How to get an Artist Endorsement

So, you want an artist endorsement deal?

At some point in their careers, many musicians start wondering about getting an artist endorsement.  It's a common, completely normal thought, especially with all aspects of our gear becoming more and more--sometimes prohibitively--expensive.  Since I spent 6 years managing Artist Relations for Rico, I thought perhaps my experience & insight from the other side of the desk might be somewhat useful to those seeking endorsement deals.


Gut Check

First, ask yourself why it is that you want an endorsement.  Be brutally honest with yourself, because even if you aren't, you will be seen through by Artist Relations (AR) guys.  Do you have any idea how many endorsement inquiries they get every day?  Over their lifetimes, how many cock & bull stories do you think they've heard?  A staggering amount, frankly.  And when you deal with something every day of your life, you get pretty knowledgeable about it.  So be forewarned: they've heard it all before--about forty-eleven baskrillion times.

Ask yourself these uncomfortable questions about why you want an endorsement.

• Are you disappointed in the state of your career?  Do you think an endorsement will signal that you've "arrived?"  Be honest.  It's sad that so many of us don't look inside, and examine our motives.  Use this as an opportunity to take inventory and improve yourself.  No one has to know the answers but yourself.  Don't pass up this opportunity to improve yourself; make it an adventure.

• Do you think an endorsement is something you karmically deserve?  Just because you've struggled doesn't mean the world owes you anything.  You signed up for this lifestyle, so own it.

• Do you think an endorsement will be a springboard to your playing career? Actually, it's easier to become a performing superstar than it is to get an endorsement, as we'll examine later.

• Do you have standards?  If you'd only endorse gear that you believe is the very best, bravo, your standards will serve you well. You own your words and actions, and let the chips fall where they may.

If you're willing to endorse any old company that will give you free stuff, sorry, but there's a not-very flattering name for that.  If you think you can fool AR guys about it, you're probably wrong; but even if you can, it doesn't change the reality of your compromised ethics.  If you're okay with that, fine, but just imagine this: say you get a deal, endorsing some garbage gear, because that company will take out a full page ad in Downbeat, featuring you.  Congratulations!  Now the whole world, including your family, peers, potential employers (including guys that can get you gigs), and even your heroes, can see that you have no integrity.  And they will retain this impression of you for a very long time.  Is that something you'd really want?  Is free, poor quality gear worth such a steep price?

• What does an endorsement look like to you?  Exactly what does it entail, that you want it so much?  Free stuff?  Maybe you think it's the modern day equivalent of having an aristocratic patron, who will fund your next recording.  Forget it, it doesn't work like that.  After you've read this document, think it over, and come up with some clearly articulated, reasonable ideas.

Sorry to paint such a happy picture, but rest assured, if you can't answer these questions honestly, an AR guy will see right through you anyway, with laser sharp clarity and focus.  Forewarned is forearmed.

But you're a good person, right?  You've answered the above honestly, and your motives are pure.  You just want to be part of something bigger, because you have something to contribute to the betterment of the world, through music.  You love the way a company's products empower your own playing, and you want to be part of a movement.  Excellent.  But how realistic are you being? Does a company need you?


The Criteria By Which You'll Be Evaluated

What are these companies' endorsement priorities?  Is there a list of dos and don'ts? What qualities are they looking for?

Let's start with the bad news: if they needed you, they'd probably have found you already.  The Musical Instrument and Accessory industry ("MI") is endorser-driven, and companies are very aware of which artists are influential. That's why, for example, Steinway is more likely to seek out Keith Jarrett than the guy who plays at the Shakey's Pizza joint in Dismal Seepage, Kansas.

Big name artists are simply more likely to be emulated; that's why the industry refers to them as "influencers."  Mike Brecker played a Guardala mouthpiece, so guys that want to sound like him go out & get a Guardala.  Likewise with any number of guitarists, horn players, drummers—you name it.  Players seeks out the gear of the artists they want to sound like.  That's just how musicians are, so MI businesses market accordingly.

