There’s no such thing as bad publicity, or so the adage goes. True or not, none of us can deny the power and influence of exposure—particularly in the arts. Glossy photos and eye-catching posters function like “Coming Attractions” at the movies—the perfect teaser. The arts stimulate the senses, and the opportunity to create a marketing tactic for your work can be as challenging and fun as creating the work itself.
Step One: Know your product. Create some tools.
Who am I? What is my work all about?
Although artists usually tend to avoid being defined, categorized, or labeled as anything, a certain trait, quality, or perspective that sets your work aside from others is an element that must be highlighted to promote your piece or event. Many times, this is accomplished visually (a photo, flyer, or poster), accompanied by a unique slogan, title, or catchphrase. If all this sounds a bit like marketing cereal, kitchen cleaner, or luxury cars, it should. Your creative work is a product, and it’s a lot easier to figure out how to market it when you see it as such.
In a way, this is like “branding,” and it extends to picking just the right font/logo, which can then be tied in with the look of a Website, business card, and letterhead. You can use one, some, or all of these elements, depending upon the estimated longevity of what it is you’re promoting. Promoting a single show or event might not warrant the investment in business cards, but starting your own dance company probably does.
This doesn’t have to be expensive. Despite a degree in journalism/advertising, I learned my most valuable marketing lessons as an independent New York artist, working within a sketch-comedy group that started in a $5-an-hour midtown rehearsal studio and ended up featured in magazines like Playboy and Talk. How? We “generated heat.” We “created a buzz.” We put ourselves on everyone’s “radar screens.” (For some reason, the entertainment industry likes catchphrases that reference electricity). We did everything out-of-pocket, on a virtually non-existent budget, and we worked very, very hard.
We also asked for favors. There’s no need to be shy about asking—just be prepared to give back (maybe with free tickets to your show, maybe with some other service in which you specialize). When money is scarce, barter whatever you possibly can and enlist the talents of not-yet-established designers looking to build their portfolios.
Basic tools, elaborated.
Images: Keep immediately on hand one or two high-quality photos that can be sent by mail or via email (ask what file formats are preferred/accepted); eye-catching, high-quality color photos get much more play than black-and-whites taken on your buddy’s digital camera in his apartment.
Press releases: Have a few different “blurbs” ready. Not every publication will be reviewing your work or creating a feature article—sometimes they'll print a picture with a small caption attached. With a few blurbs (a one-sentence description, a 25-word blurb, a longer bio), you can get a variety of placements. Make sure you bold, underline, or increase the font size of important details: names, dates, location, URL. This makes it easier on someone wading through press release after press release, and it cuts the likelihood of misspellings. Tiny type size and buried facts are not welcome at a press desk at 10 P.M. the night before deadline.
Business cards and flyers: There are plenty of postcard printers that offer competitive prices and a quality product. Some require that you allow their logo on every card, some don’t. (A few resources: www.1800postcards.com, www.4over4.com, www.originalcards.com)
Database: One of my most valuable resources is my database. This is a great organizer, and also functions as a mailing list. Add everyone you know and meet to your mailing list. A database program like FileMaker Pro allows you to have a separate record for each person that is custom-designed for your own use. Mailing addresses and emails are of course necessary for sending out flyers, but a mailing code is also useful; it will allow you to tailor mailings by creating separate lists for press, industry, fellow artists, and general contacts. This way, you keep track of who gets what, and when follow-up is needed. Keep it as up-to-date as possible.
Step two: Where do I send these materials?
If it doesn’t cost you money (and if it isn’t an ad placement, it shouldn’t), then it simply can’t hurt to get the word out there. Seek out listings online, in print, and on-air in order to reach large numbers and to open up your audience base beyond fellow artists. There are a variety of publications to target—some focusing on your particular art form, some focusing on anything and everything. Some are underground, but have built a respectable readership; some are mainstream and have the money and resources to put out a national, high-gloss product. All are valid and useful in building a press kit. Some will be harder to crack than others, but you should persevere when the publication really counts. You can also seek out independent writers who might write a feature article on you to submit to publications on their own.
