Publicist Frances Wilson on musicians' worst self-marketing mistakes (and how to fix them)

Over the past month I've had several musicians ask me for advice on how to improve their online presence and navigate social media.  I offered what little knowledge I have, and then knew it was time to ask a professional.

Music publicist Frances Wilson works with an international roster of clients in addition to her well-known career as a writer on classical music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. I'm grateful that she agreed to be interviewed for No Dead Guys and offer advice on how to spot (and fix) some of the biggest mistakes artists make when marketing themselves.  

Briefly, what is a publicist and what drew you to become one?

In short, a publicist, or PR, is a person whose job is to generate and manage publicity for an individual, company, brand, or public figure/celebrity. In effect, it’s a marketing role, drawing attention to the client’s activities – in my case, concerts, CD releases, courses and other music-related events/activities – by contacting press, broadcasters and others to organise previews, reviews, interviews etc, and tracking responses. 

I’ve always enjoyed admin – when I worked in publishing back in the 1990s I was an executive PA - and I like using my organisational skills. Working as a publicist allows me to utilise these skills to ensure material is produced on time, deadlines are met etc. In fact, it sits well with being a musician, since this is also a role which requires organisational skills such as forward planning and time management. 

I also wanted to learn more about another aspect of the music industry. I’m a keen concert-goer and have always been alert to the presentational aspects of concert-giving – from advertising material to programme notes to how musicians behave on stage or engage with audiences. I enjoy drawing on my experience as an audience member to inform my publicity work, and regard this as a strength. 

I fell into the role rather by accident, which seems to be a theme in my recent career! Some years ago, I started doing ad hoc, voluntary publicity work for a friend who runs an arts collective called 7 Star Arts, which specialises in productions combining music and words, and music, words and art. I was doing simple things like creating advertising flyers and concert programmes, using a fairly basic desktop publishing programme on my Mac, where previously my friend had been doing very rudimentary things. After a year or so she asked me to formally take over managing the organisation’s publicity, including running the website and social media. 

In fact, when Yvonne of 7 Star Arts asked me to take over her publicity it was like a dream come true as it allowed me greater involvement in an artform which I adore (music, and especially live music) while utilising existing skills. I’ve learnt a lot from working with Yvonne and we’re a good team.

In the last eighteen months, I’ve worked with a number of musicians and composers, and, most recently, an online musicians retreat. In each instance, I have sought to improve and broaden my skills – I am a natural auto didact and like nothing better than feeling I’m learning something each time I take on a new project. 

What are some of the biggest mistakes musicians make when marketing themselves?

I think some musicians think publicity is just about advertising their concerts and CD releases, when in fact they should be offering audiences and potential audiences a flavour of their musical personality. Just tweeting/posting about your upcoming concerts or regurgitating your biography - your achievements, the famous people you’ve worked with etc - is boring and can appear egocentric. Major mistakes – and I see this a lot on musicians’ websites – are over-long biographies which are simply a list of significant teachers, competitions won, awards, famous concerts halls you’ve played in….. Then there are the concert diaries which do not include the most recent concert first or links to book tickets, or broken links – and these are simple things to get right! 

Some musicians assume that a website with some nice pictures, a few audio clips and videos, and, more importantly, glowing press reviews are sufficient to attract the attention of promoters, concert managers, critics and audiences, but the industry is so competitive now that one has to constantly seek to be slightly different. This may simply include a really well-designed website, and high-quality media such as photographs, video and audio clips. I am still astonished when I encounter musicians who don’t even have a website, as this is one’s ‘shop window’. I think part of the problem stems from an attitude within the profession that being entrepreneurial and business-like about one’s activities somehow taints the artform; it’s remarkable how few conservatoires and music schools – in the UK at least – do not teach these skills, instead choosing to focus on training people how to be performers.

What advice do you offer musicians regarding their websites and social media images?

