A Rational Conversation: Kathryn Frazier of Biz 3 Discusses Publicity Concerns In The Post-Digital Era...
“A Rational Conversation” is a column by editor and writer Eric Ducker. Every week he gets on iChat with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.
With the increased digitization of music, record labels and artists have struggled to find a way to simultaneously prevent their releases from leaking online while still getting the maximum amount of press coverage they desire. Relatively not too long ago, physical copies of albums were sent to editors and writers months before their official release; now the usual format of servicing new music takes the form of watermarked mp3s or protected streams. Some members of the press complain that by increasingly binding them to their computers with cumbersome systems to hear the music, they can’t do their jobs as well and give it a fair listen.
Ducker discussed this topic with Kathryn Frazier, owner of Biz 3, a top-tier publicity, management, digital marketing, and art direction company based in Chicago. For fifteen years, Biz 3 has worked with labels including Def Jux, Mad Decent, Ed Banger, Vice, Fool’s Gold, and Rhymesayers, managing breakthrough campaigns for artists spanning Justice and Daft Punk to Chromeo, El-P, MSTRKRFT and Major Lazer, among many other notables.
Eric Ducker: For what percentage of the projects that your company is working do you send out physical copies of the music to the press?
Kathryn Frazier: I’m sad to say it’s 10%.
ED: And what would you estimate it was five years ago?
KF: Us sending 10% is not a reflection of demand on the part of the journalists. It stems more from a fear of music leaking. It’s not so much listening preference as it is a precaution. We did an inquiry to our entire press list last year to find out what format people wanted after having a disagreement with a label we rep about what was the best way to service press. The reaction was interesting: it was completely divided between new and old school. There are revered and longtime journalists for the likes of The New York Times and Rolling Stone who simply will not listen to a stream: they go so far as to seem offended, and do not want to waste their hard-drive space with mp3s. They want a CD; if we don’t have them, then we have someone make one for them. It’s like delivering a parchment scroll written on with a feather quill at this point, but this is what must be done in some instances if you want to get your artist in with that writer. Most old-schoolers prefer CDs, but will take downloadable mp3s. I personally do a combo approach, and always encourage my clients to follow my lead on this: do fifty key watermarked CDs to those who need them or are more likely to be down (and trusted). At the same time, we also will send a protected stream (in case they don’t want to download before previewing) and watermarked downloadable mp3s to those who want to put it on their iPod, iPhones, iTunes, and so on.
ED: In your initial disagreement that spurred this inquiry, what side were you on?
KF: I was saying to the label that they were not getting as much press as they wanted because they were being so tight on how we could get music out there. They used an eFolio service, and I told them that most writers hated that system. They disagreed, so I went and asked over 1,000 journalists what they thought.
ED: Did your inquiry change your opinions about anything?
KF: It made me realize we are a divided world in the music media right now: new school and old school. My opinion is that the old-schoolers should get with the program. After twenty-two years of working in music, do I love that no one buys records and people grab albums from the Internet and if they hate them after twenty seconds, they hit delete and don’t look back? Hell, no. I wish we were all sitting around our stereos holding our albums and reading the “Thank Yous” and knowing who did the cover art, but that is not reality and I’m not going down with that ship. So you keep up. Get on Twitter, sign up for Spotify, whatever you need to do. Those writing about music culture should also keep up. My inquiry also made me realize that you just share with those you trust. You cast a much smaller net, and that is okay. It’s like the sexual revolution morphing into the 1990s HIV scare. No more mass orgies and trusting the universe that you’ll be okay! Less partners, use protection, and keep it closer to home. It’s the same for media servicing in 2012: send to only a few, keep it watermarked, send it out way closer to the release, and really know who you are giving what to. It’s a ridiculous analogy, but you get the picture.
