Al's New Coffee Grinder
Getting Press: The Have Nots
But then, you've already read those stories, haven't you? Maybe that's why there is a very real and justified perception by many Austin musicians that certain local acts will always get press, and get it whether or not there's even something newsworthy to report. So if you're one of the hundreds of acts floating around town who is not Alejandro Escovedo, how do you get into the remaining few inches of page space that weren't used writing about Al's new coffee grinder? How do you get press?
While it may seem self-defeating to question those who don't get press about how to get it ("If I knew how," says Graham Reynolds of the Golden Arm Trio, "we'd get more press"), many of the musicians approached for this story knew - or thought they knew - how to get what they're not getting. The answer was usually some variant of the following: send a press kit to a publication, play in local clubs, and hope someone notices one or both. Must be the same people who think they may have "Already Won 10 Million Dollars."
For those of you not in a band, a press kit is basically the equivalent of a resumé, complete with a CD, cassette, or even vinyl, along with a photo and a brief bio. And like a resumé, there's a really good chance it will never get looked at for the exact same reason that resumés don't get read in the "real world" - editors and writers are inundated with so many of them that it would consume the entirety of their day processing them. This means that if sending in a press kit to a publication were all it took to get written about, then just about everybody would be getting written about. And if that were the case we wouldn't be having this little conversation.
During a panel on how to get press at last year's South by Southwest conference, a frustrated musician began asking the panelists, who were all writers, exactly what it is beyond the minimally effective basics outlined above that might get them noticed. Unfortunately, the ultra-jaded Bill Wyman, music editor for the San Francisco-based weekly The Bay Guardian, shot back, "Let me ask you a question: Why do you want press from me?" In the ensuing hostility that permeated the room, the original question was lost, forever denying the world of musicians the answers they need.
The thinking is that media is the most effective way to get your name out to people. People read or hear your name and they come see you play. That's the perceived causal relationship, anyway. There's some debate as to whether that's actually the case, but the fact is you-the-band don't know if it's going to help or not unless you-the-band get it.
Ted James of Squid Vicious, the self-described Rush of surf music, has seen it work for his band in other markets. "In Lake Charles we did an interview on one of those classic rock stations. They played one of our songs - right in the middle of Skynyrd and all, they played a surf tune." The result was a packed house for the band's Monday night show.
Things are a little different in Austin, though. First, Z-102, the local classic rock outlet, is not going to play anything by Squid Vicious on the airwaves. More to the point, the fine people of Lake Charles probably don't have 30-plus live music options on an average Monday. Austinites are so overwhelmed by live music seven nights a week that to hear of another local band playing somewhere on a Monday evening is tantamount to hearing that reruns of Wings are running on the USA Network.
James has dealt with that home field disadvantage. "We have met people casually who say, `I've seen your name and thought it was cool.' `Well we're playing this Friday night, come on out.' And they don't show up. Part of the problem is because there are 800 bands playing all of the time. So no matter how good you are, it's tough."
Efficacy of press aside, the fact of the matter is that a sizable quantity of page space exists for the coverage of bands, and there are plenty of bands who never see any of it. And it is a zero sum game; yet another feature on the Derailers means there is another band you've probably never heard of who you still aren't going to hear about that week.
And that kind of press overkill at the expense of the struggling happens with such regularity that it has begotten a certain genus of cynicism in the spurned. Chris Burton of the Peter Lorre Quartet explains: "This band has kind of become accepting of being ignored. The fact that the Hole in the Wall likes us and will book us allows us to play music on our own terms. That in itself is a fulfillment of a goal that this band has had. I know a number of people who would kill to play the Hole on a Friday night.
"Eight years ago, I was one of those people, but I am hoping that one of you guys are going to show up and say, `That's an interesting band. They deserve coverage.'"
If they truly are an interesting band, then Burton is right, they do deserve coverage. And Burton kind of puts the burden on us, the writers, noting, "As the press, as a music critic, it's your job and your obligation to find out what's happening in Austin - what's good, what's not so good, what's going on."
The embarrassing irony is that many of the bands that haven't been written about are fairly interesting, even more so than the press hogs. And it's about time to let this little secret known to all: Rock stars are boring people. If they are not inherently boring, the media has made them that way. A person can only be excited about answering the same five or 10 questions so many times. Repeated press wears musicians down to the point where they are more drone than human and the interview becomes routine - reel off answer A to question A, answer B to question B, and so on. They can do interviews in their sleep.
