So, you’ve got an important concert this season. Or maybe there’s a new CD featuring your music… What’s the best way to get the word out about it? While many people these days send bulk emails to a list to spread the news about the latest developments in their career trajectories, the standard practice remains sending out a press release to members of the media (press, radio, TV, etc).
Writing press releases is not rocket science and the people who are likely to read your releases are not rocket scientists. Chances are they might be equally as busy, though, and their workspaces will possibly be even more cluttered. So, it’s important to state the information you are trying to disseminate in a plain and clear way while, at the same time, presenting your material in a way that will encourage your readers to read on. Over the years, many conventions have evolved for press release writing. While none of these are written in stone and breaking a few of them now and then won’t keep you out of the papers, the following overview should provide you with the right ammunition to write something effective and competitive with the piles of materials people in the media get deluged with on a daily basis.
Headline = News
Every press release should have a headline. This headline orients readers about what they are about to read. So, if your release is announcing a concert, the headline should clearly announce that it is for a concert. Headlines should contain something newsworthy, e.g. premiere information, an unusual collaboration, an unusual sized ensemble or duration (big or small) etc. If you can’t think of anything that’s newsworthy to write in your headline, chances are the person reading it won’t find anything newsworthy either and won’t spread the word about it.
Headlines should always avoid editorializing. No matter how strongly you might personally think it, “[INSERT NAME HERE] IS A GREAT COMPOSER” just doesn’t cut it as a headline! The people who are receiving this information from you take as much pride in formulating opinions about music as you do in creating music, so don’t invade their turf.
For the recipients of your press release (who are inevitably always on deadline), always remember that dates are crucial pieces of information and should always be included in a headline. Often the presence of a clearly visible date will determine whether or not something gets read or tossed in the trash. Listings editors like to include information about events every day of the year if possible, so if the date of your concert is a day without much other activity, you might just get in.
Venues are also frequently an important headline item and should usually be incorporated into the sentence somehow. If you’ve got a gig at Carnegie Hall, be loud and clear about it.
For a press release announcing a recording, there are fewer hard and fast rules, although label information is usually helpful. Someone who is not necessarily familiar with your work might be familiar with the label your music is on and decide whether or not to read on based on the association.
A headline should be: bold, all in capital letters (or at least in a larger font size than the rest of the text in the press release), centered on the page, and ideally fit on a single line. A headline that is several sentences long defeats the whole purpose of having a headline. Don’t forget that we’re living in a sound-byte culture and those sound-bytes are largely the creation of the media, which is where you’re sending this information (even though many prominent professional publicists ignore this). Remember, if you can’t summarize what your information is ultimately about in a one-line sentence, chances are someone reading it won’t be able to do so either, and there goes your chance at getting a listing, or getting a staff writer to justify writing about you to an editor with an even more limited attention span who, more than likely, couldn’t care less about so-called “new music.”
Sometimes, however, having a sub-headline can be a good way to get around how impossible it is to summarize information about a really important event. Most press releases sent out by major music industry institutions (e.g. orchestras, large concert venues, record companies) take advantage of these sub-headlines in the press releases they send out and use them as an opportunity to list important soloists, etc. Naming crucial collaborators up front in a sub-headline is a good way to keep people you’re working with happy too. Be judicious when using these sub-headlines though. I’ve seen press releases with five sub-headlines, I kid you not, and it looked like someone in the PR office was just making sure that no one involved in the concert would feel left out. It’s important to be diplomatic, but it’s not news. Sub-headlines should also be set off from the rest of the text by bolding, centering, larger fonts, etc. although never in caps, otherwise it competes with the headline.
While a well-written and clever headline will make ‘em read on, be careful not to be too cute or too cryptic. And, above all, never misrepresent what you are promoting in the release. Anyone reading your press release who has some street smarts can smell a fake. Folks on the receiving end typically receive hundreds every month and have already “seen it all.” So hype is a dangerous ploy to use with someone in the media and frequently results in irritation rather than attention.
From a Lead Paragraph That Says It All to the Rest of the Release (What’s Left to Say?)
The first paragraph of your press release should contain all the relevant information about the event—what it is, who’s involved, when and where it’s taking place, etc.—the basic who, what, where, when from high school essay writing class, remembering to leave the how and why for the critics. (NOTE: It doesn’t matter that some of this information is already clearly stated in your headline; you still need to repeat it here. And, an additional good proofreading tip, make sure the information is exactly the same in both places!)
