Selling the Fizzle
How not to have the lamest presskit ever
You know how the pizza boy must feel after hearing, "Hey, there's my pizza!" all day long from everybody except the people who actually ordered the pizzas? Well, that's pretty much how I feel about your band. It's how pretty much every jaded 'zine writer and every burned-out husk of a calendar editor at every alternative newsweekly in the country probably feels about your band. Show me the guy who coined the phrase "ethno-Cajun slamgrass" and I'll show you 10 music writers who fantasize about beating him to death with his own mandolin. If you could just see how much of that crap piles up every week in your average alt-weekly music writer's cubbyhole, you'd understand why a lot of us are just one ethno-Cajun slamgrass away from a kill-crazy rampage. It's the same old thing over and over again, just like that movie about Groundhog Day with Bill Murray in it.
And I'm not even talking about the music -- though probably that, too. I'm talking about the same old lifeless band bios, boring promo photos and all-around Stepford bullshitness of identical publicity efforts. Remember what your mother said about first impressions? Stand out, for crying out loud! Your band might be the best thing to happen to "tribal funk fusion" since bongos stuffed with weed, but get in line: So were the last five bands off the top of the pile, Or, at least, so they say.
Look, I can see there's no talking you out of this band business, so I'm going to do you a favor. I'm going to take you to promotional finishing school. I'm going to tell you everything not to do in a press kit if you really want to stand out to a calendar editor or cynical reviewer. And by "stand out to" I mean "spare your band the indifference or outright hostility of." It might hurt a little, but you'll thank me later.
Also, is it too late for me to suggest a change of band name? Because actually mentioning "funk" in your band name is a big no-no right off the bat.
Hollywood smiles, people
Your first assignment is to make your bassist take off that stupid Cat-in-the-Hat hat. Thank you.
Now then -- what's your motivation for being in this picture? Why should you put any extra thought into taking a promo photo that won't suck? Because while the music should speak for itself, sometimes it's late in joining the conversation. A picture, on the other hand, will instantly draw the eye of everyone from the music writer who opens your manila envelope to the fishmonger who eventually uses the newspaper to wrap a smelt.
Sadly, nine bands out of 10 don't have a clue about how to take a group picture. Check out the music section of any alternative newsweekly or a thick-assed 'zine like Skyscraper. Everywhere you look, your viewshed is crowded with sandlot dipshits in asinine poses and atrocious headwear endlessly reliving a pageant of tragic fashion mistakes.
First of all, there's the issue of image quality. Bands think it's some kind of coup to get their picture in the paper in the first place, but half the time the picture's only there because the calendar guy was left scrambling to fill the space and would have used just about anything he had on hand. Still, certain standards must be upheld: A color copy generally won't cut it, and that goes for homemade album covers, too. Neither will a murky red-eye special snapped in the alley behind the club by someone's girlfriend on, like, what was that, her friggin' Kodak Disc camera? It makes you look like a bunch of deer about to get smeared by a semi.
Have a friend who's really a photographer take the picture. Or at least someone with a decent camera and not a disposable one. Hot tip: Newspapers rarely run photos with the date and time digitally stamped in one corner.
Next, during the photo shoot, at least try and act like you wouldn't rather be home washing your hair. Have you ever noticed how many band shots show at least one member staring down at the ground or distractedly off into space, if not all four or five members spacing out in completely different directions? It's a special kind of disingenuous when a band takes the time and trouble to have their picture taken just to give the impression that they're bored to distraction by having their picture taken.
Stand up straight, face the camera, and smile. Remember the coy little gags the photographer used to make you smile on school-picture day in third grade? Find that same happy place, Mr. Mustard Shirt. Unless you play in a comically grim Norwegian black metal band (in which case you're already well beyond the aid of my promotional consulting services), you're better off smiling confidently than trying to look all cool and tough and looking like a dork anyway.
And don't everybody in the band wear the T-shirt of a much cooler band you'd like to associate your own with. Only one such T-shirt is permitted per photo. Anything more projects a certain desperation.
When a fisheye lens is used (which, hopefully, is never), no member is allowed to cup the lens in the palm of his hand. Standing in a circle looking down at the camera is likewise passe. Totally '96.
Under no circumstances should band members hold random household objects snatched at the last moment before a backyard photo shoot in a fruitless attempt to convey some limp, homespun wackiness. In fact, if anyone suggests doing anything "wacky" at all, the shoot shall be cancelled forthwith.
Hippie jam bands: No more pictures with ferns, moss, wheat fields, windmills, geodesic domes or any of that we're-so-tribal, back-to-the-land nonsense. Bluegrass bands: No more photo shoots on the deck of the nearest ski lodge to further the illusion that you're honest-to-goodness Ozark hill-folk, only with Platinum Cards and Subaru Outbacks. Indie bands: It's time to move on from the ironic undersize girls' softball thrift-store ringer tees. Although you do probably all throw like girls.
Your new clothes, Emperor
Yikes! As though having your picture taken weren't strenuous enough, now someone in the band has to come up with the one-sheet, which is the industry term for the verbal fellating the band gives (or tacitly endorses for) itself in the (not always baseless) hope that a music writer will forego trundling out a different set of overused adjectives and simply parrot the information supplied to him. A one-sheet is supposed to whip up enthusiasm for a band or its newest record with a "hook." In a second, far more insidious role, it is also a blatant attempt by the parties most concerned to create the established wisdom concerning a given band.
As such, a one-sheet is generally a mishmash of swollen prose, outlandish claims and the transparent self-mythologizing that, admittedly, is one of the most fun things about being in a band in the first place. The problem is that what you think is important or interesting about your band probably isn't going to be important or interesting to the guy reading the one-sheet, or at any rate no more so than the life stories of 20 other bands whose one-sheets he's had to translate into English already this morning.
Here comes the tough love: Unless the name of your current band is already known outside the city limits of your college town, no one is going to care a whit about any of your former bands. So all that crap about "like a phoenix rising from the ashes, guitarist Hadsell Snevitch emerged from the ruins of Granolafinger and formed Soulflow with former members of Herb and InneRhythm," you can just toss that junk right this sec. All you're doing is giving the calendar guy a headache and another reason to dislike you.
Ditto that laundry list of all the other bands you've "performed with" or "shared the stage with," or however you choose to describe your relationship to the band that got most of the money and all of the hot local girls while you felt like rock stars just for getting a whole case of beer to share six ways. What, I'm supposed to be impressed because you played the same five-band bill with some hardcore fossils who have been around since my dad was a kid? Simply sharing a bill with some Big Name doesn't necessarily vouchsafe the quality or status of your band -- you could just as easily be saying you're friends with the promoter, or that there aren't that many other bands in your town. Or that after five years of playing together you simply haven't managed to create a fan base of your own.
Press clippings are always handy for vetting other writers' assertions against those made by the band or its publicist, but avoid including too many clips from the same writer, which just looks piteous. Make some reviews up if you have to, and fabricate a bogus publication or two for good measure. Your band getting a great review on jambase.org? Boh-ring! Your band getting a great review in Transgendered Christian Anarchist Bowhunter Monthly? Ding ding ding!
As a last-ditch measure, come bearing gifts. Some years back, a fledgling record label from Oregon started sending out little brass, ahem, "tobacco pipes"-- screens and everything -- with the company motto printed on a vinyl sheath around the stem: "Because you need a hit ... and so do we!" Sadly, I don't think they ever got theirs ... but tons of other people did. Talk about a stroke of promotional genius. Only for some reason I can't remember the name of the band.