My account coordinator and I rode the elevator at the NPR news affiliate, press samples of a new album in hand, ready to deliver the pitch. One critical thing was missing: we didn’t have an appointment. The arts editor hadn’t responded, so I’d attempt to talk my way past the front desk and into her office. I wasn’t sure how, but when all else fails, you improvise.
The receptionist challenged us right away. I told him we were there to hand-deliver a sample of a sci-fi inspired album, fresh off the production line, packaged in a way the editor had never seen before. The receptionist said he was a musician and described an unforgettable show he’d seen recently from a group claiming to come from a parallel universe. I smiled, looked at his name badge and said, “Nathaniel, that was my band, and this is our new record.” He grabbed the phone, called the arts editor and told her she needed to get to reception immediately. The AC’s jaw dropped, and the feature aired a few weeks later.
I started playing guitar and studying communications when I was in my teens. After a lifetime trying to hide the club hand-stamps from clients and the PR pics from music critics, I started letting them run together. These pursuits are more alike than most people realize. Here’s how.
You can be born a natural with a short learning curve, or you can practice your way up. Either way, you plateau unless you commit to taking your skills to the next level through intense study and lifelong learning.
The best ideas often come in reaction to stimuli: when the bass player plays a progression and you know where to take it next, or when you’re monitoring for coverage and catch an interesting story that can be reverse-engineered into a program. Creation doesn’t always mean making something out of nothing. The way to start is by asking, “What do you hear?”
There’s a reason we call them news hooks and song hooks. They’re the same. They give you a reason to read and a reason to listen. A hook writer is a hook writer, no matter the format.
Bruce Springsteen said at South by Southwest in 2012, “Don’t take yourself too seriously, and take yourself as seriously as death itself … Have ironclad confidence, but doubt —it keeps you awake and alert. Believe you are the baddest ass in town, and, you suck!” Advertising legend Lee Clow said to do the thing “that seems ridiculous one moment and genius the next.” The vibrating line between the two is where the best work happens. You need to hold these diametrically opposed ideas in your mind at the same time.
Most bands don’t write their albums in the studio, and most spokespeople don’t shoot from the hip in their press interviews. They know what they’ll lay down before they walk in and the red light comes on. They meticulously think things through so whatever gets captured meets their standards.
The best campaigns make you laugh, cry or say “wow.” The great ones make you do all three at different stages. A longtime recording engineer said if a particular take makes you laugh or make a fist, it stays.
Steven Hyden from the Celebration Rock podcast said, “What makes a great rock star is even when they fail, they’re interesting.” Failure is ok as long as it’s in the pursuit of something inspired. We all try to avoid running the same campaign or making the same album twice. The only real mistake you can make is to be uninteresting.
Building a body of work
Campaigns contain a series of tactics supporting a strategy. Albums contain a sequence of songs supporting a theme. When you’ve produced enough of either, you’ve created a body of work. You might not be aware of it until you turn around and see the discography on your wall. It’s more obvious when you’re in a band, but it’s just as true when you’re at an agency.
Touring behind an idea
We’ve all had that moment when you wake up in China, Texas or your childhood home and think, Where has my work taken me today? Parachuting in to do something you’re good at never fails to make you feel like a member of a unique club. You’re living a life less ordinary.
Engaging across platforms
Both pursuits involve authorship, storytelling, production, promotion and distribution. They share a struggle to get the word out. Solving that problem opens up a whole new world of projects which take their creators far beyond where they started. We see bands making sitcoms and brands making hip-hop albums. Musicians and marketers are realizing their existence isn’t limited to music and marketing. They’re entertainment projects that can and should work across styles, mediums and industries.
Getting paid in line with the value you’re providing is always a challenge. Everyone wants PR and everyone wants music, but many people have trouble understanding why they should pay fair market price to get them.
Rejection and resilience
In both fields, there are more nos than yeses. Every show pitch rejected by a festival promoter is mirrored with a story pitch deleted by an editor. Professionals in both fields have to pretend the act or idea they’re selling isn’t their baby. They have to trick themselves into not taking it personally, while taking it personally enough that it makes them even more determined to win.
These are hard businesses, but fortune favors the bold. Whether it’s jumping on a slippery bar for a guitar solo or hitting the “up” arrow at NPR for the thrill of it. It’s about treating your time on the planet like a live performance where anything can happen, and knowing a good story is always worth the risk.
Adam Ritchie is the owner of Adam Ritchie Brand Direction. He's also the guitarist for The Lights Out.