Remember that time you went to see Jason Aldean and he stopped the concert to take a pitch from a song plugger?
Of course not; that never happens. Aldean and his fellow artists are careful to make the stage a sacred place where the performance is not to be interrupted, especially by a sales pitch.
That's a conundrum country music journalists regularly face. Whether it takes 30 minutes or four hours to write a story, press releases stack up in emails, in addition to phone calls, texts and direct messages on social media. It goes with the turf: Reporters are writing about a specific genre, and it's a publicist's job to cultivate favorable media attention for their artists.
Yet in the last year or so, the volume of those pitches has increased dramatically. There is no hard-and-fast data available, but in a series of recent informal conversations with Nashville-based music journalists, all but one indicated that their email inboxes had ballooned beyond the manageable point in the last 12 months. Reporters estimated that they receive as few as 100 non-spam emails in a day to as many as 1,000. As the clutter accumulates, opportunities get missed, messages go unreturned, and party invites often don't get opened until after the event. There's a constant awareness of what could not be accomplished.
"If you commit to one story or one email, that means something else isn't being responded to or another story isn't being told," says freelance writer Lauren Tingle, a veteran journalist who works with SoundsLikeNashville.com and FocusOnthe615.com. "You have to be very selective. It definitely exacerbates the feeling of inadequacy, and we as a community just don't have time for that."
Tingle was the only journalist who could speak freely on the topic — supervisors denied other reporters permission to be interviewed on the record. But they generally agreed that the increase in outside email noise is a direct result of several specific developments surrounding country's popularity and the digital revolution:
• The evolution from an album-based industry to a track-based model. Where marketers previously geared PR campaigns around the release of an album every 18-24 months, they now build campaigns for each track or two, creating more releases about the same volume of music.
• Marketers increasingly turn one large event into a series of smaller ones. A tour announcement, for example, is no longer a single, detailed moment in time. It's now rolled out over a period of weeks with layers of piecemeal information: the tour name, the support acts, the relevant markets and the actual dates each coming separately.
• The business is on an upswing. Now that streaming is generating more revenue, companies are creating more media-targeted events. Those all come with emailed invitations — usually followed by multiple reminders.
• The maturation of digital media platforms has increased the number of content opportunities that publicists can target. Old-school magazines and radio syndicators are now multimedia entities with websites that offer stories, photos, videos and podcasts, plus numerous social-media accounts all begging to be fed, sometimes by the same person.
• The increased popularity of both Nashville and country has generated more interest from publicists and marketers in other cities. More PR firms from New York or Los Angeles have entered the game, and they often push non-country acts who they believe may have some crossover appeal for the country audience. Additionally, the increase in corporate sponsorships for the genre has created an extra layer of email traffic from brands looking to leverage their relationships with artists for more publicity.
Even before the recent onslaught, sorting the wheat from the chaff was taxing, says Brian Mansfield, who recently ended a four-year run as content director for Shore Fire Media (Justin Moore, Margo Price) after a two-decade run at USA Today. "Physically, there is no way to open and even scan — much less reply to — every email and have time to do anything else," he says.
The "anything else" is a lot. Mansfield typically averaged three stories a day during his time at USA Today. Each piece involved some period of discovery and homework, maybe an interview, and then the time to transcribe that interview before writing the story. Many writers are now expected to upload stories, supply the artwork and post on social media to generate attention. Multiply that across several stories, and there's a delicate balance between the writers on the beat and the publicists attempting to generate attention for their clients.
Some publicists are sensitive about pitching to outlets that likely will be interested. "We make sure that it aligns with the type of coverage that that outlet does," says Sweet Talk PR owner Jensen Sussman (Florida Georgia Line, Dustin Lynch). "Daily preps or trade outlets that are running photos daily — those are going to receive a bit more volume from us because we're catering toward each outlet."
Still, that leaves journalists overloaded. On Oct. 26, Tingle had invites to an Aldean roundtable press event, a Keith Urban No. 1 party, The Cadillac Three's album announcement and a National Music Publishers' Association Awards event that included performances by Hunter Hayes and Lee Brice.
"It's like you are living in a music festival and all these sets are competing against each other," says Tingle. "Sometimes you're going to miss something."
Which is why that email onslaught has become a problem. Writing on deadline requires focus, and the endless pitches create additional pressure on reporters who often feel overwhelmed by a pursuit they value. Aldean wouldn't put his show on hold to take a phone call; sometimes the email just has to pile up, too.
"If you're in a creative line of work, you have to protect that at all costs," says Tingle. "That's your main bread and butter, and I definitely intend on doing this."