ED: I agree with all of that. What is hard and what I understand is that some writers and editors want to have the freedom to experience the music in the same way that they’ll be able to once the music is commercially available in order to form an opinion on it. That means listening to it in their cars, during their commute, on their stereo, walking their dogs, and so on. They don’t want to be forced to form an opinion based on how it sounds solely through their computer, or on a publicist’s stereo while the publicist is fielding emails. But you’re right, it’s a matter of trust, and history has shown that maybe the press (and often tangential members of the press) can’t be trusted to receive advance music and not share it. It’s possibly a case of the many suffering for the mistakes of the few, but I understand the impulse for someone from the press to want to share music they like with people. It just became so much easier to just give other people the actual music rather than just giving them a recommendation. So yes, the press needs to be more discerning in keeping a wrap on what the publicists service them with, and then the publicists need to be more careful about who they service music to.
KF: Trust me, if I had my way we’d send out clean copy CDs and mp3s to every single writer. That’s my argument to labels: the more protective they are, the more they impede any sort of bond with the music. It just makes it certain a review will be written without a deep connection to, or understanding of, the music. Back in 1996, I gave writers the music five months in advance, and they truly “got it” when it came time to write. They got to fully experience it, like a fan, because they were music fans. Watching people today review an album in a conference room while listening to it two to four times scrapes my soul. It makes me want to open a puppy farm in the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s lowered the quality of music reviews – by many, not all.
ED: With younger members of the press who weren’t around when getting hard copies of a release was an option, do you think they’re cool with streams because they think that’s just how things are, or do you think that’s how they’re more used to listening to music?
KF: They listen to music that way. They have Soundcloud on their iPhones; they listen to music on Pandora and Spotify. Some old-schoolers are not down with this, and I understand that. If you became an audiophile in the 1980s and 1990s (or earlier) and you have turntables as well as a large CD collection, you have a way of listening that differs from those from the new school – which is fast and furious and at high volumes. There’s a real ADD edge to it.
ED: Does that worry you as a publicist?
KF: Absolutely. I yammer on about the lack of thorough listening all the time.
ED: Because you don’t think writers take the time to understand the music or develop a relationship with it?
KF: They definitely don’t, or can’t, for that matter. They get an assignment, are given this sacred music only at that moment, and are then told to review it. How can you sum up music that fast with any real thoughtfulness. You can’t. You just can’t. If you think of your favorite records over time, many of them you hated at first. I sold Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus back to the record store twice before I “got it.” I thought Wlll Oldham couldn’t sing, and he ended up as one of my favorite artists. I hated Chan Marshall’s first record as Cat Power on Steve Shelley’s label; then, after many listens – which I had to do because I bought it – I crossed over into complete reverence for her. The list goes on and on. In this current culture you just throw away what you don’t immediately like. You can download free records all day. You can build up hundreds of hours in your library. It’s just a new way, and we can’t go back. It makes me sad in some ways. In other ways, it is what it is. I try to listen as thoughtfully as I can. I have to understand how others listen now and be at peace with it.
ED: What’s your goal now if you have a new project coming up? How do you want the coverage to roll out? Do you even want pre-press? Or is the real goal to do your best to keep the music under wraps until the appointed time, and then once it’s available, try to set up press then?
KF: It depends what hat I have on. I’m a publicist, manager and record-label head.
ED: As a publicist, say.
KF: As a publicist, I want pre-press to hype it all, and I want the writer to have music as early as possible, and in the easiest possible format. That’s why labels and publicists disagree. Labels and managers want pre-press to hype their upcoming project, but they don’t want it to leak, so they keep the net super small, or make the music difficult to access. When we explain this inhibits our ability to get them what they want in terms of coverage, they sometimes don’t understand. More often, we all agree that we are in a catch-22. At the end of the day, I follow their lead and just warn them that if we don’t do it the way I advise, they may not see the results they want. They are okay with that. We’ve all adapted to this change.
ED: Let’s talk specifically. You have a pretty high profile release coming up with El-P’s new album, Cancer For Cure. This is an artist who has a long history with your company, and also has a dedicated fanbase. But he’s also probably lost sales of his own releases, and releases from the label he used to run, Def Jux, because of music leaking. This is also his first release with his new label, Fat Possum, which I imagine brings extra, or different, expectations. What has been your approach with servicing press for this release, and what’s the goal for coverage?
