Now, I’m going to talk about assets: the tools you need before you can do any sort of publicity or marketing around yourself and your music. The primary materials you’ll need are photos, videos, audio recordings, a bio, and a website to tie them all together.
There are two things you must consider about all of your assets:
1) Do they accurately represent you and your music?
2) Are they of high enough quality?
The former extends directly out of the work done in Post 1, as you must understand your unique brand and story before you can determine how best to represent that in a photo, video, etc. If part of your story is your commitment to contemporary music, but all of your videos feature you playing Bach, then there’s a disconnect there.
The latter will of course depend on what you can spend on these assets, but even if you’ve got a limited budget, there are ways to get high-quality tools without breaking the bank.
Even though we work in music, we still live in a visual world. When it comes to promoting yourself, the reality is that you’ll probably be seen before you’re heard, and that’s why your photos are so important. People will judge you (both consciously and unconsciously) based on what they see, and will act upon those judgments, so you need good photos that visually represent your music and personality.
For instance, are you fun-loving and easy-going? You probably don’t want photos of yourself dressed all in black, with dramatic lighting and pensive stares into the abyss. If you’re a performer, do you want your instrument in the photo or not? If you’re a composer, do you have scores with you? Will you wear formal or informal clothing?
Your photos should depict to some degree what people will encounter in your music, so think about your story and how you want to tell it (Post 1) before you invest the time and money in photos.
Ideally you should have 3-5 promotional photos, including a headshot for programs. Things to keep in mind:
- You want a mix of portrait and landscape images.
- Ideally at least one photo has some blank space where writing can be placed for marketing materials, album covers, social media banners, etc.
- You can have black & white images, but I recommend focusing on color.
- You want to keep an easily shareable folder of your photos (Dropbox is great, and throw in a copy of your bio too!), including sub-folders that have the photos in Hi-resolution JPEG (for printing, newspaper/magazines, programs, etc.), Low-resolution JPEG (for websites, social media, emailing to people), and TIFF (super high-resolution, for billboards, posters, etc. – these won’t be used often, but good to have when this degree of quality is available).
BUDGET: Champagne and Caviar
A full-day, professional photo shoot can run well over $5,000-10,000, and can include the following:
- Photographer (obviously)
- Assistants (to help with lighting, setup, etc.)
- Hair & Makeup (can be combined into one person sometimes)
- Stylist (they will bring their own clothes, or borrow from showrooms/fashion houses)
- Studio rental (unless the photographer has their own space)
For a shoot of this scale, you’ll want to work closely with the photographer in the lead-up, sending a “mood board” of images that inspire you and that you’d like them to keep in mind during the shoot. If you have a clear concept in mind, then the more that you can communicate to the photographer beforehand the better, as they can then assemble a team that can best realize that vision.
If the photo shoot is being paid for by a record label, presenter, or other entity, then you’ll likely sacrifice some of your own personal vision, but still don’t be afraid to speak up—ultimately, these photos are a representation of you and need to feel accurate in that regard.
You’ll also want to negotiate how many finished, edited photos you will get from the shoot, and what type of usage license you have for those photos (some will charge extra if you want to sell the photos, or use them on CDs/books/other merch that will be for sale).
BUDGET: PB&J Everyday
If you don’t have enough cash on hand for the full-on David LaChapelle treatment, fear not—there are plenty of options.
- Professional photographers: Ask friends and colleagues whom they’ve used, and also ask what they paid (if you’re comfortable doing so), so that you have a sense of what to say when the photographer asks for your budget. The range will vary widely here, but if you hire a younger talent that’s just starting out, then you can often negotiate a lower rate and also get more finished photos out of them.
- Use a friend: Instead of paying for a professional photographer, you could use a friend (or friend-of-a-friend) who is a solid amateur photographer and just pay them a few hundred bucks (or treat them to dinner or a bottle of nice Scotch) to shoot you. Pro-tip: bring someone else along to hold a reflector to fill in any shadows on your face.
- Freelancers: If you don’t have friends (sorry) then other options are to ask local university film and photo departments, or go on websites like UpWork or Fiverr to find cheap freelancers; just go through their photo portfolios beforehand to make sure you like their work.
- Equipment rental: If the photographer doesn’t have a pro-level camera, you can easily find a local photography store that will rent you top-of-the-line SLRs and lenses for very affordable day rates, so there’s no excuse to skip professional equipment. You can also buy various lighting and backdrop setups on Amazon, and then just return them after the shoot for a refund.
