside LA and New York are still checking local sources like the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel website to see if a band is coming to town. If an outlet that is both print and web only wants to run something online, I’m all for it.
So the entertainment consumer is trying lots of channels?
Definitely. Trade publications, too. Billboard is one of the best concert news websites out there. It’s a substantial music news web site, and not just for people in the recording industry. Getting a video or song on Billboard.com is just as important as getting on Alternative Press website, Revolver.com, Paste.com, or any print magazine.
If there is a band that the print press refuses to latch on to then I have to up my game. It’s all about exposure so people are seeing the same band on different websites until the fan says “Okay, Okay, I’ll go and buy the record or check it out.”
Are there any outlets you work that are strictly social media?
Not many but there are a couple of YouTube-only outlets I will set up interviews with. If someone comes to me for photo access and says, “I want to take pictures, it’s for my Facebook page,” then that’s a “no” because that is not press. If a site has talked with artists of similar stature or does a good job then I’ll work with them. Outlets that do Facebook Live interviews are important. Entertainment Tonight does Facebook Live interviews in LA and New York, so if it’s live social media, if it’s video, if it’s a major outlet, then I’ll jump on that.
Does the media brand matter?
Yes, so if there is a podcast associated with a magazine or a newspaper, then I want to get my artists in there. Then there’s the celebrity channels like Mark Maron or Adam Corolla. Those are hot “gets.” That’s a big deal. The same thing applies to television outlets and other major media. If I have a hard time getting clients on television then getting on Rolling Stone or Billboard or USA Today are really important.
I’ve got a new band. They have a good drummer, guitarist, lead singer. They have a manager, a record company, and new music. What do you do to start working?
The first thing is it’s the band’s responsibility to deliver the assets for me to do my job. If you don’t have good photos, then we’re going to have to go back and forth until there is one I can use for press purposes. You need to have a new bio put together. And maybe I need a new video. So then I can say “now stand back and I’ll do my job.”
There are lots of writers who are trying to write bios and I’d rather have the band hire someone good and create something that really tells their story than do a poor job. I rely on the bio writer to nail those ideas that will give me the story points that will make the band more interesting to media. I may have a great idea of what the band is but a good writer makes it take on a whole life.
Do record companies integrate your messaging into other promotions? Do they align PR with other marketing?
Oh, yeah, that goes back to having a good bio, though. It’s important to have good information and know it’s legit. Labels will want me to show them reviews and stories they haven’t seen and that can find its way back into ads and banners. In a way it all starts from the press release.
I have encountered an attitude that PR is not as important because of social media. But PR is like advertising, it’s a message that you can control, not what someone who likes your record says.
Many times I find I’m the only person who is really working a campaign. Sometimes there’s no radio campaign, no print, minimal social media. At that point a publicist like me is trying to figure out what’s going to generate coverage. I make sure that when I’m done promoting a record or tour there will still be content out there and reviews. I don’t want it to reach just the few thousand people that Facebook shows a post to. I would tell anyone, “Don’t you want to sell a few thousand more records by having your story on lots of websites big and small and not just on social media?”