Face it: You might be able to make it in the Inland Northwest based solely on your music and your live show. But you won't be big in Japan without some good press.
Before you start assembling your press kit, though, you have to understand the desires, temperament and attention span of the average music critic. That is, you must understand that while every music critic is constantly on the lookout for good music and good bands to write about (and the Holy Grail for all of them is to break a band nobody's heard of), they also have very little time to peruse each band's music and materials. So give them what they want: a simple but engaging press kit telling them why they should give you free publicity over all those other bands.
Your press kit, then, should consist of four or five things, no more.
The Cover Letter
This is optional. But a short, personalized — perhaps hand-written — note on top of your stack of materials is a good way to get a critic's attention.
The photo — and the cover of your CD — are the first things most critics look at when they tear into a press kit. The bio comes third, but this is where you can really hook them. Be simple, declarative and concise (don't go more than a page). Right off the bat, tell them where you're from and what kind of music you play. Give them a (brief) sense of your band members and how you got together. If you can stomach it, name a genre or two and contextualize your music with other bands you sound something like. We know you hate doing that, but it gives music writers a ballpark idea of what you're about.
Above all, give the press a reason to write about you. Sell your uniqueness. If you're a nose flute quartet from inner-city Detroit, don't hide that under a bushel. If you opened for the Arctic Monkeys at the Wiltern in L.A., tell us that (though don't boast). Music critics love bands with indie pedigrees.
But keep it simple and keep it short. And, please, don't assess your own music for us. Don't tell us you're really good. Let your press clippings speak for you. If you don't have any press clippings yet, just make sure you flaunt your uniqueness. Given the choice to write up a band that loves itself or a band with an interesting angle, every music writer will take the latter.
As we said above, the photo and the CD cover are the first things most critics look at when they get a package. That sounds shallow (shouldn't they listen to the music first?), but, again, writers don't have a lot of time. And a press photo can speak volumes about both the character and the quality of a band's music. A good one will have them diving into the rest of your materials.
At right is a really good press photo (top) from the Flaming Lips. Below it is a really bad one from some Pennsylvanian classic rock band that we found on MySpace.
It's not unheard of for a music critic to decide to write you up based solely on the fact that she wants to get that picture in her paper, so make the photo dynamic. Not only is the Lips' photo exciting, it gives you a hint as to their sound and their live show before you even hear the music.
The other photo is boring as hell, has no depth and is out of focus. It's cluttered. There's a distracting microphone in the foreground. The color's terrible. This picture is simply unprofessional. Which makes us thinks the band is unprofessional. Which makes us move on to the next press kit. At least they didn't superimpose their band's name on it or adding some kind of digital effect, though. (A paper should never have to Photoshop your pictures to use them.)
The Press Clips
Any time a newspaper writes you up, save the newspaper and make clean, high-res copies of the article. When you make your press kit, send these along. Most music writers are more likely to take a chance on you if another writer has. Even a mediocre review in a community paper lets a critic know that you're out there on the public radar.
If you're sending a digital press kit, scan the articles and turn them into small, easy-to-open PDF documents.
As mentioned above, your music is just about the last part of your press kit a music writer's going to check out. So if your photo, your bio, your cover letter and your clippings have gotten them this far, don't let them down. Make sure it's good, and make sure it's professional. And make sure the CD — or digital audio — works. Otherwise, into the trash can you go.