In our latest Industry Interview, Infectious Magazine spoke with Bariann Browne, the Founder and PR Director of The Black Birch along with many other talents and achievements (all of which are discussed below). She details at length how The Black Birch got started, some of the biggest misconceptions about publicists and the PR world in general, her many involvements with animal care organizations, and much more.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. How are you?
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to answer these wonderful questions. I am taking a quick and much-needed break from the unending but awesome stream of music and animal projects that come my way! It has been a stressful few months for sure, especially with the amount of album releases slated.
Can you tell us a little about The Black Birch and how you got started?
Sure! Even though I left Earache Records to spend more time studying for my Public Relations degree, I still wanted to continue garnering real-world experience. I began freelancing as a contracted publicist, and my first major client was Milwaukee label Halo of Flies which is run by Cory von Bohlen, who is still my client today. I quickly realized that the knowledge behind all the “tools” employed by major labels for their PR strategies was in my possession the whole time, and that smaller labels who didn’t have access to expensive software or distribution agencies were automatically at a disadvantage. There was all this amazing music and it wasn’t reaching anyone. The Black Birch came from my desire to find a solution for smaller labels and artists. Around the same time I launched my own label, Broken Limbs Recordings, with my husband, so I knew first hand the struggles of operating a record label and how much blood, sweat and tears go into its daily maintenance.
What was one of the biggest challenges you faced when first launching your agency?
When I started, it was really exciting to take on new clients and it was super easy to agree to more work than I was able to handle. I have a hard time saying “no” and it was harder in the beginning. I wanted to help EVERYONE who came to me for guidance or asked me to take on a project, and I wasn’t charging rates that were sustainable or reflected the quality of my work. It quickly became apparent there were not enough hours in the day to give each client and campaign the attention they deserved. To make things more complicated, I began to do pro bono work for animal welfare organizations in all of my plentiful free time, which was none. So I would have a legitimate, full-time or part-time job at a major mainstream PR agency, a full-time college schedule, a label to run and mail order business to keep up with, a dozen or so album campaigns running simultaneously through The Black Birch, and several nonprofits to which I had promised assistance with social media or website design. Add Hurricane Sandy to the mix and I had a much-needed opportunity to rethink exactly what I was doing to myself and my loved ones. This was something I should have resolved much earlier and I regret not doing so.
How did you overcome that challenge?
It was tough, but I learned to thoroughly analyze the needs of each individual project that came across my desk. A good publicist never automatically says yes. Background research on the client is, to me personally, absolutely mandatory so your values are never compromised. A publicist should never be surprised. Then, I had to ask myself if I was the right person for the job. Did I have the right contacts for this type of music? Was there enough time for a full album release campaign? And most important of all, is the client somewhat sane? If I had trouble answering honestly those questions, even today, I have no problem referring the client to a colleague better suited to the job. I also spend hours doing research for every client, and I wasn’t valuing my services or myself fairly. I always knew my fellow publicists charged way more than me, but I also wanted to be fair. I actually wasn’t being fair to myself. I had to stop feeling guilty and actually make a living. That’s how a business works!
Looking back, what if anything do you wish you had done differently when first launching?
When work started flooding in, I should have taken a step back or asked for help. I had several projects that I worked really hard on that I knew in the back of my mind were just not going anywhere. As much as I genuinely liked the labels and artists I worked with, I was in denial about my limitations as one human being with limited hours to spend on my business. I didn’t trust anyone else to get the job done. I was definitely spreading myself too thin which in turn caused a lot of unnecessary stress. I’m a perfectionist, and I have to remember that even if the campaign is executed to the best of my ability, factors out of my control, something as simple as a crowded release schedule could mean sub-par results. No matter what the cause is, it hurts to fail or disappoint. I recognize that now, and do struggle with it sometimes, but it would have served me much better if I had realized it in the beginning.
What is one of the biggest misconceptions bands have when looking for PR?
I think a lot of people associate the entire publicity field with this big, soulless corporate machine that spews lies and misinformation and is powered by the last dollars swindled from broke artists. The truth is, everyone needs PR. The increasing popularity of start-ups and self-launching small businesses has been countered by endless “expert” articles on the importance of marketing oneself. I have done PR for record labels, pet companies, bagpipe bands, a landscaping firm, irrigation advocates, real estate agents, nonprofits, ethnic awareness organizations and photographers. The music industry is no exception – records don’t sell without visibility. An ignored fact is that publicists or often just as passionate about a band or an album as the label releasing it. I can say from several years of experience that any freelance publicist not associated with the The Big Four (or Three, depending on how you look at it) that hasn’t switched careers within a year is not in it for the money. There is no money. The indie labels paying them don’t have money, and the artists making the music have none to spare either. Most of those publicists ridiculed for writing the highly quotable blurbs about your favorite underground metal record or sending out promos at 2am (please stop doing this actually) are not backstage hanging out with the headlining band every weekend. They are working, because PR is not a 9-to-5 job, it’s a when-you-wake-up to whenever-the-client-stops-texting-me job. It’s a “sorry honey but can we reschedule dinner, the band’s bus broke down and the writer the magazine sent to interview them is calling me names I haven’t heard since high school” kind of job. Or “someone just committed this horrible crime and I have to call every news agency in the tri-state area on a Friday night and I want to throw up” kind of job.
