The online music ecosystem works as follows: Artists want exposure, writers want stories, editors want pitches. The set-up seems pretty perfect, from step to step. Each cog in the music machine has something to give and something to receive—be it streams, payment, or pageviews—and this whole machine hinges on a very underappreciated art: the pitch.
How do you pitch your music? How do you pitch your editor? These two questions determine the difference between a deleted email and a byline, between a deleted email and a feature piece.
So, what makes for a good pitch? We posed the question to DJBooth Managing Editor, Donna-Claire Chesman and Senior Writer, Yoh. Their conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
yoh [11:41 AM]
Good morning, Donna. How are you?
donnacwrites [11:43 AM]
Good morning, Yohsipher. I'm okay, been up since six this morning. I want to dive in this morning, so let me get my preamble out of the way. A few weeks ago we chatted about pitches, and two days ago I was on the phone with you stressing out because I was out of pitches myself. We get pitched music every single day. Every moment in this industry, someone is pitching something. Artists to writers, writers to editors, editors to Editors-in-Chief. Pitches are the kingpin of the music writing ecosystem. They keep me up at night.
So, what makes a good pitch? I'm talking a good pitch from a musician, and a good pitch from you to me.
yoh [11:54 AM]
For me, a good pitch is an idea with legs. That means I can walk the idea around and more than my editor will see its potential. After reading about famed movie director Stanley Kubrick's time as a photographer for Look Magazine in the 1940s, I have been thinking about pitches from a new perspective. I discovered this quote recently:
"In terms of subject matter, Look Magazine's evaluative criteria are discussed in the fourth chapter, entitled 'Ideas for Picture Stories.'"
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The three main prized qualities are an "interest that transcends spot news," a "focus on people, as opposed to things," and a "universal interest." The three prized qualities still hold up. I'll say the same goes for musicians or PR teams pitching stories to writers. We want something that transcends hot takes and trendy topics, a focus on a person, not a thing, and of course, universal interest. What about you, Donna? How do you define a good pitch? As DJBooth's Managing Editor, what was the last good pitch you received?
donnacwrites [12:00 PM]
To me, a good pitch is something that has body. A strong headline is a must, but beneath the headline, there has to be a story that runs deeper than hot takes on Twitter. I also want to feel your passion in your pitch. When PR people hit me up about an artist and their blurb on them includes "They're next up!" or "It's a total vibe!" I tune out immediately. That's not special; that's hot air. Your pitch can't be hot air. It has to have weight.
I had a writing teacher once say that short stories are freight trains and the wealth of your story is determined by how much freight is on your train. There has to be humanity in a music pitch. I need to connect with the person making the music as much as the music itself. We recently ran a feature on Gabe 'Nandez, and while the music was intriguing, what sold us on him was his twisting story. There's always a story to tell, bring it to me.
Bringing it back to feature pitches, the last good pitch I received was one on Ty Dolla $ign. I won't give the piece away, but the writer came to me with a strong headline, great examples, a fascinating concept, and, of course, clean copy. I cannot stress enough how important it is to have clean copy in your emails. It tells me right away how much time I'm going to spend editing. What I liked about the Ty pitch was that it would inspire conversation. Conversation, contention, and healthy debate are so crucial in this space. Usually, I like to go for pieces that take hip-hop and make the writing bigger than the music. You're working on a piece now that touches on that very phenomenon.
yoh [12:05 PM]
Perfectly said. It's all crucial to understanding the heart of a good pitch. Do you believe a writer can turn a bad pitch into a good story? How important is it to deliver a clear, concise vision from the jump?
donnacwrites [12:08 PM]
It depends on what's "bad" about the pitch. If there's no interest, or the idea is plain, then there's not much to write. But if the idea has potential and is just shy of being fully formed, I highly advise you just talk to someone about it. I get emailed so many almost-there pitches that would have been great story ideas if the writer just sat down on the phone with someone and talked their thoughts out. You can't come to me without at least a murky vision of what you're aiming to accomplish. An editor can help you get there, but the goal-posts have to be at least somewhat visible.
As for music pitches, here's a question: How much music do you feel we miss out on because the pitch is weak? Conversely, how much music is oversold by a strong pitch?
yoh [12:16 PM]
Man, the answer to both questions is a large volume. It's easy to oversell music. A couple of million listeners on streaming platforms and some high-profile feature are enticing, but that information doesn't mean the artist and music will make for a compelling story. I noticed how people love to pitch stats as a reason an artist deserves coverage, instead of a unique perspective. On the flip side, not knowing how to articulate what your art offers is equally as tragic. Your pitch doesn't have to compare your art to someone of a higher profile, it just has to make me interested enough to press play or jump on a phone call. Knowing the language of your art and knowing how to sell it is just as important as knowing your lyrics and your album sales.