If you’re writing about a recording rather than a concert, make sure your opening paragraph includes titles of compositions on the disc, performers you want to highlight, label information, and a release date. Whether or not something has never been recorded before is important for something dating from before the 21st century, but if all the music was composed this year assume the reader already realizes that these are premiere recordings and don’t be patronizing.
Back when I used to write press releases for a living, I would always bold all the important pieces of information in the lead paragraph—such as date, time, venue, key people involved—so that those words would jump out from the prose and catch the reader’s eye. While this level of detail is probably not completely necessary, now that I’m on the receiving end of more press releases a day than most of you would probably ever want to read in a lifetime, I really appreciate it when I know someone took the time to make things easier, and most people on the receiving end of this information feel the same way.
The rest of the press release should provide the reader with some important ancillary information. It’s always good to write a sentence or two about each of the repertoire items being featured. Instrumentation, dates and durations of compositions are always appreciated as well as premiere status (a world premiere should obviously have made it into your headline and opening paragraph). Short direct quotes from the composer can sometimes be a nice touch and sometimes even wind up getting quoted. A short biographical paragraph about the composer or performer, if only one is being featured, or just a sentence if it is several, is a good way to orient the reader who might not be completely familiar with the people involved. (But, remember, less is more. There’s no need for an entire C.V. here. It should be just the right amount to pique the reader into doing further research. Don’t give away everything.)
Lastly, make sure to include ticket prices and information about how to purchase tickets (e.g. box office, advance sales, etc) somewhere in the release. The jury is still out on whether ticket price information should be in the opening paragraph, but make sure it is prominently visible no matter where you include the information. And, of course, if the concert is free, that’s a fact you’re probably going to want to call particular attention to. Frequently, publications and other media outlets will look even more favorably on free events for listings. Although, bizarrely, the free events are the ones most often ignored by reviewers who can already get free tickets to almost any event. Go figure.
An effective press release should fit on one page. No matter how terrific a concert or a recording is, if the press release announcing it is 100 times longer than anything a journalist would ever be able to write, something’s out of whack here. Besides, no matter how well you staple something, staples can and do come off, especially on crowded desks filled with other people’s press releases. (Which is why the paper clip is information enemy number one.) Sometimes the information is too much for a single page and needs the additional pages. In this case, the back of the page can be used provided you clearly type the word OVER in the bottom right corner of the front page underneath the last word of text on that page. I type this with some trepidation, though, since I’ve had journalists call me when I was a publicist asking where the second page of a release was when it was clearly on the back of the page, I kid you not!
Of course, professional publicists in the industry will challenge me on this one-page rule and there are obviously exceptions. You can’t and shouldn’t be expected to announce an orchestra’s entire concert season in a one-page press release, although that information is probably better served as a pull out document that’s prefaced by a stand-alone one-pager announcing key events. Remember, no matter how great you think Henry James and Marcel Proust are, writers like Ernest Hemingway, or gasp, Jacqueline Susann, have many more readers.
Supporting Information (But don’t overdo it)
Along with the press release, you might want to send other things that will make the information you’re sending more appealing. I’m not talking about candy bars or T-shirts here, although, believe it or not, some folks insist on sending such things. (See above: “seen it all”) For concerts, high quality photographs of performers or a featured composer can be very helpful, and can help the chances of it getting a listing. (Don’t send your high school yearbook photo, please!) And, if you’re sending a release about a recording, please send a copy of the recording. Nothing is more irritating than getting advance notice about a recording and then not being able to hear it. I don’t care if the disc isn’t ready yet. Wait to send out the release then. Nobody will remember a press release about a recording that they’re not going to hear for another month.
Sometimes it’s even helpful to send along a recording with a concert release, especially if you’re sending it to a radio station. Although it may be belaboring the obvious to say this here, nothing helps someone get familiar with music faster than actually hearing it, and if you’re sending information to a radio station in the hopes that they’ll announce your concert, maybe they’ll even play some of your music.
But, always remember that too much of a good thing is no longer a good thing. If you send tons of photos, chances are you’re just wasting them and if you send your entire catalog of recordings, chances are the person at the receiving end won’t find the time to listen to any of them. Choose your supporting materials judiciously and they will act as effective ambassadors.
