Not long ago I was introduced to a New York voice teacher, an ex-singer who had kind of a half-baked career and is still looking for someone to blame for it. When she found out that I worked for OPERA NEWS, she said, "Oh ... well, we all know how you get into that magazine, don't we?"
"Actually, no," I said. "How do you get into it?"
"Oh, come on — everyone knows that the singers' publicists pay for that kind of coverage."
Well, that's news to me. In the twenty-two years that I have worked for OPERA NEWS, I've witnessed many jaw-dropping incidents with people who work in the music business, but never has a publicist offered to pay to get a client into the magazine's pages. Who knows how people get these ideas about what goes on behind the scenes at our publication? If publicists paid to get their clients into the magazine, does anyone honestly think I'd still be living in a small one-bedroom apartment and planning budget trips on Expedia? But this little episode did get me to thinking about why people talk so much about music publicists, assigning them such a significant role in the way the business works.
I'll tell you something: many of them are quite insignificant. What's more, many of them are quite unnecessary.
Now, institutional publicists can do a great deal of good. Large symphony orchestras and opera companies need good P.R. and marketing people, and they can be of enormous benefit to the singers who perform with those organizations. (I'm not so sure about some of the smaller organizations: there's one group in New York that changes publicists the way I change rolls of paper towels, and it never seems to make any difference.)
But I think that every single one of my OPERA NEWS colleagues agrees with me on this point: an individual singer or a conductor has the greatest need of a publicist when the career has grown so unwieldy, so complicated by millions of details, that a publicist can act as kind of a combination of clearing house and production stage manager. A lot of singers — younger ones, especially — sign on with publicists because they are under the impression that publicists will bring them greater visibility and that greater visibility will yield more work. Back in the day when cultural departments in media outlets ran wider and deeper than they do now, and when everyone was reading the same magazines and newspapers and watching the same T.V. shows, that might have been the case. But the whole media scene has changed so dramatically. I'm not a member of the Greatest Generation, and I hate to sound like one, lecturing those darned kids on the importance of a proper work ethic. But: the best way to secure more work for yourself, to build your career, is by showing up on time for rehearsals, knowing your music, performing your heart out, not making a pest of yourself with management — in other words, doing your job. That way, you have at least a fighting chance of being re-engaged.
Whether you are a young singer or one in mid-career, a publicist really can't help you get work. If you are a young singer, what most publicists are going to do is charge an exorbitant monthly fee. Most likely you will be charged every time the publicist has lunch with someone like me for the purpose of pitching a story. One thing I think a lot of young singers don't understand is that a lot of editors and writers keep their eyes open — they can spot young talent and develop an interest in it without some paid handmaiden spoon-feeding information to them.
Now, I know that this is not always the case. There are some editors who rely heavily on publicists to supply not only the story idea, but the whole package — the writer included. I think this is a horrifying practice: at OPERA NEWS, we tend to resist the idea of the publicist recommending a writer, because we automatically assume that what we're going to get is a piece that the publicist has unduly influenced.
There are good publicists around, too — smart, seasoned pros who really know how to pitch a story and don't whine if you say no. But I'm afraid that they're outnumbered by the publicists who don't do their homework, pitch story ideas that have appeared in the magazine only a few months earlier, or alienate the editors by trying to use various forms of bullying or emotional blackmail to get their way. I'm not going to mention any names, not even the names of the good ones, because if I do, the "others" will be calling me wanting to know why their names were included, and why they thought I always liked them, and wondering what they've done to offend me and how they might make it up.
The music business is in a shambles, and it simply can't — or shouldn't — support the number of publicists who have hung out a shingle for themselves. So, especially to those struggling young artists, I would say: use that money that you were saving for a monthly P.R. commission to hit that sale at Barneys or Bloomingdales. Buy your grandmother that Three Irish Tenors CD she's seen advertised on TV. Hire someone to teach you how Wozzeck really goes.
— BRIAN KELLOW