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This month, Indie-Music.com's Suzanne Glass interviewed four of her writers to bring you some insight on what's going on inside the head of a music reviewer.
The FNO Staff
Festival Network Online
Inside the Head of a Music Reviewer by Suzanne Glass
What to send? When to follow up? What to say? Should you keep bugging a writer to review your material? What makes writers choose one CD over another to review? And most of all, can you increase your chances of getting a published review when you submit a CD? Answer: Absolutely! By understanding a writer's mind, and following a few simple guidelines, you will substantially increase the likelihood your music will be chosen for a review or feature.
Indie-Music.com recently asked our writers a series of questions designed to let musicians see inside writers' heads, and get a unique look at how the behind-the-scenes process works. After the Q&A, we give a quick checklist for getting your music reviewed successfully.
What impresses you about an artist/musician/band?
ERIK DECKERS: First, the music. A very close second is their professionalism and follow through..
HEIDI DROCKELMAN: Number one, the biggest impression is always the music, and the talent (however sometimes hidden it is) of songwriting. The versatility of all the members is important, and having an appreciation for good songwriting, no matter the genre, will always shine through in someone's work. Sure, clean production always sounds nice and makes a big impression when you're only listening to something a few times for review.... but I've been doing this [reviewing] for a long time now, and if the material is there (even in raw form), the first thing I forgive is production quality. When your songs stand out, even if you've recorded on the worst machine you can possibly find, then that's what counts. Even the worst material can't surpass a production snowjob.
JENNIFER LAYTON: There's no one thing. I've been impressed by so many different things. I'm impressed when I hear a musician doing something new that I've never heard before. I'm impressed when I hear a poetic folk song that expresses something so true, I feel it tugging at my heart. No matter what the press kits look like or how fancy the web site is, none of it matters if I'm not touched by the music in some way.
LES REYNOLDS: Real talent in at least one area (vocal, instrumental, lyrical) and especially when all those elements come together. Also, if they've got their s*** together -- correspond in timely manner, not pushy about reviews, answer questions coherently and communicate well (even if this is through an agent, having the right agent who can do those things is crucial).
What impresses you in a promo pack submission?
ERIK DECKERS: Is the press kit complete? Does it have a bio and head shot or group photo? Are there other articles from other reviewers? If the answer is YES to these questions, then I am impressed. If the press kit contains a three line bio, or vague and airy generalities discussing the metaphysics of the universe in relation to their music, I am decidedly unimpressed.
HEIDI DROCKELMAN: Oh, this is a completely relative thing. What I mean is, truthfully, for me, I look at this part of the packaging after I've already listened to the music. But the key to a promo pack submission is understanding that all the elements of this packet are crucial, down the line, to bands being "marketable", if getting signed by a label is your goal. Obviously, I'd much rather receive bio materials, a dated letter (folks, it's really hard to separate the volume of mail that some of us receive, so including a dated letter from a band representative is a nice touch), a simple photo that expresses the personality of an artist or band, and on occasion, I enjoy a good piece of gag swag. Taking that extra step, especially if it fits with your image, and coming up with a creative piece of swag can push a pack to the top of the pile. However, please refrain from the offensive, even if it's meant in jest.
JENNIFER LAYTON: I take a different route with promo packs. I know those materials are expensive, and I have a small office and can't hang on to all the press materials I get each month. Which means that if I don't absolutely love the artist, the promo pack winds up in the trash after I write the review. I feel really guilty about that. So when an artist contacts me about submitting material, I tell them they don't have to bother with headshots or elaborate press kits -- just a simple bio sheet that includes the web site address and tells me whatever they want me to know about them. What I'm really interested in is the music.
LES REYNOLDS: It looks like the artist/band took time and care in preparing it and it "fits" with the image and overall music style. Quality photos, if included, also get my attention. While I won't use the pix (except to decorate my pod at work!), it says something about the artist -- I can get a "vibe" or feel off that. I am also just impressed with quality photography since I used to be a photographer.
How can bands get your attention?
ERIK DECKERS: Write a personalized note to me, not a generalized form letter.
