PR and management are two aspects of a professional career that can be non-obvious to a band first venturing into those territories. They can seem mysterious, nonsensical, towering, or even inaccessible to a band looking for representation. To clear up some of the confusion about the two related but separate functions of the music business, Brian McKinney of Crooked Houses PR + Management gave Independent Clauses a helpful interview. Below are some of the big themes that McKinney outlined.
Three things to know about PR
1. You need to get a PR person three months before your release date.
“A lot of bands don’t understand that publicity needs to happen before the album release. Lead time is involved. It takes magazines three months to look at it, decide if they’re going to review it, write it, edit it, publish it, and send it out to newsstand. If you’re working with Pitchfork or even Independent Clauses, it can be a month to six weeks. Having these conversations while you’re demoing the album is good. I’ve turned down some releases from great bands and great albums because I can’t [promote] it after it’s released. I just can’t get it to work.”
2. Results are not guaranteed with PR blasts.
“No matter how much you spend, even if you spend thousands of dollars on publicity, the results you get aren’t always the results you expect. I’ve worked with bands that are working with very little and got them some pretty good stuff–and they weren’t satisfied. The number one misconception is once you hire someone, your album will be on Pitchfork or reviewed in Spin. There’s so many other bands, so many other labels with marketing budgets, and there’s only so many places to get reviews.”
3. PR takes up a lot of time on the PR person’s part.
“There’s a lot of writing involved, that’s part of it. There’s a lot of thought that goes into who you’re going to contact and follow-up e-mails. If you’re doing physical mailing, there’s hours on hours printing pages, stuffing envelopes, printing address stickers, and affixing stickers.”
Three things to know about managers
1. You need a manager when the business becomes big enough that you’re running out of time to make art.
“[Managers] need to keep an eye on a whole bunch of different aspects of the band. Really it’s about freeing up the artists to perform art. If a band has enough time to send e-mails to every blogger and magazine and label, then I don’t think they’re practicing enough. I think they’ve got too much time on your hands. You can’t be good enough, there’s so many other bands that are going to be better than you. Focus on your live show, focus on your music.”
2. Management is about making business connections; PR is about making press connections.
“The job of the publicist is to get media attention, and the job of the manager is to get industry attention. That means label, A&R, and booking agents for setting up tours. That is one reason I don’t do PR for the bands I manage, because I like to spend as much time as possible working those connections. Otherwise I’m just being a free publicist for a band, which isn’t helpful to anyone. When [bands I manage] have an album coming out, I make sure that they budget to hire a publicist.”
3. It is expensive, but it’s valuable for those trying to make a career.
“It’s expensive, don’t get me wrong. It’s a hard sell. Bands don’t understand how much work is involved [in management], and how necessary it is to have someone represent you. That’s why I’m trying to keep things as upfront as possible on my website.”
Slim Loris hails from Stockholm, Sweden, but you’d never be able to tell based on their sound. They play folky Americana with Shins-esque indie-pop leanings, which should perk up the ears of any longtime reader of this blog. The best example is “Clean as a Whistle,” which blends a tambourine, banjo/acoustic guitar strum, and a Paul Simon-esque flute for an incredibly satisfying verse. The chorus kicks it up a notch, adding in a tom drum, a french horn, and perky background vocals that you will want to shout along with. It’s the sort of the song that makes me sit up and take notice.
But they’re not a one-trick pony: opener “Fear of Flying” is a jubilant indie-pop tune composed of hectic percussion, bouncy organ, steady guitar strum … and timpani. It sounds effortless, just like “Clean as a Whistle.” If you want even more than that, “I Will Forget” and “While I Breathe” are quiet tunes driven by slow, stately piano. In “Domestic,” a gorgeous female alto voice is introduced as a counterpoint to the male tenor vocals. The charm of Slim Loris is that all of these sounds cohabit Future Echoes and Past Replays without sounding disjointed or erratic. The band inhabits all of their sounds, making them sound natural.
The overall effect of Future Echoes is an impressive one: it can easily stand up beside other indie-pop albums from much more well-known bands. Not every track is a home run, but there are a ton of high-quality tracks. If you’re a fan of thoughtful indie-pop with lively arrangements but also a pensive side, I highly recommend checking out Slim Loris.
Way Yes‘ Tog Pebbles is the sort of thing that comes along, blows my mind, and leaves me wondering what to write about. Tog Pebbles‘s unique sound blends tribal rhythms, shimmering guitars, horns, and impressionistic vocals to create a unique sound. It’s like a more grounded Animal Collective; instead of having a mystical quality that AC has, Way Yes has a concrete feel. It’s as if I am walking through a jungle, matter-of-factly, instead of with wide-eyed wonder. Maybe I’m sneaking a few glances of wide-eyed wonder every now and then, but mostly, you know, this is a thing that happens. It’s beautiful and excellent, but it’s not necessarily out of the ordinary (at least to the members of Way Yes). To us, of course, it’s kind of mindblowing, which is why I’m breaking from my usual reviewing methods and going all Pitchfork on this review. EXTENDED METAPHORS EVERYWHERE.
