Open Letter: Pitching an Album Review Request


BitW square avatarSo, every now and then I write a little Open Letters column, usually a mix of helpful advice and related rant material.  The source of these letters accumulates as I go about my daily routine as a music columnist, reviewer, and music site dude.  I run into things that either rub me the right or wrong way.  I try to offer some advice on how to avoid the bad things, accentuate the good, all in the hope that it helps artists and labels and PR reps and writers go about the Business Of Being An Artist.

These columns are in no means definitive.  I learn things the more I run this site and write reviews for other sites.  I gain additional insights, and I share them at random times.

My opinions and advice may or may not be applicable to other writers.  But I think most of the points I make have a certain universal cache that will translate to situations other than Bird is the Worm stuff.

So, here’s a new edition of Stuff You Should Think About Doing.  Let’s begin…

So, you want me to review your album?  You’re a musician, label, or PR rep.  You find my email on my About Me page.  Here’s what a great email would contain:

-An informative, but succinct Subject line.  Amazing to me how poorly used the Subject line of an email is.  What you need to understand is that I’m getting anywhere between 20 and 50 emails a day.  Not all of them are review requests.  Many are about upcoming shows, video releases, industry news… all kinds of music related stuff.  But your email is going to be in that crowd.  I’m more likely to notice it if it has the following items in the Subject line:

  • The phrase “Review Request”
  • Artist name
  • Album name

That’s it.  It gives me just enough to know what’s there, without it getting to be so much that my eyes glaze over.  I’ll notice it the day it hits my inbox, but even more importantly, I’ll notice it a week later, a month later, any time down the road.  It is a supreme challenge to stay organized while keeping up with all the work.  Having the Subject line of “Review Request:  John Artist – “Awesome Album Title” means that I’ll be able to slot the email where it needs to go and it’ll catch my eye down the road if I need to gather it up later.  The sheer volume of emails I receive guarantees that some will fall through the cracks.  A good simple subject line will help mitigate that risk.

-An introductory paragraph.  It doesn’t have to be too in depth.  Some writers/site owners will want you to state why you picked them in particular.  It’s a good thing to research who you’re approaching.  With me, however, I’m covering modern jazz.  As long as your album is a new release and it’s somehow related to Jazz, then you’re in.  Tell me briefly about why you’re contacting me.  Ultimately, this intro paragraph is simply an expanded version of your email’s Subject line.

-Now, about your music.  You should provide two links.

-The first link sends me to a place I can stream your album.  A Soundcloud page, a Bandcamp site, your own site which has its own audio player… somewhere I can hear as much of your album as I need to in order to determine whether I might be interested in reviewing it.  If you send me to a CDBaby or Amazon site, I close out of your email and move on to the next one.  If you send me to a MySpace page, I pray that I don’t get another virus from that damnass site, and then curse you for sending me there… and then move on to the next email.  If you send me to your site and it only plays 60 second song samples, then I move on to the next email.  Let me hear it all.  It gives me a better sense of whether I’ll make a spot for you in my schedule, and the more I can hear of your music, the more you’re giving me a chance to fall for your recording.

-The second link should give me a place I can download the album from immediately.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s a private Soundcloud page, a Bandcamp page with a provided comp download code or a Dropbox page.  But if I like what I hear from your first link, the sooner I’m able to download that album onto my computer and put it in my review queue, the better your chances at getting a review.  If I have to email you back and say, yes, I’d like to review your album, the more you’re risking that it doesn’t happen.  I’m not always able to respond to emails requesting a review copy.

And even though I tag your email with a follow-up symbol to get back to it later, it’s no guarantee that I will.  I’m dealing with huge volumes of requests.  The less time I have to spend going back and forth, and the more I can do in any one sitting, the better your chances at getting a review.  And don’t let those links expire.  I’m not always able to get to a review request email the day you send it.  Sometimes it’s not for weeks until I get to your email.  There have been several times that I’ve followed a link to listen to music or download it, just to receive an error message that the link has expired.  I try to follow up to request that the expiration date gets fixed, but that’s no guarantee.  Often, I just move on to the next album.

-What about CDs?  Different reviewers are going to have different requirements when it comes to the physical product.  Me, I prefer getting the actual CD, but I don’t frown on a digital promo copy of the album.  Sometimes I even prefer the digital copy.  I promise that I won’t look down upon you or de-prioritize your album because you’re doing digital promos only.

For a variety of reasons specific to me, your chances of getting a review are increased if I have a physical CD lying around the house… especially if I’ve taken a pass on your album the first time around.  Basically I have a slush pile, a Shelf Of Interminable Waiting, for those albums that I keep in sight just in case I feel like giving an album a second chance.  Every now and then a spot on my review schedule opens up, and I need something fast, and the first place I look is that slush pile shelf.  There have been actual reviews that have resulted from this shelf.  It doesn’t happen often, but if you’re not an established artist and you feel strongly about having me review your album for my site, then mention in your review request email that you’d like to send a physical CD and request my postal address.