HEIDI DROCKELMAN: Bands can get my attention fairly easily, but holding it can be another story altogether. I am all about helping out quality bands and artists, and will take extra steps to make sure that I am doing all I can without showing blatant favoritism (although I AM known for that as well), so some of the ways to do this are:
JENNIFER LAYTON: Having said what I said above about promo packs, I have to say I get a huge kick out of some of the creative promotional items bands send me. I still can't get over the band that sent me a thong with their logo on the crotch. Creativity and humor always gets my attention.
- Be courteous: I should clarify because I despise kiss asses just as much as the repeat offender rudeness. I'm not asking for special treatment, just a bit of humanity.
- Remember that you're not the only band in the world and perhaps you are the last person in a long string of artists who are contacting reviewers daily.
- Don't be overly-pushy. I don't mind the follow-up to check in on the status of a review, but DO NOT expect to get a review every time you send in material. Some pushiness is good, but all you really need to do is to use common sense to know where the line has been drawn.
- You get attention when you make an effort to show others that you are serious and learning the craft, as well as being a musical risk-taker (sometimes those risks come with the cost of being misunderstood, but remember that you don't like everything you hear either, and perhaps that will give you some perspective)
LES REYNOLDS: Contact me directly. Keep the lines of communication open and do not tell me to just go to your mp3 site. I hate that! It's become the universal cop-out (besides -- what if the computer is malfunctioning or the internet is down?) Also: if they can describe their music accurately in a sentence -- that shows they know who they are and have read my Indie-Music.com bio blurb.
What do bands do which wastes their money when they send submissions?
ERIK DECKERS: Send crappy press kits. If I don't have much background information on the band, I can't write a good review. If I can't write a good review, then it doesn't help the band much.
HEIDI DROCKELMAN: If they're unsolicited, it's a huge waste of money in general. Don't just blindly send your discs out to everyone you think has an inkling of interest in your work. Make sure that you contact someone and at least use the proper procedure. I'm sure this may sound lame to you, but the procedure we use is built to enhance our reviews, not to bring you down.
On another note, photos, postcards, stickers, bio write-ups, and discs are not a waste of money. Just plan your priorities and work up to the full packet.<
JENNIFER LAYTON: Like I said earlier, I hate to see bands spend money by sending me glossy head shots and other expensive materials. While I'm impressed by their professionalism, I'm not a label rep or someone who will have a major influence on their career -- I'm just an indie writer. Also, I tell artists not to waste money by sending their submissions by Federal Express. Regular old mail will do fine, especially since I'm out of the office a lot and not here to sign for things.
LES REYNOLDS: Sending tons of press clippings - one sheet is enough. Sending all sorts of odd-shaped stickers and things that, by themselves -- once away from the package -- mean nothing. Most press kits are guilty of overkill.
How can bands improve their submissions?
ERIK DECKERS: Create the best possible press kit they can. I know many artists want to be judged SOLELY on their music and not their image, but that ain't gonna happen, Chester. We're a visual-based society, and unfortunately, we judge a book by its cover, and fans judge their artists on their image. That's why CDs have cover art. And since most reviewers don't get a chance to see their artists perform live, the only way we can judge an artist's/band's IMAGE is by their press kit. So it needs to be visually appealing.
HEIDI DROCKELMAN: Again, solicit your submissions for review - it will ultimately benefit you more to do some research and look into different publications and specific writers, than it will to blindly send things out. Quality is key - you're looking for someone to thoughtfully review your material, to respect it, and cultivate new contacts for publicity and marketing purposes. Do what you can presently afford, and the rest will fall into place.
JENNIFER LAYTON: I think they can tone down their bios a little. I'm aware that most artists write their own bio sheets, so I have to laugh when I read stuff like "This is the most amazing rock band on the music scene today. No one has ever come close to matching their talent and energy." Gee, somebody call the surviving Beatles and break the bad news to them. I know it's a competitive industry and artists are trying to write BIOS that make them stand out, but try to let your music do the talking. Also, be sure to run your press materials through a spell-checker! One of the funniest bio sheets I ever got was from a folk artist who called himself a great intellectual songwriter, and the word "intellectual" was misspelled.