I could tell you about the individual songs, but the album is so tightly written and organized that I feel it would be largely useless. Furthermore, the band doesn’t have to get away from their core sound very often (because their core sound is so unique): if I described each of the songs, it would largely be the same descriptors. But the melodies are excellent, the moods are exquisite, and the songs are wonderful. If you’re into unique sounds but hate the phrase “world music,” then Way Yes has an album that will make you jump. Totally awesome.
I love doing long reviews, but SXSW has thrown me off my game. To catch up, here’s a rare quartet of quick hits.
Dana Falconberry‘s four-song Though I Didn’t Call It Came is a beautiful, immersing release. The thirteen minutes pass rapidly, as Falconberry’s uniquely interesting voice plays over intricate yet intimate acoustic arrangements. Highlights include the complex and beautiful songwriting structure of “Petoskey Stone,” the Michigan-era Sufjan Stevens fragility of “Muskegon,” and the casual wonder of whistling-led closer “Maple Leaf Red (Acoustic).” It’s a rare songwriter that has tight control over both individual songwriting elements and overall feel, marking Falconberry as one to enjoy now and watch in the future.
England in 1819‘s Alma will quickly remind listeners of British piano-rock bands: Rush of Blood to the Head-era Coldplay is checked on “Air That We Once Breathed,” Muse gets its nod in the title track, and the melodic focus of Keane is familiar throughout. But 2/3rds of the band is conservatory-trained, and those influences show. “Littil Battur” is a chiming, gently swelling post-rock piece with reminiscent of The Album Leaf; “Emily Jane” is another beautiful, wordless, free-flowing piece. There’s enjoyment in their emotive piano-pop, but there’s magic in their instrumental aspirations. That tension shows promise past this sophomore release.
The bouncy garage-pop of Eux Autres‘ Sun is Sunk EP has been honed for almost a decade to a tight mix of modern sensibilities and historic glee. “Right Again” and “Home Tonight” call up ’60s girl-pop groups but don’t overdo it; “Ring Out” features male lead vocals in a perky, jumpy, infectious tune that includes bells and tambourine. The 1:23 of “Call It Off” is thoroughly modern songwriting, though—the band is no one trick pony. There’s just no resisting the charms of Sun is Sunk, and since its six songs only ask for 15 minutes of your time, why would you?
After seeing part of a breathtaking set by Sharon Van Etten at SXSW 2011, I jumped at the chance to give some press for her new album Tramp. Turns out all the big hitters (NPR, Pitchfork, Paste) are already on it. The tunes powered by Van Etten’s emotive croon are in full form, developed from her sparse beginnings into complete arrangements. At 46 minutes, this mature version of Van Etten is a complete vision; still, the haunting, delicate closer “Joke or a Lie” is what sticks with me.
“If there’s no grand cultural war left for you to wage, how are you supposed make friction? Indie rock responded by fanning out into a thousand sub-genre deltas, each with their own set of reference points. The best stuff, every year, is the stuff that somehow leaps across those gaps, like a firing synapse.” -Jayson Greene, Pitchfork, “Making Overtures: The Emergence of Indie Classical”
I’ve been quoting this paragraph copiously in conversation and text since it was published, because it perfectly frames the situation in which indie rock currently sits. Should you be really, really good at one genre? The answer as an extension of this paragraph is “Probably not”: the genre already has a hero (or heroes), and you’re just going to be appropriating heroes if you aspire to greatness in a genre. You should mix and match, because that’s the stuff that gets applause these days: Bon Iver abandoning pure folk for a confluence of acoustic and ’80s synthscapes, Arcade Fire adopting a wiry ’80s touch for “Sprawl II: Mountains Beyond Mountains.” If we’ve heard it all before, we must repackage it in new ways. (This is why we have “new” lawyer dramas every year.)
I disagree that there is no room for purists; folksters The Low Anthem immediately come to mind as a great example of forging forward in a historically-established sound, as well as singer/songwriters like Brianna Gaither. Still, it’s true that the hip and cool stuff right now is interdisciplinary. (The technically appropriate term would intergenrenary, but that’s a clunky, made-up word.) Everything in the world is becoming interconnected; why not music?
Gabriel and the Hounds‘ Kiss Full of Teeth is the sound of a band working hard on its interdisciplinary mix. The basic elements of the sound are stark folk in the For Emma vein, The National-style gloomy indie rock, and a composer’s sense of symphonic instrumentation (more Firebird Suite, less “Eleanor Rigby”). Like my late grandfather’s attempts to recreate Bailey’s Irish Cream from his own personal brewing and mixing, the results aren’t perfect—but they still taste great.