I give advice on aspects such as writing biographies and using social media effectively (see above re. endless, boring tweeting about concerts!). Social media platforms, Twitter in particular, offer musicians a powerful tool to engage with audiences on a far more immediate and personal level. So, one can use Twitter, for example, to offer “tasters” of your forthcoming concerts via video clips of the programme, or even little outtakes from the practice studio or rehearsal room. Audiences are very curious about “what musicians do all day” and engaging with one’s audience in this way offers a glimpse “beyond the notes”. One musician who is adept at using social media is the British pianist Stephen Hough. Ahead of a concert, he might tweet a picture of several piano stools: “which one should I choose?” he asks, thus immediately drawing his audience in to his world. His personality is quite clear through his social media activities – not only is he a pianist, but he also loves food, hats, and art. This gives audiences, and others, the sense of a far more rounded, and, importantly, normal personality. It debunks the idea that musicians exist in ivory towers, divorced from real life, and reveals something of the person and his/her life outside of the concert hall. 

Much of your job has been focused on helping artists publicize concerts or album releases.  How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic will change the services you offer your clients?

A lot of what I have done in the past 18 months has focused on raising the profile of clients. Many have, or had, quite small social media followings and through my larger network online, my blog, my reputation in the world of UK classical music in general, I have increased their followings by drawing attention to them and their activities. I think as we begin to emerge from this situation, musicians will need to think about how to present themselves, so the profile-building aspect of my services will remain and possibly become more significant. I have learnt over the course of my career to be flexible and responsive, and some of the people I work with are already thinking of ways to “do music” differently; I feel ready to respond to this. In fact, my services remain largely the same, regardless of the job. It’s really about adapting to a new situation and being willing to help and support musicians in these changing times. 

How do you think your clients will need to change their careers in order to make a living in a post-pandemic economy?

Sadly, I think many musicians are realising that they may not be able to make the majority of their income from music now. Many of my musician friends and colleagues have embraced online teaching (and for many, teaching has always been a regular income stream). A paucity of concerts will also force some to be less choosy about where they perform: as a concert pianist friend of mine remarked “we're all going to need to be a bit less fancy after this!”. The ‘portfolio career’ and an ability to work with greater flexibility is going to be even more important, with some musicians having to work outside the profession. It’s going to be tough, I think; making music is such an intrinsic part of the musician’s identity that the thought of only doing it part time will be very painful for many. Those who have an unsnobbish attitude to concert bookings and who are prepared to do other work are likely to manage better. 

What do you think will be the future of live music?

I hope it survives and I think it will. But in the immediate and medium term, while social distancing remains a necessity, concerts as we know them will not exist. With reduced seating, venues will not be able to draw sufficient revenue from ticket sales, and food and beverages (venue bars and cafes are unlikely to be allowed to open), and there is the significant issue of actually persuading people to return to the venues….. I suspect we will see more concerts in empty halls, livestreamed to audiences, and, when the weather permits, outdoor concerts. Small venues may well fare better, with lower overheads and flexible seating arrangements. 

As we are allowed back into the concert halls, in the medium term we will not see such large orchestras and this will have an impact on the kind of repertoire performed. It’s going to be difficult, but not insurmountable, and it could lead to some very interesting programmes. 

But I’m also an optimist and I believe that as we learn to live with the virus, we will begin to return to “normal activities”, including concert going. People are able to make sensible judgements about their own safety and the level of risk involved in going to a concert. It will be different, but the music will play on….

Frances Wilson is a pianist, piano teacher, music PR and writer on classical music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist.

Described by acclaimed concert pianist Peter Donohoe as “an important voice in the piano world”, Frances’s blog The Cross-Eyed Pianist was founded in 2010 and has grown to become one of the UK’s most respected classical music websites. In addition to her blog, Frances also writes for InterludeHK, a Hong Kong-based classical music site, and has contributed articles to Pianist magazine, Classical Music and The Schubertian, the journal of the Schubert Institute UK. She has written teaching notes for the UK’s two major music exam boards, and has been a content creator for IDAGIO, a major classical music streaming service. In 2017, she appeared on BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters programme to discuss music criticism and the effect of the internet on music journalism and writing today.

Her PR clients include conductor Tom Hammond, Hertfordshire Festival of Music, composers Bernard Hughes and Garreth Brooke, 7 Star Arts and The Exhale, an online holistic retreat for musicians. 

At the core of all of Frances’ activities is a passionate love of music and the piano in particular. Through her writing, publicity work, teaching and occasional performing, Frances seeks to support musicians and to encourage people of all ages to enjoy and engage with classical music.

Twitter @crosseyedpiano