LES REYNOLDS: Unwrap those CDs - Pleeeze!!! Send quality materials that won't fall apart immediately. Send good quality CDs (occasionally defective ones or discs produced in an odd format are received, and they won't play).
Are artists in general nice or rude when they contact you?
ERIK DECKERS: In general, they're nice. If they're rude -- EVER -- I pitch the CD.
HEIDI DROCKELMAN: What a loaded question! OK, most artists are fairly respectful and nice upon initial contact. But don't let me sugarcoat this for you - if I had a penny for every band that told me they were "by far, the greatest band you've ever heard", I'd be rich. There is cockiness, and then there are the deluded few.
JENNIFER LAYTON: Very nice. That's one thing I have no complaints about. Some of them have even checked out articles and columns I've written for other publications, which I think is pretty smart of them. I tease them about it, saying that it never hurts to flatter the reviewer!
LES REYNOLDS: Generally very respectful and nice. I feel fortunate in this area and it's been an incredible pleasure.
Do you reply to "When will my review be done?" messages? Why or why not?
ERIK DECKERS: Yes. If I agreed to do the review, then the artist deserves to know when I'll finish it.
HEIDI DROCKELMAN: God help you if you send this to me and I'm having a bad day, then the response can possibly turn on a dime depending on the manner in which someone words this question. It's usually closer to "where the hell is my review" in spirit. But I honestly try to respond to everyone. I understand that your material is important to you, so I try to shoot a line back and give an estimate of when something can be expected. But if you hound more than once, there's a good chance I will let it go even longer.
JENNIFER LAYTON: Yes, I answer these, because I'm a pretty impatient person myself. I do tell the artists before they even send me their CD that I will need about 2-3 months because I'm swamped with submissions, so I get a little annoyed when it's only been three weeks and I get, "Have you had a chance to listen to the CD yet? What do you think?"
LES REYNOLDS: Generally, I do just because I don't want to make an enemy and I want my conscience clear -- like, I've covered my a** and if it persists, I get more firm as the requests ("demands") get more frequent. And finally I just disappear. Generally I don't have this problem because I am upfront about the need for patience.
How do you deal with your personal music preferences when reviewing? Do you review styles you would not normally listen to/buy?
ERIK DECKERS: It's actually a little harder for an artist to impress me when they're in a genre I already like, because I have some definite ideas about what I enjoy and what I don't. But that means that if an artist CAN impress me, then they've done an excellent job. I do review styles that I normally don't listen to, so if an artist can create something that I enjoy (i.e. country music), then they also get a good review.
HEIDI DROCKELMAN: Actually, I may be one of the few reviewers that will instantly admit that I use my personal music preference as a barometer for my reviews. I believe that it is almost an impossibility take that out of the mix, especially when considering first impressions and different "trends". But this can be a very positive tool, especially when considering things like generational preferences (determining who this music will appeal to) and regional trends. It's a fact... we're human. But I like to pride myself on the fact that I grew up in a classically trained environment, coupled with a love of pop and rock, and through my experience as a music director for a college station, I gained an even broader perspective on programming, recognizing tastes, even if it's something that isn't within my personal comfort zone. I like all genres, truly, and love to explore different areas of interest. It's the only way to grow, and to allow the art of music to grow and expand as well.
JENNIFER LAYTON: That's been an interesting issue for me. Over the past three years, I've learned not to rule out styles of music I don't normally listen to. I thought I hated all folk music before I started writing for Indie-Music.com, and now I am completely in love with acoustic folk/rock music. The only thing I can't review is rap. I'm a middle-class white girl who still listens to Barry Manilow and the Carpenters occasionally -- I have ZERO credibility when it comes to rap and hip- hop.
LES REYNOLDS: I've learned, first of all, to separate the "This sux" from the "I don't like this". Second, I have become far more open-minded and that has made all the difference. Case in point: Christina Fasano, AKA the funky white girl. Basically it's excellent dance music but once you get beyond that to the words, well, it's pure sensual and spiritual power. At one time, I would have never gotten past the funk and beat-centric stuff. That CD was the turning point for me, I think -- it ripped me wide open. I still won't do rap or heavy (what I call vomit) rock (usually) or pure commercial country (usually), but I have learned to never say never. Besides, I have been blessed that most artists contacting me directly actually read my bio and they get a good vibe or feel. Generally, it's worked like a charm.
