NPR recently explored exuberant rock critic Chuck Klosterman’s side-splitting, stream-of-consciousness faux press release for an instrumental rock band. The seemingly silly exercise in pseudo-pr has something to say to global musicians.
Not only is the release a great compendium of nearly every irritating cliché known to rock/pop journalism, but it shows why stories—even if wildly improbable and patently false—are so important to understanding music, and not just for journalists being pitched by publicists, but for listeners in general.
NPR reporter Frannie Kelly pointed to research by NYU’s Michael Beckerman, a music historian and Dvorak biographer who discovered significant differences in the way listeners thought and felt about music once they heard the compelling story behind it.
As an example, he played a simple boogie-woogie piano riff. Sure, it was nice, but whatever.
Then Beckerman asked, "What role would it play if I told you the title was called 'Dark Blue World'? And what if I further told you that it was written by a Czech jazz pianist around 1929? And what if I told you that the jazz pianist himself was nearly blind? Could see only shadows, and that 'Dark Blue World' became his kind of personal anthem?" he asks. "You might listen to it differently, knowing that this was again a fraught story of a dark blue world all put together in this world of Czech jazz.
A whole new world opens up to the imagination.
Beckerman’s point is convincing. However, other researchers working in music psychology have found that reading descriptions of pieces—especially “dramatic descriptions” that wax poetic—appears to hamper music enjoyment, at least in a classical music context. Describing a Beethoven string quartet as an emotional hymn or referencing its musical structure, even in very clear lay terms, seemed to get in the way.
So which is it? Do stories help or hinder?
It depends. Does the story create context, putting the music in a bigger picture about the past, say? That seems to help people respond. However, fancy adjectives, technical terms, or even general emotive language? Not so much.
This holds for press releases, even for Klosterman’s work of fantastic realism. Journalists were intrigued by the stories Klosterman told. Some guy named Steve plays 40 instruments. He got signed to a label after a quirky chat at a strip mall.
Though odd, if these stories were true, they’d be really fun to write about. The truly laugh-provoking part of the release is the descriptions of the music. It’s the adjectives, not the fabrications, that make the release ridiculous.
Here’s the crucial point for global musicians trying to raise their profiles and get media attention. True, intriguing stories work in your favor. They are more important than fancy verbiage. They make people more receptive to your music, which means they’ll want to cover you. And your stories are likely just as unexpected as the ones Klosterman made up, if not more so.
Getting them down and into the best possible form—with appropriate, evocative language and careful attention to cultural details—is more important now than ever before. Stories, thanks to online and social media, have serious legs. They can walk out of press releases and onto the web, across boundaries that once seemed impermeable between fan and pro writing, or between advertising and editorial content (“advertorials” have long existed, but were once prohibitively expensive, not to mention reviled as shady, in the U.S.).
Now professional music critics and feature writers share an increasingly blurry frontier with cheerleading bloggers, eloquent fans spreading the word virally, and, yes, professional promoters who also write. Some press releases get posted verbatim online. Some writers and editors at time- and cash-strapped traditional media outlets sometimes chose copy and paste over original journalism.
This is not the way things should be, but it’s the way things are. It puts the responsibility and opportunity for crafting your own amazing story in your hands. Do it right: tell the truth, and tell it well.