Laurie Jakobsen is the founder and president of Jaybird Communications, a public relations and marketing communications firm that represents a variety of tech companies and innovative start-ups. Laurie has an MBA with marketing specialization from NYU’s Stern School of Business and a BA cum laude in English from Tufts University, along with over 15 years’ experience in public relations and marketing, ranging from artist representation to work with start-up dot-coms and major multi-national music companies. She got her start in the music industry as a fan and began writing about bands in the Arts column of her daily college paper at Tufts University. After interning at many different types of businesses within the music space, she developed a passion for public relations. As part of the boutique firm Shore Fire Media, she was part of the team that represented artists including Bruce Springsteen, Wynton Marsalis and the family of Jimi Hendrix. After working with N2K Encoded Music, the first Internet-focused record label helmed by legendary producer Phil Ramone, she went on to work at a variety of up-and-coming companies in the early days of the Digital Age. In 1999, she was recruited to handle all technology-related communications at Sony Music Entertainment, including the launch of one of the first subscription music services, pressplay. In 2003, Laurie joined The Harry Fox Agency (HFA) to build the company’s marketing and communications department so it would be better suited to the digital marketplace. She has spoken on panels at CMJ and the Miami Music Festival and guest lectured at universities throughout the New York City area on PR topics. Jaybird Communications’ clients include Indaba Music, 7digital, Bandsintown, the National Music Retailers Association (NARM), Tunesat and Cellfish Media. She also works with NY Tech Meetup, a not-for-profit organization supporting and promoting the area’s technology community.
Laurie took some time to talk to me about her experience in the music industry and some qualities both artists and tech entrepreneurs need to have in order to succeed. She also shared some advice for artists looking to improve the way they communicate about their brand, so they can better market themselves and their music and build solid careers.
Thanks so much for taking some time to talk to me, Laurie. How did you get into the music business, and what has the experience of watching all the changes that have taken place been like for you?
I got my start like a lot of people do: I was a fan of music. I sometimes joke that if it wasn’t for Duran Duran, I wouldn’t be doing any of this at all. I went to college as an English major, and my school – Tufts University – had a daily newspaper. I noticed it had an Arts column, and it occurred to me that I could get CDs and go see shows and write about them, and even get to interview great musicians. So, that’s exactly what I did. My first taste of the music industry was at 18.
From there, I did a lot of internships to try out different aspects of the industry. First, I interned at Good Times in New York as a writer. I also interned at radio station WFNX in Boston, which connected me to the Musician’s Guide to Touring and Promotion, and I started getting exposed to the PR side of things. I liked the idea of advocating for artists that I liked. For me, the downside of being a writer was the objectivity. I wanted to keep promoting the bands that I really liked, and that seemed to be what these PR folks were doing. Eventually, I came back to New York and got my first job in the public relations field.
In the mid ‘90s, it became clear to me that the Internet offered a lot of opportunities for musicians, and I was ready for a change. There was an opening to start the PR department for a record label run by a company called N2K – which was a very early music distribution site, pre-Amazon, that sold CDs by mail order. That started me on my way on the digital and business side of the industry.
And that’s how I got my start, going from artist PR to the tech side of the business, which is pretty much what I’ve been doing since 1997, believe it or not.
It’s interesting because I’ve interviewed a bunch of publicists, and I don’t know that too many of them have the technical proficiency and writing proficiency. And what made me think of interviewing you was when we sat down, and you discussed that today’s artists – and you may have been referring to both musicians and tech entrepreneurs because now your clients are mostly media and tech companies – really need an education on how to have transactional conversations. Can you speak a little bit more about, in your experience with artists and entrepreneurs, what is lacking and what your service bolsters up that they need?
A lot of people have drawn the analogy between musicians and tech startups. And I think it’s very apt, because you do have to have that entrepreneurial personality that I would say suspends disbelief when everyone is telling you, “You’re crazy. You won’t be successful. What are you thinking?” Musicians and startup founders go out there anyway and make it happen.
But when it comes to communications, most musicians have a leg up on their business counterparts. Many musicians have been rehearsing their Rolling Stone or MTV interviews with a hairbrush as much as they were singing along to their favorite tracks. But very few entrepreneurs grew up practicing their Time magazine “Person of the Year” interview. I think what people don’t always realize is that in business – to repeat what you said – communications are transactional. And that can sound a little cold. But whether you’re sitting down in a business development or strategy meeting, or doing an interview with a journalist, there’s a purpose to that conversation; there’s something in the end that will benefit both of you. And the words you choose, the way you present yourself, what you choose to show as a visual, even down to the way you dress and the setting of the meeting is all part of that transaction. As a communications person, when you’re counseling people about interviews, they’ll sometimes think the conversation is a toss-off: “I’m just talking. It’s not a big deal.” There is no such thing as “just talking” with a journalist – always be prepared to see what you say in print.
