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Getting It In Writing

By Scott Smith in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 8, 2005 2:00PM

Last night, some of Chicago’s best-known music writers and editors got together to answer a simple question: how does an unknown band get nice things written about them?

2005_11_08_rockwriters.jpgThe discussion, presented by the Chicago Music Commission was titled “Pitching Your Story: Media and Local Music” with Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot serving as moderator. In attendance were Scott Plagenhoef of Pitchfork Media; Peter Margasak of the Chicago Reader; David Jakubiak, with the Chicago Sun-Times; Antonia Simigis from Time Out Chicago; Alejandro Rivera from Hoy; Thomas Conner of the Chicago Sun-Times and Monica Eng from the Chicago Tribune. So yeah: a who’s who of Chicago music writers and the gatekeepers for bands looking to break into local media.

The group talked to the 200+ attendees about what they like and don’t like when getting pitches from local bands. The general consensus was that everyone liked to see bands that “have a story.” Find whatever is unique, innovative, or interesting about your band and feature that in your press release rather than your many influences.

Other recommendations made by the panel included knowing the writers and considering their schedules.

For example, Jakubiak writes about hip-hop, so he’s not interested in hearing about heavy metal acts. Artists should read the publication they’re targeting and find out which writers, editors, or freelancers cover their style of music so as not to waste their time or the writer’s.

Moreover, there’s only so much room for copy in their publications. Kot noted that he has to cover the new Madonna record “whether I want to or not.” Smaller local acts might get his attention but the “folk singer from Minnesota who’s playing Uncommon Ground” probably won’t. Jakubiak said that he only writes one hip-hop column a week and it’s in the form of a show preview. If a local band is playing a show they want the writer to know about, it’s best to give them at least three weeks notice though some book their schedules two months in advance. Eng said that sending your CD to a staff writer or freelancer, in addition to an editor, gives it a better chance of getting heard since most music writers get piles of CDs every day.

“Simpler is better” was another oft-heard mantra. Websites with too much Flash animation, flowery language in press releases, and ostentatious media kits were all singled out for particular scorn. Also, pay attention to the basics. When sending press kits, include a one-sheet with basic info like the names of band members, a contact name and phone number and a website; any press clippings are also a good idea as is including that contact info on the CD.

As for new technology: some use it, others don’t. Conner said that bands who post full MP3s are more likely to get downloaded to his iPod for his 45-minute commute while Kot confessed to not owning an iPod at all. All agreed that a good website with at least three full MP3s (or streams) of the band’s best material was crucial to getting noticed. While Jakubiak prefers a phone message with a website address, Conner noted that link-filled e-mails from bands are easier to forward to writers and don’t clutter up his desk. Simigis said both a physical CD and an e-mail would increase the chances that an act would get noticed.

Of course, buzz is important too. How do you get it? Simigis said she’s more likely to pay attention to a band that’s playing out rather than someone who’s only performed in their bedroom with a four-track. Kot said writers talk to people they trust, which led Jakubiak to recommend that bands looking for attention in cities other than their hometown should talk to club owners about who to contact in the local media. Eng said that suburban papers are more likely to provide coverage of smaller bands while Plagenhoef said that blogs (ahem) and ‘zines are more likely to post MP3s or give coverage to up-and-comers. In addition, Margasak had this crucial piece of advice: “be good, don’t be bad.”

As the night wound down, the inevitable “What are you listening to now” discussion ensued, which included name-drops of such rock snob staples as Jonathan Richman (Eng), Kraftwerk (Rivera) and XTC (Conner). The themes of the evening seemed to be: know your audience, keep it simple, have a website, sell your story. As one writer noted, pitching your band is a lot like interviewing with a potential employer. Kot followed this up with an anecdote from Ani DiFranco who said it takes just one thing: patience.