In recent days I have been involved in some interesting discussions on social media concerning the subject of aspiring music artists using pluggers. This article is my attempt to shed some light on how artists (and also small labels, managers and others involved in an artist’s support structure) might choose to approach this topic.
In my role as a producer and presenter of internet radio and TV shows focusing on new and emerging music acts, I find pluggers useful. As the audience continues to grow for my radio show, I am seeing a growing group of pluggers and PR folk who contact me weekly or fortnightly with tracks or, in the case of the TV show, videos they want exposure for. Certain pluggers have established themselves with me as dependable sources who always bring good quality material and don’t waste my time. It doesn’t prevent me still receiving and playing a steady flow of tracks submitted by artists themselves. But it does mean I receive material that is likely to be worth hearing in the right formats and accompanied by information and links I can choose to utilise if I so wish.
I have also spoken with friends who are involved in national radio stations, including one that tends to be of particular interest to aspiring bands and artists. They have echoed these sentiments but they are operating at a much higher level in the music media hierarchy than I am. For them, when there is such a continuous flood of music being submitted, it is essential to have reputable pluggers who cut out a lot of time by bringing them artists who are at a stage in their careers where they are pushing for national radio playlisting. When radio production folk are insanely busy and inundated with people wanting their attention, the existence of good pluggers makes their work a little more manageable.
One of the mistakes I regularly see artists make, sometimes even when they have asked my advice and I have counselled them against such actions, is paying through the nose for plugging with the naive belief that this will elevate them overnight from obscurity to commercial success. It won’t! One of the most important skills aspiring artists need to develop is having realistic expectations. If you are just starting out, have barely played your first gig, have a few hundred social media followers and no media profile, you are not going to be able to whack out a single, pay a plugger and sit back and watch it soar into the Pop Charts! So it is not only important to choose carefully before you commit to paying anyone for a service like plugging or PR. It is also important to know when to do so.
In the second edition of my book about The Independent Music Sector, the two lengthiest, most detailed chapters are on promoting your music to radio and other media and on how to use social media. Even now, if I was to work on a third edition, I would add to both because, even for a long-in-the-tooth campaigner like me, the industry remains a continuous learning curve. There are an increasing number of people involved in plugging, PR and agencies who recognise that artists often cannot afford to risk spending big on promotion and are offering low-cost tailored alternatives. They should be the ones you are engaging with and considering using.
I also recommend looking up the Grassroots Music Network which I co-founded (with regular Fresh On The Net contributor Sue Oreszczyn and podcaster Pete Cogle) with support from the Royal Society for the Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (RSA). Registration is free and we are continually adding information, contacts, resources and articles so that we can put all the free information independent music folk need in one place on the internet. You do not have to have fellowship of the RSA to join.
One of my favourite pluggers is TBT Music’s Tim Britton. The reason is because he not only brings me good music in the right form and with accompanying materials on a weekly basis but he operates on some key principles. He only takes on acts he believes in and is passionate about. He charges a very affordable monthly fee. And he is honest and realistic with clients, explaining that he doesn’t have a diary full of mouth watering contacts in the nation’s most popular stations but he does have an extensive list of smaller ones who are actually likely to play the tracks and he works hard to get the numbers of plays to justify the cost. I can happily mention others like Neil Atkinson of Kimwaves, Lee Jackson at Wall Of Sound PR, Anna from Decent PR and others. It is important to note, however, that my mentioning them does not constitute a ‘recommendation’. You need to check any potential representative out before you decide what is in your best interests.
One point Tim made to me in a recent discussion is that artists cannot treat using a plugger or PR company as a reason to shun hard work. Despite the often disingenuous hyperbole that major labels put out about the overnight internet sensations they have signed, the truth is there is no fast track to wide success. And if there is an example of where there has arguably been such a success, it is the exception that proves the rule. Any artist who is serious about wanting to build a career has to be prepared for the hard graft involved in building a profile and a following. That means, in normal non-lockdown times, getting out and playing live if you can (and I appreciate there are reasons why, for some artists, that is not possible or is at best traumatic) and being highly active across all the main social media platforms.
