MEDIA ROUNDUP: Live Music: Coverage goes local in new breed of rock journalism

Live popular music has sprawled into every nook and cranny of the country, including every media genre. David Ward discovers that getting attention for a live act is that much more difficult.

Live popular music has sprawled into every nook and cranny of the country, including every media genre. David Ward discovers that getting attention for a live act is that much more difficult.

Traditionally, the job of music journalist has been characterized by little pay, the ability to get tons of free music and the chance to party with - and like - a rock star. Music critics of 1970s and 1980s were legendary for taking their time and seeing an act numerous times, both onstage and off, before passing judgment. The result was that journalists such as Greil Marcus, Chet Flippo, Tim White and Lester Bangs became as closely identified with particular musical eras as many of the artists they covered. While it probably lacks the high profile reporters of years past, the good news is that live music journalism - especially pop and rock coverage - hasn't really changed much in the past 20 years. It remains a field of passionate opinions, though journalists are no longer likely to linger with an act for months before writing a feature. "People want more quicker now," says rock publicist Susan Blond, whose current client roster includes Ozzy Osbourne and family, Aerosmith, Usher, and the artist who is still occasionally known as Prince. Part of the reason for this is that there is seemingly more music out there today. Look at any music magazine like Rolling Stone, Blender, or Spin and you'll find hundreds of CDs reviewed in each issue. Many CDs are supported by tours, so in major cities there could be a dozen live acts for a journalist to choose from on any given night. Getting critics to your show Kelly Cutrone, co-founder of bicoastal agency People's Revolution, adds that she's noticing a slow shift away from coverage of live events and toward more CD reviews. "The thing about many of these magazines is that they've become so sophisticated about their audience and their advertisers," she says. "Music venues are not big advertisers." Given the squeeze on editorial space, Alexandra Greenberg, account executive with the Mitch Schneider Organization, says, "The point we make to our clients is to be happy people are writing about you because there's so much music available today." For a national tour, Sioux Zimmerman, founder of New York-based Formula PR, says she begins reaching out to the media in each market six to eight weeks in advance of a show, focusing both on the major newspapers as well as any alternative outlet that may drive an audience. "We try to accommodate everybody with tickets," says Zimmerman, whose clients include Underworld and Prodigy. "If you have an editor who's on the fence, you want to get them to a show to see the act live because that could be the clincher to get them to write a feature about them." Ironically because of the nature of touring, most concert reviews have little immediate impact on sales in any given market. Unlike a movie, CD, or theater review, most live music acts are already onto the next city by the time a review of their performance runs. That leads to the question of what's more important, a good review of a live show or plenty of good preview coverage. That answer depends on whom you ask. "A lot of times it's more important for the artist to have a good review," says Patrick Harrison, who handles marketing and communications for Seattle's Paramount and Moore Theaters. "But for the venue and the promoter, it's much more important to have great preview coverage." Harrison, whose theaters host acts ranging from the Charles Mingus Big Band to Elvis Costello to Slayer, says he concentrates virtually all of his efforts locally, targeting the Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and augmenting that with media outreach to alternative weeklies and, of course, radio. "Magazines are much more difficult" than newspapers because of the lead times, he says. "When Prince played here he announced on a Friday he was coming, he was on the cover of the Seattle Times' Weekend section the next Friday and he played the following Monday." Zimmerman, on the other hand, points out that reviews are important for getting better pay or a larger venue the next time the artist comes to town. Staying current The other ongoing debate in the music industry is whether there's still a viable national print press for live music. Despite its recent hiring of former FHM editor Ed Needham and a shift toward a more Maxim-style formula of shorter pieces and livelier layouts, Rolling Stone will likely remain the place most pop and rock acts want their show reviewed, primarily because of its frequency. "Rolling Stone is the only magazine that will let people know who's on tour right now, because they're a bimonthly," says Zimmerman. "A lot of the other magazines are long leads working three months in advance." Among the top reporters covering live music are John Pareles of The New York Times, Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times, Mary Huhn and John Aqualante of the New York Post, Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune, Robert Christgau of The Village Voice and others, and Rolling Stone contributors Ben Sisario and Gavin Edwards. Festivals, which feature more bands than an individual concert, create more PR opportunities. Greenberg, who represents the annual Cochella Music Festival in California, says, "When you're dealing with a festival you get access to many different types of press. For example, at Cochella there was a wide range of artists representing everything from rock to hip-hop to dance. So we were able to go to Urb and Mixer, Rolling Stone, CMJ, Pulse, Vibe and Source as well as Details and Entertainment Weekly." PR professionals tell PRWeek that they try to prepare musicians for the types of questions that may be asked, but it's best to stop short of scripting every answer. "I've always found that people are either interesting or they're not," says Blond. "And if you try to make a person interesting that doesn't really work." There are a handful of acts with members who qualify as major celebrities, and publicists in those situations have a bit more control over who gets to see them and what they get to ask. "I don't think it's done quite as much in the music business as it is in the movie business," says Blond. "But we have to play that game sometimes." While radio is a no-brainer for generating interest in live performances, much of the real heat these days is in getting a television appearance, especially in major markets like Los Angeles and New York. A single song performed on talk shows such as The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Last Call with Carson Daly, The Late Show with David Letterman, or Late Night with Conan O'Brien can cement an artist's reputation as a great live act. "The talent bookers on those shows are very open to listening to new acts," says Zimmerman. "But you've got to have a story and you have to already have some success to get your artists on those outlets." ----------- Where to go Newspapers The New York Times, New York Post, Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Seattle Times, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Village Voice, NY Paper, LA Weekly and other alternative weeklies in major markets Magazines Spin, Rolling Stone, Billboard, Blender, Urb, Mixer, CMJ, Details, Playboy, Pulse, Vibe, Source, XX Large, Country Weekly, Down Beat, Time Out TV & Radio MTV, VH1, The Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Last Call with Carson Daly, BET, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, Solid State with DJ Liquid Todd and other syndicated radio programs, CMT, NPR, national and local music radio Internet MTV.com, VH1.com, Cdnow.com, Spin.com, Pollstar.com

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