A Girl’s Gotta Make a Living

A Girl’s Gotta Make a Living

Female Publicists talk about the business of Music

Just last week, I finally got around to going through the gazillion magazines I dragged home with me from South By Southwest ’98. I swear to god, each magazine had feature stories on the same bands. Tortoise and Scott Weiland, for example, were covered ad nauseam. I couldn’t name a Tortoise song to save my life, and Scott Weiland is a smack-shooting loser, yet these artists were in over 15 magazines in one month! Amazing, you say? What’s amazing is how good their publicists are. A good publicist can get the even crappiest band good press; a great publicist can get a brilliant but obscure band the recognition they deserve. In any case, the work of the publicist is indispensable in exposing a band to the record-buying public. Most labels have in-house publicists who work directly with editors and writers. However, in order to handle the overflow of bands whose records desperately need to be spoon-fed to the masses, many labels, both independent and major, turn to the services of independent public relations firms.

Women seem to make up about 80% of the independent publicist population. Why is that? “Actually, I think I can guess why: 80% of editors are male,” a (male) editor joked with me when he heard I was doing this article. “Included in your publicity package is a liberal application of my feminine wiles…” He was kidding around, but his comment is representative of some of the sexist flack that women get; not just in the music business, but in any business. For this article, I interviewed some of the publicists I work with on a regular basis, talking to them about the rewards of their jobs as well as the challenges they face, and how they find themselves treated differently because they are women. I also chose to focus on women who work on their own or with a staff of fewer than five employees.

Yvonne operates her own PR firm in New York City. With years of experience at both major labels and large, corporate music PR firms, her reasons for starting her own company are not unique. “I was sick of working for people who basically just got in the way of my doing a good job,” she admits. “I want my job to be about representing musicians, not executives. I was also really tired of constantly battling employers about which bands I should be working with.” Yvonne appreciates the many personal freedoms running her own business offers. “Where else can I work where I can keep my own hours, don’t have to dress like an idiot, and can blast good music all day? I really never had any interest in the corporate side of PR, so even at these high profile companies, I tended to be the `alternative music’ publicist.”

Monica* [*Some names have been changed], also based in Manhattan, agrees with Yvonne. “My background was in corporate public relations. Ultimately, I decided I hated doing publicity on things that were of no personal interest to me. I wanted to do press on something I loved and could feel enthusiasm for, which turned out to be music.” Starting her own firm was Monica’s first experience focusing on music publicity. “I originally wanted to get a job with a label, but no one would hire me because I didn’t have music contacts already. I started freelancing with local bands, which eventually became national bands. Before I knew it, I actually had the job I wanted all along!”

“Public Relations and Marketing is a very time-consuming and demanding profession,” says Michelle, who’s had her own firm for several years after a tenure in the music industry that includes a stint as Brian Eno’s publicist. “I value what I have learned doing press for large corporations, but I really wanted to put those skills and contacts to practice representing something I cared about in my personal life. I’ve been lucky enough to find a calling, where my personal life and work life aren’t at odds, and I can represent artists and labels that I feel are doing ground-breaking and important work.”

“I wanted to move to San Francisco and there were no jobs, so I had to create one of my own,” says Linda,* who has done independent music publicity for five years. “I don’t have to commute, I work in my house and have my office in the front room of a beautiful Victorian flat with bay windows. This is exciting, as is the fact that the job revolves around going out to clubs and seeing bands about four nights a week,” something she admits makes her “very happy. Everyone wants to be in the music industry it seems because it is kind of glamorous working with rock stars. People get into it and then complain but, let’s face it, it’s better than working in a bank.”

No one disagrees that a huge perk of doing independent publicity is the freedom to choose to work only with those clients whose music you love. “I have to love the bands I’m working with, otherwise I may as well go sell shoes” says Yvonne. “I’ve specialized in various different types of music over the years, from noise rock to hardcore to indie rock. Now I’m happily back to representing punk rawk, swing, and ska.”

“If I don’t like working with someone or some company, I can terminate the project and move on to better projects,” Linda is quick to point out. “You can also pick and choose what you work on and refuse the project if you don’t think it is good or if it is objectionable for any reason. It is really hard to get bored, because you are always working on something new.” Linda’s roster of clients is varied. “I’ve made great headway with folk and acoustic-based artists as well as industrial/techno-type artists. I have a good local roster of pop artists as well.”