It also means having a website (or at least a web page) where people can read about you and access links. And it needs to be kept up to date. Also, if you are putting tracks out on digital platforms, look into how to get yourself onto playlists (especially on Spotify) and create your own and post them on socials too so you are linking your music to that of others in similar musical territory.
I despair when I come across artists who tell me they are ‘not into’ using social media. This is 2020, not 1975. If you are ambitious about a career in music but you refuse to have a Facebook artist page and accounts on Twitter, Instagram, Soundcloud and YouTube, you are cutting your own nose off to spite your face. You should probably be thinking about TikTok now too.
I also despair when I hear artists talking about releasing a new single or EP when there is no tangible reason to do so. A new release needs to be part of a coordinated campaign with a clear strategy. A good plugger or PR service can help advise you here. But they will not want to work with you if you are not playing your part in building a buzz around what you are doing in the first place.
So let me attempt to summarise. I am working on the assumption that most people, whether you are an aspiring artist, a small independent label, a manager or just an enthusiastic parent or friend of a talented artist, will have to work with shoestring budgets. Therefore any decision on spending money cannot be taken lightly. So don’t jump at the first opportunity because it sounds great. Do your homework and don’t be afraid to ask searching questions (i.e. So what artists I may have heard of have you managed to get airplay or reviews for?). Check their prices against others offering the same or similar services.
If you are right at the start of your journey as an artist, it is probably better not to be hiring a plugger. You need to do the groundwork first. Build your profile on social media platforms. Post short videos of yourself playing your songs (including with a backing track if appropriate) on Instagram. Make videos using free software like iMovie which is easy to edit and enables you to sync up video recordings of you singing with the vocals on the corresponding recording. You can make a credible video using iPhone footage if you take the time to edit properly. Post the videos on YouTube and shout from the rooftops to get people to subscribe to your channel and give the video a ‘like’. And don’t be sidetracked by people telling you not to bother with YouTube because Vimeo is better quality! YouTube is where the vast majority of people go to access videos and you need to have yours on there.
When you are beginning to see a buzz about your music, preferably having played some gigs (or live streams), posted tracks and videos on socials etc, you might then want to think about putting out a single or EP. That is when you should also be deciding whether to hire a good and affordable plugger who can help by getting you onto 10 or 15 radio shows that have small but loyal audiences and support music similar to yours. But be realistic. That individual will not have a seat at the BBC 6 Music playlist meetings. For that you need to already have established yourself as an artist or band of interest. You can, however, find out who the heads of music and producers are of stations and shows you would like to be on and send them your Electronic Press Kit. But I am talking about the specialist shows, not daytime playlist shows like Lauren Laverne, Mary Anne Hobbs etc. let alone those on channels like Radio 1 or Capital who simply will not play your music unless you are a Pop Charts act.
Whatever path you take, if you are UK-based and have a UK postcode, it is an absolute must that you set up a BBC Introducing page where you can post up to two tracks per month and regularly update your profile. Also, when you choose your genre on the page, it means your tracks are automatically assigned to the BBC Introducing-related shows that are suitable for that area of music as well as your regional Introducing team.
Make sure you have a corresponding Soundcloud page so you can submit tracks to Fresh On The Net and know that, in the process, they can be considered, along with the other 199 tracks that come in that week, by Tom for the BBC Introducing Mixtape. But again be realistic. Competition is intense and anyone who tells you there is a lack of talent out there is either talking ill-informed nonsense or, at best, does not know where to look. I had to politely put the individual who books the acts at a world-famous festival right on this issue when we were both guest speakers and panellists at an industry event last summer. It is amazing what people don’t know!
Finally then, on the question of should you pay for plugging? If your circumstances merit doing so and you have a properly thought-out marketing and release strategy in place, then the answer is probably yes. But choose the one that best fits the stage you are at with your career and the music you play. And ask the important questions. Any plugger worth his or her salt will not be offended by being asked about track record. Last but not least, make sure your bulls*** detector is in full working order too!