I should note that even Kenny G is an influencer, because regardless of what you may think of his playing, there are a number of people that want to sound like him.  That means a company's affiliation with him will probably move some product, and add to the bottom line.

So who do you think a company wants as an endorser?  Put yourself in their shoes. If they think you can move product for them, you have a shot.  (By the way, that's why it's easier to become a superstar than it is to get an endorsement deal. If you're a star already, the endorsements will come knocking, but it doesn't work the other way around.  You won't get a record deal by having a full page ad, even if you're endorsing the very best products.)

Not a superstar yet?  Not a deal breaker.  Many companies have segmented endorsement programs.  Educators are also considered influencers, especially gurus on the conservatory level.  Some companies have "2nd tier" segments: pro players, well respected in their markets, but not of national renown.  Busy session guys in NY, Chicago, & LA, for example; influential educators in medium size markets, too.  It would behoove you to research this before officially contacting any company--you never know; they might find a slot for you.

As they examine your appropriateness for any of their endorser segments, they'll be looking for answers to the questions below.

• Do you sound good?  Seriously, do you?  How well articulated is your concept of tone?  Do you pursue versatile mastery, or are you a Dancing Bear?  Are your peers impressed with your expertise, and do they seek out your advice on technical matters?

• How well are you esteemed in the industry?  Does your reputation precede you?  This concerns not only your reputation as an influential musician, but also what kind of person you are--are you a positive spirit, or a jerk?  Perhaps they've heard anecdotes that are unflattering; you'd be surprised how many AR guys talk to each other. It's not uncommon for them to share a laugh about a would be endorser, with whom they've both had unpleasant or ludicrous experiences.  Or perhaps they have other endorsers who know that you switch equipment easily, if you can get it for free. Loyalty is a big issue for these companies, as well it should be.  They'll want to know your attitude; do you appear to be a giver, or a taker?  Believe me, AR guys can spot a taker a mile away.

And of course, they'll also find out if your reputation is stellar.  It's pretty easy for these companies to research you; it's a small and connected world. In the age of social networks, it's not at all difficult for a company to get an idea how well a potential endorsee's image may represent the company.  That's also true after you get a deal, yo.

• What do you bring to the table (besides an appetite)?  Okay, so you have some sort of following, as a player or educator.  Cool.  But that's just a start.  Think of your targeted company as a beautiful, complex, brilliant, successful woman, whom you've just met and have fallen for, in a serious way.  She's looking for a long term relationship with an incredible guy, so you better bring your "A" game.  The same is true of an endorsement relationship. (It's surprising how similar the two scenarios are, so keep this analogy in mind as you read on.)

Do you "present well?"  That's a term business guys use to describe your appearance, demeanor, and gravitas.  Obviously, if you're unkempt and you smell bad, forget it, you're done.  You don't need to wear a suit & tie--in fact, that would probably imply that you're vibeless and out of touch (unless it's one serious suit). Rather, a hip look, friendly demeanor, and thoughtful, articulate, even charismatic language skills will serve you well.  Remember, as an endorser, your company will be counting on you to be the face of their business.

How thorough is your mastery, of both your instrument and knowledge of the industry?  Do you have unique, valuable insights? Companies depend on their endorsers to provide valuable input on new product designs and quality control.  That doesn't mean you need a PhD in acoustical physics, but it does mean you should have a patient, objective, analytical, insightful mind, and thorough knowledge of, and insights to your instrument.  You should have a curious mind.  Above all, you should be comfortable with process; companies perform deliberate, thorough research during product development.

Let me be perfectly clear on this topic.  When I say a company looks for unique insights, do not, under any circumstances, think this means having a strong opinion, which must be yielded to, and accepted as the definitive final word.  They're looking for scientifically quantifiable insights--things they can research and determine-- not blustering, big mouthed, closed-minded bloviating.  Check your psychological mirror before proceeding (and your wife will thank you, by the way), or you're done.  They will need to be able to trust your input, and they won't, if you show a lack of objective inquiry & attentiveness to process.  If being right is more important to you than asking questions, you're probably a poor fit for any company.

