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Interview with DICK HUEY, online promoter at Toolshed Media for Arcade Fire, Deerhoof, Kristen Hersh, Matador Records - Nov 8, 2010

“There’s a big bullsh*t factor in the blogosphere. You can't try to put something across as good music when it isn't. That's the beauty about online promotion nowadays – it's about good music”

picture Ever since bands like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Arctic Monkeys broke through with the aid of enthusiastic support from the blogosphere, influential ‘tastemaker’ blogs have become hugely valuable as promotional media. But with credibility vital to the success of any music blog, its keepers want music recommended by respected sources, not wealthy patrons looking for favours.

By only working projects that he loves, Dick Huey has made Toolshed Media a respected and, consequently, successful online music promoter, not only within the blogosphere but across the web, with clients including artists such as Arcade Fire (USA & UK No.1), Deerhoof (Top 20 US Independent), Kristin Hersh and Be Your Own Pet’s Jemina Pearl and indie labels like Rough Trade and Matador Records.

In this interview Huey talks about how he uses the web’s many tools – including blogs, social networking sites and direct-to-fan platforms - to market artists, and why marketing shouldn’t feel like marketing.

Can you explain what Toolshed is doing?

You can look at us as a critical eye that knows what a successful online marketing project looks like and can point you in the right direction.

We provide artists with access to a large network who trusts what we are sending them. If you are an unknown band, it's not easy. You are welcome to do it yourself but percentage wise I would bet on us being more successful. That's based on that we have done for about 350 media projects in last 10 years.

We have been very much at the forefront in helping the labels and the artists we work with take advantage of new trends. So when social networks started to become of interest we developed promotional relationships with different social networks. We have been advising clients how to setup their profile on how they should cross-market on different social network platforms.

Can you explain a strategy using a recent example?

Kristin Hersh is a very well respected artist who did many records on 4AD and has released her most recent record on her own. For that particular release we assisted her in outreaching to different digital music services like iTunes to help retain feature space. We did blog outreach for her - reaching out to bloggers to share mp3s and downloads, and to stream the record.

Another example is Freedy Johnston. We built his online presence using Topspin (HQ interview) technology and we worked with the record label Bar/None to come up with a product selection. We did an additional feature on a blog.

We have a long-term relationship with the blog world. We were one of the first companies to dedicate resources exclusively to bloggers. We had a blog division in 2004 when there were maybe only ten music blogs at the time.

So when you reach out to a blog how does it work? It seems to me like bloggers don't like when things come from a promotion company or are too corporate?

We are not a corporate company. That's where putting your money where your mouth is becomes important. There are a lot of promotion companies and record labels that will take on whatever comes across their doorstep. When you do that you wind up not having a personality.

Toolshed has been really exclusive. I don't pick up projects that I don't like. It's about the music - if there is a pop project where the music doesn't appeal to me then I will turn it down. We try to stand for something and have a strong brand. If you ask around, ask bloggers who we are, I think most will tell you we are known for working projects that have good music. You can't manufacture that buzz.

There’s a big bullshit factor that goes on in the blogosphere. You can't try to put something across as good music when it isn't. If you don't believe in it and the bloggers don't believe in it, it might get dissed. That's the beauty about online promotion nowadays - it's about good music.

It's not as easy as it used to be. There is a huge excess of companies that are all writing to bloggers, to the point where bloggers are largely ignoring the emails that come in. I was speaking to a press contact I know and he told me he gets 1700-1800 emails a day. I get a lot of emails a day but it's not that much.

How do you find out which are the current important blogs?

Most bloggers have a blog roll - it’s a list of all the others blogs they read, usually published on their blog.

Bloggers tend to help each other out. They do that by reading each other’s blogs and by paying attention to what someone else writes. I largely know what kind of music they are going to be interested in.