KF: El-P was doing his thing back when people bought albums and he and his label thrived. For Cancer For Cure, we were very limited on who we sent this album to when servicing long lead press. It was fifty key people only. He is getting a lot of press off of that, but he also is at a point in his career where he only wants to do key things, and isn’t doing a ton of interviews. We went out with a specific, limited net, and it’s gone very well. The flipside of being careful about music is that the Internet and self-leaking can work as incredible promo leading up to album press. He had three album tracks come out on the Internet since last year: that generated a lot of hype, and certainly lead to us securing press. We had one significant feature come out of that from an outlet who had not been serviced the album yet. We use leaking songs and viral videos on the Internet as the other half of our servicing to media in some ways. It’s a hybrid approach, rather than the old way, which was just to service the album and focus on that alone.
ED: That very limited flow of new El-P material that’s controlled tightly by you, who decided that approach: your company, the artist or the label?
KF: The limited scope is a collaborative decision, and we suggest various ways to do it. The main direction comes from the artist’s camp and label. It’s up to them how careful they want to be. When wearing my publicist hat, I want to have a wider net so I have more of a chance for results. For example, a lot of freelance writers champion artists and get editors to cover them. If we are told to have a very small net, the freelancers sometimes aren’t included, and it lessens some chances. With an artist like El-P, who I have been with for thirteen years, I know his deal; it’s not even a question, really. I know we are being careful, and I suggest the best way to keep that in mind, but also get him good and big press. His new label has invested a great deal of money into him, and has high expectations. Our job is to help them realize that and get large-scale press and TV – The New Yorker, “The Late Show With David Letterman,” and so on. We chose our list with that in mind.
ED: What do you tell writers and editors who aren’t included in that fifty watermarks list but request music?
KF: If they request it and it’s a serious inquiry, we send it out to them. If it’s a regional or online writer, we ask them to wait until closer to the album. Most people who are genuinely interested, who we know and trust, get it. In some cases, if we’re being really protective, I will only send music to those who ask for it or respond to me that they want it. There’s no blind sending at all.
ED: Outside of that original fifty, do you send the album as a watermarked CD, or watermarked mp3s, or as a stream?
KF: Watermarked hard copy and watermarked stream. Just recently, as we are three weeks out from the release of Cancer For Cure, we sent watermarked downloadables to a broader national long-lead list. Hard copies go to regionals next week. These are just regular CDs. We aren’t being as protective because it’s already leaked.
ED: At this point, do you anticipate a leak at some stage? Is it just a case of hoping it happens as close as possible to the release date?
KF: Pretty much. Some records don’t leak at all, surprisingly.
ED: Do you have contingency plans set up if the album leaks earlier than you anticipated?
KF: If a record doesn’t leak, we follow the plan as normal: don’t service the masses until release day. If it does leak wide, then it’s out anyway, so we go wider and earlier.
ED: Even with watermarks and other precautions, have you ever caught a writer or an editor leaking something you sent to them?
KF: Yes. Every time, they claimed it was a mistake. One was a higher-up hip-hop site editor. An email has been circulating this week from a lot of key publicists about a writer who has access to Pitchfork‘s site where they host all the records sent to them that says he leaked something, allegedly.
(from TV on the Radio’s Return to Cookie Mountain, which Pitchfork leaked back in ‘06)
ED: Do you cut them off once they’re caught?
KF: Absolutely. Not only do people get cut off, but they get put on blast to all the other publicists and people in the industry. It’s a huge breach of trust. If it’s accidental, then of course we weigh the situation and act accordingly. The big rap editor who leaked the record I spoke of seemed to honestly have made a mistake, and we still work with him.
ED: Do you ever feel bad for writers and journalists because there’s so much less physical product being sent to them, they can’t supplement their income by selling what they don’t want to record stores?
KF: Do I feel bad that writers can’t sell back CDs that were given to them?! Hell no. Back then, that used to be the same as album leaking! I remember getting calls, and I kid you not, a fax from a record store telling us that a local writer was selling all his hard finished copies or new promos of stuff not out yet. It was the old-school version of leaking, although certainly not as serious or dangerous to an artist’s record cycle. That said, I used to be a publicist at a club and got hundreds of promos, and I sold that stuff like crazy! I kept the indie stuff, and sold the majors.
ED: Thanks for responding so passionately to a joke question.
KF: Ha-ha, I thought you were being serious. Fucking AIM.