Get A Pulse

We don’t claim the topic has been ignored, nor do we claim the advice is unique or profound, but we do think it’s worth sharing. We asked a couple artists – Josh McSwain of Parmalee and indie artist Hannah Lew, the creative force behind Cold Beat – how young artists can get ahead. They were happy to oblige.

We’ve trotted this advice before, but Marty Diamond, booking agent for acts like Jason Mraz, Coldplay, and Sarah McLachlan, once told us that before an artist can get an agent, the artist has to show it already has a “pulse” in its hometown.  Agents aren’t there to create buzz; they’re there to facilitate it. So how can an artist create recognition when starting out?

Legend has it that when Eddie Vedder moved from San Diego to Seattle to join a band called Mookie Blaylock (which changed its name to Pearl Jam), Vedder would consider benefit concerts over paying gigs because he knew the media would be there, and the band would get free press. That’s at least one idea.

“Now that you said that, we kind of did the same thing,” McSwain told Pollstar. “We’d play anywhere that would have us. If it was a backyard party, if it was a benefit, we did all of them. We played all these things.”

Parmalee – with McSwain on guitar, brothers Matt and Scott Thomas on guitar/vocals and drums and their cousin Barry Knox on bass – are currently supporting Jake Owen and are prepping for their second album on Stoney Creek Records. But back at the turn of the century, Parmalee was kicking it around their hometown of Greenville, N.C., trying to get noticed any way they could.

“When we first got started we’d post fliers on windows, we’d put leaflets under windshield wipers on the cars. As a matter of fact, we got a letter from the police department saying we couldn’t do it anymore,” McSwain said. “Matt and Scott, their dad actually rented one of those big light-up signs and would pull it on a trailer behind his truck with ‘Parmalee playing tonight at so-and-so’ and just drive around town.”

McSwain said as they played “every backyard, pig pickin’ and wedding reception,” they’d gather an email list.

“We used to gather mailing lists! We’d mail out postcards every month with our show dates. And we’re all personable people. We’ll still do this: when we finished last night, we stayed around for two-and-a-half extra hours just to shake everybody’s hand in the room. We want to meet everybody. We don’t want you to be fans, we want you to be friends. We call it the ‘Parmalee Family.’”

Now, like everybody else, it’s about Facebook. McSwain doesn’t claim the bandmembers are social media mavens.

“We’re amateurs. But one benefit of being in a band is there are four of us, so there’s more of us to cover all this ground. Everyday somebody’s on Instagram, somebody’s on Twitter, somebody’s on Facebook. Your reach is so huge now.

“I got a message from a girl in Australia yesterday saying that she loved us. We’ve never been to Australia..”

Hannah Lew is a high-profile artist of San Francisco, formerly a part of the female trio Grass Widow. Now she is the bandleader of Cold Beat, runs her own record label – Crime on the Moon – directs the band’s music videos, handles press and for all intents and purposes is manager and booking contact. Now in her 30s, Lew can appreciate the DIY protocol of the old versus new.

“When I first started playing in bands, before MySpace or any of that, it was subcultural,” Lew said. “It was about people in other bands setting up shows for other bands, from town to town.

“Flash forward and now everybody uses MySpace and Facebook. Everyone can meet everybody. And there’s differences now in music criticism. Someone’s Pitchfork review number can directly affect how much they get paid at a show. It’s something that i’ve seen a lot, which really sucks.”

Her advice to bands starting out is to just play and play some more, which is pretty obvious. But the difference is that nowadays it is important to not get discouraged if your hometown, your friends or your family don’t “get” what you’re doing.

“You never know. Your music could be big in another country.”

And as for a booking agency, choose one that won’t require expectations set by another act on its roster.

“Make sure they see what you’re doing so that they can help you find your audience,” Lew said. “I  think a lot of times artists … are confused about who will respond. Sometimes it takes a while and then all of a sudden people are into it. It’s great if it’s on a mass level but most of the time you just have to keep to who you are and keep yourself out there as much as you can.”

McSwain added that all good things take time.

“Our motto is it’s not easy. We like to say, ‘The harder you work, the luckier you get.’ Nothing happens overnight. We’ve been doing this for a bit. It doesn’t get any easier but it gets more fun. I’m not getting up at 5 a.m. anymore to do metal stud framing. I’m still getting up at 5 a.m but it’s to do radio shows.”