I got a call recently from a fellow songwriter, who is based out of Arizona. He was asking for my advice about hiring a PR person for his upcoming album release. It’s his 4th album, and he wanted to do it right this time and plan ahead. He mentioned a PR agency I’d heard of here in NY. They seemed to have an okay reputation, but they wanted to charge him $3,500 a month. (!) It was a hefty price tag for an artist who, despite having great music, is still not well-known enough to compete with Ryan Adams in the eyes of the press or the general public. I ended up talking him out of it and recommending some other more affordable options.
My songwriter friend is not a novice, nor is his situation unique. Like many lesser-known artists, he’s not backed by anything except his own hard work. He’s not behind the times, he’s just doesn’t live in a major metropolitan area. He’s also one of many talented artists I know just like him: trying to figure out how to keep making music, and moreover, to get people to hear it.
The point here is not to depress anybody, but to present yet another way for my friend here, and artists everywhere, to be heard: the resurgence of the COMPILATION, brought back into our lives as the modern mixtape.
The point of a physical music compilation in the record store days was for labels to introduce their new artists. Sometimes these compilations waited like hidden jewels in music store bargain bins, or got mailed out with magazine subscriptions. They presented a grab-bag full of new ear morsels for us music nerds everywhere to cut and paste and put on our own mixtapes for friends. It was a point of pride to come up with a band nobody had ever heard of before, especially in my hometown of Oklahoma City. To us Midwestern kids, unknown bands were like exotic rare birds that had flown in from the land of cool to save us from hearing Garth Brooks all day, every day.
But now the choices are so vast, there are so many SoundCloud and Bandcamp artist profiles, that as both listeners and artists, the thrill has changed. Word of mouth is not merely helpful, but we rely on it. We need the tastemakers and the music journalists to filter the choices for us, otherwise it’s too overwhelming. Long gone are the days where we listened to THE RADIO to determine what’s good for us. The phrase “alternative music” came about because people wanted an alternative to the mainstream Top 40 programming. Now we almost have too many alternatives to the mainstream, a lot of which have been lumped into one big unclear channel called “indie.” And so the question remains, how do smaller artists get their music heard?
Unlike an expensive PR budget, having a song on a compilation does not cost the artist $1,000-$3,500 a month. Nor does it have an expiration date of a typical 3 month PR campaign. It’s the new breed of mixtape, but the sky is the limit with how many ears it can reach. A well-curated compilation album also has more weight to it than a simple streaming playlist, yet it has all the equal benefits when it can be transferred onto a streaming service. So for someone more under the radar, finding ears to hear your music is no longer limited to who has heard of you and feels like buying your album. If you’re on a compilation with 20 other artists, the fans of those artists will be introduced to you, and the snowball effect occurs… without paying an additional dollar for publicity.
This allows obscure Electronic artists to be discovered, even though they don’t have the marketing budget of Skrillex. A budding folk artist in New Paltz, NY can be heard next to Bob Dylan, even if he doesn’t have as many fans. My friends and I used to have a goal with our mixtapes to find the weirdest songs you possibly find. We loved weird, and the possibilities were endless. Compilations allow for those possibilities to celebrate unearthed music, even if it’s not a “top seller” to the label. Not to mention, the possibility to relive your glory days with some old school House music, without having to go to a warehouse at 2 AM and have a sweaty stranger get in your dancing space!
The fact that compilations have risen in popularity as a regular music discovery tool is both liberating and comforting to me, as a music fan and a musician. These tasty music collections, when shared, are not only enjoyable to the music fan, but also present a very real way to give those hidden gem artists a fighting chance among the masses. Before the internet, before the music business, before marketing teams, before PR, there were people sitting around in a room making music. And people whose curiosity led them to follow the sound.