Whether you are a musician or a businessperson, whatever conversation you’re having, you do need to prepare for it. You need to think about “What is this person coming to the table with? What am I coming to the table with? Where do we meet? Do I have to move this person’s point of view towards mine? Do I have to move towards them?” In order to get the best result for both of you, that’s how you need to approach everything related to your business.
When you said “transactional conversation,” I started to think about a lot of the people who email me. And what’s evident is that they need help. But they don’t know what they need. They often will just say, “Can you get me to the next level?” And that’s something that burns in my soul every time I hear it, because it indicates the person hasn’t thought through what they actually need. And one thing my job isn’t is to figure that out for them. So, in your experience, what do you often wind up guiding musicians and entrepreneurs away from when it comes to their introductory emails?
When it comes to plain email communications – and I do general communications coaching too, beyond PR, which is why my company is called Jaybird Communications and not Jaybird PR – it starts at the beginning, with the subject line. First off, have one. The number of people that send emails without subject lines boggles my mind. That subject line should sum up the action item for the person you’re sending it to. That’s how people prioritize their in-box. It may sound funny, but I think the subject line is often overlooked.
Then, when it comes to actually constructing an email communication, it’s not that much different from constructing a press release or other piece of marketing material. It’s your classic “pyramid” construct that everyone probably learned in English and promptly forgot: Be cordial, but state what you’re looking for upfront and include all the supporting information after.
This is the classic style of a newspaper story, which is why I counsel people to read their favorite section of The New York Times every day to get the hang of that format. This structure is not intuitive to everybody, particularly people that come from a more conversational background. They will literally flip the pyramid: you’ll have three paragraphs of background information explaining the situation, and then it concludes with the most important point or action item. That is not the most efficient way to have any sort of business communication.
For some people, they have to learn a new communication style for business communications, and that can be tricky. But as you were saying about those who write you and say, “Get me to the next level,” people need to put a little bit of thought into what they’re asking. Sometimes it’s as easy as, “I’m not quite sure what the next step is. Can I meet with you to brainstorm?” And that’s a more specific question than, “How can you get me to the next level.” I think there’s a subtle difference there.
Absolutely. It’s a very specific request. While I don’t deal with as many entrepreneurs as you do, after I read emails from both artists and entrepreneurs, I understand they have a need, but I don’t understand what they want me to do about it. I realize they are in peril, but I don’t know at what point that became my problem.
Exactly. I do short classes on communications, and the one thing that tends to blow people’s minds is that the first rule of communications is “Who is your audience?” That question really dictates everything else. Most people, when they think of communications, would think of it in the first person, as in, this is what I have to say. But communications is actually all about the “you” – the audience. While your message is important, if you can’t figure out how to translate that message to help the “you” – the other side of the conversation – take action, it’s an ineffective communication.
I think if someone is failing to get the response they want from their emails or other communications, they have to go back and ask themselves, “What am I doing that’s not making this email, press release, website, etc., effective?” If you find yourself saying, “My audience just doesn’t get it,” then you need to modify your message for your audience; your audience doesn’t have the incentive to move to meet you.
I think that’s a lesson that can be hard for people, especially innovators, that have sensibilities either musically or business-wise that are ahead of the curve. They have to be aware that there is a giant mass of people in the United States and around the world that have to catch up with you. And even somebody as progressive as Lady Gaga is very aware of her audience and not getting too far ahead of them. You need to look at people like that for the lessons they can teach you as communicators, whether or not you like their art.
Interesting. I wasn’t thinking of communication necessarily beyond words, but you’re talking about communication with imaging and all sorts of other things. What does it look like for you when you’re trying to position your clients without the spoken word? Obviously, you have relationships. But what other forms of context+ are important when you’re presenting something with online marketing materials, etc.?
It’s funny to say, but really everything. I think that’s what has changed so much in the past 10-15 years. When I started in this industry, email essentially didn’t exist. You faxed press releases and mailed materials. Some people subscribed to wire services, but the way people interacted with your news was very specific. Now, you have to think about video, pictures, what the website looks like, your blog, you name it. There are so many other avenues of communication, which is great. But you do need to now be hyper-aware of what you are doing with things like Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and whether you host your own website in addition to your social media pages. Everyone needs to be much more aware of media, in all its forms.