“Lovely Thief” is the most memorable track of the album, both for its successes and head-scratching excesses. The first minute consists of a grooving, lightly distorted guitar rhythm and comfortable tenor vocals. Trumpets, horns and oboes arrive without warning, colliding with the rhythmically solid guitar in erratic foxhunt calls. The guitar and foxhunt end simultaneously, giving way to an elegant symphonic break. Drums and guitar are then introduced on top of the continued symphonic elements. It’s a beautiful tune, especially in its final, fully-realized minute.
However, its abrupt switches show either a desire to rupture normative ideas of modern songwriting or an unfamiliarity with the delicate balance between all the song’s moving parts (or both!). The first is admirable, the second understandable; both show that they’re trying stuff. When the band sticks to one genre, they make very consistent songs that are less dynamic and interesting that their experiments: “The World Unfolds” uses strings as a support element to a straight-forward indie-rock tune; “What Good Would That Do” is Tom Waits for electric guitar.
So it’s pleasing that Gabriel and the Hounds try more ambitious tunes than standard ones: the very pretty “When We Die in South America” uses an unexpected entry point of strings to disrupt usual songwriting structure, while “Wire and Stone” sets an orchestra as the grounding point instead of traditional rock instruments. The swelling, building “An In-Between (Full Where You Are)” provides even more emphasis on symphonic composition—Colin Stetson listeners will nod and smile. “Who Will Fall on Knees” sets the symphonic arrangement against a pensive folk piece, using the strings as the forceful element in the piece.
Gabriel and the Hounds’ Kiss Full of Teeth is a wildly interesting piece of work packed with vitality and thought. The unique ideas shine, even if the pieces don’t come together in a completely unified way. It’s like listening to Regina Spektor’s Soviet Kitsch: It’s clear that she is either purposefully ignoring conventions of songwriting or isn’t yet skilled enough to write proper songs she hears in her head—regardless, Soviet Kitsch is wonderful. (Based on the markedly less erratic quality of her later output, I’d bank the latter idea.) Put another way: formal success does not ensure quality. Sometimes the half-baked mistakes are far more interesting and vital than the fully-formed, conventionally-sound work, and that’s the case for Gabriel and the Hounds. Hopefully more bands follow their lead and risk putting out this sort of genre-bending, might-be-a-mess-but-who-cares work.
Plants and Animals‘ The End of That enthusiastically and successfully combines “Wonderwall”-esque Brit-pop with modern indie bombast a la Frightened Rabbit (“Lightshow,” “2010”). If you’re excited about that sentence, check out the aforementioned tunes and then go forth to the album. If you think, “I’ve heard that before,” you’re correct—analysis of that sentiment follows.
Plants and Animals understands that in 2012, people ask a lot of indie bands. They’ve got to churn out a single, a viral video, and a fully-formed album to be seen as the complete package. Some bands excel so greatly at one aspect (Sleigh Bells, OK Go, Radiohead, respectively) that their attempts at the other two go underappreciated or even maligned.
That’s in the left hand. In the right hand is a growing “end of history” mentality in indie-rock, which was neatly encapsulated last week when Jayson Greene of Pitchfork pondered: “If there’s no grand cultural war left for you to wage, how are you supposed make friction?” (Greene’s response: “Indie rock responded by fanning out into a thousand sub-genre deltas.”) People are genuinely worried that there’s nothing left to say, not just in indie-rock but in, uh, everything. Simon Reynolds spends all of Retromania laying the death of creativity at the feet of a myriad of sources that include YouTube and Flying Lotus. What’s a band supposed to do when it’s asked to do more than ever, but people believe less than ever that it is saying and sounding something meaningful?
Answer: whatever it wants. In a critical environment that’s so hyper-analytical, so backward-referencing, so instantly affirmative or negative, there’s no recourse but to simply put stuff out. I hope this sounds reductive, because it is. Bands shouldn’t be afraid of or even antagonistic toward critics anymore, because hot on the heels of both the aforementioned quandaries is a third problem that is purely a critic’s concern: readers of criticism now have access to whatever they want. Critics don’t have exclusive access to the goods anymore, and that means that the original power of the critic is greatly reduced.
Lest I pull the trigger on the gun pointed at my foot, a clarification: The original power of the critic was the power to exalt or destroy, by telling people to not waste their cash on something terrible. Because cash is now not a bar to access, the writer’s power to destroy is much less; the critical backlash to Tapes’N’Tapes was almost a palpable thing at one point, but people still listened to the band’s music. (And the band still put out more music.) Critics, even the still-hugely-influential Pitchfork, can’t kill a band. (Not even Black Kids.)