To best convey the trait of open minded, scientific inquisitiveness, it's better to use your "receiver" than your "transmitter."  By that, I mean when you interact with company officials, ask questions about substantive issues--"under the hood" stuff.  Show that you want to know everything about the design and science behind their products, and the marketing challenges they face.  (You'd be surprised how candidly they'll answer these questions, and their answers may help you form your strategy for acceptance.)  When you do open your mouth, a thoughtful, articulate, insightful question will serve you better than bragging about your accomplishments.  Again, compare the situation to romancing a 007-class, bootilicious glamazon.

Now that you know a bit about how they'll evaluate your overall appropriateness, let's examine what business needs they have, so both parties can determine if there's a need you can fill.


What Companies Need

There's no getting around the importance of profitability. Any artist affiliation needs to positively impact the company's bottom line, or at the very least, not drain more than it adds.  You want a free Selmer bari sax?  If they give you one, will Selmer's investment in you show returns, or loss?

Once upon a time, MI companies were started and run by musicians, so passionate to raise the bar that they founded companies, just so they could make awesome stuff.  There are still companies like that, mostly new startups, but it's no longer the norm in MI.  Sadly, just like the rest of once-proud industries, MI is now dominated by MBA bean counters, with little or no musical--or even music industry-- background or expertise.  A handful of venture capital firms have bought up the lion's share of once-great companies, and their business strategy is to show profit by manipulating stock price, rather than by producing better, more competitive, state-of-the-art products.  (Before you get irately judgmental about this, let me remind you that MI is not a growth industry; it is shrinking, so companies have little choice but to do whatever is necessary for survival.  And if they're publicly traded, they have a legal, ethical, fiduciary duty to give stockholders a return on their investment.)

One of the chief ways they manipulate share price is by reducing expenses.  They use cheaper raw materials.  They lower standards of fit and finish.  They move manufacturing facilities overseas to reduce labor costs. They slash R&D budgets, and lay off the employees that constitute the company's expertise.  Quality goes down the sewer, but the stock price goes up.  It's maddening for people like artists, who are among the most discriminating consumers in the world.

And yes, that means they cut endorsement budgets, and keep close watch on the profitability of endorsement programs.  This is especially true when know-nothing industry outsiders control budgets and marketing departments, which is the case pretty much 100% of the time today.

But guess what?  You can use that phenomenon as an asset.  For one thing, there are very few AR execs anymore that have any experience or industry knowledge.  Rather than being promoted from within, with experience in product design and manufacture, today's AR execs are usually just recent, mediocre college grads, who will work cheap.  And because they're ignorant, that means that you, dear reader, can likely fool them into believing you're an asset--even if you suck.  Victory is at hand!

It's easy to determine if this is the case; simply go to that company's web site, and look over their artist roster.  If it includes a bunch of nobodies, then you know the AR department is in disarray.  If you can somehow persuade them that you're a good outsource option to bring expertise and marketing presence, then you can save them money.  The bean counters will swoon.  They don't have to actually hire anyone!

I can't sufficiently stress the importance of this.  If they can have you do clinics, or represent them at trade shows, or maybe tell them that lacquer color should be as dark as on a Mark VI, they don't have to add anyone to their payroll for those purposes.  If you present well, sound good, have good insights and an inquisitive mind, and can add to the bottom line, you just may be able to land some sort of affiliation deal, to be a company's marketing presence and/or technical advisor.

If this appears to be how your targeted company is structured, tailor your approach accordingly--if you have the stomach for it.  On the other hand, you might find this a repugnant situation.  I know I would. But hey, don't shoot the messenger.  I didn't write the rules.

Of course, not every company works this way, and the phenomenon of ignorant AR execs, while prevalent, is not indigenous to either large or small companies.  Each company is different.  But one characteristic is common to most MI companies: they do need reliable outside expertise, they do need endorsers to add to the bottom line, and they do need endorsers to add to their prestige.  It's up to you to research how each company goes about it.