I’ll re-emphasize that getting me a physical CD is not required to get a review on my site, but there’s no doubting that something about how I’m wired means I’ll notice CDs sitting on a shelf more than I noticed line items in an iTunes library.  So take that for what it’s worth.  Also, sometimes I’ll just simply ask you to send me a physical copy.  Some combination of variables like the type of music presented, my travel schedule, and my tech situation requires me to have a CD promo.  For instance, as I type this, with my hard drive full and my iPod not working, and faced with a daily two hour round-trip commute, it’s the musicians who have sent me CD promos are getting more heard than those I’ve downloaded.  But that kind of thing changes (for instance, I’m waiting for a new external hard drive to arrive, so that’ll help with that).  I mention all of this just to provide you with as much information as I can… not all of it is timely or useful in all scenarios.

-Don’t forget to attach a PDF of your one-sheet.  You’ve probably developed a one-sheet for your album… basically a promotional version of your liner notes.  It’s something that tells me about the artist, the album being promoted, past albums and projects the artist has been associated with, and anything else that seems relevant to getting me to know more about you and your music.  Typically, it should all fit on one page, though I’ve never thought poorly of one-sheets that, actually, went on for two pages.  Your music is your most effective communicator and reflects your best chance at receiving an album review, but it won’t hurt for there to be a story behind the music.

I’m a sucker for a good story, and sometimes when I’m on the fence about reviewing an album, a good back-story will be the little nudge to get me to review an album.  Don’t manufacture a story.  If a good story naturally exists, then great, but if the one-sheet is simply a “this is my music” type of thing, there’s nothing wrong with that.  Run with it.  Like I said, ultimately, it’s the music that matters most.

If you paste the one-sheet in the body of the email, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Other things to include on your one-sheet:

  • Release date
  • URLs for your artist site, a label site (if applicable), and those of other musicians on your album.
  • Social media info.  If you have a Twitter address, include that on your one-sheet.  Include all Twitter addresses for anyone having anything to do with your album…  musicians, PR rep, label, cover art designer, etc.  I like Twitter to promote content, and the less time I have to search down Twitter addresses, etc, the happier I am and the more likely I help spread the word about your album review.  Same goes for stuff like Facebook.

-When have you become a pest?  I’m certain that some of you have sent out email queries, not received a response, then wondered how long to wait to follow up… or, even, whether to follow up at all.  I can only speak for myself here, but my answer would be, yes, it’s okay to follow up.  A guideline, let’s say, no sooner than 3 weeks, no later than 6.  Just a simple sentence, politely stated, asking if I’ve had a chance to listen to your music.  You’re not being a pest.  It’s not an inconvenience for me, and, hell, sometimes it’s helpful for me as a reminder.

Helpful Hint:  When you send the follow-up email, do it by responding to your initial query… that way I’m getting your info and the links to your music in the same email asking me the status of the review.  It’ll make it more convenient for me to have your music/info in front of me and not have to track it down in my inbox/email system.  If you’ve sent a physical CD and you’re nervous that I haven’t received it, it’s totally cool to follow up and ask.  I try to email people when I get a promo copy, but I don’t always remember or have the time.  Following up on something like that is natural.

Any more than one follow-up, though, is probably too much.  If a few months have passed, then, fine, it’s cool.  But if I’ve already told you that I’ll give your album a listen, I’m almost never going to respond to tell you, no, I can’t do anything with it.  I barely have time to listen to all the music that I receive, and I definitely don’t have enough time to provide an email about what I’ve decided… and that includes albums that I actually write a review about.  I know it might come off as rude, but my time is very scarce, and it’s gotten to where I have to make some hard decisions on what I can and can’t do.  Email correspondence often doesn’t make the cut.

-Please be nice.  But more importantly, be sincere.  Obviously, being rude in an email doesn’t score any points.  I can’t stress enough that being genuine and sincere does go a long way.  Be professional, yes, but I know the Business of Art is a tough thing… knowing what to do and how to do it, it’s not always clear cut.

And this is your album, which you’ve worked extremely hard on, and this is your career, which you’ve invested so much of yourself into… it’s difficult to switch from the intense emotional involvement of creating the music to a state of professional detachment as you try to promote it.  That’s so damn hard, and you have my sympathy.

The good thing with me is that I’m not going to look down upon you or ridicule you if you own up to not being sure if you’re doing the right thing or ask for advice or any of those things you probably don’t want to do if you’re pitching Blue Note or ECM.  It’s okay to admit that you’re unsure, and since I like to help, if I have advice to give, I’ll send it your way.  I mention this just to help, perhaps, take some of the pressure off of you when pitching a review to me.  Yes, I’ve got preferences on how I’d like a review pitch to appear, but for the most part, I’m a pretty forgiving guy.  Don’t get too intimidated by the process.  For those of you just starting out, I know how it can get.

Okay, I think I’m going to end the column here.  I was going to mention some stuff about strengthening your internet presence and maintenance of Youtube videos and Soundcloud pages, but I’ll save that for the next column.

If you have any questions, feel free to email me, though it might be nice to have you comment below, because others might have the same questions.