Here's Looking At You, Kid: What to do after the gig and before the label

By Cindy Lamb

Have We Arrived?

It is the skin, teeth and hair of any artist - all of that creates an immediate image in the minds of the press, the public and your peers. there is a total of about two nanoseconds that occupies the space between a first and last impression Your demo tape, CD, photo or video may or may not be a done deal or in the bag for months but trust me, your image already is.

When an artist makes the conscious decision to pursue a full time career with his or her musical talent there are existing conditions that are first in line to greet you - keep your ego down, chin up and be prepared to leave town . . . often or forever.

Your new rapport with the media will guide you along, mostly as you screw things up, to learn about promoting your talent. In the beginning, tooting your own horn is a nasty job but nobody else can do it - not until you're signed and some lunch-breathed journalist is called into the label to write your bio.

That was me for many years. Until the music industry cut a new, cost-effective notch in its belt, I was part of a wide selection of freelancers, alternative weekly staff associates and phrase-turning, music-loving scribes who were matched up to a new artist to produce an electronic press kit.

The range of artists was challenging; luckily, all of the projects were ones I personally enjoyed. From indies like Rhino to corporate giants like Sony, I got people to spill their guts then showed them the ones to keep. Aside from signed acts, I enjoyed working with undiscovered bands to increase their profile with a professional looking press kit. These experiences were so satisfying, I stated a publicity outfit called The Press Kit'n. It wasn't financially rewarding but groups were grateful to have an inside edge. One band, Balancing Act - one of those critically acclaimed groups that flourished with the critics mid-80s - couldn't afford a couple of hundred dollars on a press kit, so I suggested they each buy me a wild pair of socks. After the band was signed to I.R.S. Records with a healthy tour support budget, I received a pair of garishly loud orange scrunch socks with thirty bucks inside the toe. Spent the money, kept the socks.

Bio writing was a great exercise for me as a writer (although I've caused plenty of well-meaning editors to go running for a bottle of booze and a tube of Rogaine after many of my submissions.) Lunch was free and the pay was good, about $250 being the average flat rate for the tedious interview process, juggling of moods and intentions then the assembling the band's image on paper. This is often a performer's first crack at being interviewed - knowing what parts of your life pertain to the music, your body language and most importantly, realizing that a handshake does not have to turn into an butt kiss - not if your music and your manners are good.

Hoping we all get to the point where someone would deem our abilities worth sharing with millions of people, we have to snap back to reality in the meantime. You're in the middle of the United States - not in New York or Los Angeles - and your band has sold out enough shows at local venues to warrant regional recognition. So far, it's been up to 81/2x11 flyers and a staple gun to draw your fan base together.

It hasn't cost a lot but your budget shouldn't be too obvious - even the most raw, lean grunge machine can afford some design sensibility. Throw some snazzy orange and green card stock together with a few clever messages from the trusty PC hard drive and any cork board or phone pole will be graced by your impending fame. By the time you move onto bigger things, chances are you may have a wing named for your band at Kinko's.

Back in 1981 in Louisville, a ska-reggae band called Johnny Too Bad and the Dread Droids didn't have a photo to submit to my column at MainSteet magazine. Frustrated, I simply sketched a little Lennon-esque line drawing of the band and slapped it down on the page. Turned out that the band copied it and silk screened the image onto T-shirts and sold them at gigs. That worked out.

Also the favorite pain department was art noise unit Stutter - they had no photo. I sent them all packing to the old Woolworth's with a bag of quarters and sit in the little instant photo booth. I hacked away and the four pic strips and blew up their headshots on the trust Xerox and BOOM - they had a band photo.

On a final whiny note, avoid sending in photos or art that an editor cannot utilize in his format. Polaroids, drawings by the drummer's girlfriend, bumper stickers - include a photo or graphic that can be shot by a camera down to half its size then survive on fuzzy newsprint. You don't want your band photo or logo to be printed in 10,000 copies of a paper looking like a booger.

After a thriving, dollar-clutching, guest-list battling fan base has been established, a nice package for booking and for labels is due. This is the magic moment where there is so much information to process and more often that not; too much of it makes it into the PR kit.

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Hearing From The Labels

Bill Bentley, VP of Media relations for Warner/Reprise has a steadfast rule of thumb for bands and bios. "Stick to a short bio," he insists, "There's nothing to say about the band yet that can't be accomplished on one page. A real important feature to add as you go are press quotes. The press and public expect the label to sing the artist's praises but they want that second, third and forth opinion. Have a sharp black and white photo and tour 'til you drop.

As VP of Media at Discovery Records, Cary Baker has come a long way from writing about the blues in Chicago to promoting a scruffy bunch of Georgia boys with a still-moist I.R.S. contract. That was nearly seventeen years ago and I asked what had been the biggest image change in band like R.E.M.

"I remember they had a one page, typed bio, a picture and a very finite itinerary," he stated, "all that has really changed has been the bus. They still have a fairly straightforward well-written bio, a picture and a detailed tour itinerary. It's just that they've gone from traveling in an Econoline van to two busses now."

Baker had only a few days and several hours to throw together a viable press kit for R.E.M.'s now-classic Reckoning album. Down the hall, his other task was The Go-Go's first LP, so surely he was struggling with the concept of a Jewish blues hound from the Midwest in charge of four new wave California chicks and a studio full of jangling, bookish lads from Athens.