The most important part is that you really have to look at communications holistically. What you say on your website can’t be radically different from the way you present yourself on your Twitter page or when you sit down for a meeting in person. Because, in this day and age, the first thing anyone is going to do to get ready to meet with you is search and see what they can find out about you on the Internet, Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. So you need to know what’s out there and be prepared to address that.
Some of it, too, is that you have to decide the things you’re really good at. I was working with somebody at one point who couldn’t wrap her head around using Twitter, but loved to post video on Facebook. You might think, “Gee, Twitter is easier.” But for some reason, for her, it wasn’t. So, that’s the way she chose to develop her communications. Social media can take a lot of time, so you have to look at what your strengths are.
Also, you have to know what your audience responds to. Particularly if you’re getting into something that is very mass market, people are still going to want to call you up and talk on the phone. You still have to have that 1-800 line. If your customer service is only through Twitter, for example, it’s not going to do it for a mass market audience. But it’s perfectly appropriate for a social media app. As I said, communication always goes back to who your audience is and what they respond to best. And then you put that together with what you’re good at and either decide, “I need to get better at A, B and C,” or, “Even though I like doing a couple of these things, I really don’t need to invest as much time and money on that, because it doesn’t mesh with my audience.”
If you’re a musician, I think Twitter and Facebook both present an opportunity to really sit down and talk to your fans about who you are vs. just promoting your product. To go back to Lady Gaga, she’s been a master at this. Her fans feel intimately connected to her because of what she does on social media. And that’s absolutely fantastic. It’s not for every artist, but it’s an example of what you can do.
I know you’re working with companies like Indaba, 7digital – a music distribution company – and also Bandsintown – a company that works with Facebook to support artists’ live dates. And you’re working with Cellfish Media, who owns Bandsintown and produces a lot of app content, including things for the NFL, NBA and NHL. And of course, you work with NARM and their digitalmusic.org arm. As somebody who is very much on the cusp of helping media technologies develop, do you have any insight about specific areas of growth that both musicians and entrepreneurs should be aware of?
I think we’ve all been waiting for mobile to happen in the United States, but it hasn’t quite hit yet. And I think the move to HTML5 is going to be a real watershed moment once it hits critical mass, because right now we live in this split iOS/Android world. How those various markets operate creates lots of difficulties for people that want to be on mobile because it’s such an investment to support multiple platforms.
I think the reality is, as smartphones are adopted more and more, people are just going to go straight to the Internet to get everything they need on their phones. So, I think while apps are very hot, and I’m sure they will stay that way, as Internet connectivity on phones gets better, the need for a specific app becomes less critical.
At the same time, people have been saying the ringtone market is over. But that’s just not true. Cellfish happens to distribute what was the #1 ringtone on iOS in January, which was the “Mom, Mom, Mom” Stewie quote from Family Guy. So, there’s still an incredible market for ringtones.
There’s also still a lot of room for development on platforms like Facebook. You can look at something like what Bandsintown does: Making it easier for artists to promote their shows and get their fans to communicate about them, which ultimately gets more people out to the gigs. There’s still so much that can be done on all these platforms. So, I think there’s a lot to be expanded upon in the media realms that we already know. But we have to be careful not to get too ahead of ourselves by saying, “What’s the next thing? What’s the newest thing?”
This is particularly true if you’re a musician. If you’re Trent Reznor, you obviously want to be on the next and the newest thing. But if you’re somebody that wants to appeal to a big audience – going back to what I keep hammering home about “audience, audience, audience” – you might not want to be so far ahead of them. For example, speaking in a gross generalization, let’s say you’re a classic country artist. It’s not that this audience doesn’t use cell phones, but they may not be using them to text as much or post to Twitter. As I said before, you want to be where they are, not way, way ahead of them. That doesn’t sync well with that audience.
In terms of specific trends, I would definitely say to look out for HTML5, which will help developers go beyond the siloed app experience of, “This is what you can do on your iPhone. And this is what you can do on your Android device, your BlackBerry, or whatever else.” And I’m always fascinated by what I see at NY Tech Meetup because it’s the cutting-edge businesses that come to their events. They’re often barely a company, just one or two people with an idea, and they’ll demo something that’s very early stage.
I love to see how people put their ideas together. I don’t represent this company, but my mind was blown by Shapeways, who did an NYTM demo late last year, because they took something that is on the market – 3D design and printing – and made it accessible to everybody. I gave gift certificates to my artist friends for the holidays so they could render their designs in ceramic, metal or plastic for the first time, no sculpting required. I’m always intrigued by companies that make it easy for people to realize their creative ideas.
Laurie has moved away from representing artists and now mostly works with innovative tech companies and start-ups within the music space. To learn more about Laurie Jakobsen and her company, visit the Jaybird Communications website. You can also follow her on Twitter.