Your Email is an Unwelcome Kiss from an Ugly Stranger
(And Other Reasons Your Email Isn’t Being Returned)
This is a re-post of an article published in 2013. Several years later and not much has changed.
I am a big believer in doing as much legwork on your own as you possibly can before reaching out to music industry executives and other gatekeepers. That said, there comes a time in every artist’s career where they are going to have to approach someone to get to that proverbial “next level.” There is a right way of doing this (and several wrong ways of doing this). Sadly, many artists repeatedly write emails that go right into the trash because of very basic mistakes that can be easily avoided.
Obviously the first and most basic rule of the approach is “Don’t approach someone with a cold email if you can avoid it.” Knowing someone who knows the person you are trying to get in touch with can help a great deal. However, I realize that going in with a strong referral isn’t always an option. Consider these things to avoid when you’re putting together your next cold email.
1) Form Letters
Sure, you may be able to get your message out to hundreds (or even thousands!) of people. But if people feel like you are sending them a form letter about a specific need or a desired business relationship, it’s not likely to work. No one likes to feel like they are just a name on a list. And speaking of names on a list, if you have to go for a mass email blast, sending an email to yourself and cc-ing rather than bcc-ing everyone won’t win you any favors from people who hold positions where both bot-generated and musician-generated spam mail comes with the territory.
It is reasonable to cut and paste some information, but at least take the time to customize the first few sentences and address the recipient by name. Also, let the person you are contacting know specifically why you are contacting them. What makes you think you are a good fit for what they do and why? Let’s just say you are looking to approach a blogger. Saying something like, “I just read your story on this other artist and I really like the way it was written. I thought that since you liked what they do you might appreciate my new single…” is much more likely to get a response than a press release about your new product addressed to no one in particular.
2) Poor Presentation
This is extremely common! I often get emails from people in which their names are not obvious from the email address and not included in the “from” field by their email program. On top of that, they don’t bother to introduce themselves or put any kind of signature indicating who they are or where they are from. From my vantage point, I am getting a message from [email protected]. Who are you? What do you want?
*As a side note, I’m easy to get a hold of. I am for hire so it is part of my job to be as reachable as possible. Also, it isn’t hard to tell from presentation who is taking their career and image seriously and who is not. If there are people out there who are having trouble getting a hold of me, then they can forget about ever getting a hold of people who are really difficult to contact cold like A&R people, Spotify editors, Music Supervisors, and music journalists. *
Another huge issue in presentation is spelling and grammar. Personally, I would be completely lost without spell check, but reaching out to a stranger for help and then sending them what appears to be a drunken text to a close friend isn’t a good idea. This all might sound silly, but I have found a huge correlation between the way people present themselves on email and how together their career is, and I respond to emails in order of the likelihood that I am dealing with someone who is serious (and willing to work).
Lastly on the presentation front: Saying you have talent is meaningless. Executives hear this all day long. The best thing you can do to get someone’s attention is to make a concentrated effort on your pitch prior to sending and running it by friends and peers that can be honest with you. What turns my head is not when people talk about their talent, but when they describe their achievements. Do you have a ton of social media followers and an obvious dialogue with fans online? Are you drawing well or playing with more established artists? Are you working with anyone who has great credits? Do you have lots of organic views on YouTube? These are the things that will get people’s attention.
3) Lack of Research
You can much more easily begin a personal relationship with someone when you have specifics about their job function and their professional history. With blogs, Linkedin and any of the other resources available online these days there is no excuse not to have a good understanding of what people have done in the past and on which projects they have worked. Knowing these things can go a long way in adding a personal touch to the email you are sending someone. I am always grateful when people take the time to read about my past before reaching out. Admittedly I’m usually annoyed when people don’t bother to read anything and just ask for help without knowing who I am or what I do. And in my case, all that information is provided in a link right next to the contact link. I get intoxicated voicemail at 3am on a Sunday from people wanting a record deal (from me … even though I don’t run a label) or want me to manage them (I don’t manage artists). One of my favorite calls to date was someone asking for Jay-Z’s phone number (which I still don’t have) and then offering me 50% of the guaranteed collaboration that would result from me giving it to him.
Beyond the research on any one individual though it is important that you also research understand the mindset of a person who is the gatekeeper (Music supervisors, A&R people, Publishers, major journalists etc.) of big opportunities. Firstly, they can’t possibly return all the correspondences or listen to all of the music they get. Secondly – and this is especially true with big organizations – very few individuals make 100% of the decision about major opportunities like getting a song getting placed in a movie, getting a major write up in a big magazine or getting someone signed to a record label or publisher. Almost every executive these days has a boss, a client or someone else who handles the purse strings to contend with before pulling the trigger on a decision that could really help your career as an artist. The second part of the job is important to note also, because the easiest part of a gatekeeper’s job is getting in a steady flow of music to pick from. The hardest part of a gatekeeper’s job is keeping a gatekeeper’s job. The politics and juggling involved with keeping everyone happy internally and making sure your external relationships are secure in case you are out of a gig (there is a high turnover rate with creative jobs like this) are almost full-time jobs in and of themselves. Long story short, like these people or hate them, it’s important to know before you approach them that they are often pretty stressed out.
4) Unreasonable Expectations
Imagine you encountered a stranger and they briskly walked up to you saying “Hello my name is _____,” and while they headed towards you at an uncomfortable pace they attempted to kiss you.
You should be thinking, “Wow this is unexpected/inappropriate/ scary…” Yes, indeed. It is. What is my point? Well, my point is that bluntly asking for a huge favor, a contract, a partnership, a record deal or any other lasting business relationship from a stranger in a first email is also inappropriate (although less creepy). I can’t tell you how many emails I get without any information, background or even someone’s name that say something to the effect of “Help! I am really talented and I need you to manage me.” Not that I manage people, but if I did … would I want to partner with someone who was willing to blindly decide that I was the one to guide their career without having met me or had a phone call?
That’s a ridiculous example obviously, but the real point is, take your time to get to know someone and what they do. Breaking the ice with an email never instantly leads to a partially executed contract on your doorstep. It’s supposed to lead to building a relationship and getting someone to take you seriously enough to give your material their time and attention.
5) Undefined Goals
Vague emails are really hard to respond to. A very common request I get is about “getting to the next level”. Do I understand in a general way what it means? Sure. Do I know specifically what people mean by that and what they need or if I am a good fit for getting these people to said next level? No, I don’t have a clue.
Before asking someone else, make sure that you have clearly defined your goals. Many people respond with knee-jerk responses like, “I want a record deal,” or “I need a manager.” It’s important to break down these wants into specifics. What functions and help do you really need to meet your specific goals? What people forget is that for every brilliant partnership, there are plenty of lousy ones. And many of the lousy ones result from people not taking the time to really think through their needs and desires.
When you say, “I need a publishing deal,” do you mean, “I would like…” (because really we need food, water, shelter and good health; lighten up). Don’t you really mean, “I want someone to help me get my music placed in film and TV and arrange collaborations and co-writes with other artists I like and respect”? Maybe it means something else to you. But whatever it means to you, write it out for yourself. Be specific without making a plan that hinges on the participation of a person or a business to which you don’t have access.
Of course, it need not apply to only publishing deals; it can be for whichever goals you have for yourself. One of the most encouraging things you can do in the eyes of a gatekeeper is to demonstrate that with or without their help, you are making progress in getting where you want to go.