"Truth is, my boss Miles Copeland saw all this happening and said, 'Look, I'll make it easy on you, let's have Anthony DeCurtis write the R.E.M. bio. Here was a guy from Atlanta who was not only familiar with the band but also contributed to Rolling Stone. I gladly handed it over."

Considering the slow then meteoric rise of R.E.M., were there any distinct impressions from their original presentation to the perspective label?

"Yes, I think there was a literacy and a class these guys had," he recalled, "Even with the bacchanal, wild lifestyle they had, living in an abandoned church, they always presented themselves with sophistication." After that, they always had great people writing their bios."

Baker's work at Discovery with such acts as the established pop alternative artists The Finn Brothers and newcomers Morchieba (soon to play in Louisville) bought him a panel seat at this year's South by Southwest seminar on Press Kit Critique.

"I saw everything!" he exhaled, "people would bring their kits up to the podium and I'd see all kinds of no-no's. First of all, the bio should be written like an article. Steer clear of any hyperbole so that anyone from Manhattan to rural Kentucky would be able to write intelligently about the artist."

"Some of the worst bios I've ever seen are written by the artists. We love them and we want to hear their music but they don't have the detachment they need to separate themselves from the business end. It should start with its most positioning statement and hit hard with the opener. I don't mind if it's long but a lot of people prefer shorter bios. I don't care if it's three paragraphs long - if they're good paragraphs."

A popular misconception is to put in advertisements from nightclubs, concerts and any venue where they've performed. "That's something that looks so ridiculous to a label and it doesn't mean anything."

For bands with any baggage - other than what roadies carry in - there is an axiom that Baker keeps close by. In dealing with

"If there's anything that needs to be addressed that may be problematic - like name change, an abuse problem - get it out in the open so it doesn't come up later to haunt you. It will become a red flag once the band makes it and in the beginning you have the opportunity to give it a forum. One of the best bio writers in the business is Sal Manna. He can put a positive spin on anything so he's called in to work with rappers with a criminal record or bands in drug rehab situations."

"From open mike night to major label opening slots, bands can disseminate information in different ways and there is no one way to do anything. The music business is as capricious as it is incestuous and rules were made to be broken. That is why I'll close with a post-it on the technique R.E.M. employed, in that they almost always had legal representation with platinum duo Bertis Downs and Jefferson Holt."

Lawyers are great - an embossed letterhead can bust through a gum-chewing receptionist at most labels, you have a safety net for publishing goofs that cost you emotionally and financially, and besides, they almost always let you borrow their photocopier. Along with touring constantly R.E.M. hooked into their attorney/manager combo before buying their next amp and to quote "Losing My Religion," "consider this, the hint of the century."

Gary Stewart, VP of A&R for Rhino Records (the guy with the ears, the pen and the contract) has a more animated approach to a press kit. "I always tell people to pretend that if they had a hundred tapes come across your desk every day, what would you want to receive? I enjoy getting big kits with colorful packaging - one guy sent me a letter on a roll of toilet paper, that was great. The things you should be aware of are a.) anything to get someone's attention; b.) be creative; c.) be humorous; d.) respect the person's time restraints.

Local promoter, Elaine Ford has seen enough press kits to develop quite an introspective eye. Having booked regional and national acts since she was 19 (She penciled in a 21st birthday party for herself with Brain Dead - soon to be Cherub Scourge, Core of Resistance and Lightning Rod Jones. Not bad to plan ahead.) In the course of a decade, Ford has received flyers, candy, t-shirts even condoms from eager-to-gig bands. "If I get a real shiny, big press kit I already know the band will just suck," she laughs from her office at Second Street Entertainment. Among Ford's recent coups have been Jon Spencer and the Blues Explosion and Will Oldham of Palace Bros. fame. "One of the best press kits I've ever gotten was from the Royal Crescent Mob, it was a tape in a brown paper bag. Less is more."

Initial Records, recently relocated to Louisville, has one of the most detailed and impressive communique I've seen. They've got product, promotional items and information, information, information. Housing such artists as Elliott, Enkindel, Falling Forward, Slugfest and guilt, this progressive underground effort has all the technical sophistication and plenty of room left for a hip attitude. They offer both vinyl and CD for the discriminating collector, with the best visual stuff coming from Elliott. No messages, no soapbox, no hipper-than-thou, just fantastic design that will hold up under any camera for copying in newspapers. Their Holiday Gift Guide features everyone's favorite Mensa poster child Pee Wee Herman staring down the barrell of a 45 magnum. Merry Christmas from Initial!

From Chicago, Vinnie & the Stardusters will probably go broke from the postage it takes to mail their care-package style press kit. It's damn busy but still fun in a sophomoric fashion. They've got press quotes, Jd quotes, celebrity input and even Dave Marsh from Rolling Stone supposedly saying "Who?" If self-effacement is healthy, these guys should live forever. Archie comix in 3-D, a vinyl 45 entitled "The Girl From Ipanema Wants to Kill Me." Ohter "hits" in stock are "Polska Kielbasa," "I Saw Mommy Fisting Santa Claus" and a dirge version of "Walkin' Afer Midnight" all on the Ultramodern label. Their kit is groovy and all but really designed for the fan first. It might be too much for a busy A&R rep to swallow.