Talkin' 'Bout The Blues with Betsie Brown of Blind Raccoon
by Janet Hansen - December, 2013
For every performing and recording artist in the world, there is at least one someone working behind the scenes in a flurry of paper and phone calls making things happen. When one stops to consider the absolute glut in production of music titles annually -- over 110,000 commercial titles each year -- it's important to know someone who can help make any new release stand out.
Being a music industry publicist myself for 30 years, it is my firm belief that a good publicist is one of the first professionals anyone should add to their team. The really good ones possess a wealth of information and they know how to use it. They are the dot connectors every artist is looking for. With staggering lists of names and contacts in their database, a good publicist has earned the trust of the media, producers, venues, freelance writers, and a litany of industry insiders who benefit greatly when that person begins to leverage a narrative avalanche once a project is ready to launch. Publicists build buzz with strategy, methodically constructing solid foundations of information from which music takes on a public persona.
For the past several years, Betsie Brown of Blind Raccoon has been brought to my attention several times as the go - to PR specialist in the blues. Based in Memphis, Betsie is firmly rooted in the community renowned for its international reputation upholding one of the most pure of American art forms.
Though very busy, Betsie is bubbly and enthusiastic about her profession. Here are a few thoughts she shared through the busy holiday season of 2013.
Even those of us who work the "other side of the street" in music need a break now and then to get to that all important "next level." How did you get started in music and what breaks have you had to help further your career?
I was working in the PR department at the local utility in San Diego and I was let go in a downsizing move. At about the same time I was divorced and my mother and sister died. I say all this, not for pity, but because it opened my eyes to doing what makes you happy and content and not to waste time. To cheer me up, my boyfriend of the time introduced me to the blues with mixed tapes of Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker. I was hooked! After a few years of doing freelance event planning, I started the music publicity firm in 2000 with a partner - Crows Feet Productions. Once up and running, I moved to Memphis to be in the thick of things. I was heavily involved with The Blues Foundation at the time and was instrumental in keeping the International Blues Challenge on track while the foundation worked out the financial mess it was experiencing in the early 2000's.
I can't say any breaks landed easily at my feet. However one thing I did was benchmark the work of other publicists including the promotional excellence of Alligator Records. This was pivotal in opening my own firm, Blind Raccoon, and for providing me with a strategy that Iâ€™ve been implementing since January 2008. I've never looked back.
Tell us about the first project you worked on doing PR and marketing.
In my prior non-music life I was a banker in London and had the opportunity to work in the PR department on the bank's sponsorship of "The Great Japan Exhibition" in the early eighties. It was my first foray into PR and completely took over my life for two years. I worked with the Japanese Embassy, Royalty, celebrities and world-renown curators in presenting the first major exhibition of Japanese art outside of Japan. It's not often you get such an amazing job in the banking world.
As mentioned above I started the music publicity business while still in San Diego. Our break was to develop a blues concert series at one of the best venues in the city, Humphreys By The Bay, and undertook all the publicity for the series. Performers included Ike Turner, Roy Rogers, Cafe' R&B, Roy Gaines, Norton Buffalo, Mighty Mo Rodgers, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, to name just a few. It was a great way to get to know the blues world and its artists. The first artist, for whom we worked an album campaign, was locally-based artist, Lance McCollum. He was a great sport allowing us to get our feet wet!
With more than 25 years experience working in entertainment and music what are the three most memorable experiences?
Oh heavens, let me think. There are so many!
One has to be the year David "Honeyboy" Edwards received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy. I was on the board of the Memphis Chapter of the Recording Academy at the time and had submitted his name for consideration while working his last album on Earwig Music. I'll never forget his walk down the red carpet. Shortly thereafter Honeyboy left this world.
Honeyboy Edwards on the Red Carpet
My second most memorable experience was watching, from the audience, Buddy Guy win the Grammy for best contemporary blues album and Pinetop Perkins and Willie "Big Eyes" Smith win the Grammy for best traditional blues album. I had worked Buddy's "Living Proof" for Sony Music and it was my first visit to the Grammy's.
Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, Pinetop Perkins, Buddy Guy
Thirdly, receiving the Keeping the Blues Alive Award for publicist in 2009. Such an honor to be included.
And, my most recent memorable experience, being backstage at "A Night With Janis Joplin" snapping a photo of my former client, Mary Bridget Davies, who performs as Janis, chatting with the legendary Clive Davis.
