[The following article, originally titled “$ell Your Music With Prose,” first appeared in much longer form in the Anti-Music Issue of Vice Magazine. It was written by Oliver Hall. We thank him for his invaluable contribution, and hope sincerely that every music publicist in the free world reads his words, whether they read them here or elsewhere]
There has always been a subliminal note of despair in music sales text: It is the prose style of jobs on the line. You will want to use its rhetoric in your own writing, to make it appear that you have a job. Make your claims with breathless urgency, as if you are calling the hospital to be admitted for immediate quadruple-bypass surgery. This “long-awaited,” “highly anticipated” debut of a “buzzed-about” band is dropping to “worldwide critical acclaim”—“YOU WON’T WANT TO MISS IT!”
The music should sound like everything the audience likes yet lay waste to the conventions of its own and other genres. Say it “breaks free from the mold of pop” and is “devoid of [genre] clichés or pop tendencies that most bands use as writing crutches.” If we are talking about a band of old people who once approached something like success, then the new album is the best since their “breakthrough” release, though it must not seem to be only as good as the old favorite. No one wants to hear that history’s shit heap just became one album richer. The band returns the same as before, but different, “with even more life and energy this time around,” “exploring new frontiers,” “stepping outside of their comfort zone to create the next chapter of the band’s growing musical evolution.”
The following excerpt from Columbia Records publicist Billy James’s sales pitch, “Open Letter to a Friend,” which appeared on the back cover of the Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man (1965), illustrates another useful device. “The rock-and-roll musicians—Major Lance, Little Richard, teen-types Sonny and Cher and a few others—made it into Ciro’s in Hollywood when the Byrds were there, and they dug that something new was happening. And Jackie DeShannon dug the way they did her tunes; Mary Travers looked beautiful dancing to ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’… Then there were Lloyd Thaxton, Mitch Reid… a great-looking chick named Mary Hughes and, of course, the ‘in’ crowd’s method-actor comer, Michael Pollard.”
It is rare to find a press release that does not use this ancient technique, though today the names are more likely to belong to Hall of Fame catalog artists than celebrities of the moment. New music on sale almost always “nods to” “the likes of” the Beatles, the Stones, the Beach Boys, the Sex Pistols, Prince, Beethoven, Jesus Christ, or whomever is demographically appropriate. Records, like the dollar itself, are nearly worthless, and so are reputations. Everything must go! Throw as many big-league names as you can into your sales pitch. Take the press release for Lisa Hilton’s Nuance, a police auction of famous names, many of them belonging to the sainted dead (Séance might have been a better title): Ira Gershwin, Muddy Waters, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Horace Silver, Dave Brubeck, Brad Mehldau, Thelonious Monk, Quincy Jones, and Stan Getz all shone a little of their glory on this record, and why not? They and their estates have glory to burn. Maybe if you listen hard enough with a good pair of headphones, you can even hear Buddy Bolden himself blowing along on the choruses.
The writer of this release also helpfully illustrates a related device, pejorative name-dropping. He or she blames the failure of Hilton’s debut, Seduction, to sell more than, in Hilton’s words, “like 2 copies,” on terrestrial radio, which “loomed large at that time, when Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey ruled.” It had some good years on the streets—even made lieutenant—but now this bullet-torn argument, the argument from cultural disenfranchisement, first hopefully marshaled in favor of punk, metal, and hip-hop acts that styled themselves revolutionaries, has retired to Malibu, where it sells smooth jazz at the manufacturer’s suggested retail price ($13.98).
Conceive of decades not as arbitrarily delimited historical periods but as shorthand for pop styles, so that decades themselves become musical genres, or better yet mere adjectives (as in “totally 80s”). As today’s documentary filmmaker knows to set stock footage of Vietnam War protests to the kind of wah-ed out fake-Hendrix leads Guitar Center employees sell by the yard, so today’s PR writer knows to set his or her familiar libretto to notes that resonate deep in the reader’s idealized, subjective past. Put the buyer where you want him, stranded in this vast territory of myth and feeling where the individual ego finds itself defenseless, ashamed, naked, and invisible. As he cowers in terror and regresses to infancy, you pitch him a record album that feels like “a summer breeze,” “the warmth of a hand on your back,” “the lights of a little house up ahead,” a bubble bath, and a blowjob.
Don’t pitch to the buyer’s taste. Appeal to his or her memories: Conjure those golden hours, when the world still seemed new, before the feds confiscated grandpa’s racist pamphlets and burned down his testicles. Extrapolating from this season’s press releases, the pop consumer’s ideal 2010 record sounds like Van Morrison, the Rolling Stones, Love, Neil Young, the Replacements, the Fall, Orange Juice, the Smiths, the Cure, and the Byrds “filtered through contemporary favorites Grizzly Bear.” This last move is crucial. You must, however grudgingly, pay the ineluctable present moment its due, lest the cash- and credit-poor shopper salve his or her nostalgia with oldies radio instead of your certified grade-A new product. Try these: Your album “feels both intimately familiar and astonishingly new,” or “sounds at once familiar and exciting,” or “traffics [illegally?] in a kind of nostalgia that’s always in style.”
Click here for part two.