Hiring a publicist is also an option. Generally, this doesn’t come cheap. The publicist you hire should specialize in your art form. That way, you know you’re paying someone with the right understanding of how your end of the industry works, someone with the right contacts programmed into her or his speed dial. Be very comfortable with this person; although someone may possess skills, savvy, and connections, this doesn’t necessarily mean she or he will see your product the way you want the world to see it. And never underestimate what you can accomplish on your own.
Either way, you should be aggressive, but comfortable, with what you’re offering to put in print, on a flyer, or on a Website. This is the promise of what your work is all about, and nothing builds audience loyalty like that promise fulfilled.
Step three: What do I do with press clippings and contacts?
Keep track of everything, and keep copies of everything. It’s always politically advantageous to remember names of people who support your work. The press clippings and photos themselves become your press kit—a valuable calling card for garnering more press, as well as industry attention (agents, producers, presenters), and even funding.
A sleek, well-organized press kit gives your product credibility. And make sure it holds up under a “quick glance.” People are busy and tend not to read every word of every review. Skimming is likely, and your most eye-catching, impressive clipping should be right on top of the pile. Even if the written “blurb” about your work might be relatively small, it might also be included in a big publication with a big name on the cover. The cover and title bar are the strength of that clipping.
A common approach:
photocopy the blurb itself
photocopy the cover (color is great, but, in large numbers, costly)
cut and paste the small blurb somewhere on the copy of the cover
recopy, with the blurb circled in highlighter
The result? For my troupe, it was 35 glowing words about us adjacent to a picture of Hugh Grant on the cover of a national magazine. Even though we had nothing to do with Hugh, people couldn’t help but look further.
Step four: Remember to have fun with self-promotion!
Don’t feel as if you have to follow rules. Choose colors, photos, and any information you think represents you and makes you excited to hand out your press kit, flyer, or business card. Your art is unique (an extension of who you are), and your marketing materials should be, too.
Be patient. Just because someone hasn’t responded to eight mailings doesn't mean she or he won't respond to the ninth! It really does happen. Your determination and consistency will only convince people of your legitimacy and staying power.
And, by all means, party! Go out, be social, and get to know people within your industry—many of them are very interesting. Alliances and relationships are the building bricks of your career.
Standing Room Only: Strategies for Marketing the Performing Arts. Kotler, Philip and Joanne Scheff. Boston: Harvard Business School, 1998. This in-depth guide surveys marketing strategies and keys to attracting new audiences.
Waiting in the Wings: A Larger Audience for the Arts and How to Develop It. Morison, Bradley G. and Julie Gordon Dalgleish. New York: American Council for the Arts, 1993.
A book mostly for arts administrators on how to cultivate a diverse audience. This book makes clear the importance of including non-English-speaking-background audiences in audience development.
This site details the Arts & Business Council’s flagship program, Business Volunteers for the Arts (BVA). Through BVA, business professionals have helped thousands of nonprofit arts organizations by sharing their business expertise and talents on a wide range of consulting projects. Site features include links to the National Affiliate Network of BVA programs across the country and application materials for the New York City program.
ArtsMarketing.org is a project of Arts & Business Council, Inc. The Arts & Business Council, based in New York City, is the national headquarters of the Arts & Business Council and Business Volunteers for the Arts national affiliate network, and operates the National Arts Marketing Project.
Juried Website hosting artists work for sale and viewing.
Katharine T. Carter & Associates offer one-on-one artist consultations, marketing research, consultation, and essay writing.
As a performer, Betsy Kelso has been seen in musical shows ranging from Sugar Babies to City of Angels to South Pacific. She has toured nationally with Tim Conway and Tom Poston in the comedy Just For Laughs: A Day With Gates & Mills, and internationally with The Rocky Horror Picture Show. As a writer, Betsy is one of the founding members of the all-female sketch comedy group Shirley Chickenpants. She is the author of the upcoming The Great American Trailer Park Musical, and she is currently published in 101 Damnations: The Humorists’ Tour of Personal Hells, a book of comedic writings edited by Michael J. Rosen. Kelso holds a Bachelor of Science from the University of Maryland.
Article appears courtesy of New York Foundation for the Arts, www.nyfa.org