KILLING IS MY BUSINESS: PR-Mageddon with Earsplit and Catharsis PR

To a music journalist, a publicist can either be a trusted source of the tunes and information we need to get our job done, or an annoying omnipresence in our inboxes, constantly sending mass e-mails with hyperbolic language about shit bands that don't deserve the publicity in the first place. For a band spending its hard-earned cash to get the word out about a new album, hiring the latter can be a costly career mistake. I spoke with three supremely un-sucky publicists for the Killing Is My Business column in Decibel issue #116: Kim Kelly of Catharsis PR, and Dave Brenner & Liz Ciavarella-Brenner, the husband-and-wife team behind Earsplit PR. Collectively, they represent many dozens of the finest bands and labels in extreme metal. Read on for their sage advice about how they do their jobs, and when in your career you should bring them aboard.

We live in an era when bands can connect directly with fans and do their own marketing. What would you say is the value of hiring a publicist these days?

Kim Kelly: Of course I’m biased, but honestly, I think it’s the best thing you can do for your band besides securing a good booking agent and generally being a solid person. There are so many writers and bloggers covering metal now for a huge array of publications; that makes for a lot of busy people for a band to reach, not all of whom have the time or tenacity to keep up with everything that’s going on and coming out.

A lot of writers are swamped with new music at all times, and don’t have time to look into every new demo posted on the NWN board. Others are just lazy, and will only bother listening to records that are gift-wrapped and sent directly to their inboxes. That means it’s a hell of a lot more difficult for a new or obscure band to get in front of someone who can help them. Hiring a publicist - someone whose entire job is making sure press folk are listening to your album - adds an extra level of security. Publicists can’t guarantee anything, but it does seem to help to have someone in your corner pulling strings and sending reminders, you know?

Dave Brenner: Self-promoting artists are always going to have more visibility and overall success than those who sit idly by and wait for some label to come magically handle everything for them. Some bands reach a wide audience on their own but then need to get to that next level, which is where somebody like us may be useful.

Liz Ciavarella-Brenner: And hiring a publicist allows bands to concentrate solely on their music rather than spending all their waking hours glued to the interwebs. PR/marketing/social networking etc. is time consuming; time that would be better spent in a studio or on the stage. Also, most publicists tend to have a more of a mapped out plan of attack.

Do you think it’s essential that a publicist also be a fan of the music he or she is pushing?

Kim: It is to me. I only work with bands I think are awesome, and have turned down plenty of projects that may have lined my pockets but would’ve made me feel like a fraud. If you genuinely love the band you’re working, you naturally want to work harder and do the absolute best possible job for them, right? They become your friends, and who wouldn’t want to help out their friends? That’s how I see it, anyway. I’ve gotten pickier over the years, and done favors for friends’ bands I don’t necessarily own records from, but it’s all been music I am comfortable attaching my name to.

Not every company works like that, though; Catharsis PR is a tiny two-person (only recently upgraded from one woman!) operation, and we’re used to being broke. Plenty of companies will work any damn thing, and while that is entirely within their right and undoubtedly helps out a lot of bands that lie outside my admittedly narrow ideas of what constitutes “awesome”...it still seems kind of lame. The market is already oversaturated with shitty bands, so why would you knowingly contribute to that? Bills, families and responsibilities are why. My partner and I are just lucky (and stubborn) enough to go the poor & principled route. Not everyone is able to do that, and I definitely respect that. I don’t want to seem like I’m throwing shade. I’m probably just still young and stupid.

Liz: Not necessarily essential - I know plenty of publicists who don't love what they're promoting on a personal level and do a great job regardless. Having done press in some capacity since college, I’ve definitely worked with some bands I wouldn’t listen to for recreation. These days though, it's important to truly back the bands we're working, and overall we do. There's a whole different level of satisfaction you get out of promoting a band you love and respect and we've been lucky enough to be able to work with some of our all-time favorite bands and musicians over the years. Those become passion projects and a passion project hardly ever feels like real “work.” We’ve also passed on some real turd-burgers that would have paid well but would be painful to listen to.

