You’ve Got Mail!
BY JOHNNY MNEMONIC
Before I get started, a belated thanks and apology to BLURT. The thank-you part is for allowing me such a forum, which the editor pledges will be published sans filtering, censoring or editorial tinkering. [Oh really, John? –Tinkering Ed.] The apology, of course, is for being the slack-ass goofball that I am and essentially disappearing for over a year and not filing a single missive during that period. I’d like to tell you that I got married, my mother died, or that I was in rehab, but none of that would be true. Shit happens, people get busy with other stuff (like, uh, trying to pay the rent by taking paying gigs), and I can’t promise it won’t happen again. But for now, as the powers that be decreed last week, I’m back and I hope to keep this “Music Journalism 101” column a regular thing.
Okay. Although I’ve been a so-called music critic since the ‘80s, for the past five years I’ve occupied myself primarily with electronic media and marketing, including a semi-gratifying stint in London working with MTV networks. Still, I kept at least a toe or two in the rock-write biz in order to (a) stay current with musical trends, and (b) keep the free swag coming. Something I never anticipated, however, was how the very landscape of music journalism would change, and not necessarily in a positive way. I’ve touched upon this in some of my previous blog entries, so this time I’d like to focus on one of my pet peeves, one that I suspect is shared by this publication’s editor as well as its staffers: the mass-mailed p.r. pitch.
Back when I got started in the business, the Internet was still but a moist glint in Al Gore’s eye. I actually was an early email adopter, getting online in the early ‘90s and having great fun forwarding clever jokes to everyone on my listserv. But at that point, since probably less than a quarter of the population even knew what email was (that would all change with that stupid Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan movie), the business of music promotion was still conducted as it always had, via snail mail and phone call follow-ups. While time-consuming and even occasionally expensive—you youngsters out there with unlimited calling plans probably don’t even know what the term “long distance charge” means—the more personal touch engendered in particular by the phone conversations between publicists and journalist served to cement a long of mutually beneficial long-term relationships. Just ask some of the older SXSW regulars who also came up through the ranks in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s.
No longer. The accepted practice in 2014 is the bulk-mail/mass-mailed pitch, and if you have read this far you are no doubt nodding your head when I note that fully ¾ of the daily accumulation in my inbox comprises such spam, er, unsolicited pitches. Granted, this is probably what we’d term “a necessary evil” given the unwieldiness of publicists cold-calling journalists in the era of Caller I.D. and Blocking; it might even be considered the tradeoff for getting all those free CDs and albums in the mail, not to mention guest-list privileges for concerts and access to the artists that we are looking to write about an interview.
Still, it can be aggravating as fuck. Particularly when the emails fall into certain categories.
For lack of any better terminology, I’ll classify each of the following p.r. pitch excerpts as Sin Of Presumption, Sin Of Smarm (otherwise known as Sin Of False Flattery), Sin Of Blatant Falsehood, Sin Of Redundancy, Sin Of Spelling/Grammar, Sin Of Bait-and-Switch, and, as a generally catch-all category, Sin Of Annoyance. What they all have in common: just as nominal Internet trends become memes through virality, as soon as one fledgling p.r. agent or two adopts these strategies, scores more notice and follow suit, sometimes throwing in little variations here and there but essentially replicating the original style of pitch or salutation—and to such a degree of ubiquity that you’d be forgiven for wondering if somewhere there is a lone person who writes every press release in circulation and everyone else simply licenses them from him. (Cue up that old joke about the Internet actually being a fat guy living in his parents’ basement in New Jersey.) Bottom line: you know that saying love the sinner, hate the sin? In this scenario, fuhgettaboutit. Assuming these are in fact sins, then I hate the people who keep committing ‘em, too, every single goddam one of you.
“Dear Mr. Mnemonic: Thank you for having a magazine that truly champions new music—you are the lifeblood of the indie artist. XYZ ’s [not an actual magazine or website name] elegantly and colorfully written reviews capture the essence of emerging musical artists and offer the reader the delight of discovering something new and special. [Insert generic query + pitch.]