Okay, next.  You've done all the soul searching.  You've clarified your objectives and what you bring to the table.  You've stepped up to a more charismatic look and set of mannerisms.  You've adjusted your attitude, and you look forward to a new phase in your career, in which you learn new and wonderful things.  Now that you know a bit about what to expect, it's time to start planning your approach.  But don't rush into it.  Prepare your image first.


Before You Initiate Contact

• You need a press kit.  It should be available in both print and electronic forms.  The electronic version is called an EPK (Electronic Press Kit).  Ideally, it should be available as an optimized (small memory signature) PDF, which you can email, as well as appearing online, for download on your web site.

Your PK needs to read quickly but effectively.  It should provide a snappy overview of who you are--your major accomplishments, accounts, short bio--whatever you have-- to accurately and efficiently describe yourself.  Hint: don't pad it.  Just look professional and full of artistic vibe.  Remember to edit mercilessly.

It should have impressive photos.  Arm's length cell phone photos are not a good idea.  Get some cool shots. Invest an afternoon with a friend and a camera if you have to.  Of course, if you have photos of you onstage with high profile artists, use them--but use good judgment.  Photos of you playing with Myron Floren at the 1982 Paducah County Fair might not exactly project the image you want.

It should have embedded links to relevant online content--your Facebook fan page, your website, some YouTubes of you in cool situations, or just proving you can play (and you better sound good).

Above all, make your PK an invitation into the cool world that is you.  Invest effort and focus, to get it looking slicker than anyone could possibly expect.  You want to be an atomic bomb going off in their faces.

• You need web presence.  This includes both a dedicated site, and social network components.

Web site.  The dedicated site must have audio of you playing.  As far as audio production quality, "good enough" probably isn't.  (If you haven't done any serious recording, you probably aren't ready to get an endorsement, because remember, they need to know that you sound good, and you take your career seriously.  Knowledgeable people can, of course, do a lot with small home studios.  Just don't record yourself playing with Aebersolds.  Remember, you need to appear credible by industry-wide standards.)

Your site should also have your EPK available for download.  Other than this, audio, and slick graphic design, I won't go into what constitutes a good site, as it's outside the scope of this document

Social Networks.  Your social network presence will be evaluated for industry relevance, so I advise thinking of Facebook--even your personal page-- as primarily a marketing instrument.  (You might think of starting a second FB personal page for family and close friends.  But the two networks can and should overlap, because you want your marketing-focused page to look like your real life.)  It's a good idea to start a FB fan page too, and spend equal energy making it look impressive.  It will be a company's first impression, so it's important, but it's best if you can get a company AR person to join your personal page, so they can monitor what they perceive as your real self.

If you want to use Twitter, go ahead, but it's a tiny (2%, last time I checked) sliver of the social sphere, and nothing of substance really happens there.  LinkedIn rocks for day gig people, but is of questionable relevance in the music industry.  It's probably best to just avoid it altogether, rather than have a halfhearted presence there.  The jury is still out on Google+, but since the Facebook IPO, it's probably a good idea to port all your FB content to a G+ account, as many believe the IPO signals Facebook's jumping the shark.  Keep up with social networking trends, but for now, Facebook is the Mack Daddy of social networks, so it should be your main social presence.

How should you develop your social presence with a marketing focus?  On the web, content is king.  Compelling content should keep your name in the front of people's consciousness.  Your audience should look forward to seeing anything you post.  You should appear comfortable in your own skin, and inspirational to those who are fortunate enough to be in your sphere of influence.  Of course, you should appear to be an industry powerhouse, but don't look like you take yourself too seriously.  Never underestimate the power of making people laugh.  (Remember our analogy about courting that spectabulous babe of your dreams?)  The web is full of fascinating content, so feel free to borrow liberally from obscure, relevant--or just plain cool-- sources, so your page is a sort of aggregator of everything hip.  But mainly, project your individuality in a compelling, fun way.

For reference, I suggest you check out the Facebook pages of Charles Lloyd, and of the great studio bassist, Carol Kaye.  Both are rich in compelling content, and are substantially different in their approach.

