The following is a transcript of a recent installment of our “Industry Insiders” open house series. Hosted by Academic Advisor Eric Zawada, this interview featured special guest Michael Marotta, co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Vanyaland.
Eric Zawada: Hey, everybody. Thanks so much for joining us today. We’re really excited to have Michael here to join us to talk to you guys more about branding and getting publications to notice your work and getting labels to click and listen to your music.
Today, we have Michael Marotta with us, the founder of the award-winning online music magazine Vanyaland. Before launching Vanyaland, Michael was the music editor at the Boston Phoenix, the music director at WFNX.com (which was an alternative radio station here in Boston), and the social media director for Boston Calling Music Festival. Today, we’re going to be talking about marketing and branding as an artist and what some of the best strategies are in terms of getting your music heard.
Michael Marotta: Hey, what’s up, guys? Thanks for joining us today. It’s very exciting to be here at Berklee Online. I’ve got a bunch of things I wanted to talk about, if everyone wants to go over to vanyaland.com and check out the site as we talk. I’m not going to really talk about anything too specific based on what kind of content we have up there; it’s just going to be an overview of what we do. My partner Paul Armstrong and I started Vanyaland in May of 2013, and we launched two months after the Boston Phoenix was closed.
The Boston Phoenix was an alternative weekly here in Boston that was around for decades, and for whatever reason, the publisher Stephen Mindich decided to call it a day and retire down to Florida and kind of leave us all in a lurch. I was actually covering SXSW when the Phoenix closed. They did not tell me that the Phoenix was closing when I flew down to Austin to cover the festival. I was told by my editor the day before to assemble my crew and to get everyone in the hotel room, and they were going to deliver the news to us.
Two months later, I launched Vanyaland. I saw a real opening to fill a void here in Boston with alternative media, covering independent artists, bands coming to town, all sorts of stuff. I think it’s really reflective of an overall climate right now where it’s a great time for independent media. You’ll always have your Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The New York Times. You’ll always have major players in online media, especially pertaining to music. You’ll always have your Pitchforks, your Stereogums, your Consequence of Sounds, but you’ll also have a ton of other websites that you can use, and as an independent musician or a young band, can really take advantage of.
There are a lot of blogs out there writing stuff, and as we unfortunately learned in the presidential election, people don’t really care where their sources come from. You want to generate links for press for yourself, you want to generate publicity, and you can do that in all sorts of ways by utilizing independent media.
With that in mind, I want to talk about some ways to build your own online presence. By now, every aspiring musician needs to have a very strong online presence. There are different points of promotion that I always like to point to when I discuss these sorts of things. It really breaks down into your music, your identity, and basically, your press releases and what you present to media as yourself.
I like to say that your music should aways be readily available within two clicks. In a perfect world, news editors and music writers can sit around all day and seek out music themselves. This is just not the case. A lot of people are freelancers. A lot of people do other things. So what you want to do is be able to present your music as quickly as possible to these people. If I’m clicking here on a website, and I can’t get to a band’s music, I’d probably lose interest and move on. Most journalists have a sense of FOMO. We certainly have a sense of this fear of missing out, but time is also of the essence as well, and if I can’t get to your music, then I’m probably going to move on to something else.Your music should aways be readily available within two clicks. Click To Tweet
You want to always have your music readily available, whether that’s through Bandcamp, SoundCloud, or Spotify. Having these links readily available in an email pitched to an editor is super, super helpful. Above all, I’m going to always hype music on Vanyaland that I think is really good, and I don’t know if the music is good or not if I can’t hear it. That’s pretty much the main thing — I probably field as many pitches from independent artists as I do high-paid publicists. It doesn’t really matter from where I sit who’s doing the pitching. It really comes down to whether or not we like the music.
Just this morning, I received a pitch from a person who runs a DIY loft space in Jamaica Plain called Magnolia, which is shutting down because the building owner is raising the building and building luxury condos on its base. She put together a playlist compilation of all the bands that have played in the Magnolia loft over the past three years then sent me a bunch of information on the loft itself, her ideas for this compilation, and it all leads into a send-off finale party that they’re doing. She included all this information in just one basic email pitch, which caught my attention.