That one obviously falls under the heading of Sin Of Smarm or Sin Of False Flattery. It’s more transparent than an Oscar acceptance speech in which the winner thanks everyone involved with the movie right down to the set janitor. Well, of course I think I write elegantly and colorfully, not to mention pride myself in championing new music. But couldn’t the publicist be more specific and tell me which writing he or she is so smitten by? (I don’t even “have” a magazine; I just write for ‘em. Odd syntax, no? Perhaps the pitch was outsourced to some call center in a country where English isn’t the first language?)
“Dear Mr. Mnemonic: I loved your recent elegant and colorful profile of [artist name redacted] because it truly demonstrated an appreciation for his music. Well done, sir! I think you’ll likewise enjoy my new client, [artist name redacted], who has a similarly compelling backstory and whose music is…”
I had to ask. Clever, yes, but that pitch qualifies for the Sin Of Blatant Falsehood. Just as web-crawling bots are always on the lookout for valid email addresses that can be added to master spam lists, there’s a certain breed of p.r. flack who culls writers’ names from previously published stories and reviews but doesn’t actually read the stories and reviews other than noting what band was being written about. That detail is inserted into a False Flattery pitch and voila! we have a faux-personalized pitch aimed directly at moi, who is apparently too dumb to realize I’m being shamelessly manipulated. Just to be an asshole, I have on occasion emailed back to ask the person what specific aspects of the aforementioned story/review seemed to stand out the most. It works: they never write back after that.
“Dear Johnny – I hope you enjoyed the weekend. Just circling back to see if you received my previous email about [band name redacted] and their new LP, [album title redacted]. The album, which sees the group further refine their contemporary take on goth rock and darkwave, comes out on April 8 via [label name redacted].”
Sin Of Presumption: This one is the type of pitch that inevitably arrives early on a Monday morning, hence the “I hope you enjoyed the weekend” intro—which, I hasten to add, starts to ping my Sin Of Annoyance radar when I have to read it or a variation thereof over and over at the start of every week. It’s kind of like a followup to a followup, with the phrase “just circling back” a dead giveaway, in that I’m being pitched on an already extant pitch, which I probably ignored initially in the hopes that I wouldn’t be harassed about those contemporary goth/darkwave rockers again. (I have never written about goth or darkwave in my entire career, other than a few reviews of Cleopatra Records releases back when that silly little label was dabbling briefly in space-rock and psych.) I ask you: do you think that I’m feeling guilty about not responding to the first pitch and sitting here hoping that you’ll pitch me a second time so I can atone for deleting the earlier email?
(Aside: The weekly Friday afternoon corollary is equally bad, although for some reason a lot of folks are in a better mood on Friday afternoons than Monday mornings, so anecdotal evidence suggests that the Friday pitch is a better gambit: “Hi Johnny, before everyone takes off for the weekend, wanted to make sure you had a chance to hear…” etc. etc. Please don’t interpret that as a suggestion. Me, I love bulk deleting emails before closing up shop for the weekend.)
(Aside Pt. II: The whole “circling back/previous email” stuff appears to have been crafted by a psychologist, because it clearly aims to trigger a subtle guilt reflex on the part of the recipient. Some pitches are actually blatant about it, using phrases like “haven’t heard back from you yet” or “making sure you saw the previous email” or even “could you please take the time to let me know what you thought…”. Beyond the pale, yes, but increasingly common.)
“Dude! Thank you SO MUCH for the GREAT review of [redacted] and the link. We passed it along to the artist and her label and they were SO THRILLED they IMMEDIATELY put it out on her social media. Do you think you might want to interview her for a feature as well? Oh, and while I have you here, I’m working with a new client, [redacted], who I’m sending you a private link to an audio stream. I really think it will be up your alley—what would you think about a review?