Don't neglect the analytics.  Your social marketing pages should show a sizable influence (i.e., number of friends and followers; remember, your goal is to be perceived as influential), and the connections should look meaningful, rather than just numbers.  Your YouTubes should show a lot of hits.  Obviously, this takes time and effort, but this is part of your job, and you neglect it at your peril.  (Copyblogger.com is a wealth of information abut driving traffic to your sites.)   Besides, your network will benefit your playing career, not just your chances of landing an endorsement, so be conscientious about maintaining your social presence.  If you're not appearing, you're disappearing.

Do you participate in any online forums?  Most forums are viewable to the public, AR execs can see how you interact in this sphere.  Make that work in your favor.  Join other relevant forums, such as those for music educators, and music equipment, and get involved.  And for heaven's sake, be conscious of how you present yourself.  Consider, for example, the possibility that a fellow forum member is already an endorser at a company that you want to target.  There's a good possibility that the AR guy will ask his existing endorsers for their opinion of you.  Again, it's a small world.

• Research the companies you wish to target.  Go to their web sites.  Try to understand their business concerns, challenges, and AR style & presence.  Is the company publicly traded?  (If they are, they're more likely to have a bean counter mentality.)  Are they large and impersonal?  If they're large, they're probably impersonal, but not necessarily.  Lots of small companies are impersonal too, but smaller companies are more likely to have real expertise and human qualities.  Tech companies, like microphone or preamp manufacturers, can be fertile targets, but tech companies often have engineers running the company, and engineers are notorious for disregarding the importance of marketing.  Know your audience, and tailor your approach accordingly.

It's a good idea to find out who the AR person is in advance.  It's often listed on the web site, but an anonymous phone call to ask the receptionist is fine too, as long as you don't ask to be connected.  Just find out who the AR point man is, nothing more.

Now you have your ducks in a row.  Your presence is real.  You're starting to see results in your playing career from getting serious about marketing yourself.  Now you're ready to try your luck at landing an endorsement.



Zero Hour: Initiating Contact

A good rule of thumb is, when making contact, it's best to meet in person first.  Telephoning isn't nearly as effective, although phoning to make an appointment is a good idea.  Initial contact via email will almost certainly be ignored.  Why?  Because every employee in the entire world is overloaded.  You need a window of time when you have their full attention.

Meeting in person is, of course, nerve wracking.  And again, you want their full attention, so big trade shows like NAMM are a poor choice for first contact.  They have better things to do, like getting yelled at by the marketing VP for the color of chairs in the booth, or trying to maintain their sanity while some wannabe is showcasing his totally awesome high note chops and smooth jazz diaphragm vibrato.  So figure out a time, and call to make an appointment at his office.

If you don't learn anything else from this document, learn this, and learn it well: developing an affiliation with a company, with the goal of landing an endorsement, is about developing a personal relationship.  Always, always, ALWAYS keep the relationship FIRST.  

The guy behind the desk has enough troubles.  He doesn't need greedy bloodsuckers harassing him with "gimme, gimme, gimme."  Even if he seems like a dork, he's a human being, and you don't know how horrifying his existence may be.  You can bet he has to answer to a complete jerk of a boss, and he lives in daily fear of losing his job.  His personal life is almost certainly one of abject desolation, because he's daily condescended to by his employer, and now his "people"--fellow musicians--treat him like a dumb, sellout suit.  He just wants to have a career somehow connected to music, and feed his wife and newborn baby…and every day, here come the self-important slobs demanding unlimited free stuff.  And if he doesn't give it to them, they might sabotage what little playing career he has on the side, by spreading the word that he's a total jerk.  (Before you ask, only a small part of that is autobiographical. I did okay, mostly because I had the credibility of being a player first, starting with the company by being on the manufacturing floor, learning the art and science of reed design, then having a position created for me, in which my primary focus was helping cats get better results; then I'd sit next to those same guys on gigs.  So this profile of an AR guy is a composite of a bunch of other guys.  Except for the clown of a boss.  I had LOTS of those.  And the greedy wannabes.  And the part about being a dork.)