- Locations: You can use an apartment or home if you have access, a rooftop can work wonders in an urban environment, or just go outside and find a non-populated area (though city parks can sometimes be risky as officials might stop you or issue a ticket).
Whatever route you choose, just make sure that your photos are as professional as possible, and don’t look like you set up an iPhone on a table in your bedroom. Even a few hundred dollars can get you fantastic images that will carry you through the early stages of your career.
A note about post-production
Looking beautiful is nice, but being airbrushed to within an inch of your life can be a dangerous proposition. Photographers can do anything in post-production these days, but if you look completely different from your photos, then when people meet you that’s what’s going to stick in their mind—not your music. So skip the Kim Kardashian treatment, just a minor clean-up is sufficient.
In recent years, video has become one of the most important assets you can have from a promotional standpoint. A good video can be shared easily, used on your website, social media, presenter sites, embedded in articles, and more. It can be a powerful, compelling representation of your music and, if done right, can be useful for years to come.
So please, PLEASE do not have the only video material of yourself be a shaky iPhone video of your recital, shot by your mom in the third row.
There’s no excuse to not have at least a relatively high-quality video of your music in performance, and these days, you can make it happen on a shoestring. Regardless of budget, one thing that’s important to remember: You want to do everything in your power to have a minimum of two cameras shooting footage. That will give a more varied visual and professional feel to the video, and from a practical standpoint it will allow you to cover mistakes or jump edits by switching between the two cameras.
Another note: In general, video is less about the details of the performance, so you can get away with an imperfect interpretation. Audio recordings should have a higher standard here, but a beautiful video of a really good (but not world-beatingly-great) performance is worth keeping and using, since people will mostly view these on computers or phones, and won’t focus obsessively on the minutiae of the performance.
BUDGET: I live at the end of the rainbow and collect pots of gold
As with photo shoots, if you have money to spare then you can make a huge production out of a video shoot—director, multiple cameras, sound team, lighting, space rental, hair/makeup/styling, and more. Unless you have experience with video production, you’ll want to leave the technical details to someone else who can project manage the entire affair, and instead focus on the performance and creative elements, as those are where you should have more say.
BUDGET: A leprechaun took all of my money
You can still get solid video content with a budget of a few hundred dollars, and even one good video can go a long way. Some tips:
- Hire amateur videographers: You can find videographers in a variety of places these days, from the film/media department of your local university, sites like Craigslist, local job boards, or just by asking around. Ultimately, as long as they know how to work the equipment, the footage they get will be professional enough to create a solid end-product with a competent editor.
- Rent equipment: As with photo shoots, you can affordably rent a pair of digital SLR cameras with a wide angle and portrait lens, two tripods, and a solid portable sound recording setup, for very affordable rates at your local photo/video store.
- Locations: You’d be surprised at where you can get a good-looking video. Rehearsal rooms, apartments, basements, backyards…obviously the more interesting the space the better, but if you don’t have the budget to rent something then go with what you have access to and focus the footage on the performance and performers by using lenses with tighter focal lengths.
- Editing: You can learn a lot about editing (and shooting for that matter) online via YouTube and education sites like SkillShare, and both FinalCut and Adobe Premiere are very user-friendly editing programs. That said, you can also hire editors for very affordable rates on sites like UpWork and Fiverr. As long as you like their previous work, they should be able to edit a two-camera music video in a few hours (though definitely make sure you use someone who has experience with music videos).
People are always looking for video content these days, so if you can’t get someone else to pay for your video production then it’s worth investing a bit of money and doing it yourself – even if just to get a video of your most compelling piece or performance (or just a movement or excerpt). It’ll go a long ways towards getting yourself out there.
I’ll speak more on this at length in Post 4, which will deal entirely with recordings. For now, suffice it to say that you want to be careful when it comes to audio assets, as they are the purest representation of your art form (and your business, given that you’re a professional musician). If you’re not ready to invest here, then hold off and create a few videos instead, as you can get more promotional use out of them in the short term, and the bar is lower in terms of people judging the sound and performance.
Wiser minds than my own have written on this subject, and there’s not much I can add to those words other than just to say that your bio will always be a negotiation between factual information about yourself that should be included to show your history, achievements, and the momentum of your career, and the more descriptive elements that speak to your unique brand and story, and why people should care about you and your music.
One other note: it’s worth having a short and a long bio on hand for each season, as both will have different uses.
Once you’ve got a bunch of great assets, you need to pull them all together, and that’s where your website comes in.
First things first: YOU NEED A WEBSITE. And it must be fast, functional, and responsive (meaning it looks good whether on a desktop, tablet, or mobile device).