There is no glamour in this kind of work, and we are merely operating the spotlight, pointing it attractively at a client whose check just bounced. The second major misconception is often ignorant, hypocritical bliss at its finest. “You are corporate scum and I think publicists are the epitome of selling out, but since I’m paying you I obviously expect to be on the cover of Rolling Stone.” I am not a magician. Throughout my career, working in-house, for an agency, and as a freelancer, I’ve come across this kind of thinking too many times. It’s the result of years and years of completely incorrect assumptions and a lack of education. In very rare circumstances, even rarer in recent years, will paying top dollar to a big-time publicist guarantee immediate placement in the magazine of your dreams. As always, this kind of power and privilege is relegated to a handful of extremely influential players in the publishing and recording industry, the kind who can’t be named. Your average blue-collar publicist works his or her ass off just to get the music in front of a writer who probably receives hundreds of promos a day, and then work even harder to convince the writer to listen to it. From there on, the process is out of our hands. The music has to speak for itself, and no matter how talented the publicist is, if it’s a bad album, no amount of marketing magic is going to save it.
What advice do you have for others looking to enter the PR world?
Everything you know about PR is a lie. Imagine spending hours and hours writing news articles without adjectives, memorizing the AP style guide, and more hours of writing. The only way to advance is to painstakingly work your way up through solid copywriting and taking risks that may or may not succeed. Corporate and mainstream PR is more dependable than freelancing but twice as competitive. I always recommend getting experience in both in-house and in agency settings when starting out in PR, since both dynamics are so different and the skill set so varied. It’s the only way to figure out what environment works best for you. It is competitive and you have to have a thick skin. Prepare to have your pitches rejected by writers, your work berated by clients, your career choice sneered at by the industry, and your profession judged harshly by the public. You will be passed by colleagues far less skilled and experienced than you solely because they know the right people. If you can see yourself fighting through all of the above, I say go for it. However, educate yourself first. There is a recent trend, which I notice more and more every day, of individuals with non-marketing or PR backgrounds announcing themselves as publicists on a whim. Some make it and some don’t. Many of them have been around the industry for years in other roles, are well-connected, and genuinely liked by everyone. Success will come easy to them at first, and it’s hard not to reconsider your decision to spend four years studying something that can be picked up in five minutes. If you wait long enough, you’ll know you made the right choice. Why? It’s simple. If you can’t write a perfect press release, churn out AP-approved copy within minutes or tailor the same pitch for radio, television, online and print, you won’t get far. Basic PR skills are invaluable and take time and patience to learn.
You interned at Earache Records, as well as several other large agencies before launching The Black Birch. Do you think internships in this industry are important?
YES! When I started at Earache there had not been a publicist in the US office for a significant amount of time. Everyone I worked with was super helpful and I love them all, but none of them had been trained in PR. This is typical when you work in-house. You get thrown to the wolves, and you either learn quickly or you don’t survive. Every morning I took the train in to Long Island City and began my morning with coffee and 500+ emails that had come in overnight. This is not an exaggeration. Within days I was handling upward of ten album releases and several world tours at a time. I decided to start from the ground up, focusing on building genuine relationships with individual media outlets and take it from there. It ended up being the best decision for the label and a jumpstart to my career. There was a lot expected of me from both the US and UK offices and I was handed a great amount of responsibility, for which I am grateful and honored that they trusted me. It was the only way to learn. Of course I made a ton of embarrassing mistakes (I still do), sending something to the wrong person, putting someone on the guest list in the wrong city. I was surprised that I actually held it together and wasn’t weeping at my desk some days. Today, there is less room for error and no excuses for fuckups, but I’m OK with being human. PR will always be a learning process, especially as it evolves and new technology reinvents the way we operate. It’s the little victories, like a print review in a big magazine or booking a band for a late night talk show that make it worth it.
One of the biggest challenges any entrepreneur or band faces is getting the word about their business out, and gaining fans/clients. How did you overcome this?
When I started at Earache, I was very honest with journalists and media contacts about what I could and couldn’t do. And I respect journalism. The pay is too little, the hours long, and the content is often chosen by corporate and not by the editorial team. I enjoyed taking the time to personally mail a writer a copy of his or her favorite album, secure guest passes for a long overlooked photographer with a gorgeous portfolio. Small gestures like this are appreciated and make you stand out. The solid work I began there, I transferred to my own label and then to The Black Birch. When I began to work with Halo of Flies, I started to get and still receive a lot of emails from interested parties who contacted me for PR purely based on the visible success of those campaigns. I would say being a staunch and sometimes annoying ethicist, building from scratch a reputation of someone who could get results by putting in the extra work, and the support of my family and friends took The Black Birch to where it is now. In terms of a publicist getting new clients, my opinion may seem a stark difference. I’ve always felt that a good publicist should remain in the background so all the focus is on the client, which means I don’t do a ton of aggressive marketing (although I sent out some awkward emails when I first started), or spend a lot of time on branding The Black Birch. This isn’t laziness, it’s a conscious choice, and one I only recommend for aspiring publicists. Channel your energy into your clients. Tell the media what the client can do and why they should care, and in turn the response will tell the world what you are capable of. I let my experience, past projects and portfolio of coverage and press speak for itself. For small labels and bands, you have to be accessible. A mysterious aesthetic is popular among certain communities, but if no one can listen to the music or contact the band, how will your “brand” ever grow? Bandcamp is one of the best inventions for musicians and indie labels ever created. Having an accessible back catalog or samples of your label’s releases speaks volumes to fans and writers alike. Above all, doing things the right way and always acknowledging your supporters by giving back in thoughtful and fun ways are powerful tools for success.