So dudes.  Get to know the poor slob, and make a new friend.  He's more like you than you can ever imagine.  And leave your agenda at home.

Okay, so with no agenda, how do you approach the guy?  Simple. Ask for tech support or a factory tour.  Let him help you go through your rig, and try a few of the company's different options.  Ask questions.  Show that you're interested in learning what he has to offer, and let him be a hero.  Just take your time, be a cat, and be grateful for his time and insight.  Let that be enough.

Don't monopolize too much of his time, especially on your first encounter.  Besides, if you take only one axe, like your tenor sax, you have an excuse for a "second date."  Email him within 24 hours, thanking him for his time, and expressing your excitement for the results he helped you get.  Then, after a small interval of time goes by--maybe a couple weeks, contact him again, and ask for a time when you could bring by a different axe, like your alto.

On your second visit, ask more questions.  Get more involved in understanding their processes.  Again, express gratitude and excitement.  Volunteer your willingness to come in "if they ever need blind testers, or anything like that."  Again, follow up.  Call again sometime, just to take him to lunch.  Have him sub for you on a gig.  Stay in touch, be genuine, and don't just treat him like a pal; actually become his pal.  But don't be gross about it.  He'll know if he's being networked, trust me.

At last, we arrive at the moment of truth.  The money shot.  When do you hit him up for an endorsement?

Um… never.  Never.  Never ever.  Are you listening?  NEVER.  

You might ask if there's an "accommodation price" or "artist discount," but never ask for more than that.  In fact, if you do ask for that, you will probably get it, but I guarantee that it will end your chances of an endorsement.

Seriously?  What's up with that?

Companies want to know that you believe in their products as being the very best, and you're willing to pay full price.  Anything else will reveal selfish intentions.  If they want you, they'll let you know.

Remember the analogy about romancing the hottie of your dreams?  Again, same situation.  Manage your expectations.  Put things in motion, start building a relationship, and see how it goes.  If any relationship starts, it will start slowly.  Don't expect a contract--they're rare--or any formalized agreement or fanfare.  Don't expect anything for free.  In fact, don't expect anything at all.  Just like the babe you have missile lock on, the surest way to screw it up is to try to rush it. You have to be in it for the long haul.  Just let the universe take its course.


That's How It Works

That's it?  Really?  You mean I spent all this time, reading all this self-important, wordy blather, and you didn't tell me how I can get an endorsement?

Well actually, I did.  It isn't my fault that forces are arrayed against you, and you may never get endorsed.  And even if you did, it probably wouldn't look like you imagined it would.  An endorsement deal is no shortcut to success.  Where is it written that you're entitled to a free ride?  But at least now you're better prepared, and hopefully less likely to embarrass yourself, including among your peers.

The guys that get the keys to the company store are almost nonexistent, and those annoying schmoozer types that manage to weasel their way in are truly a rare exception--and there's a price to pay among their peer relationships.  And with the global economy so battered, even superstar endorsers have been put on a defined allowance, which is closely monitored by Darth Bean Counter.  They may even have to pay wholesale, or are allowed use of an instrument, of which the company retains ownership, and which may be asked to be returned.

Besides, there's no limit to the number of companies you can approach.  If you're a horn player, there are mouthpiece manufacturers, reed manufacturers, instrument (including doubles) and  accessory companies, but don't forget, there are also microphone, preamp, and other electronic manufacturers.

I will tell you this, with absolute certainty.  Other than superstars, the vast majority of unknown and modestly known artists, who have endorsement arrangements, have gotten them exactly as I've described.  And if you've taken my advice, I can guarantee you better results in your career, and you'll probably be a happier person.  There are broader forces at work.  Just get out there, be a good cat, learn what you can, take care of biz, treat people well, and see what happens when you let go of your expectations.  It's funny how that works.

Now stop whining like a little girl, and go practice.  You did get into this business to play music, right?