“I don’t market myself as a specialist, but almost all of the acts I work with are developing artists,” says Monica, adding that she’d love to work with “developed” artists, but as a small indie, it’s difficult to get those clients. “I’ve worked with lots of modern rock, indie pop, and have been branching into singer/songwriters, alt-country, and even a bit of electronica.”

Michelle, whose client list is rather eclectic, echoes Monica’s sentiments that many indie publicists find it can be frustrating to be on board so early in a band’s career. “But there is probably nothing more enjoyable than seeing them get their due. It’s certainly a very different world than having someone slap a CD on your desk with a curt “you’ll be working this now.”

When asked about double-standards or gender-based prejudices encountered on the job, no one was shy about speaking up. Yvonne expressed frustration that “there are so many men in this industry who think the women in it are basically glorified groupies.” Unfortunately, she adds, there are some women out there who live up to that stereotype. “One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced as an intelligent, attractive, and single woman is the assumption that I must be sleeping with my bands. I was out with some female industry friends the other night, and we were talking about the practice of “dressing down” for shows, because you don’t want to give people the wrong idea. Meanwhile, so many male industry types are total bimbos.”

According to Linda, she is “more amused than anything else when someone treats me like I’m the secretary, when I’m running my own business. I have been `talked down to’ before, but usually I just ignore it or refuse to work with the person. My biggest problems are problems faced by men as well as women. I have to admit one problem, however: Women publicists who use flirting techniques to `court’ male writers. I was particularly disgusted when a publicist took some editors out at SXSW and paid for them to have lap dances. I guess the bottom line is that I want to do my job without submitting to certain tactics.”

Barbara, who has supported herself as a freelance music journalist and now operates her own PR firm out of Seattle, also offered some objective feedback on the subject of gender bias. “I think many times publicists (both male and female) have a hard time being taken seriously because people don’t take what we do seriously. (“Talk on the phone all day? That’s not a REAL job…”). This is going to sound sexist,” she continues, “but I think a lot of women use flirtation (and the fact that most of the people we deal with are men) to do their job. I actually had someone — who was young and doesn’t work in the industry any more — tell me that her “job” was to flirt with male writers and editors so that they’d write about the bands she worked. It’s an incredibly tricky situation, and I find that sometimes I have to cultivate this icy demeanor to counteract that stereotype. I feel like I’m in a pretty good position now. I’ve been doing this long enough that I have a solid reputation.”

“Interesting question,” says Monica. “I used to think there was no glass ceiling. Lately, I’ve noticed a few situations where it seems people take me less seriously than they would if I were a man. For example, I know one major label publicist who regularly goes out for “steak and cigars” with the key male writers for major national publications like Rolling Stone, Details, and SPIN. He totally works this “boys club” angle with them. I think by doing so he even tends to unintentionally exclude the very capable female publicists at the label. It bothers me because this sort of activity just isn’t something I can do with the same writers. Although I do wonder, if there were more women editors in powerful positions, if I could achieve a similar thing by going out for manicures and makeovers.”

“Let’s face it,” says Michelle, “this is a tough business and everybody responds to its challenges differently. A lot of folks live their work life by the “look out for number one” credo. Frankly, in this business, that’s certainly a very quick way to attain respect and monetary success. That sort of philosophy, however, requires a total lack of loyalty and disregard for the efforts of colleagues and co-workers. What I’m trying to say is most of the men who would dick women around, dick men around too. The only difference is, men always half expect a man to confront them, and they respect the man who does. In turn, you might think a woman should confront him to get respect as well. But men don’t respond well to that. What’s the answer? Who the hell knows!”

This topic segued rather naturally into a discussion of fees, and the payment — or non-payment — thereof. Yvonne has zero tolerance for late or nonpaying clients. “So far, I’ve only had two clients who took forever to pay me. I eventually got paid by both and will never work with either again. I also made sure every one of my indie publicist friends knew that these companies were bad risks. One of the things I find really frustrating is that people have this bizarre concept that publicity fees should be inexpensive. I also don’t understand PR firms that keeping working on a project when they’re not getting paid. I have it written into all my contracts with clients that they will be placed “on hold” until they pay me.” She is adamant about not beginning work with a new client until the check is in the bank. “Sounds harsh, I know, but I provide a valuable service and I do not work for free. Interestingly enough, I find that the indie labels pay on time and are so much more reliable in keeping up with a payment schedule. Majors suck for paying on time. I think this has something to do with the fact that they can continually pass the buck back to someone else. They live under the mistaken assumption that everyone needs their business.”

