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Getting What You Want on a Limited Budget

Before I launch into some of the tricks of the trade on how to maximize results with minimal funding, there is an assumption in the title that needs to be explored. You can only get what you want if you know what you want. Especially if your resources are limited, you must be very clear on what your priorities are and why. For example, I hear artists talk about how they have to have radio airplay when the truth is that they are not touring enough to mandate airplay or, for that matter, make it likely that they are going to get it. Their statement seems to stem from a perception that, once you have a CD, the next logical step is to get it played on the radio. That is the next logical step if you are planning to tour in the regions where you are getting airplay and have a distribution system (often through a record label) for your product so, after it is heard on the radio, it can be bought in a nearby store. Lacking those two components, the radio airplay makes less sense and you might want to scale your thinking back in that area.

Let's address the basics first. You will need certain materials to make any plan work. Any of you who have discussed this issue with me have heard most of this before so I'm going to just do a laundry list with little elaboration. "Gotta have"s include a CD that truly represents your music and includes all the appropriate information. You need professionally presented photographs, preferably in more than one pose and format. It's nice to have both horizontal and vertical pictures. It's useful to have both BXWs and color. Slides work well because they can be used by both print media and television. Posters are an important tool. You must have a promotional kit that both looks good and makes you look good. More and more, having a website is becoming a necessity to stay competitive. If you have a hard time envisioning your budget being able to cover the items listed above, you are undercapitalized to the point where you really have to question if going any further is a viable option.

As is true in any situation, the more research you do on any particular topic, the better idea you will have of what's involved. That will likely lead to your making better decisions. Research takes time; give yourself permission to give it the time it deserves. It is hard to come up with a workable plan if you don't know the salient facts. Working hard does not mean you are working smart and we have all fallen into that trap. The first few years I was repping artists, I tended to send materials to venues that my artist didn't have a prayer of getting into any time soon. I had figured out that these were the places to be but I hadn't worked out how to get there. I expended a lot of energy tilting with windmills until I re-focused my efforts on doing the things that would get my artists to the point where the venue would want them rather than just trying to stay in touch with the presenter.

So, you need materials, you must do some research, decide what your goals are and then come up with a plan to get there. Taking the time to do good groundwork is probably one of the hardest things to do but it pays off with big dividends further down the line. Seneca said, "Our plans miscarry because we have no aim. When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind." That was sometime around A.D. 45 - still makes sense today. Write down what your goals are and make a plan to attain them. Much easier said than done! Review that document periodically and update as necessary based on new information that emerges as you go along.

Every panel presentation you have ever attended on career development talks about putting "the team" in place. Yes, it does take a team to build a career: the artist, the booker, the publicist, the personal manager, the road manager, the merchandiser, the business manager and so on. These are essentially roles. If you are Reba McEntire, you have different individuals fulfilling these different roles; maybe even several people in one role. However, when you are in the initial stages of building a career, you may be the whole team. By default, you are going to have to take on all those roles to some degree or another. You know from just looking at the list (or from hard, cold personal experience) that you cannot do them all well. By definition, you have to be the artist and everything else will be secondary both by necessity and, in general, by inclination. Band often have any advantage here since they have more wo/manpower available to them and often an assortment of skills and personalities. The solo artist will need to get creative to get the job done.

Probably one of the greatest fallacies in this business is that getting the record deal is somewhat akin to attaining nirvana. From then on, you get to sit on your personal cloud and play music while someone else takes care of all those troublesome promotion and airplay issues. If that is your expectation, you are quickly going to find yourself joining the ranks of the legions that complain that their record deal is not what they expected. Having a record deal hopefully adds some knowledgeable people to your team but it doesn't mean you can resign from that aspect of your career. You have to remember that those folks are on lots of other people's teams also and their priorities will be those of the record label, which may differ from yours.