Dave: If we all liked everything because we were supposed to we’d be pop music fans, not devotees to the underworld. No, of course you rub with bands who have pissed you off in the past or just have to suck it up and deal with something every now and then to keep the flow with the people who are continually hiring us going. But overall, we tend to work only with folks we like and trust, and who release music we would explore or buy as fans if we weren’t attached to this for a living. But that said, these days we also work with a lot of our favorite labels, and many of the releases we work in any given year are our favorite releases of said year. I mean, we work with Integrity, Neurosis, Eyehategod, Obituary, Fear Factory and some of the bands that got us into this mess to begin with as fans, and have worked with some of the best bands out there nearly since inception – like Black Cobra and Wolves in the Throne Room – who we not only work with but are friends with as well.

Kim Kelly, doyenne of death metal at Catharsis PR

Do you ever say no to a prospective client that reaches out to you?

Kim: Yeah, all the time. Either I’m too busy to feel comfortable bringing on another project and feel it wouldn’t be fair to the band, or I just don’t like the music. Now that I’ve got someone else involved, he takes on his own clients, but the same principles stand. We’re both dicks about music, too, so that keeps things moving.

When is the ideal time to hire a publicist? When might it be a good time to hold off? 

Kim: Hire a publicist when you have something concrete to promote - and please, plan ahead a little. While it may seem smart to hire someone to raise your profile in general, it makes more sense to do so when you have a “story” or an “angle” that editors and news-minded folk can grab onto. Also, it’s always nice to have a few solid months before an album is due to be released to really hit it hard on the media front. Last minute or already-released records don’t get as many results. The news cycle is constant and it’s really bloody difficult to get a big publication to even look at a record that’s been out for a few weeks, let alone six months. It sucks, but that’s how it goes.

That’s why release dates are important, too, especially for bigger publications. There is a lot of planning and machinery that goes into publishing an album review, and generally, the easier you make their job, the easier it’ll be to get them on your side. If you have a new record coming out in a couple months or are planning a tour, hit me up! If you’re just sort of hanging out at home, don’t. Wait until you have something a publicist can use. “This band is great!” is less effective than “This band is great, and they have a rad new album coming out in two months!”

Liz: We get hired for all kinds of random projects but generally we're hired to promote upcoming records and the farther in advance we're hired on that project, the better.

Dave: If you can’t get a show in your hometown, there’s a reason. Practice more, record the right thing, and develop the right fanbase. Get your shit straight, gain a badass local following and reach some people on your own first. Sell a few copies of your own hand-hewn products to the devotees you do accumulate, realize that other people (NOT your girlfriends, brothers and best bros) actually enjoy your band and you’re doing something that is worth somebody’s money. And when you feel the time is right, get out there and pay us massive amounts of cash to make you ultra famous!

Do you handle your bands’ social media, too?

Kim: The bands I work with generally look after their own social media, though if they want I am totally fine to update their various sites with news, reviews, etc. I update the Catharsis PR Facebook page and Twitter every time a new review or feature comes in, too. It makes more sense to me that bands would control their own pages, because social media is generally seen as more personal. It’s a way for the band to connect directly with the people who are enjoying their art and coming out to their shows. I think a fan would be pretty bummed if they engaged in a great Facebook conversation with one of their favorite bands and then found out they were just talking to boring ol’ me instead.

Are there things you recommend your clients not do, marketing wise?

Liz: Posting records to Bandcamp or YouTube immediately. Too many bands get done recording and just throw it out there the next day before it ever gets promoted properly. It’s also good not to badger people to cover your record. Some bands think relentlessly spamming folks to cover their goods is going to get them noticed, but all it does is piss people off. Then the only thing people remember you for is being annoying. Also, a lot of newer bands don’t realize just how much is going on around them – the sheer amount of bands there are competing for the same recognition – and think once they have a record in hand they’re going to be instantly fawned over by major outlets globally. Unless bands are willing to appreciate the coverage of the smaller blogs and zines and gradually work their way up, they will be discouraged pretty quickly. Some bands have unreasonable goals too early in the proverbial “game.”

Lay out your basic deal with your clients. Are you on retainer for a certain amount of time? Do you have tiers of service – e.g. a certain amount of money means you will do certain things, a larger amount means you will do more things, etc.?