This is not optional. A website is where you can curate and present your music and brand in a space that you control, and it gives you the ability to filter the content around yourself so only the best is on display.
With the options available to you, there’s no excuse not to have your own website at this point, as it can be built for free and maintained for a few dollars a month.
BUDGET: My swimming pool is full of gold coins
I don’t care if you are literally Daddy Warbucks, personally I don’t think you should spend more than a few thousand dollars on a website. As a musician, there are limited functionalities that you need from a site. To have someone custom-code a site from scratch is simply overkill at this point; you’re not building the next Facebook here. You should save that money to invest in social media or better assets. Or buying a solid gold donkey statue.
What’s most important is to have a content management system that you can update easily to add concerts, news, press quotes, etc. And you’ll want most if not all of the following pages:
- HOMEPAGE: I advocate for a scrolling homepage that includes snippets of key info from other areas of the site (a few news items, upcoming performances, some key press quotes, photos, videos, social media, etc.). The more people have to click, the more you’ll lose them, so you want as much info available to them the second they land on your site.
- ABOUT: Here’s where you can put your bio, other personal info, and a link to your press kit (hi-res photos, bio text, link to videos, etc.). If you have special projects, those can also go here or on their own page.
- REPERTOIRE/WORKS: If you’re a performer, it can be useful for presenters to be able to see a list of what you play. And if you’re a composer, you’ll definitely want a page with info on all of your compositions, including links to score rentals, recordings, video and audio samples, etc.
- NEWS: Here you can have posts about big performances, projects, or announcements. You’ll want to add in something every few months at least, just to show that things are happening on your end. These don’t have to be long blog posts; they can simply be a headline and a few sentences, plus photos or videos if you like.
- SCHEDULE: Here you can list concerts (or performances of your music), with some brief info and a link to where people can purchase tickets. This is the most important page to update, as most people are going to come to your site to learn where they can experience you live.
- MEDIA: Photos/Videos/Recordings – these can each have their own independent pages, or can be put on a single page with different sections, depending on how much of each you have. But you want people to be able to see and hear the beautiful assets you’ve created (again, only select the best of each), feel that you’re a professional who cares about how you are represented, and engage with your music via these assets.
- PRESS: This is where you list recent reviews/interviews/pull-out quotes. Essentially it exists to show that people are talking about you and that your career has traction. This will be mostly for presenters and industry people visiting your site, so they can see what kinds of outlets are covering you. If you’re a young artist with no major press coverage yet, skip this page for now.
- CONTACT: If you have booking, management, or PR, you want to list them here so people can reach out to them directly about you. You also want a contact form leading to your personal email address (or representative) so that people can get in touch directly – don’t list your actual personal email on the site though; you don’t want strangers to have access to that.
If you have those pages, you’re basically covered in terms of the info people would come to your site to get. You can of course add other pages around different aspects of your career, extra-musical interests, charities and causes, etc., but these are the core functionality pages you need in there.
BUDGET: I live in a van down by the river
Thanks to glorious advances in modern technology, you no longer need need to hire someone to build you a custom site. And if you want someone else to do it for you, you should be able to get someone to build you a great site for under a thousand dollars.
There are numerous DIY website platforms out there, but for the moment Squarespace is BY FAR the easiest to use. Wix and Weebly are both far less polished and can lead to messy, amateur-looking sites. Webflow is more complex and customizable, but is probably much too complicated for most artists.
I recommend building off of one of the templates on Squarespace – it’s very user-friendly, tightly coded, and easy to update. Downsides are that you have limited customizability, and Squarespace sites can look similar (though a lot of tweaking can be done on the Style Editor section). You’ll have to pay $150-200 in hosting each year, but that’s true of any website.
WordPress is another platform that people often use (my own company included). It’s far more powerful than Squarespace/Wix/Weebly, and infinitely more customizable, but it’s much less user-friendly if you have no experience with web development and design. And you have to constantly update it to avoid potential security breaches, so if you don’t know how to do that then you should avoid WordPress, or hire a developer to build and manage the site. (Again, you can find very affordable options on UpWork for this, and don’t need to spend more than a few thousand dollars here.)
These are the core assets that you need to effectively promote your music, both via publicity and social media, as well around your performances via presenter pages. Even if you’re at the very start of your career, it’s worth investing a minimum amount money to get these done as professionally as possible, as they will make a major difference in how you are perceived, and whether people take you and your music seriously before even hearing a single note.
I’ll conclude the series next week with a separate note on recordings and how to promote them. Until then, my internet friends…