I try to apply the same criteria to bloggers that receive records from us to picking records. I read the blog. If I find the writing compelling - it doesn't matter to me if it's got an audience of 1000 people - I jump on board and we will make our records available to them. Like quality musicians, quality writers will rise to the top.

If I see someone has a large blog roll or they are writing in depth articles that show they know their music history I like to add them to my list. Then I look into other places in the Internet where bloggers congregate - places like blogger forums, like Elbows for instance.

There isn’t a chart that we follow that says which is the most popular blog. Some of the most popular blogs have stopped working with promotional people. They source what they like.

Just to get an idea, how many blogs do you reach out to?

Our digital mailing list is maybe around 130-140 blogs. These are the ones that actually receive music from us. Our full newsletter list is about 500. In that there are probably around 250 bloggers.

I read you worked with Arcade Fire for example. How does a strategy for a band like that work?

With them we were part of the online marketing for the last two records - not including 'The Suburbs'. That band is a bit of a special case - there wasn't a unique strategy. They benefited from the reputation that we have and a fairly traditional campaign from our perspective.

For the second record 'Neon Bible' a lot of the marketing on that record was driven by management. It was a bit more reacting on what management wanted to accomplish to us coming up with our own ideas. We were specifically hired for the new media outreach on those records.

Is there another example where you can describe a certain strategy?

With Sharon van Etten we worked her first record. When we took on the project she had some profile in the New York area and that's about it. We helped build her up to a point that she had enough online and press to be able to get a booking agent, and a larger label got interested enough to put out her second record.

What did you do to achieve that?

It was very much old-fashioned pounding the pavement. I would write a very detailed and personal letter to certain bloggers and tell them she is playing in their area or saying something like, “I've been sending you records for a long time, this is something really special and you really need to listen to it and if you didn't get it the first time, listen to it again until you do get it.” That's 1-on-1 promotion and you need to have the relationships to have people trust your opinion.

Another example is the band The Whip. There was an eight-month of roll out on that project. It involved initially putting out specific pieces of content, building up the bands online presence. We did a lot of outreach on and around CMJ. We tried to get people out to the shows.

The things we do don't seem earth shattering. We take on good bands and talk about them a lot to people who trust what we are saying. We have been really early on the social networking sites like imeem and iLike. We had some really nice features that were related to our early relationships.

What are you interested in at the moment?

At the moment I'm really interested in the direct-to-fan space and that's something I put a lot of resources and time into. I think it's an area with a lot of growth potential. The techniques that we are using are smart marketing techniques.

If we are doing an outreach to a certain kind of people, we think, what do we give a value? Are we offering something that is really free? Or are we going to give an mp3 for an email address? Is the band known enough to be able do that? Are the people interested enough to give something in return? You have to be critical with these kind of decisions before you just do something.

Another example would be, a couple of years ago we tried to setup a thing for a Beach Boys release which never ended up happening. We attempted to release all the songs on the album on the same day on different blogs as low quality mp3s. The label ended up not biting on it but I still think it's a great idea.

We were working on the last record for Deerhoof. We released a video for every song on the record. That was very effective.

We did a lot of work for the label Morr Music - not just the marketing for all their releases, we also spent a lot of time building their profile in the US and positioning them. Now they do everything in-house, which happens fairly often - we educate the label and get them to a point where they can work by themselves. Now when they put out records people know who they are.

Do you use buying advertising space like banners etc. on certain online sites as a promotional tool?

It's an area that we have not done a lot of work in but I think it's important. We are occasionally asked where we think would be a smart advertising space. We talk to our clients about for example Facebook ads but we don't actually place them. We tell them to use an ad aggregator to place advertising. I’d like to see us move more aggressively into that space.

How do you work on a marketing plan for a band?

We do setup work on every single project that comes out. We are looking at what a band is capable of producing. Are they going to produce a video for one of the tracks on the record? What are their touring plans like? What is the quality of their distribution? How did the last albums sell? Where is their fanbase located? What do their social networking websites look like?