Here, Monica had a different experience. “I find that major labels are generally willing to pay a certain rate; it’s with indie labels that there’s more negotiating to do, even if the indie is funded. Most major labels are good for the money and, even if they’re late, if you nag them enough you WILL get paid. And I do think male publicists have an easier time getting higher fees. A good guy friend of mine, also an indie publicist, tells me about the fees he gets for some of his clients. Sometimes I’m just amazed at what he’s able to get out of them, and the fact that he has no problem with asking for it. I can come out and confidently ask for the figure I think is appropriate, but it seems people will try to bargain me down a lot faster. I’ve also had some not-great experiences with indie labels recently. They will purposely pay their vendors late, but don’t realize that this kind of bad cash flow can really mess with someone who runs their own business. I must continually remind them that “It’s my rent, man!”

“Getting paid? Ha!” is Barbara’s response. “I’ve actually found that the major labels are the easiest and most professional to deal with. I’ve had several run-ins with indies who underpaid me to begin with, were verbally abusive and then took forever to send a check.”

“In a man’s world, money equals respect,” offers Michelle. “Though I think that many men have respect for the quality of work and contributions women can make, they have a hard time reconciling that with their wallets. I’ve done enough corporate press for major and independent labels to understand its value. When PR is more about money, they hire a man. When they don’t understand the value of PR, they create a ghetto for women where the pay is not equivalent to that of a radio promotions or A&R executive. The way [my firm] chooses to work — a fully staffed office with a computer network for our database, clipping service, etc. — leaves a very small profit margin, but it’s meant to better serve our clients. Sometimes it would be nice if labels had some respect for those efforts. After all, I’m not the Bank of America. Clients would be very disturbed to realize that we indies talk to each other. When they stiff one company and approach another, that doesn’t go over too well. It’s important for us that labels understand our efforts and appreciate them. For that reason, we’ve severed relationships with clients in the last year who were not responsible in their dealings with us.” Her advice to her peers? “Don’t ever feel badly burning a bridge with this sort of person. This is not a bridge you’ll ever want to cross again anyway.”

In a worst case scenario, there is Linda’s story. “My business has ruined my personal credit. I have no credit cards, and it’s really hard to budget and pay bills when you have no idea when your next check is coming. Every time I try to charge what I feel I’m worth — and what other publicists are making — I get shot down. I usually really like and want the project, so I end up getting paid less than I’m worth. I should not be living from check to check, but I am nonetheless.”

Ultimately, great love means great sacrifice. Women who do independent publicity will continue to enjoy the good times and continually strive to improve the bad, because they love what they do. “I think there’s so much competition now among indies,” Monica concludes, “there are so many more of us. It seems every time someone gets laid off, I hear they’re opening their own shop. I guess competition is a good thing, and as labels downsize, it’s natural that more people will work from home. But I swear, this year so far I’ve written more proposals for potential clients than any other. I’ve not gotten all of them, either. I remember when a client would decide to work with me just on the basis of a good referral, some faxed background materials and a phone conversation or meeting. It seems to be turning into more of a buyer’s market.”

“I’m a strong enough person that I don’t allow [these problems] to affect my level of self-esteem or my desire to work with music,” Yvonne surmises. “I’ve always believed that if someone’s going to try to put roadblocks in front of me, I’ll either have to find a way around them or get strong enough to go through them.”

Despite all the challenges, Michelle has used her hi-tech experience to do some of the first campaigns for Web sites, Online retail, and cybercasting, including the Macintosh New York Music Festival and Mammoth Record’s’ Web site. Hard work pays off. “We currently work with an unsigned band from Austin, Texas, 7% Solution, who have already been featured in Rolling Stone, Option, and Alternative Press. Good music will always have an audience. It often takes time for people to find it, but that doesn’t make it any less pertinent or important. I understand the reality of art versus commerce, I’m not naive, but my personal choice to do this has been based on a desire to support artists I believe in.”

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