Music, money and PR ‘prats’

Steve Lawson

The final thupr was fascinating insight into the music industry as well as having more general lessons for others in PR. It’s an industry of extremes that holds a light up to so many of the things that are wrong with the way the entire PR industry has played out.   With musicians, social media practitioners, digital experts, students, PR folk and bloggers in the same room, the conversation was insightful and interesting.

So many PR people have no concept of business – with the result, in the music industry, that even apparently successful musicians in the public eye end up losing vast sums of money. The whole spin cycle creates an illusion of sex and drugs and rock and roll, a glamour that can’t be lived up to, pressure that’s taken many talented musicians to an early and unhappy grave.

You can add to that the laziness of the average music agent. Whilst I understand that the average celebrity’s PR team may not want to be constantly bombarded with requests to open a village fete (if any of these still exist) it’s nigh on impossible to find out who represents who and get past the ferocious receptionists to offer cash to musicians to be part of a campaign. Have they never heard of the Internet? A quick form fill would quickly sort the wheat from the chaff. The signs are there that music PR – like many other PR sectors –  is simply not getting the new world order.

Music blogger Halima Amin expressed her disdain of those lazy PRs who fail to engage with bloggers – or who prioritise the big titles over the niche blogging communities. Yet in terms of engagement, these niches are far more likely to bring profit to the musician than, say, a piece in the Telegraph.

On reflection, perhaps this is more about the way we (PR) measure the numbers of success? I’d stake good money on this being something to do with ‘opportunities to see’ or AVEs (Ad Equivalent Values)? Yet time and again we see clear economic proof that good engagement brings financial benefits.

Alex Thomson of the Greenhouse Group personified some of that ‘I’m a music PR’  arrogance by failing to even show up – or to send an apology – even though he’d promised Halima he’d be there .

The shake up

The thupr discussions were a clear shot across the beam for PRs like Thomson. Musician Steve Lawson (@solobasssteve) has a new model of PR for musicians, and shed an insight into a healthier future role for public relations/communications professionals. And it means being smarter and more engaging.

Lawson was a session musician until 1999, worked as music journalist, and knew things needed to change. Today, against the odds, he makes a living as a solo guitar bass player, supplemented with work at Amplified and at New Music Strategies

The music industry that Lawson portrays is a microcosm of what’s happening with media and PR in other industries. Media relations used to be essential to reach an audience. Now the media’s role as mediator is diminished, and media properties like the BBC are struggling to redefine. Where once they declared what would be a number one hit, today YouTube and Twitter are just as likely to play.

Lawson echos the sentiments of many working in social media – serendipity, ripple effects, the value of gratitude. But he’s unusual in that he’s proved the economic effect of his engagement in social media. He has some control over where his music is distributed (he owns his own market, to a large extent) and can see for himself what does, and doesn’t, make money.

On the old fashioned music ownership model, piracy, CD sharing, etc mean that much music is ‘stolen’. That’s not a great relationship for a musician to have with an audience. Lawson’s social media model means people don’t steal: they share, they reward. The payback is propulsion. Which in the past has been paid for – to PR teams.  And, more recently, to itunes. The machines behind the musicians have always made money. In Lawson’s model, the musician gets paid.

Music simply mirrors wider trends. Values, in a goldfish bowl world, are transparent.  And it’s those value we fall in love with and that add to the whole creative environment it pulls us into to. After the event I was sat in a sports centre bar waiting for my son to finish his football training. On the large screen was the plucky little musician, Cher, an ex-factor ‘reject’. Gone the attitude and the sneakers.  Gone the desire to rap over each and every song. On with the Cheryl Cole lookalike, surrounded by ‘bezzie mates’, more Essex than Essex.  It’s a fashionable formula.

If Lawson’s right, Cher’s playing in a doomed industry that’s going to have to change its ways or die.  It may be that Cher’s core values are to achieve fame at all costs, in which case she’ll be loving her current status.  Social media, by contrast, offers an artist like Cher the opportunity to stay themselves, retain their  integrity and have a modicum of control over the distribution of their own music – music they want to create and share rather than music to a formula. The audience is out there – social media can find it.

The Opportunity for PR

Lawson is blessed. He’s articulate, smart and engaging. As an ex-journalist he also writes well. There are some hugely talented musicians out there without those abilities. It’s a disadvantage, but no-one ever said life was fair. Using the social media/engagement model rather than the ‘shit or bust’ stardom route seems a lot fairer – and healthier.

This should be no challenge for good PR folk, presenting instead an opportunity.

Combinations of skills transfer, training, helping with writing, and advising on dealing with difficult situations are what we’ve always done, and in many ways a lot more fun than ‘telesales’ to journalists as mediators.  The whole customer care element seems to have come full circle. In so many ways I’d love to be starting out in PR just now, rather than being an old hand. Such an opportunity to innovate.

A word to the wise though, as noted by keen music blogger  Halima: there’s a huge difference between spending time spamming Twitter and engagement.

Claire Thompson, Freelance PR consultant, Waves PR

 

Further notes from the event:

On the media: TV is now more influential than radio, which is struggling with the confines of the remit given to it.  (Special note was made of Jules Holland as a musician’s friend, and of Simon Cowell who has absolutely understood the power of TV). And Facebook, it seems, has invaluable powers for musicians.

On the PRS: as a charity it’s evidently slightly more favourable to musicians than to PRs wanting permissions to use music. As with radio, it’s the confines of an outdated business model/outdated thinking at board level that hold it back. (ED: See note below. I have misunderstood this)

Correction, courtesy of Gareth Cousins: “Just one little thing. the PRS is not a charity. It is a not-for-profit membership organisation, and exists purely to collect royalties generated by the performance of its members’ music. So of course it acts mainly in the interests its members. But this is necessary as without it most musicians would be hopelessly exploited and would not be able to afford to make a living from music. And that would be a great loss to everyone who loves or needs music.” Thanks for the clarifying, Gareth. It pretty much concurs with Steve Lawson’s views.

On the BPI  (which I hadn’t previously heard of) : a farce! But given that it represents the traditional music business that’s probably a reflection on the social media savvy audience at the thupr event rather than the organisation itself.

Information on commissioning music from composer Gareth Cousins: How to Brief Musicians

Related post on poor blogger relations: http://www.businessinsider.com/pr-guy-curses-blogger-brandlink-communcations-2011-10

On ‘PR prats': We were unable to hook up with the US because I made a fairly basic PR mistake and didn’t check the location we were in – the Square Pig has broadband, but it doesn’t work downstairs. Halima will be blogging  up the information from Emily Breder, a writer and a web engagement specialist who works with entrepreneurs, internet startups and mobile developers,offering  insight on the PR world of apps and music stateside.


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