Everything was there. I corresponded with her, sent a couple of emails back and forth, asked her a couple of questions. We literally did the interview over email, and this morning, we have feature on the site, which came together in a couple of hours. If you don’t have the money to pay a publicist to send your pitches out to everyone, that’s not going to be a deterrent in getting your stuff heard and written about.
When I talk about identifying points of promotion, your music is obviously the main thing. That’s the main focus that you want to present to people. Having high resolution press photos and having a visual identity is also just as strong. When I was at the Boston Phoenix, we used to put together calendar pages, and the calendar pages used to run about five or six pages deep, and it was just all gray-inked. It was all basically gray pages except for one photo on the top corner. This was for show listings, dance parties, club events, different things like that. We always gave that one photo in the corner to the most visually appealing image that came in. It didn’t necessarily mean it was the coolest show or the best band. It was what jumped off the page, and that really holds true in digital media as well.
People click with their eyes. People scroll through. As they’re scrolling through Instagram or Twitter, they’re drawn to a visual identity. If you are in a band and you don’t have proper press photos, it’s going to limit your ability to get publicity, especially from independent media companies that thrive on eyeballs and thrive on clicks. If you go to Vanyaland and you see our front page scroll, everything is visually-striking. We try to run as high definition photos as we can, and really, the photo is just as important as anything else that we write about because, again, people click with their eyes. People will see something visually striking, and they’ll be drawn in that way.
Another point of promotion is pulling together a press release. What makes a perfect press release, from the subject line, is including all of the information that you want to present to an editor. Always think that the person you’re pitching has maybe 30 seconds to digest everything that you’re saying. We don’t need the band’s total backstory, but if you have a new song and you think we should hear it, present that to us. Don’t give the whole backstory of your band. Think about having about 30 seconds to catch someone’s attention and what you want to put in there. That includes a photo. It could include a quote about the song. It could be a quote from the director if you’re presenting a video. Obviously, you want to provide links to those tracks, whether they lead to Bandcamp or to SoundCloud — you want anything that makes it very easy for the person on the receiving end to find your music, hear your music, digest your music, download your music, and check it out.
With that in mind, I wanted to also discuss how to get the attention of someone like me or a music writer. What everyone should do is identify who in your town writes about music. Go through all of your local blogs. Go through all your local publications. Identify who is it that may write about music.
I always say with Vanyaland, I get dozens and dozens of pitches per day, and it’s tough for me to really parse through everything. There’s tons of stuff that I miss. I get hundreds of emails a day that I just don’t open because I don’t have the time to field all these things. But if, someone identifies one of the writers of our site, for example Victoria Wasylak who is our assistant news editor, and you pitch her, and she comes to me, I’ll pretty much approve anything that she pitches. She’s fielding a lot less volume, but she has a direct line to me as an editor. That could be an easy way to get into a site.
Editors are overworked, overburdened, and probably cranky, but writers are really the hungry ones that are fueling a site like Vanyaland or a site like Stereogum. Find those individual writers who want to then turn around to their editor and say, “I just found the next cool band. We’ve got to write about this before anyone does,” because they will be your best friend.
Say you’re a Boston doom metal band and you’re playing a show in Chicago. Try to find people who write about doom mental in Chicago. Try to canvas that Illinois market and find people that write about metal. You don’t want to pitch a hip hop project to someone that writes about metal. You want to try to find someone who can get what you do. It’s very important that you don’t pitch the wrong type of writer. You want someone to understand your music. You want someone to understand what you’re about, what your background is, where your influences come from, and you want to have someone convey your style properly. Part of the way of doing this is identifying who to pitch.
I get pitches sometimes where I’ll admit to the band, “I have no idea about this stuff.” I had a country band pitch me something the other day. I said, “I really like this, but I know nothing of the sort.” We had a long phone conversation about where they were coming from. It was a country band in Boston and it led to a pretty good piece. In my piece, I admitted I’ve no idea what’s going on in this scene in Boston, but there’s some movement here and there. Here’s this cool band, and we’re basing this pretty much on merit. Rather than, “Hey, here’s a cool country band,” it was, “Hey, these songs are good.”