Obviously, one way to approach attaining any goal is to enlist the help of someone for whom this is an expertise. You may not be able to afford to sign them on as a full-time member of your team but bear in mind that is not the only option. Before even looking, there are a couple of things to remember. First, you want to be sure that any one person is the right one for the job. Most ethical professionals will tell you if they are not the guy/gal for the job and why. (For example, I have no trouble explaining to hip-hop artists why I am not the person of choice to represent them.) However, there is also a group out there that is perfectly happy to take your money even though they know they will not be able to accomplish the task. Since we often do not have control of many of the factors that determine outcome for many of these goals, it can be hard to prove that someone didn't do the job after the fact based on an unsatisfactory result. Caveat emptor applies.

There are also all kinds of different pricing out there depending on duration of service and amount that needs to be done. Returning to the example of airplay, I think Jon Grimson at Counterpoint Music Group in Nashville is one of the best radio promoters for Americana and Country that I know. (My opinion only, folks) Honest and hard working - and he consistently seems to get good results. He also sends regular reports of both chart activity and his involvement. Depending on what it trying to be accomplished, you will pay him anywhere from two to four thousand dollars to promote a recording to radio. It will take him two to three weeks to set things up to go and he will likely be involved for up to two months after that. Another fine radio promoter is Biff Kennedy of the Charterhouse Radio Group, who not only approaches his job in a caring, responsible way but is also extremely flexible in working out different plans to meet the needs of different clients. On the other end of the bell curve, let's assume you aren't looking at getting an album charted. Perhaps then you want to come up with a far more moderate plan that involves hiring someone to send out CDs to the areas where you will be touring and tie airplay to a specific date. You might be able to find someone with the necessary expertise (or willingness to do the research to acquire it) who will handle that for a flat fee per region or an hourly wage. Perhaps you can find someone who wants to move into doing publicity and you can work together to help each other. You help him/her buy materials (directories, etc) and they do some press mailings and follow-up calls for you. If you haven't the wherewithall to cover all the media in a region, target just the key people. Make the task "bite-size", i.e. reduce it to something manageable at which you can succeed.

Rather than taking on someone full time, you can seek out someone who you feel is a source of good information in the area into which you plan to delve and ask for words of wisdom, sometimes called consultation. This can get a little bit tricky. I get a certain number of those, "Let me take you to lunch and pick your brain." invitations. If the person asking is a friend, sure, I'm more than happy to get together and answer questions. However, a phone call out of the blue from an unknown soul who wants to quiz me for forty-five minutes is another matter entirely. None of us would call up a physician or a lawyer and ask them to chat for an extended period of time about that nasty little disease or divorce we are experiencing. In those cases, we recognize that time and expertise have value. (By the way, we would never think of trying that with a mechanic or a plumber either..) It's the same thing here. If you want some guidance in a specific area, contact the expert of your choice and offer to pay them for their time and knowledge. I have also learned that charging a consultation fee tends to weed out the not-so-serious players and makes people more likely to do some preparation for the session so they can get the most out of the time allotted.

If in any given situation, you can see that you and someone else in the equation have a related interest, try and figure out how you can team up so you can both be more effective. Say you have landed a booking at that venue you have been chasing for eight months. Now you and that venue suddenly have a common goal. You both want an overflow crowd of cheerful people who are spending money and, when all those happy souls have gone home, you want both the venue and the artist to have made enough money and had enough fun that both are eager to repeat the experience. Perhaps the venue will supply you with a media list for their region. If you supply them with twenty copies of a press release for the date, will they send it out to the local media? If they have a calendar they mail out, maybe they will mail to your mailing list too. Do they have a dinner crowd - would they put out table tents for your show? Another thought: if after all this, the evening still has a low show rate, at least the presenter knows that you really made an effort. Just that can make them far more likely to give that artist another chance further down the line.

It is a time-honored technique to substitute creativity for cash. If you can't throw money at a problem then try and figure out some way to stand out from the crowd. Does everybody send their CDs in those brown bubble mailers? Design a unique label for yours or find a relevant sticker to put on the outside. If you have any humor in your soul at all, give it free rein within the boundaries of good taste. (If you don't mind, I won't stick around for the discussion on how to decide what that is..) You can never go too far wrong with surprising people as long as the surprise is a pleasant one.

© McShane Glover/Noteworthy Productions

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