What do you see as one of the biggest mistakes bands make before coming to you?
Bad timing! I hesitate to promote albums that have already been released, have been given away for free online, or have been floating around for months with no real purpose. Usually something is being reissued on a different format or a label has stepped in to take on an album that was previously self-released. Every publicist struggles with this situation because the key to a great pitch is having something newsworthy. Without momentum and with no option for exclusivity, it’s difficult to make the media care. This is exasperated by a three-month lead time for print magazines that usually don’t review anything older than two or three months. Even blogs have certain standards and this is usually one of them. A publicist needs something fresh and exciting to work with. Recycled material without a new hook puts us in a tough position. There has to be something sellable, unique, or different about the entire package, and sometimes it takes some time to find that quality. Still, it won’t stop a writer from asking me why they should spend an hour of their time on material that’s not relevant.
What advice do you have for others looking to launch their own companies?
Wait until the time is right. You don’t want to waste all your resources on a dream that you aren’t completely ready for. I’ve seen this happen to many friends and it’s absolutely heartbreaking. Imagine having one shot to launch your own venture and being forced to pack it in because of finances and poor planning. It’s better to do things right the first time than half-ass it and have a serious mental breakdown. When I released the first Broken Limbs record, the Vattnet Viskar 10” EP, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing because I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t done enough research to properly send an album to press and then turn a profit through retail. I thought I knew it all, and I quickly realized I was clueless. I never liked labels that knowingly overcharged for records, and I wanted to create a model that I, as a consumer, would feel comfortable putting money into. I was thinking as a music fan and not as a business owner. I had the bright idea of selling these records for $10 each, free shipping, and I completely forgot about the cost of packaging, gas for post office trips, and the sort of important fact that shipping a record overseas can costs upward of $18. That was a hard lesson and something that could have been avoided entirely if I had been a little more patient. Fortunately, my husband Peter came over from Ireland and rescued me/the label, and now runs the entire operation flawlessly. It’s good to have backup! I always advise anyone seriously considering launching a business to learn from my mistake and to also register with the state government and pay taxes like a good citizen because the IRS is not to be messed with.
What’s in the future for you and The Black Birch?
I’ll frame my answer in numbers. There are about 13,600 community animal shelters in the US. Approximately 7.6 million companion animals enter these shelters every year. Of those, approximately 3.9 million are dogs and 3.4 million are cats. And each year, approximately 2.7 million animals, 1.2 million dogs and 1.4 million cats, are euthanized. I cannot begin to explain how important PR and social media are to animal welfare and how The Black Birch led me to this realization. Everyone can be a publicist when they do something as simple as sharing a photo of an adoptable dog on Facebook.
The most fulfilling work I’ve done with The Black Birch started in 2012 when I took on a publishing project with a seemingly impossible goal. I was the publicist, the marketer, and the promoter. In 2014, Metal Cats was published by powerHouse Books and thousands raised for no-kill shelters. I did pro bono work with local outfit Pillows for Paws, where volunteers meet monthly in a sewing circle to create pillows and toys which are then donated to the animals at the NYC Animal Care & Control shelter. In 2013, I began working with Paws PR, a marketing firm that specializes in the promotion of pet product companies and animal welfare groups, and its founder, Patricia Jones, who rose through the male-dominated journalism industry and broke out on her own as a highly successful publicist, entrepreneur and animal advocate. Any young girl doubting a career in media should learn that all things are possible.
I also worked with Alley Cat Allies, a national nonprofit that advocates for feral cats, and volunteered with Pets for Patriots, another national nonprofit founded by a female professional based in my area that matches up veterans with at-risk shelter pets. Although I will continue to refine The Black Birch and, with some help, serve a number of current and future music clients, I personally have decided to dedicate my full-time PR career to neglected animals. I recently accepted a position as social media coordinator at a major no-kill shelter and nonprofit in New York, and hope to bring about state-wide change through its wonderful program, an elementary and high school curriculum based on humane education, and reform adoption policies through public relations and social media strategies. I have been working on ideas to utilize the surprising amount of kindness and compassion for animals I’ve found in the music industry and form an alliance to create positive change, and that will definitely be a major part of The Black Birch’s future.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Remember to always thank your publicist and hug your dog (or cat)!