What do you most enjoy about reviewing indie music?
ERIK DECKERS: It's not the same old schlock I hear on commercial radio. In most cases, it's better.
HEIDI DROCKELMAN: It's a constant shocker, truly. I'm still amazed, after all these years, at the quality and talent that's out there. The best thing about reviewing indie music is the sheer unpredictability of it all.
JENNIFER LAYTON: I know this sounds dramatic, but writing about indie music for the past three years has changed my life. I'm a lot more open-minded about so many things because I've learned to be more open-minded about the music I listen to. I've met several of the artists I've reviewed and am so happy that I've been able to encourage them by contributing positive reviews to their press kits. I've become such a fan of indie music that I flew up to NYC for my birthday last year to see performances by some of the artists I'd written about. It's also been great for me professionally -- editors of print magazines have seen my writing on Indie-Music.com and offered me paid freelance gigs.
LES REYNOLDS: The fact that there's an unlimited amount of real talent out there and it keeps coming and won't ever stop. I've heard stuff I would have never heard otherwise, met musicians I'd never even dreamed existed. And the cream is when a real connection is made... that's worth everything.
What most irritates you in writing reviews?
ERIK DECKERS: Getting unsolicited reviews. I'm pretty busy to begin with, and so I have to be selective about whose reviews I undertake. When I get one that I didn't ask for, I don't look favorably upon that artist. If I do manage to get around to doing their review, they've got a bigger hurdle to clear in that I'm already annoyed with them.
HEIDI DROCKELMAN: The only thing that ever gets me is the volume of the mailings that I get. But making the commitment to give advice, constructive criticism, and deliver it in a way that isn't cruel, disconcerting, or rude is never easy. I may have harped a little about bands realizing that the reviewers are human, but remembering how personal the work is to others keeps me in check when delivering my honest opinion about their work.
JENNIFER LAYTON: What drives me NUTS is when artists or labels put me on their mailing lists when I didn't ask them to. Some artists have even put me on their lists before they've even sent me the CD for review. The worst was after I wrote a positive review of one band, and then their label put me on the mailing list of every single artist on their roster. That's one of the reasons I don't deal with labels or PR people anymore. If I love an artist's work, I'll ask to be put on the mailing list. And I have done that many times.
LES REYNOLDS: Bad (inaccurate/incomplete) information on liner notes (it happens) or if the info is not legible -- that stuff is very helpful and often necessary (in my opinion) in writing reviews. That, and wishing I had nothing to do but write, because most of these artists deserve a timely review.
Any additional comments??
ERIK DECKERS: In addition to writing music reviews, I write for other publications, so I can offer these bits of advice from the "other side of the desk."
JENNIFER LAYTON: We need more indie writers!! I'll be happy to talk with any interested writers and go over the responsibilities/rewards of doing this. E-mail me anytime.
- ALWAYS read and follow the submission guidelines. Don't think "My music is special" or "I'm better" and do something the guidelines tell you not to. That's the quickest way to get shot down and ignored, whether dealing with a reviewer, a booking agent, or an A&R pro. Trust me, there are hundreds and thousands of people who think that way, and you'll actually be noticed more if you just do what you're asked.
- Don't pester people. Frequent emails that ask "Is it done yet? Is it done yet? Is it done yet?" will get you pushed further and further down the reviewer's pile, or the reviewer will whip out a half-assed review just to get you out of their hair. A nice follow-up email "making sure you received the CD" is fine, but that's it. Oh, and don't forget a thank you email when the review is published.