Understand who you’re pitching to, understand who you’re trying to reach out to, and refer back to those points of promo that you should have in your pitch. You should be constantly building a database based on region of who will write about music in what town, which sites are receptive to this sort of thing, and which sites will be open to writing about you. You probably won’t be able to cold pitch a Pitchfork and have them write a feature about you, but there are tons of sites in New York that will give you the time of day, and if you generate press and generate buzz from those smaller independent sites, it can lead to getting the attention of a larger, more national site, and that will help your brand grow over time.
Building relationships is key. Don’t fear rejection. Don’t worry if no one gets back to you. You should probably hear back from one or two of every 50 emails that you send, but when you do get a bite, really try to build and foster that relationship as someone that may not just write about your song today, but maybe write about your video in two months and may write about your album in six months and then write about your show when you come to their town later on. If you’re going on tour, you want to have these relationships so you can invite these writers to your shows. If you’re a band that’s based in Boston, and you’re playing in Nashville in two weeks, you may not have any fans to invite to the show, but you want to invite writers, you want to invite media people. You want to invite people that can echo what you’re doing and sound the alarm to have people alerted to what you do even though you’re not based in that city.
Beyond that, I recommend basic networking: going out and meeting people. I’m here at Berklee today, and I’ve been to many Berklee events in the past where we’ve networked and met people one-on-one. Obviously going through email and doing things digitally is a very cold way of doing business, and it’s not a very human way of contact and communication, but it’s the first step. If you know that there are certain things going on in your city that are tastemaker events and that have networking capability, go to these things and make friends and be friendly. Be at the bar and smile. No one likes an asshole, and no one likes a person who thinks they’re amazing. You can have all the confidence in the world, but networking goes a long way in 2018, especially when it comes to independent musicians. That’s my brain dump for everyone. If anyone has questions they would like to throw at me, fire away.
I’m launching my own record label. Is it a good idea to have a media platform of my own so that I can not only write about artists on that platform, but also collaborate with other writers from other social media platforms?
Absolutely. It’s definitely worth a shot to have your own platform. You seem to have everything else lined up. Like I said, people very rarely pay attention to what type of links they’re sharing. If you can control the narrative of your band and your artist based on your own creativity, and you can spread the links that way through Facebook, through Instagram, through Twitter, then you’re really controlling that narrative from the top down. You don’t really need to lean on independent media. Every now and again, you want someone else to say how good you are because if you keep telling people how good you are, eventually, they’ll tune you out but if you’re able to shape your own narrative, and instead of just blasting out your press release to others, if you can build it in-house and send it out that way, I think people will be very receptive to it. You can, like I said, control the narrative of the artist that you’re presenting.
What is something you see artists doing wrong when they market and brand themselves?
I don’t know if it’s necessarily something artists are doing wrong, but I think there’s an impatience that comes with the territory of life in 2018. We live in a world of instant satisfaction, instant gratification, instant likes, instant shares. I think that sometimes, people grow impatient after a couple of months if there isn’t a bite on what you’re putting out. I think if you’re over the age of about 30, you are really conditioned to think that an album release base is the be-all, end-all of promotion. Back then, when an album came out, everyone lined up. They went to the store and bought the album. Now, an album release date really doesn’t have much meaning at all. You can see that through artists like Beyoncé doing these spontaneous releases and unannounced records, things like that where you’re going to put something out there, and you’re going to let it marinate a little bit. There isn’t going to be this immediate hit the day that you post something online or you put out an album. You’re going to really want to expand this out. Your album should have about a two year plan of how you want to promote it.
I see a lot of artists getting impatient when they don’t have that immediate satisfaction or the immediate response from their fan base that they thought they may have. Be patient with it. Release one single. Understand if you’re releasing an album in January or December, you should have the entire year mapped out of when you want to drop singles, when you want to drop videos, when you want to play live shows, how often you want to play live shows, and just how are you going to present this album as a whole and not grow impatient with if you don’t feel like you’re getting immediate satisfaction.
How does a relatively unknown artist get traction on YouTube?