Aside from the actual text of the press release, there are still a few good auxiliary housekeeping procedures to keep in mind that make the difference between effective and ineffective communication. While a good bit of this might seem terribly obvious, I’ve deemed it worth stating here since over the years I’ve actually seen press releases that have ignored these items and were unsuccessful as a result.
Always include the name of a contact person along with a phone number and, ideally, an email address as well. That way, the person receiving your materials can call for more information if he or she is interested. More often than not, it is good for that contact person’s name not to be the same name as the featured composer or performer, otherwise it comes across as a vanity project. If you don’t have staff, get a friend to agree to have his or her name on your release. (Perhaps this is an area where a little hype is necessary after all.)
Organizational stationary is always better than a plain sheet of paper. This is true for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that something on unique and professional-looking letterhead stands out on a table cluttered with tons of pieces of paper. Also, that perceptual hype thing is true here once again. Something on professional-looking letterhead looks, well, professional.
So, now what?
OK. Finally, back to that wonderful project you want people to know about. You’ve finished reading thus far and therefore have mastered the esoteric art of press release writing and have now written the world’s most effective press release. However, a press release is only effective if you are able to get into the hands of the right people. So, who do you send it to?
Most major market newspapers in the country still have someone on-staff who exclusively covers classical music. Some even have someone who covers jazz, although in both areas the numbers have been in steady decline for years. Chances are, however, even if there is someone on staff who covers this stuff, “new music” is not that person’s primary interest. (Take heed of the above advice against being cryptic once more.) For the larger publications, make sure to send separate materials to everyone of the critics as well as the listings editor. Don’t assume they share information with each other ’cause they usually don’t! At the smaller publications, even if there is no one who covers this particular beat, most daily and weekly papers, even in the tiniest communities, have an entertainment or features editor who might be sympathetic to your cause, so sending something to that person is never a waste of time.
Most places in the country have a radio station that plays classical music and/or jazz at least some of the time even if the contemporary music played on that station is next to nil. While a station with a regular rotation of Boccherini and Spohr might not jump at the opportunity to play your new 12-tone composition for brass quintet and interactive electronics, there’s always the possibility that its performance will get announced in a public service announcement, especially if the station is an NPR affiliate or a college station that features local programming.
Television is always much more of a gamble. But who knows? If you’ve got an event you’re pushing that’s camera friendly you just might wind up on the local news.
If you live in a community, you should pretty much know what your media outlets are, although sometimes there’s a small weekly in a neighboring town that might have eluded you. If you feel like you might be out of touch with who’s covering what (and personnel changes happen all the time), most decently-sized libraries contain up-to-date guides in the reference section that list all the media outlets (print, radio, and television) in any community in the country with addresses, phone numbers, etc.
Then, of course, there’s the Internet. With the wane of newspaper coverage and radio airplay for contemporary music, people all over the country have started up Web magazines, blogs and all sorts of things to try to fill the void. (After all, it’s why we started NewMusicBox.) Have Google, can search! Don’t underestimate the power such sites have to get out the word. Remember though, if you’re sending something to a web-based publication, web-based communication is often more effective than snail-mail. However, if you send someone in the media an email, please take advantage of the subject line. Media people receive hundreds of emails a day, so a subject header that says only “Concert” just doesn’t cut it, and obviously neither does one that says only “Hello” or nothing at all.
Remember that media outlets live and die by deadlines, so always be aware of them when sending press releases. There are few things more irritating to a music journalist than receiving news about an exciting concert that’s happening…tomorrow. Most people like to get information about something five to six weeks in advance. Longer than that, they’ll forget it. Shorter than that, they’ve already made plans to cover something else. Reminders closer to the date never hurt, but, like all things, be judicious. Daily emails to a journalist about a concert featuring one of your pieces will probably guarantee not only that the journalist won’t cover your concert, you’ll probably wind up in his or her spam filter as well. Phone calls can sometimes be helpful and welcome, but remember to respect the time constraints most people on the receiving end of your phone call have to work under and be polite. As in most forms of human interaction, civility is usually the best policy and can go a long way, especially if you want to build ongoing relationships with the media in the future.
If you’ve got a lot that’s going on with your music, you might even consider hiring a professional publicist. Not me, though, ever again. But that’s a whole different story!