Every project is different and it's normally a multi hour conversation. We don't like to go out and say, “Listen to the record, listen to the record!” We try to go out in a more fan kind of way than we do in a hype kind of way. We find that more effective.

How long is a campaign and what does it cost?

A typical campaign is two or three months. That said there are many campaigns where we are involved for up to 8 months - it depends on the budget.

I try to be flexible and aware that individual artists are funding their campaign out of their pockets. I'm willing to work with almost anybody's budget - depending on how I feel about the band or the project and the likelihood of success.

We have relationships that are based on percentage of sales and relationships that are based on a flat fee or it's a combination of both. The range goes from $1,000/month to $3000/month. It depends on what the project is, how much work is going to be involved and what we need to do. I look at the project, go on the phone and tell the band why I believe in the record and why I think we would be good at it or why I think we wouldn't be good at it. I'm honest with the bands. I don't want to pick up a project that we can't deliver on. I want our client to be happy and I think we are going the extra mile.

I would say the majority of our client base is referred from artists, managers that heard of us from somebody else.

What do you think will happen with the social networking sites - MySpace or Facebook, for example?

I think despite the things that have been written about MySpace and the fact that it took so long to update their interface, it's still important. Every band I work with has a MySpace. Even if the platform isn't that active in the moment I wouldn't write it off just yet.

There is a lot of activity on Facebook but their music interface isn't that good. To let the platform do what it doesn't offer you, you need to use Facebook add-ons from other companies. Facebook is good because it makes it very easy to share information.

It's important that your different social networking sites refer to one another, so you talk about your Twitter in your Facebook post or direct them to a contest you do on MySpace.

We are working with an artist called New Idea Society. They’d put out several records but their social network presence was neglected. We came up with a plan to release an EP and as part of the roll out for that we used a tweet-per-media product that allowed people who read a certain tweet to get a piece of media. We didn't do that through Topspin or Nimbit or any other big provider, we used open source technology.

To build a bit of buzz on the social networks we gave away all four tracks on that record utilising different platforms. We used tweet-for-media on Twitter, Facebook-for-media on Facebook and put up one track on the bands website. This was all in anticipation of a full-length record that has just been released, four months after the EP.

To build up a band’s social network to a point where it's a useful promotional tool, the band or someone related to the band, needs to be communicating on a regular basis otherwise the results will be short term games. We just put the tools at their disposal.

What is more important from a marketing perspective, making a slick video or throwing a shoe at a politician?

[laughs] It depends on the band and it depends on how good the music and the video is. If you've got a truly interesting fun concept, that's great value. If you have a great song it might look pale next to it and it doesn't matter too much. If the song is not 100% solid it might take a great video to make it work out. First and foremost it depends on the band.

I don't think it's better to do some thing that is just crazy and stupid if you are not a crazy and stupid band. It makes more sense for you to focus on your music and why your music is good. Approach it from the quality of music perspective instead of doing something that creates attention for five minutes.

We worked with an artist called Jemina Pearl for example, a project for next year on Ecstatic Peace. She was the singer in Be Your Own Pet. She had very much of a punk attitude around her. Iggy Pop played on the opening track on the record. At one point she jumped off the stage and beat up a fan. That is part of what she is, it's not an act.

Can you work with a story like this?

Sure because it's genuine. You need to be real. It used to be so easy to whip something up and claim that it was the best spaghetti you have ever eaten but in fact it was spoiled... You can't do that anymore! When the music industry was deeply involved in the magazines and it was all about favours, it was much easier to pass off something like that.

If you have a project that isn't convincing or it feels like marketing, there is a good chance that you are not going to be successful with it. That's why I am very careful about what projects I sign up with and they are not just always obvious things.

The common thread is: It's about good music.

Interviewed by Jan Blumentrath

Read On ...

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* Amanda Beel, promoter for Robert Plant, Mariah Carey, on how the future of music promotion is online