Blog

Bringing Columbus Musician Funding into Alignment with the Industry - by Andrew Choi

Here's an easy task for you to try out. Look at a major indie music publication's premieres and reviews for a week. Take each artist that is featured, and type the word "publicist" next to the artist name in a Google search. Keep track of the publication over a period of time, and you'll find that with indie music acts, almost without exception, the artists have hired one of only a handful of publicists. Run enough searches, and you'll have a pretty handy guide to who the top 6 American publicist agencies are for indie music. The reliance on publicists was recently highlighted by a major indie publication, who stated that for all intents and purposes, they did not listen to music that did not come from a label or publicist that they already trusted. This is all to say, as an indie musician who wants to "get your name out there", if you do not pay one of the major publicists - i.e., one of the ones that this publication trusts, you will fail.

I'm not here specifically to attack the state of music journalism - that's maybe a battle for another day. But I am here to present a proposal for Columbus musicians as to how to make sense of the music industry circa 2019. Over the past 5 years or so, I've talked with a number of Columbus musicians working on record releases, and the same patterns keep cropping up. Inevitably, I'll suggest that they find a publicist to work with. Inevitably, the musician doesn't have enough money to pay a major publicist for a record release. So they either try to work publicity for the record on their own, or they find some other publicist at a lower price - i.e., not one of the ones that our indie publication friend here "trusts". And inevitably, they don't get their record "out there" as well as they would like. In fact, there have been a few Columbus musicians over the past 5 years that have gotten some more significant media attention. And if you run a Google search, you'll find that there is a rather straightforward pattern that connects up to the list of major publicist agencies mentioned earlier. This is by no means a way of speaking ill of those musicians - many of them are musicians who I respect. The fact that you need to pay a good publicist to get your name out there isn't an issue with the musicians, but it is an issue about inequality. Because the fact of the matter is that many musicians don't have that kind of money to pay a publicist, and that fact shouldn't be the determining factor in why they were not able to get their name out there. And moreover, that fact shouldn't be the reason why many Columbus musicians who are marketable on a larger stage, aren't able to market themselves (and Columbus more broadly) to a bigger audience.

But what if there were a way to equalize that? The Greater Columbus Arts Council provides grants for marketing, found in their Grants & Services Guidelines. However, the marketing support appears to only go up to $1250. If you look at the pricing for some of these "trusted publicists", I would suggest that the lower-bound cost of these services is actually at least $1000-$2000 *per month*, where a record release requires at least a 3-month commitment. As such, it seems like this amount should be increased. (It appears that they could get around this by offering separate grants per member of a group - though this would not work for all music acts.  And the existence of a separate $2000 max grant for "bands" suggests that this isn't possible). Or at the very least, the guidance should be adjusted to make clear that any musician that is able to book a vetted publicist should be eligible for full subsidy through the grants program.  Relatedly the guidance states that "you are required to use Franklin County based vendors or suppliers or demonstrate a compelling need to use non-local services." If the money is to be used for a "trusted" publicist, it seems that this guidance would have to be adjusted.  The guidance is not in step with the music industry as it exists now.

For the guidance on grants for publicity, look at p. 23 ("2019 Pilot: Bands & Ensembles") and p. 29 ("Marketing Support") of the Greater Columbus Arts Council 2019 Grants & Services Guideline. http://www.gcac.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/2019-Grant-Guidelines-FINAL-w-Rubrics.pdf.

If I had the ability to set it up myself, I would suggest a $6000 upper limit, where the publicity is reserved only for full album releases of new material (not EPs), only for musicians who are currently living in Columbus, and only for vetted publicists that have a demonstrable record of publicity. The vetting requirement is important, because the whole idea is that Columbus is trying to actually market its musicians to the world, and it makes no sense to spend the money on people who have no record of doing that. The residence requirement seems important, because the idea is that this would be an actual enticement for musicians to stay in the city. These guidance suggestions also make it so that the city can limit the funds spent to where it has the most impact - full album releases. I would eliminate the current eligibility of expenses for design services, partly because I don't think you get much bang for your buck on that. (I.e., the bands that keep appearing in major publications all have the same publicists - they don't all have the same design services). There would be only a handful of releases that satisfy these guidelines every year, so this wouldn't be a very large expenditure by the city, given what else they've spent money on. As it happens, these publicists do not work with everyone who can pay for such services.

Musicians should be aware of the funds ($1250) currently available to pay for publicity. (The fact that many weren't aware of these funds is surprising).  But they should also either seek to increase the maximum amount offered by the city, or get clarification from the city that more can be offered (say by offering multiple $1250 grants to different band members, similar to what they may have done in the past). Additionally there should be a push to ensure that the funds can be used for non-local or vetted services. As it stands, I think the guidance is out of step with the industry at this time, given that Columbus presumably has the goal of exporting the work of its best musicians.  Finally, there should be some clarification as to whether the Columbus Music Commission can be a source for such funds. If this can be confirmed, then musicians in the city should feel unencumbered by the prospect of releasing a record without having enough money to pay for a proper publicist. Columbus should also see an uptick in the recognition of its musicians in larger publications. And this is, I think, what people want in the end. How else could you advertise a music city to the world except by giving proper attention to the musicians in the city? - Andrew Choi

In his free time, the author performs as St. Lenox. St. Lenox’s most recent record, Ten Fables of Young Ambition and Passionate Love was placed on Best Albums lists at PopMatters and AllMusic for the year 2018. PopMatters calls St. Lenox "a Whitmanian ... full of wry observations about the people and places he encounters and his search for love that capture the old courage teacher's modern sensibility."  AllMusic credits St. Lenox with “some of the most unique and unconventionally thrilling pop music in the late 2010s.”