The Chicken and Egg Deal
Getting Press: The Haves
"That there's all these other bands that want their name in the Chronicle sometimes makes me feel like I'm just taking up space," says Fastball's Miles Zuniga. "But if they're going to write about me bumping into Kris McKay in Los Angeles, there's nothing I can do about it. At this point, though, wouldn't it be better to mention the Deep Sombreros, or some other young band working hard? I don't want to say it's laziness... but maybe it is."
Indeed, maybe it is. By definition, it's easier for a dozen local writers to keep tabs on a couple of dozen bands than it is a couple of hundred. This is, after all, a small and incestuous town. And go ahead, just try to negotiate a record deal without any press interference. But while few local media darlings can explain what they do to demand or deserve so much press, even fewer are complaining.
"It's better than not being a press darling, isn't it?" asks Escovedo.
For two decades, Escovedo has been Austin's textbook media darling. No local musician has graced the cover of this publication more times. But like Leonard Cohen or the Replacements, if Escovedo had sold an album for every time his name has been mentioned in the local or national press, he'd have a gold record - or at least a major label recording deal.
"I've been fortunate, because every band I've been in - even the Nuns - has been championed by the press," says Escovedo, the subject of a two-page spread in Rolling Stone back in 1995. "And that's a great place to start. They're the people who listen to records and like music for many of the same reasons I do. It's flattering when Richard Meltzer, Lester Bangs, or Dave Marsh say something nice about you. Not only do I have respect for their taste, but these are people whose work taught me a lot and turned me on to a lot of other music over the years. But the truth is, all the press in the world isn't going to sell a record."
Fortunately, most local artists say they're not counting on their press clips to sell albums. However, most do contend that even if they can't pinpoint what attracted individual fans or concertgoers to their shows, constant press does seem to impact live draws - no small point in a town so driven by live play. "A `Recommended' [in the Chronicle] or `Best Bet' [in the Statesman] makes a huge difference," says Tony Villanueva of the Derailers. "They're beautiful, like night and day."
In truth, anybody that's written a "Recommended" or "Best Bet" knows that sometimes they have impact and sometimes they don't. Just as many "Recommendeds" yield empty rooms as they do full ones. One things is for certain, however, each mention does increase an artist's name recognition.
"Press can make a big difference in getting people to realize you exist," says local singer-songwriter Ana Egge. "You have no idea how many people come up to me on Thursdays and tell me they what they saw said about me in the papers. I don't even have to read 'em anymore."
In the past year, Egge has gotten a mountain of press with very little self-promotion. After winning the "Village Voyage Songwriter Search," a national contest sponsored by the Statesman, she simply sent a press release to both local papers. Live reviews, features, and gossip column mentions followed. Now, although the local press routinely calls her for updates, she merely sends the Chronicle and XLent the same tour itinerary postcard she sends fans on her mailing list.
"I'm in a great place where lots of people know my name," she says. "Although when somebody comes up to me after a show and says, `You lived up to what I'd heard about you,' you realize it's also kind of a tricky place to be."
Perhaps nobody knows how quickly good press can create high expectations better than the Damnations. Only a year after their current line-up gelled, a Chronicle "Live Shot" and tireless campaigning from the Statesman's Michael Corcoran labeled them the best new band in Austin.
"A year is not a long time to be playing before someone decides you're the next biggest thing," says Damnation Deborah Kelly. "It surprised us, because we certainly weren't hustling. We're not Paul Minor. We never had any greater rock vision. We saw us playing a lot locally, putting out a record independently, and maybe touring regionally - like anybody else."
Instead, last year's low-budget Live Set album, recorded on the KUT program of the same name, drew big local attention and a handful of national reviews. "We expected to sell a few at shows, not get reviews," says Kelly. "And although the press was overwhelmingly positive, would anyone have bothered to write anything negative without all the hype? And doesn't all that just invite people to come to a show and say, `What the hell is that all about?' The best shows I've seen have been right place, right time. I pictured people stumbling across us a lot later, if not at all."
In part, what the local press stumbled upon was simply a good story - two sisters playing a timeless brand of Carter Family country. Egge admits being 21 years old helped make her a better story, while Villanueva figures the uniqueness factor of the Derailers' haircuts and uniforms couldn't have hurt their case either. More often, a new release - or even just label interest - is story enough.
"There absolutely has to be a story," says Jill McGuckin, a local publicist that's currently working projects by Reckless Kelly, the Austin Lounge Lizards, and Michael Fracasso. "There has to be something of interest to the media and facts writers can structure a story around. The fact is, the bands with the better-presented press kits and better-written bios get more attention."