Very simple: have a video for every single song you put out. It could be a lyric video. It could just be a backdrop. It could be a very slow-moving visual thing. Everyone has friends who are creative. Everyone has friends who are photographers, videographers. Everyone knows someone who’s also looking for the same type of breakthrough for their art. If you’re in a band and you have a friend who’s a visual artist, that visual artist may want to team up with a band to help his or her career as well. Team up with that person and have something on YouTube for every single song that you release.
Is it a good idea to invite other writers from other platforms to guest write about my artist and my platform and allow them to also release that same article on their platform?
Well, it depends. It depends on if you want exclusivity. You have to determine what is your end result, what’s your end goal here? For Vanyaland, obviously, our end goal is generating clicks and generating page views and then turning around and using those numbers to sell those page views to potential advertisers. For artists, you basically want as many people to hear your music as possible. Your ultimate goal is to be heard because the more people that hear you, the more people will respond, the more buzz you’ll able to build — not just on streaming platforms, but when you do go to other cities and perform in these other cities. If you trust these guest writers, if you know that they get where you’re going from, if you trust them to present your music truthfully and honestly, and it aligns with what you are looking to do, then being able to cross-promote on multiple platforms will only help you if you are certain about what they are doing.
Is live streaming content to multiple online platforms for exposure a good idea?
It all depends. If you’re playing at a venue, a venue’s going to want to sell tickets. A venue like Great Scott or O’Brien’s here in Boston, they’re in it for the music. They love what they do and their business is music, but their business is also making money and keeping the lights on, and they’re going to need to sell a certain amount of tickets as well. Reaching out to a venue and talking about a live stream once the venue sells out is an awesome idea. If you’re playing Great Scott, and all of a sudden, tomorrow night, say, Friday night, tickets are sold out in advance. You’ve already packed out the room. Turn around and go to the promoter and say, “Hey, I know we’ve sold all the tickets. Is it possible to reach an even larger audience by allowing us to livestream the show as it happens?” If there are still tickets to be sold, that venue probably won’t want to do that, but if it’s sold out, then they might be into that idea. If you’re playing at SXSW, for instance, who cares about selling tickets because there aren’t any tickets to be sold! It’s obviously an industry event. Livestream every single thing that you do when you’re playing down at SXSW.
If you can give one action item that an artist can start doing today after this chat, what would it be?
Condense and prioritize your pitches to media. Like I touched on earlier, having a very concise, very clear press release and pitch is vital to what we do on the media side of things. If I need to track you down for a photo, I’m probably going to lose interest and move on to something else because there’s no shortage of bands to write about. Truthfully, I shouldn’t even really be saying this, but the easier it is to compile the necessary components for me to put up a post, the more likely it is for that band to get type of media attention.
Do you know of a method of how to increase fan base as a music producer? I’m based in Orange County.
I would say, in Orange County, especially southern California, networking with all their producers. Collaboration is obviously key right now. I think you saw a lot of competitiveness amongst producers 10-15 years ago, whereas now, I think you’re seeing a lot more producers, especially here in Boston, kind of coming together and helping each other out. In the same way that musicians go to each others’ shows, the same kind of role exists for producers to coexist and collaborate, lean on each other’s events, and really, just get the word out there with as much collaboration and cross-promotion as you possibly can.
What turns a good live show into a remarkable one?
Good question. I think it really comes down to your presence on stage, giving everything that you have, if you’re playing for five people or you’re playing for 200. Living in Boston, weather is obviously a factor up here for six months of the year. I think it’s snowing right now as we sit here and discuss! One of the coolest shows that I’ve ever seen was A Place to Bury Strangers at Great Scott in Allston with about 12 other people in the middle of a blizzard. Instead of the band packing it in because no one came to the show because it was snowing out, they put on an amazing show. This was maybe 13, 14 years ago and I’m bringing it up in a session with Berklee Online in 2018. It’s an age-old tale of bringing it when you’re on stage. If you believe in the music and you believe in your product, then it’s up to you to deliver it the way you see fit.
I’m mostly looking at live streaming concerts that are performed right in the studio, live recording behind the scenes, etc. What is your opinion on using Facebook Live for this?