LES REYNOLDS: I enjoy seeing musicians I recognize in the liner notes -- guitarists, vocalists, etc. Do enough of these reviews, and that happens. Also, watching these careers bloom and blossom and flourish... seeing them with that second or third CD; seeing them reviewed in other music mags (print) and occasionally seeing them in record stores. (I recently spied Debra Davis' CD, which I'd reviewed, at Hawley-Cooke Booksellers here in Louisville, KY)
Review Check List
- Communicate professionally - Use standard grammar and punctuation, proofread, and use a spell checker. You don't have to write a business letter like you learned in 8th Grade Grammar class, the letter can be creative, but make sure it is identifiable as a business communication and not junk mail. Make sure to directly state you are looking for a review. Don't send mass mailings, it's obvious to the recipient. On the phone, leave useful messages designed to make it easy to call you back (spell your name, and repeat your phone number twice to make copying easy for the listener).
- Follow submission guidelines - Guidelines exist for a reason, which is to help an organization handle a large flow of music submissions in an efficient manner. Each publication does it differently, but if you choose not to follow the guidelines, expect your submission to be late, lost, or worse.
- Send a cohesive promo pack - Writers have differing preferences on what they like to receive as part of a promo pack. Most writers, though, like to read a band biography and a few press clips (it helps in writing a review to know more about an artist), and many also like to see a band photo. If you are unsure what a writer requires, err on the side of sending too MUCH rather than not enough. If you choose not to include photos and graphics, make sure they are easily available on your website if the reviewer plans to publish your review with pictures.
- Give contact information - When your review goes up, nothing would be dumber than to make your CD hard to find. Many artists, though, forget to include full contact information including mailing address, phone, email, and website URL.
- Identify your genre - I know, I know, you hate to categorize your music, and that's understandable. But try. When people read reviews, they want to know, upfront, whether it's their "style" or not. So even if you simply say "a cross of rock, folk, and punk", that is much better than saying "we cannot be categorized". Better to categorize yourself than let a writer do it for you. Many writers are not musicians, and do not know precisely how to describe your genre just by listening. Help them.
- Write a meaningful bio - Drop the lines that say you are "incredible", "changing the face of music", or "talented beyond belief". Leave the flowery adjectives to others, and instead choose less self-congratulatory terms such as "tight", "veterans", "years of experience", "solid", "heavy", or "quirky". In general, if you would feel conceited saying something out loud, don't say it in your bio. (Imagine telling your friends at work, "My band is talented beyond belief, we're changing the face of music". It sounds over the top and unnatural here, and it would sound the same way in your bio).
- Make the writer's job easy - Since writers are, at the basic level, just people doing their job, it only makes sense that if you can make their job easier, they will like you and try to return the favor. That's just human nature. Include everything the writer needs, be sensitive to their schedule, provide graphics or answers to any questions promptly.
- Follow up courteously - Writers vary greatly in how they respond to follow-ups. Some people will respond promptly, keeping you up to date at each step of the process. Other writers ignore follow-ups completely. Your best bet is learn each writer personally. As a general rule, follow up about 2-4 weeks after your submission should have arrived with a short note. If you hear nothing, try again in another two weeks. If you again hear nothing, try waiting a month. Don't threaten or chastise the writer, just ask if a decision has been made about your review yet.
- Don't argue with the reviewer - You can't win. If you don't like the review, you can pass on that reviewer with your next CD. Or you can submit again and see if their opinion has changed. Either way, picking a fight about something the reviewer wrote is a waste of your time. If there is a factual error, fine, ask the writer to correct it. But don't argue, "Our choruses are NOT boring! They are complex and emotive". Since the characterization of your choruses as "boring" is only the reviewer's opinion, you are not going to change it. You might, however, piss off the writer for life.
- Keep the connection - You need to cultivate your relationships with writers. Check in with them periodically between CDs, read their other work, let them know if you have news, and send thank-you notes - even if you did not get reviewed. Your goal is to build a relationship. You never know when that relationship may help you out - but you can be sure it will work in your favor if you present yourself as nice, interested, and understanding.
Suzanne started Indie-Music.com as a hobby in 1996. She began as a musician in the 1980's, built and managed a commercial studio, founded an independent label, dabbled in management, PR, and production, opened a CD replication company... whatever it took to make a living in music. She ditched her day job in 1997 to pursue Indie-Music full time. In addition to authoring hundreds of articles about independent music, she has appeared as a panelist at music industry events like Midwest Music Summit, DFest, Millennium Music Conference, and Atlantis..
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