This is the somewhat complicated Sin Of Bait-and-Switch. In the retail world it’s a kind of legalized false advertising, whereby you get people in the doors based on a tantalizing pitch, and then once they are there you try to upsell them with an entirely different product, sometimes even having “just sold out” of the advertised item but “happen to have a special on” this other piece of junk. You can see the genius dynamic behind the strategy, because the writer has already become semi-engaged in the process: I did, after all, like the first artist enough to write about her, so there’s actually a chance that I am in fact interested in talking to her as well; and with that foot in the door the publicist can toss out a secondary “softer” pitch. Well, aside from the fact that this whole thing smacks of multiple sins, including Redundancy, Smarm and Presumption (and possibly even Grammar), it’s galling to think that I have inadvertently set in motion the proverbial never-ending-email-chain simply because I was enthusiastic enough to write about the artist and then nice enough to send the publicist a link to the review (or, in some cases, sent a PDF or mailed a photocopy, old-school style). I realize that a foot in the door is sometimes the only opening someone is gonna get regarding the second artist, but once in awhile etiquette should dictate that a simple thank-you is not only sufficient, but the appropriate response.
Oh, and never write “while I have you here” in an email. This isn’t a telephone conversation. And you’re increasing the likelihood that there never will be one, either.
“Hey Johnny! Check out this SoundCloud link of the album [redacted] from the stellar West Coast band, [redacted]. The album, out via [redacted] on March 28th, has a 70’s rock sound to it mashed with contemporary rock elements. The singer has been compared to Matt Bellamy of Muse and Freddy Mercury…”
Sin Of Spelling/Grammar: Now, before you get all don’t-be-so-nit-picky on me, keep in mind that while, yes, I have done my share of copy-editing in the past and therefore spotting goofs becomes, to a degree, second nature. Note that when I worked as a copy editor I also dealt with a huge experience gap among the contributors since they included everyone from 50-year old seasoned veterans of the roccrit biz to very green 20-somethings who had barely gotten their feet wet at their college newspapers. I can be pretty tolerant of writers’ foibles and peculiarities, in other words. Not so with press releases. Look at it this way: if you are sending out a pitch, you are representing a client who is paying you for your professionalism, and that includes not distracting the recipient of the pitch with visual hiccups such as the four in the excerpt above. They are (1) the lead singer of Queen’s first name misspelled; (2) incorrect apostrophe usage for the numeric “seventies” (it’s not possessive, but plural, and therefore requires an abbreviation apostrophe, i.e. ‘70s, not 70’s; (3) unnecessary comma after the term “west coast band”—this drives me up the fucking wall, period; and (4) incorrect usage of the term “mashed”—while I suspect the likely culprit for that goof derives from the ubiquity of the word “mashup,” anybody with any grammatical sense will know that the writer meant to say “meshed.”
So I deleted the pitch before I’d even gotten to the second paragraph. FAIL. Not an epic fail. But a fail just the same. It’s illiterate and borderline incoherent. Allow me to recap: you are getting paid for this. Important people are reading your stuff, along with even more unimportant people. Do you think if you worked at a bank your boss would tolerate sending out error-strewn missives to the bank’s top depositors and clients? Nope. You’d be back working the Burger King drive-through window in a heartbeat.
Come to think of it, Burger King employees make more money that 90% of the music writers I know. Food for thought, friends. But that’s a topic to be dealt with in a future column.
Johnny Mnemonic is the pseudonym (duh) of a “highly-regarded” national writer with, he advises us, over a quarter-century’s worth experience working as a music critic, reporter, editor and television executive. We’ve never met him face-to-face, and he further advises he will be delivering his blogs to us via the “double blind drop-box method,” whatever that is, to ensure his anonymity. You can contact him via this magazine or simply by posting a comment below. His Twitter handle is @JohnnyMnemonicX
Here are links to his previously published blogs, originally written in 2012.