Stuff you should think about doing: Tips to secure a review


BitW square avatarAs illogical as it may sound, sometimes albums get a review slot because the artists have made it uncomplicated to do all the things necessary for a decent article to get published.  And it has nothing to do with the music itself.

On Bird is the Worm, when I review something, it’s music that I think should be shared with others.  It’s earned a slot based on various music criteria I’ve established for the site… but that’s beyond the scope of this column.  Because, the thing of it is, I still don’t have the time or the open slots to get to all of those albums that meet my review criteria.  So, now it starts getting down to culling the best of the best, and that’s who gets a review.

Well, most of the time.

Because a review isn’t comprised just of the analysis and evaluation of the music.  There are other things, administrative-type things like embedding an audio track, finding album cover art and artist images, links for artist and label and retail sites, confirming that all personnel and instruments are accounted for, etc… all the things that go into a review but don’t involve hitting a play button on the stereo.

This stuff takes time, and when an artist makes it difficult to acquire these things, I, often, will move on to the next album and put the previous one on the back-burner.  When albums get put on my back-burner, they rarely make it back up front.

So, here’s a list of things you can do to make it so that your album doesn’t get pushed to the side for one that isn’t such a time-eater of my schedule.  They are all quite simple.

1.  Audio embeds.  Have at least one album track streaming online, and be sure it’s embeddable.  You really should have most, if not all, of your album available to stream, but at the very least, one track.  I’m at the point that I won’t review an album if I can’t embed an album track.  There are exceptions to this… ten, actually, and they correspond to the ten slots on my year-end Best Of lists.  Those albums I’ll review without embeddable audio.  That’s not the kind of thing you want to rely upon.  Go upload and stream an album track.

If you’re retailing your music on Bandcamp, then you’ve likely already achieved this.  Bandcamp allows the artist to stream some or all their music on the retail page, and I’ve only seen a handful of instances where an artist shut off all streaming on their Bandcamp page in its entirety.  As long as there’s something streaming on Bandcamp, I can grab and embed it into the review.

Another obvious one is Soundcloud.  Unless you want to get deep into the Soundcloud functionality, then it’s a free account and easy to join up.  You fill out their form, then upload some album tracks.  Probably 75% of the music I embed in reviews is a Soundcloud audio player.  There are two Soundcloud items worth noting:

1.  Are you embeddable?  Be sure when you upload a track that you select the Embed functionality in Settings.  If you don’t check that box, then a reviewer can’t actually embed that song into the review… it just sits there on Soundcloud, useless to anyone outside of that sphere.  In truth, if I’m going to review your album, see your track on Soundcloud, but see the embed functionality is turned off, I won’t push your review to the side… I’ll email you and ask if you can turn it on.  In every instance that I’ve done this, the artist was surprised to learn that it wasn’t embeddable.  It’s an easy enough thing to overlook.  It’s wise to be sure you’ve got it done in advance.

2.  Private setting.  The ability to embed a Soundcloud player isn’t useful just to the reviewer, but to the artist, too.  Many artists embed their own music on their own site via a Soundcloud upload.  Sometimes they make it a Private setting, meaning that you can only listen to the song on their site, and if you try to find it on the Soundcloud site, it won’t appear.  I can appreciate this.  The artist wants you to stay on their site, listening to their music, reading about their backgrounds, their projects, their upcoming shows, and whatever other content they have on their site.

The truth is that I won’t stop at just looking at Soundcloud for an embeddable album track.  I will also check your artist site.  If I see you’re streaming album tracks on a Soundcloud player, and the link on that player takes me to a “Page Not Found” error on the Soundcloud site, I’ll know that it’s on Private setting, and I’ll email you with a request to provide the embed code so that I can include it in the review.  The Soundcloud player will behave just like it does on your artist site… people will be able to listen to it as they read the review on Bird is the Worm, but they won’t be able to grab it themselves or follow it back to Soundcloud.  It remains Private, but now in two spots… your own artist site and on BitW.