Kim: I keep things super simple. I ask for a flat fee, ideally up front, but since sometimes installment plans work better for the band, that is an option, too. Keep in mind I’m a very small fish and usually work with pretty underground artists and labels, so I’m sure bigger firms have more complex deals (and charge tons more. I’ve heard of bigger firms charging bands upwards of $3,000 a month - what?! What metal band has that kind of money?! Divide that by around 150 and that’s closer to what we ask). I’ve also done smaller deals where a band will ask for just a bio or a press release, or tour press-only campaigns, which correspond with the length of the tour. It all depends, really. I keep it flexible, because I know that bands are usually broke and if they’re rad enough, I want to find a way to help them no matter what.

Earsplit PR's Dave Brenner and Liz Ciavarella-Brenner, stayin' classy at the New England Metal & Hardcore Festival

Have you had to adjust your prices over the years to compete with bands marketing themselves?

Dave: This isn’t The Firm where we bill on an incredible hourly platform and live off of others’ welfare; we treat people as they should be treated, and bill them on a platform that will get the job done without breaking their bank at all, all while still feeding our cause as well as our mouths. I’d like to think that our philosophy is, on paper at least, probably more communist than commercialist. It’s a shitty climate overall, financially. To think that we’re going to “live the dream” and roll with fat stacks of greenbacks with nothing to do and everything paid up is a joke. How we operate is somewhat as idealistic as many of the self-founded labels and most of the forward-thinking bands/artists we represent, and we’ll always have to flex with the times.

Do you sometimes take on a label's roster as a whole? How does the fee structure and work differ in those cases?

Dave: Sure, a good portion of the labels we work with are full rosters. As with anything the rate gets devised as per the workload and other variables.

Do you ever take on clients that are not represented by a label? Do you find any difference in how willing the music press is to cover an unsigned band vs. a signed one? 

Dave: Fuck yes – sometimes independently hard-working, unsigned artists are the most deserving, loyal and overall appreciative folks we operate with. We’ll always try to use our access to and work with our higher-profile international artists and labels to spotlight the independent/unsigned acts on the roster.

Liz: Coverage gets a little trickier since so many outlets are automatically more apt to cover something backed by a label, but we don’t take on shit bands and the music typically speaks for itself.

As a writer, I’ve gotten mass press releases, and also slightly more personalized, tailored pitches. What determines which approach you take to reaching out to writers?

Kim: I do both. Mass press releases are quicker and cast a wider net, but I make sure to follow up later with specific writers and editors that I think would really dig the record, and also send personal e-mails to set up specific features. I assume that most people do what I do and delete 99% of the press releases they get, so the personal touch is crucial!

Do you put together all the press materials that you service or is there some work done by the band/management/etc.? 

Dave: Everybody works differently. We require some specific info/assets to get our job done, but sometimes we have to do a bit more actual legwork than others.

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How active are you in trying to get your clients on TV/radio?

Kim: To be honest, it’s not something I spend a lot of time on. There are some radio shows and podcasts I keep in touch with and will arrange for airplay, on-air interviews, and ticket giveaways when it makes sense. TV? I’m nowhere near that level, and am fine with that; black metal and crust aren’t the most accessible genres, anyway. I mean, can you imagine Coffinworm on Good Morning America? I fuckin’ wish.

95% of the press releases I get are related to a band’s album cycle (title/artwork /tracklist revealed, song premiered on XYZ blog, etc.) or a tour announcement. What are some examples of ways you might pitch a band that aren’t related to an album or a tour? 

Dave: The reason most of the main press releases and announcements you read about are focused on the specific life of a certain album, specific reunion/era/lineup of the band or whatever is because it’s something financially viable for them to promote. Nobody is going to spend money on promotion if they have something going they think nobody gives a shit about.

Kim: If I do end up working with a band that is in a lull like that, I focus on securing interviews, guest columns, playlists - things that highlight the artists and personalities behind the band, but aren’t necessarily time sensitive. In those situations, the goal is to keep a buzz going and continue to raise the band’s profile, so it takes a little more planning and creativity to make it worthwhile.

What opportunities are there for metal bands to get covered outside the metal press? Do you approach a non-metal (or non-music) publication differently than one of your bread and butter metal sites or magazines?