Facebook Live is great for this. Everyone basically has streaming capabilities built into their phones, built into their devices, built into their laptops. Utilize it. Any chance that you get to put your music out there and perform live, I think that’s going to help draw people in. There may be 10 people on the stream on Facebook live today, but there may be 20 the next time you do it. Try to build those numbers. You can be spontaneous and drop these things out of nowhere, but treat it like a show. If you’re going to do an online session Saturday at 3:00, use the next 48 hours to promote that online. Use all social media platforms to promote this thing.
Facebook Live is convenient for many, too. For decades, bands had the struggle of inviting people out to shows, trying to get them out of the houses and into the clubs and paying a cover. With this, you could reach these people without them having to shell out to do so. Stream everything. Create a series. Do a Saturday morning series. Do a hangover session on Sunday mornings as people wake up and they’re going to brunch. Come up with a cool name for it. Bill it. Market it. Do what you can to get people to tune in, and try to build a base that way.
Name the most memorable marketing move or stunt. How did you hear about it?
That’s a good question. Before Vanyaland launched as a media company, it operated as an independent record label called Vanya Records. One thing that I always wanted to do with one of our bands, The New Highway Hymnal, was just put them in the back of a pickup truck and have them play as we drove around Back Bay in Boston blaring out the music. It never happened. I think there are laws that prevented us from doing that at the time.
I don’t think there are any bad marketing stunts. I don’t think there’s any bad marketing move that you could do. We live in such an oversaturated media world that I don’t think anything you do to try to generate attention for your project is going to be frowned upon as long as it’s done in good taste. I know that electropop band Yacht faked leaking a sex tape a couple of years ago. That was poor form. People frowned upon that, and the band got a lot of gruff for that. So that aside, do anything that you can think of outside of the box or outside of the norm to promote your single, your video, your album. There are tons of independent media sites out there that will pick up on it. We live in a very copycat business as well. Anything that one site writes about, there’s a good chance that a lot of other sites are going to write about it as well because no one wants to be scooped. Try to think of anything that you can do to draw attention to yourself outside of the traditional music releasing methods.
Do you have a recommendation for a songwriter pitching songs rather than a performing artist?
Do you mean you are pitching individual songs? If that’s the case, you can go to sites that offer exclusives in exchange for a premiere. You can go to Stereogum and say, “I will promise you this song for 48 hours if you’re looking to premiere it.” If you’re pitching a song, you’re pitching yourself as an artist as well. I mean, this is an investment that you’re taking the time to put in.
Is there a way to work with Vanyaland to help us grow? I’m on your site. I feel like collaborating with you and learning from you would be great. After all, you did say find ways to create and nurture relationships.
Yeah, of course. This isn’t just limited to Vanyaland. This counts for every single site. Go to the “About” page and find out who writes for them. We write about all sorts of music, but if you’re in a doom metal band, search for doom metal on Vanyaland and see if anything comes up and see who wrote about it. Pitch that writer directly. Even if a site doesn’t list someone’s contact, it’s pretty easy to find a way to reach someone. People have pitched me over Twitter direct message, people have pitched me in responses to Instagram stories. Never hold back and never feel that you’re imposing on anyone who does the stuff that we do because we want to hear from you. If someone doesn’t want to hear from you, then they’re not good at what they do.
Eric Zawada: Awesome. All right, guys. Thank you so much for attending. Thank you to Michael from Vanyaland for coming in and giving us all this great information. If you guys have any further questions, you can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also feel free to give us a call at 617-747-2146. Thanks for attending!
Michael Marotta is the editor and co-founder of award-winning online music magazine Vanyaland (4x Boston Music Awards winner; Style of Sound’s 76th most influential website in the world, 2015). He is a music correspondent for NECN’s The Take, and has served as music editor of the Boston Phoenix, music director of WFNX.com, and social media director of Boston Calling Music Festival. He is a longtime Boston-area live music promoter, DJ, and booking agent (Great Scott dance party “the pill”, 2004 to 2013), and in 2011 launched a record label (Vanya Records) to support local artists.
He has been writing about music and pop culture for nearly 20 years, has been published in SPIN, The Guardian, Boston Herald, and Boston Magazine, and has been profiled by the New York Times, Boston Globe, Metro, and Improper Bostonian. He resides in Brookline, Mass.