3.  You avant-garde people with your 20+ minute avant-garde tracks.  Some artists only upload sample tracks to Soundcloud… typically one-minute fragments of songs.  I won’t use those.  EVER.  If you’ve got sample tracks uploaded to Soundcloud, it’s as useful to me as having nothing at all.  BUT, I do make an exception for you free jazz/avant-garde musicians who often put out 45-minute long albums with just one or two tracks.  For you, streaming a full album track might be the same as streaming the entire album, and you might not want to do that.  I do make an exception for you when it comes to samples.  I’m obviously not going to use a one-minute sample here either, but if you’ve got two 20-minute tracks, I’d be willing to use a sample that’s about 50% of actual time play (or approximately 10 minutes in length).  There have been a couple times I’ve used smaller samples than that, but those were still about 33% of actual play time… a 6-minute sample on a 18-minute track.  I doubt I would go any lower than that.  But the point is, I think most reviewers are going to be sympathetic to the album presentation of certain types of albums.  I know I am.  Keep that in mind.

When I go about choosing which album track to embed, it doesn’t come down to which is my favorite track.  I have two primary considerations for which album track I choose to embed in the review.  The first, is it representative of the album?  It’s not a rare occurrence for an album to have something of an outlier song on it, something that doesn’t sound like anything else on the album.  The immediate example that pops into my mind is the title-track from David Binney’s South.  It’s this beautiful rustic tune that sounds more like something from a Brian Blade Fellowship recording than the sharp bop and hard angles of the rest of that album.  I adore that track.  But I also wouldn’t embed it in a review.  I’d pick a track that was more representative.  I don’t want the reader to feel ambushed if they buy the album based on what they streamed on my review, then discovered that the rest of the album sounds nothing like that.

The second consideration for which album track I choose to embed is based on how quickly a particular song grabs the ear.  Some songs develop slowly.  Nothing wrong with that.  But I’m not going to risk losing my reader’s attention with one of those.  I’m going to be looking for something that immediately engages.  It could be a wildly expressive saxophone intro or it could be a series of quiet, simple piano chords… but it has to be something that draws the ear in.  It’s going to be a song that develops a rapport right from go and doesn’t let up… at least not until enough time has passed that the listener has sufficiently bought into the track and will listen all the way through.  In my mind, that’s about a minute into the song… after that, the song can do whatever it wants, because the listener is locked in for the duration.

If you’re not going to stream all or most of your album, if you’re only going to allow one album track to stream, that’s what you should keep in mind when you decide which album track it’s going to be… not your favorite, not the song you’re most proud of, not the one that has your favorite solo… choose the track that engages right from the beginning, because you want to connect with the listener immediately, and the longer you hold their attention, the better the odds that they’ll keep reading the review and buy the album.

Still not convinced?  Take a look at this article.  It’s one of my eMusic Jazz Picks columns.  With the new eMusic platform of Wondering Sound, I’m able to embed music along with the column.  I typically include 15-20 album recommendations per week.  Only a few had music I could embed.  Readers/buyers will be listening to that music as they read the entire column.  How much does that increase the likelihood that those are the recommended albums people choose to buy?  Substantially, I’d imagine.  (NOTE:  As it turns out, I’m allowed to embed Bandcamp players into the column, even though it’s an eMusic thing, so if you’re on Bandcamp, don’t go thinking you now have to run out and create a Soundcloud page, too… going forward, that won’t be an issue).

You can also upload an album track to video services like Youtube and Vimeo.  That’s perfectly fine.  I’ll just shrink the dimensions down to where they look like a player.  Something like this…

If the video is on Youtube, you might want to be sure that it’s not getting hit with those ridiculous Google ads.  If it is, then I won’t be able to use it… one, because Youtube won’t let me shrink the player down like it is above if there are ads in it, and two, I won’t let those tacky ads show on my site.  Vimeo, as far as I can tell, doesn’t have this issue.

Okay, that was a long section on embedding a track.  Let’s move on to the other items.

2.  Details, details, details.  Be sure to list, somewhere/everywhere, all the personnel, instrumentation, recording date(s), and any other relevant information regarding the album.  If you have an artist site, put it there.  If you’ve got a Soundcloud and/or Bandcamp page, also list it there.  If you’ve got something up on Youtube or Vimeo, list it there.  Make it easy to find this stuff.  Not only because it might help you secure a review, but it’s the right thing to do.  Also, it’s not a bad idea to include links to retail sites on those pages.  I always include retail links in a review.  The easier it is for me to find them, the better it is for you.  Including contact info isn’t a bad idea, either.  Do an image search on your album cover… Does it show up early in the search results?  Does it show up in multiple sizes?  How hard do people have to search for your album cover until they fall upon the first instance of it?  These are things to be checking for.