Clive Davis and Mary Bridget Davies
The Blues is an authentic form of roots music that evolved out of America's deep south. What's your opinion of blending those traditional roots with country and folk music in the way Blues is embraced by the Americana community? How do you perceive Bonnie Raitt, for example, being honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Americana Music Association? The Blues fits into Americana, but Americana does not necessarily fit into The Blues.
I am all for it. Whatever it takes to keep the music in front of people. It can only benefit the music and the artists. And I don't care how it happens - via music associations, film, TV, societies, media, radio and major names such as John Mayer, Samuel L Jackson, Justin Timberlake et al.
Just recently, T Bone Burnett eschewed the idea of self-promotion which set off a bit of controversy. While discussing working on the upcoming Coen Brothers soundtrack for "Inside Llewyn Davis," Burnett is quoted as saying, "Self-promotion is a horrible thing. As soon as an artist self promotes he ceases to be an artist, he becomes a salesman." What is your reaction to his comment?
Some artists have no choice but to be their own salespeople. The important thing is to do it properly, whoever does it. Naturally it's best to have professional business people do the business end and I recommend artists to budget for a publicist. But that's not always possible.
What advice do you give to established and emerging artists regarding the digital side of marketing? For example, are ReverbNation, Facebook, Twitter or any other digital platforms of a uniform nature necessary to effective promotion? Do media outlets pay any attention to this at all in your experience?
Media hardly have time to review the music thatâ€™s in front of them as well as connect or review social media of the artist. I doubt they go searching social media unless they are completely taken by the music/artist. I consider social media to be a platform to interact with the artist at a personal level. And it is an essential tool for that reason.
Who have you worked with and what's in the pipeline for 2014?
I've had the pleasure and privilege to work with blues legends - Pinetop Perkins, Honeyboy, Hubert Sumlin, Buddy Guy, Charlie Musselwhite - as well as Tinsley Ellis, Moreland & Arbuckle, Mary Bridget Davies, Jason Vivone & the Billy Bats, Grand Marquis, Ruff Kutt Blues Band, Billy Gibson, Ian Siegal out of the UK, David Gogo out of Canada, Pristine out of Norway, Bert Deivert out of Sweden, and the list goes on.
In 2014 I'll be working new releases from Eddie Cotton & JJ Thames (Grady Champion's DeChamp Records), Jim Suhler, Jason Vivone & the Billy Bats, The Bluesmasters Volume Three, Halley DeVestern Band, Bob Lanza Blues Band and Hard Garden, Terry Quiett Band, to name just a few.
I also have my showcase taking place in Memphis in January 23/24. This year it's a big one with Jason Elmore and Hoodoo Witch, Kirsten Thien, Bob Lanza, Jason Vivone & the Billy Bats, Grand Marquis, Terry Quiett Band.
Blind Raccoon Collection: Volume Two will be distributed in 2014. It's a sampler of clients' music used as a promotional tool.
To what do you attribute to the enthusiasm European audiences hold for The Blues in comparison to American audiences?
It's hard to know what the reason is, but I see it every day. Maybe the usual story. What's on your doorstep you often give less attention. When I work with international media and radio, the response is always wonderful. They are enthusiastic, attentive, and want to be educated (although they often know more than me). They are into the history as well as the music and place great significance on the role of blues music in American history.
Having worked in marketing and PR about the same length of time as you have, I have some definite ideas about what was working brilliantly during the end of the 20th century. I still use some of those methods and strategies depending on the project. What 20th century ideals do you hang onto when it comes to PR and marketing?
My mantra in marketing music or any product for that matter, is to use all available tools to send out a consistent and memorable message. I don't know if that's 20th or 21st Century thinking. And I don't believe it matters. For me, whatâ€™s essential is the groundwork one does before putting the music out there in the big wide world. Do you have a good promo doc that shares info about the artist and the music? Do you have great images? Is your online presence up to date, clean looking and easy to find? Have you a business strategy for moving forward with your career? Do you have a social media strategy? Publicity and PR should be as well planned as the recording itself.
2013 marks the 29th year of Janet Hansen's career as a music marketing specialist. With three Grammy award-winning campaigns to her credit, Hansen has also contributed to the legacy of two of history's most popular songs. "Classical Gas" by Mason Williams is the most-broadcast instrumental tune in history; and "Louie, Louie" by The Fabulous Wailers is the most-recorded rock song in history. In 2009 Hansen launched the global music platform https://scout66com.wordpress.com/ to encourage reviews of live shows from the ticket-buying public.
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