Kim: So many mainstream/indie publications have dedicated metal sections or at least metal-friendly staff that it’s gotten a lot easier to get full-on metal bands covered therein. When I pitch a less familiar mainstream pub (like an alt weekly), I emphasize the key points about the band that make them seem “worthwhile” – whether they’re local, they’ve got a wacky side story, they are active in charities, etc. You’ve got to make them seem extra interesting, because outside of this world, the words “black/doom” mean absolutely zip.

No publicist can guarantee coverage for a client. What happens when, try as you might, the press just doesn’t bite? 

Kim: That’s the worst. After a certain point you just have to accept it, but you’d better fight like hell to squeeze every last drop of interest out of the press before giving up. Bands understand that it is a gamble and generally appreciate all the hard work you’ve put in, but it still feels shitty to come up dry.

Liz: Certainly some bands get more recognition than others for any number of reasons, whether it's timing, obscurity, lack of live appearances, etc. But you just keep truckin'. If the first push doesn't take, push harder.

Kim, you could have gone so many different directions with your music biz degree (and you kind of did). What pointed you in the direction of publicity?

Kim: Like you said, I’ve dabbled (and continue to dabble) in a variety of sordid corners of the music business, and PR is still something I consider to be my “day job” – writing is my main passion, but unfortunately, my landlord insists I pay a monthly tribute for the honor of occupying a small brick hovel next to a pizza shop. Anyway. I decided to give PR a try when I was still in college and was working on a few internships; I had free time for the first time in, well, years, so I used it to try and help some of my friends get noticed. I’d already been writing more or less professionally for about five years when I started doing publicity, so I had a rough idea of how it all worked. As one of my favorite humans would say, it ain’t rocket surgery.

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Earsplit is co-run by a husband and wife. How do you divide the work? 

Dave: It all depends. Some labels each of us deal with more regularly/exclusively, and some we split up. There’s no real process; just trying to make sure it gets done is key.

Liz: As far as the bands/labels we work with, we wrestle for them or draw straws...no, we generally just try to divide things equally or take the bands we dig more on a personal level. At the end of the day, we're on the same team, so getting the job done, however it gets done, is the primary goal. I tend to do more of the social networking stuff. Dave deals more with the mail order end of things.

Earsplit's got a label and distro going, too. Do you see that becoming a significant part of your income? If not, what's the rationale behind doing them?

Dave: We launched the new branches of our faction late last year. Overall our collective is called The Earsplit Compound. Within that we now have Earsplit PR, as well as our label, The Compound and mail order/distribution portal, Earsplit Distro. While we do expect to and already are seeing some light income on our existing titles, we have modest hopes, and all funds are just being redistributed back into funding new releases we have coming up.

So far we have released Enabler’s new EP Flies on CD, which we then licensed out to London-based Holy Roar Records who did a badass vinyl edition. Our second release is Godhunter’s debut full-length City of Dust, which is out now on CD and is being manufactured on 180-gram colored vinyl with a massive deluxe package treatment; this is our first vinyl release. Also about to come out is the 7” version of Cop Problem’s new EP Buried Beneath White Noise, followed by the self-titled debut 7” from Die Choking. A split vinyl release between Godhunter and Secrets of the Sky is in the works.

This is not announced yet, but I suppose it will be by the time this hits print...we are also going to co-release the sophomore Enabler LP, La Fin Absolue Du Monde, which will be a split release by The Compound and Creator-Destructor, and likely a European counterpart. Much more is lining up for later in the year already.

Kim, you’ve spent a lot of time on the other side of the inbox, as a metal journalist. What has that taught you about how to do your job at Catharsis?

Kim: My background definitely helps, in terms of connections as well as my approach. I know the kind of things that get under my skin as a writer, so I do my best to avoid them as a publicist. I know how press releases should look, what kinds of phrases and quotes will draw attention, and most importantly, which publications cover what. I generally know the people I’m pitching to, and know not to pitch so-and-so on a gothy doom band or such-and-such on a raw black metal band. It drives me berserk when I get pitches from publicists that have clearly never read a word I’ve written and really want to know what I thought of the indie pop record they just sent me through an unannounced Dropbox link, so...I don’t do that. I screw up here and there, but I try to tailor my approach to the individual living being I’m talking to. So far, so good.

Visit Dave and Liz at the Earsplit Compound: earsplitcompound.com

Say hello to Kim at the Catharsis PR Facebook page: facebook.com/catharsispr 

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