Thursday, November 16, 2006

Jazz Publicists, Writers, and Artists—Discuss

Publicists have a difficult job. I know, having seen many publishing colleagues bang their heads against media walls on behalf of authors. While pop music publicists might have a slightly easier time, this is not the case for their jazz counterparts, who face a daunting task pitching jazz artists to a mostly unappreciative media. The Jazz Journalists Association assembled some of the most successful for an informative panel discussion.

Big band leader David Berger actually set a positive tone for discussion when he described the impact of a review Nat Hentoff wrote for his Hindustan CD in the Wall Street Journal. Hentoff was not only positive, but personally evocative in his notice, resulting in a blizzard of sales and packed houses for his regular Birdland sets. It was generally agreed that the Journal is one of two top publicity outlets for generating sales—arguably the most effective. (It warms my heart to hear props for the Journal as a jazz sales engine, since J.B. Spins basically has a similar philosophical perspective, but with broader jazz coverage.)

Some salient points were made that hopefully enlightened some of the musicians in attendance. The most basic, but still worth repeating was that all the publicity efforts in the world will not make a difference, if the CD is a lemon. Good publicists do not hype mindlessly, but target like a laser beam. That process will be refined with the expansion of the blogosphere. While bloggers were only mentioned briefly, I would like to think there is an efficiency advantage to targeting appropriate blogs. With traditional media a publicist might convince an editor to greenlight a review, but then see it assigned it to an unenthusiastic critic, or conversely sell a freelancer on a story concept, who might have trouble placing it. Bloggers however, are both editor and writer. In dealing with them, publicists need not worry about making that two-tiered pitch.

Some writers on the panel made much of the fact that publicists are paid to promote their artists, while they maintain their editorial objectivity. I would argue that over states things, not giving publicists proper credit for advocating on behalf of this music. Whenever they place a story on one of their artists outside of the jazz press, it helps promote jazz as a whole. Call it “trickle-down,” but jazz needs more category leaders to get people browsing in the superstore sections.