Looking back at Tar Hut, there are many occurences and accomplishments we have to be proud of. Getting a national retail/distribution deal after just three releases is one of them. But our efforts in the field of PR and publicity for our music and our label are near the top of the list. There is an old adage which says that any publicity is good publicity and that’s an adage I certainly subscribe to. Thankfully, most of our publicity was quite favorable and positive.
Publicity in the music business is a very curious animal. Publicity when you run a 3 person indie record label with only one full time worker is downright surreal. The trick is this: there are literally thousands of albums being released monthly, most of them backed up with publicity departments. In a lot of cases, labels will even pay gobs of money to independent publicity firms. These are firms who actually specialize in securing album reviews, TV/Radio appearances and interviews for the artist. These independent firms charge an absolute boatload of money to the labels for such things and the labels seem glad to pay it. As you might expect, this was not even a remote option for us. We were on a very tight budget.
We also didn’t have a publicity department within Tar Hut. By and large, the publicity department was yours truly. So here’s how it usually played out:
For each “run” of CD’s that we had pressed, we’d give roughly 50% of them away for nothing. Let’s say we press 2,000 copies of a CD, shall we? We’d earmark about 1,000 of those as “promos,” with a hole punched in the barcode to prevent re-sale. Out of this set of 1,000, about 400 would go out to radio (radio needs its own blog entry someday) and we’d generally set aside 500 or so for press/publicity. The rest we’d keep on hand for subsequent requests or last minute emergencies (“Jack at the Cotton Club in Atlanta wants to book the Ex-Husbands, but he needs a CD! Send it today!”)
Anyway, seeing as though we didn’t have a shipping department, the task of stuffing a CD plus a band biography into a padded envelope and then lugging all 500 of them to post office usually fell to myself and Leo. Leo would come to my place in Somerville, we’d plop in some music, have some food/beer and proceed to methodically stuff hundreds of padded mailers…..for hours upon hours. Ah, the glorious life of indie-label record execs. One major regret is that I don’t have any pictures of my old bedroom in Somerville, MA, which featured a stereo, a bed on the floor and CD boxes stacked up the walls on all four sides of the room. I mean, the damn things were just everywhere. It was quite a sight.
About a week after the CD’s were mailed, the phone calls would start. I’d call in the morning, I’d go home for lunch from my day job at Rounder and call while I was eating. After I’d come home from work, it was right back to the phones, furiously dialing all the people I’d sent our CD’s to. 98% of the time you leave voice mails and never hear back. Nonetheless, you still call them, week after week after week after week, hoping they’ll answer and tell you a review is running on such-and-such a date. Most of the time, you just talk to machines, but when you did snag a review, it was like finding those last quarters you needed for laundry – relief. Near exhilaration. Some of the time, you’d get treated rudely, like the day when I called the irrational and cantankerous rock critic Robert Christgau at The Village Voice and he actually answered! I was completely stunned he even answered and I remember thinking there must be a mistake. I was correct. He get very aggravated when I told him who I was (i.e., someone he didn’t give two shits about) and yelled at me that he was expecting another call and promptly hung up before I could even get my band’s name out of my mouth. Unforgettable.
You know what, though? We worked our asses off for publicity and it paid off. The reivew in the picture above was our crowning achievement, a review of an Angry Johnny album which we landed in, of all publications, Entertainment Weekly! It is extremely, extremly rare for an indie-label of our size to land a review in such a huge publication, but through persistence, we did it. The album itself obviously played a huge role – the uniqueness and creativity in the music deserved it, in my eyes. That it drew comparison to Dock Boggs was a very nice touch. I never read Entertainment Weekly, but ever since then I’ve always respected the publication. To a degree.
Our other releases did quite well in the newspapers and magazines, too. At one point or another we managed to land coverage in Stereo Review, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe, Magnet Magazine, No Depression and many, many others. We even managed to land a feature story on Angry Johnny in Billboard Magazine, another coup indeed.
If I’m missing anything, I’m sure Leo and Dave can fill in the blanks. All told, I’m insanely proud of our publicity efforts. Did it lead to an explosion in sales? Probably not. We saw the occasional blip as a result, but nothing crazy.
Publicity like that helped us more in other ways – leverage to get booked in some clubs, to sell the story better to radio, to get retail paying attention. Naturally, once a good national review was published, we made nice copies of it and simply mailed it to our press list to get them thinking there was momentum and to continue considering writing about it. An endless wheel…..spinning.