Cortney Harding, former music editor at Billboard, shares advice that was part of the curriculum of her Writing About Popular Music class in the Clive Davis program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Despite the glamorous antics portrayed in Almost Famous, being a music journalist today is less about partying and more about staring at a never-ending stream of emails from bands and publicists, all asking writers to spotlight their band but essentially saying the same thing. Meanwhile, publications are shuttering, the click-grabbing headlines seem to be mostly ephemeral, and it can seem impossible for you to stand out from the crowd. Ask any journalist, and they’ll tell you that just having some good songs isn’t enough; you need a story, something to draw readers in and help them relate to you.
A handful of artists have amazing backstories—Maggie Rogers, for instance, was discovered by Pharrell Williams when he dropped by one of her performance classes at NYU; Jewel grew up without electricity in Alaska before being discovered while living in a van in San Diego. But no matter how conventional your life has seemed so far, everyone has a compelling story somewhere, and here are some tips to help identify and tell it.
Open a document on your laptop or get a pen and paper and start making notes about your life story. There’s a decent chance that many of the things that seem ho-hum to you would be fascinating to someone else. Did you grow up somewhere remote or quirky? How did you discover music and start playing? Who taught you to play? Did you have any big, formative experiences, either positive or negative? Also, think about your current life—what do you do besides making music?
Marni Wandner, a publicist at The Syndicate, often starts artist engagements with a questionnaire that she describes as “a job interview meets a dating profile.” She says she’s on the lookout to discover an artist's passions, and often asks them to think about what their friends and family would say about them as a starting point. And Rachel Rossen of Tell All Your Friends PR suggests that if an artist feels stuck in this stage, it can be helpful to get a friend to interview them to tease out more talking points.
Don’t box yourself In
If your story is coming too easily, make sure it’s not something that will limit you in the future. This can be an issue for artists connected to more famous people, either as family members or collaborators—while being the child of a famous person might get you in the door initially, no one will want to write that story about you over and over again (and you will probably find that eventually you want to get out of that shadow).
Rossen suggests that artists refresh their stories for each album, to reflect their personal and artistic evolution. If your personal story isn’t evolving, many outlets are less likely to cover it because they could be telling new stories as opposed to rehashing old ones.
Think outside the box
Refer back to your notes about your life and think about alternative avenues for coverage—sure, everyone would love to be prominently featured on the biggest blogs or podcasts or news outlets, but getting that kind of attention doesn't come immediately for most. Lots of niche publications, however, would be thrilled to cover an interesting new artist, so take your love for yoga or shelter animals, connect it to your narrative as an artist, and start reaching out to publications in that space.
Rossen cautions against stretching too hard, however. “If you work in animal rescue and write songs about your pet, absolutely pitch that,” she says. “But if you just have a cat and that’s it, that’s not going to be an interesting or useful angle to play up.”
Write your own headlines
If you’re stuck, spend some time looking at the publications you’re targeting and read all the headlines and photo captions. Note that very few of them will have headlines like “Good Band Releases Good Album”; rather, there will be a reference to something interesting about the artist and how it relates to the music (a recent one from Rolling Stone: "Coldplay Get Admirably Real on the Organically Expansive ‘Everyday Life’"). Once you’ve devoured several of these, start brainstorming your own. Think of this as an elevator pitch—something quick and pithy that emphasizes how different you are, and ideally ties it to the music you are creating. It might take a few rounds and some feedback, but it’s a quick way to narrow down your story fast. Then start using it with every pitch email and press release.
If there are parts of your past that you'd be uncomfortable revealing, even if they would make a great story, it’s not worth using them. You’re ideally going to give a lot of interviews about this, so if it’s traumatic, tough, or sensitive in some other way, be kind to yourself and mind your needs for privacy. You can’t force a great story; it has to develop naturally and be something that you want to tell over and over, and do it from the heart. And obviously, don’t lie—you’ll just get busted and end your career before it even begins.
Coming up with a compelling story to build pitches and campaigns around is no easy feat, but it’s absolutely crucial if you want any type of media coverage. But by examining your life, consulting friends, and creating something that feels authentic, you’ll be well positioned to draw in new potential fans—and to nurture the attention of people who already love your music.