What about the music itself?
"The energy the music generates is the single most important thing," adds McGuckin. "It doesn't matter if your publicist is from New York or Austin or if your record's major or indie. Writers aren't idiots. You have to know when the music's ready. If not, it's like throwing away money."
Not surprisingly, Reckless Kelly's Willy Braun says he believes the money his band and label, Cold Springs, is spending on McGuckin is paying off. "We played a ton and developed a fanbase, but didn't really get any press until we got Jill," says Braun. "On this last tour, we got press nearly everywhere we played - an album review or pick. And even at this level, it gets people to the shows. We played empty rooms in Houston four or five times before The Houston Chronicle wrote about our last show. We almost sold out that show. That's a huge difference."
Perhaps because of local success stories like Reckless Kelly, more publicists seem to be popping up in Austin. And yet, few of the local press darlings have publicists. Even those that have label publicists, like Fastball or the Derailers, typically get their local press themselves - either by calling writers themselves or simply by being home when the writers call them looking for items to fill a column. Better yet, because Minor is a one-man operation, he actually signs his press releases with the alterego "Ron Impala" to draw a sketchy line between the band's musical efforts and promotional output. Either way, Minor insists getting press in Austin is easier than it looks.
"It's like shooting fish in a barrel," says Minor, who believes grassroots self-promotion is simply another necessary step in the classic DIY scenario. "All it takes to get your name in boldface is some communication skills and resources. The reason the Statesman calls me `a tireless self-promoter' is because I bought a laptop a few years ago for the price of a '76 Stratocaster. I can fax and e-mail anytime I have something interesting to say, like the press release I just sent about the Hole in the Wall Free For All Who Hoot Night March 22."
With an ability to land plugs like that, they don't call him a tireless self-promoter for nothing. But while the Damnations poke gentle fun at him, Minor has mostly avoided a media backlash - or one from fans that are tired of his hype. Maybe they realize, as Minor suggests, that Ani DiFranco knows how to send a fax, too, and it certainly hasn't hurt her any. Or maybe it's just that for all of Minor's efforts, he's still an underdog - the little guy. The same might be said of Escovedo, who nonetheless says, "I'm so prepared for a backlash that I've built a fence around my house."
And since Fastball has gone more than a dozen paragraphs without a mention, it's worth noting that Zuniga, who has watched his own star rise from underdog to national radio star in the last few weeks, has also done some thinking about backlash.
"There's a life cycle," he says. "A young band may give tapes to its friends and play a few gigs. If people talk and people show up, the press gets interested. If they land any kind of record deal, that's newsworthy. And once you've signed, they can start kicking you; kicking the band is the second stage. And if anything goes wrong with your record or deal, it's reported and made fun of. And yet, any press is good press. That's a fact. If they slag you, your name's still in the paper."
Even if you considered this paper's printing the almost non-existent sales figures from Fastball's debut negative press, it's obvious Zuniga and co. haven't been kicked around much. Yet those same SoundScan numbers, not to mention their moderate local drawing power, seem to beg the question of how much good all that press has done them.
"If anything proves press doesn't sell records, it's our first record," says Zungia. "We got a mountain of reviews locally and nationally [for Make Your Mama Proud], mostly glowing and about 5% negative. But then again, I did once meet a guy in Dallas who came to our show and bought a record because he read about us. Maybe press was the only reason we sold the few that we did."
Fastball's current run of success owes nothing to the press. The credit goes to radio. Reckless Kelly, the Derailers, and Egge, on the other hand, all say they've watched their press generate opportunities for radio, television, and in-store appearances, because radio programmers and retail clerks are constantly scouring the press looking to get a jump on their competition by discovering the next big band, scene, or trend.
"This is a business where every facet bleeds over into the others," says McGuckin. "So even if press doesn't directly affect sales, it increases awareness. And for a young band trying to establish their goals, be it more radio or more bookings, awareness is key. At that stage, a publicist and booking agent may be even more important than a manager. There's just more direct feedback and more bleed-over."
Given that impact of press may be negligible to begin with - even for supposed media darlings - some will undoubtedly ask where the payoff lies. Minor, in an e-mail that purports to have the last word on the subject, says regardless of how hard he chases it, press notoriety may always just be part of a bigger picture.
"It's like the chicken and egg deal. I don't think Superego is such a media juggernaut because I am busting my ass to get press," he writes. "I think it is because I am growing more confident in the work. When I am not typing, e-mailing, and faxing on my laptop, I'm writing songs, recording albums, and booking gigs. It's what I do. I purvey music."