3.  Your life in pictures.  Promo photos are probably a drag.  Personally, I don’t like having my photo taken even under casual circumstances… something about feeling overwhelmingly self-conscious.  I dunno, whatever.  So, I sympathize with some of you who cringe at reading the words “promo photos.”  But you need to do it.  And, seriously, it doesn’t have to be complicated.  I’m not talking about setting up an appointment with Glamour Shots.  An iPhone camera or a simple snap camera will do.  But you’re going to want something that writers can use.  I’ve noticed that online magazines thrive on them.  And while I rarely use them on my own site, I do have to use one on my eMusic/Wondering Sound Jazz Picks column, and I’ve noticed that a lot of the online music magazines use them, too.  So, just suck it up and take a few.  The good news is, I’m going to suggest some easy shots to take.

1.  Your future is as big as the horizon.  Take some rooftop shots.  It doesn’t matter if you’re in NYC or some tiny town where a 3-story building is as tall as it gets… anything with a horizon line will look cool.

A. Here’s a cool one of Miguel Zenon –> Pic

B. Here’s a good one from JD Allen –> Pic

C. Here’s two from Tobias Meinhart –> Pic1 & Pic2

2.  You and the City.  Try some photos that have you in the city.

A. Here’s a great one of Carolina Calvache –> Pic

I love how the city reflects off the window like that.  But you don’t gotta be living in NYC to get a good “city” shot.  Hell, living in the vast tundra of Iceland can get you a good photo…

B.  Here’s a good one from Sunna Gunnlaugs –> Pic

3.  Your life as an album cover.  I also like ones that incorporate aspects of the album cover in it.

A.  For instance, here’s one for Oran Etkin –> Pic

B.  And a great one from Rebecca Trescher –> Pic

4.  You got personality, baby!

A.  The quartet Get the Blessing has some of the best promo shots around…

Get the Blessing
Get the Blessing

Some aspects of these photos to note:  They don’t have any words on them.  That’s preferable.  Though it seems like an artist name appearing in the photo isn’t always a deal breaker.  Also, there’s usually various sizes offered of these photos… a standard rectangle and also a banner image.  Most photoshop apps will allow you to adjust the dimensions on your photos.  Also, when you save these photos online, whether on your own site or some third party photo sharing site, be sure the file name and metadata have your name in it, because otherwise, no matter how well I search for it on Google, the photo isn’t going to show up.  Of course, if you have these photos saved on a Media page on your website, that would take care of that.

Anyways, those are some examples.

4.  Live performance video.  For plenty of reasons, it’s good to have some decent video of a live performance.  It’s also okay to have some mediocre or even bad performance video, but you should have a couple that have clean audio, decent lighting, and a steady camera shot.  And it doesn’t even have to be in front of a live audience.  I would happily feature a video of an ensemble rehearsing a new song in their practice space.  I have a Sunday video feature series, and I like to use a video from an artist/ensemble that will have a review posted that week.  It’s the kind of extra promotional punch a decent video can provide you.  Some sites like to use a video along with the review.  Some sites just like videos.  I mean, you’re already performing live and you’re going to be in your studio practicing… one of your friends has to possess some sort of decent recording device and get you a clean video that’s fun to watch.  Getting some decent videos up is a helpful thing if you can swing it.

5. Check your retail links.  This is something you should be doing anyway.  Be sure that artist name and album title fields are correct.  Don’t be lazy about this, either.  Be sure your last name really is spelled correctly.  If your album artist name is comprised of all the artist names, be sure that’s how it’s listed and that you don’t fall under the dreaded title of “various artists” (which almost always gets ignored).  Go to each retailer’s main page and search for your album both by artist name and album title… do you show up in the search results and how far up the list?  Do the same in Google.  Make it as easy as possible to find your album retail spots.

I search pretty hard for these to link up with in a review.  I want people buying your album.  I’m always amazed to discover typos and misspellings… things that had me overlook a retail link until the artist emails me later about it.  Also, provide those same links on your Soundcloud and artist site, on Vimeo and Youtube videos… anywhere you have an online presence.  Give every opportunity for listeners to make you their impulse purchase.  And give reviewers every opportunity to provide retail links to their readers to purchase your music.  I know this seems like an obvious thing, but errors in this category happen frequently enough that I’ve given it some space in this column.

Okay, that’s it for today.

Obviously these items relate specifically to me and my site.  It won’t necessarily apply to other sites and other reviewers, but I seriously doubt that these considerations of mine are terribly unique, and taking into account the relative simplicity of completing each item… well, if you haven’t done them yet, don’t feel bad, but get started now.

Cheers and good luck.