With that in mind, there’s a conclusion here that relates to the very short but specific review of The End of That posited above: There is now no reason to write bad reviews. Why would space that could be given to something incredible be dedicated to something mediocre? Part of the reason indie music is wallowing in mediocrity (if you agree that it is, but that’s a different article altogether) is that we consistently foreground it. By giving bad reviews and mediocre reviews equal space and footing in our media outlets, critics create an environment that gives the all-coveted “exposure” to bands that are just okay. This is devastating to the state of music because “exposure” is the critic’s new power: a ready-made audience, dedicated to reading what the writer has to say. The access is available to all, but if “all” doesn’t know that the access is there to be had, no one accesses it.
“Lightshow” and “2010” are great tunes, and that’s where the review kicked off. Honestly, the review could have ended there, and that would have said (most of) what I wanted to say. I left off naming any other songs, because in my analysis they should be left off, as they aren’t particularly as exciting as the first two. However, the album as a whole can be praised as a well-conceived long-player for a certain audience. That includes shades of the Jayson Greene analysis, for sure, but that is still a recommendation for people who are into that particular subgenre.
But does my par-for-the-course analysis of “Crisis!” and “Why & Why” mean that those songs don’t have as much worth as “Lightshow”? No. There are writers out there enthusiastically parsing their depths. With the myriad of available voices, a critic is only as quantifiably meaningful as the size of his audience. As Clap Your Hands Say Yeah will note, not even the whole current critical audience moving in one direction is all-powerful. So even though this review will not result in Plants and Animals ending up on my year-end list, it is entirely likely that someone will read it, hear “Lightshow,” and love it—which is what I intended the first line of this review to do, because “Lightshow” might end up on my 50 best songs of the year list. It’s that good.
So if critics can’t kill a band, but they might expose its work to the masses if it does something awesome, why not go make something completely, idiosyncratically its own? And critics, ignore those idiosyncratic things unless and until you love them. Readers, support the bands that you find and love with money (in the form of album sales, Kickstarter contributions, donations to the band while they’re on tour, whatever). The mediocrity be lessened; the good will out; music will grow.
Slave songs developed to encode the experience of temporal suffering and the longing for Earthly emancipation into the language of religious suffering and heavenly freedom. The hopes and fears of slaves are memorialized in those oft-mournful songs.
The Miami‘s “I’ll Be Who You Want Me To Be” is a translation of eight traditional African-American, but not exclusively slave, lyrics into a very modern indie genre that emphasizes the world-weary, beaten down aspects. The Miami, a duo of self-proclaimed “middle-class, secular, well-educated college kids,” sounds a lot like the most downtrodden moments of Pedro the Lion and Damien Jurado. In fact, my favorite Pedro the Lion song (a heartbreaking version of traditional hymn “Be Thou My Vision”) is similar to The Miami’s reinvention techniques. The Miami, however, eschews all familiar markers from the songs — you’ll never recognize “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” — to bring the tragedy of the words to the forefront.
It’s interesting that The Miami wears its secular background on its sleeve. Some lyrical meaning dissipates if the songs are being understood outside of an eternal hope – the afterlife wasn’t the only meaning of the words, but it was certainly a part of it. However, in translating not only the lyrics of the songs but the meaning of the tunes into a world-weary (“Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”), “lo-fi,” occasionally avant garde (“If He Changed My Name”) genre, The Miami is free to make reference to the modern music world’s redemption stories.
And lo-fi (which at this point in history is an aesthetic choice, not an actual fidelity level) is about as redemptive as the current story runs. There are stops and starts in performance throughout the album; the album isn’t perfect, nor is it intended to be. There are intentionally unfixed “mistakes” (what a modern radio-listener would call mistakes, at least).
This, I believe, points out that The Miami is not broadcasting from some high tower: they are normal people, just like the listener. The acknowledgment of human collective (which is what the original slave songs produced) is here as well: the erratic, idiosyncratic aspects of the album were chosen to show that this is how we do mourning these days – and we can all tap in to that.
At least, “all” of those who ascribe to a Pitchforkian ideal of lo-fi recording as ideological purity. The vocal performance of “I Shall Not Be Moved” can be described as hysterical, strangled and occasionally atonal; it sounds glorious as juxtaposed against a beautiful, stately keys backdrop. There are large swaths of people who would only hear the vocals and hate it. The atypically loud and distorted ending to “I Danced in the Morning” will call up all sorts of garage-rock comparisons, which will turn off other people. Just the fact that I invoked Pedro the Lion will turn away some.
“I’ll Go Where You Want Me To Go” is not for everyone. It’s as much (if not more) fun to think about than to actually listen to, especially in the more difficult songs. But it does possess a beauty for those willing to look and listen deeply (“Ring Out, Wild Bells,” especially). It’s an unusual album, but it has distinct worth and merit that I enjoy.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.