Ignored bands, though, are excited about talking to anybody, so they genuinely put thought into their answers. Even better, some of them simply happen to have great angles to their stories. For example, Tim Dauncey of local alt-country outfit Escape Waco went to school in the Babylon on the Brazos. There, he had a few classes with international superstar Vernon Howell. Who? Well, thanks to the BATF, the F.B.I., and Janet Reno, Howell is better known to the world as David Koresh.
Says Dauncey, "He was always trying to get us into these bands, but he sucked. He thought he was good, though, which is the ultimate crime among musicians." Betcha no self-appointed messiah ever asked Eric Johnson if he wanted to jam. Even better, Dauncey is currently writing a bluegrass opera about what went down at the compound: "The working title is Davidian Versus Goliath, but I'm not sure that's going to stick."
Having the eye-catching story doesn't necessarily translate into getting your band written about. As a musician, you would hope that your music would be the springboard for that; unfortunately that's not always the case. The dumbest thing could lead to ink. Do you seriously think anybody would ever write a single word about Dogstar were their bass player not Keanu Reeves? As silly as it is conceptually, the bands mentioned herein are getting written about because they have not been written about previously. Well, that and they have interesting names.
And don't discount the importance of a name in trying to get noticed. The Spice Guys, a local band that started off as a joke making fun of the British pop-tarts, have been drawing curious watchers to such a degree that they have started taking themselves seriously. By their own admission, this local band is "so uninformed on how to do anything" that they have no bio, because they "don't even know what to say in it." Still, the name and the artwork from their self-produced cassette - the guys in mock Spice Girls poses - drew attention at a recent songwriters workshop in Houston. That attention led to some important critical feedback on their actual material at the workshop.
Of course you can be too clever for your own good. Chris Burton lamented that nobody knows who Peter Lorre is. The actor (M and Casablanca) is supposed to be the mythical fourth member of the band, but the joke has been lost on the majority of people who catch the band. The Hole in the Wall even put "Peter Lorre Trio" on the marquee because, well, there are only three guys onstage. Half-jokingly, Burton noted that due to the ineffectual gag, one of his bandmates is always saying they should "change the name to Supercrack or something stupid that will catch the teenagers' imagination."
The big question, however, still remains unanswered: How do you get press? Thing is, there is no answer to that question that will work for every band every time. If there were such answers, every band would know them and would be getting the press they sought because of them. Then again, part of it may have to do with just being media savy. When Sharon Roos of the Faux Paws was approached about answering a few questions for the Chronicle, her slightly paranoid response was, "No thank you, I'm not interested in buying the Chronicle." We're free. And we're not trying to sell you anything.
To get noticed about all you can do short of causing an incident worthy of the national news is to continue sending press kits and keep playing. Know that where the bio may not get read, there is a very real chance that someone will listen to the CD. Also know that rock critics never outgrow that "I saw them first" mentality. They live to say shit like: "Yeah, I remember when I saw R.E.M. play in front of five people and a guinea pig at a Shriners swap meet." If you are good and you are onstage, somebody will find you (of course if you're not good, stop kidding yourself).
The good news for the slighted is that while press is generally valued as an integral brick on the path to stardom, it is not essential. You can make it even if nobody has ever heard of you. Locally, Soak got signed to Interscope and none of the critics around here had any clue who they were. It can happen: Hell, Liz Phair got signed out of her bedroom without any major press and without having paid her dues playing shitty gigs in the clubs.
It would be foolish, though, to pretend that press won't help. And the real pity from the standpoint of the people on the outside is that the people who need it the least seem to get it the most. What's worse is that they are virtually powerless to change the situation. That impotence breeds a resigned apathy.
"I know a lot of people who are constantly complaining about how little press they get and I try not to waste my energy in complaining about it," says Reynolds. "It would be nice to get more press, and, yeah, I do see other bands getting press and wonder at times why they are getting it and we don't. But as a source of consistent friction or frustration I can't let it be a real problem. Obviously, I would value more press attention, but I don't expect it."
Well, in the "be-careful-what-you-wish-for" spirit, consider this one final thought. Escape Waco's Chauncey recalls, "In '92, I remember Malford Milligan telling me, `Even if the Chronicle likes you, it's the kiss of death.'" Pucker up.