In Conversation With : Annette Lee
As an employee for over a decade at one of the worlds most respected indie labels, 4AD, Annette Lee has worked on campaigns that have seen the likes of Future Islands and The National grow from niche acts to arena stalwarts. Now Head of Press, we had a chat to hear how she came to work in music PR, how a press campaign is structured, and what employers look for in this line of work.
Tell us about how you came to work in the music industry.
I started going to gigs when I was about sixteen. Me and my mate would go up to London pretty much every week after school when Camden was the hot spot for shows and you’d pay a fiver to watch three bands. I lived in Surrey at the time, and was so entranced by the mythology of those live shows and how regular people could get on stage and become legendary people.
I listened to new music all the time so I thought, if I have to study at university for three years (which to my family was a no-brainer – they wanted me to study medicine) then I wanted to do something I liked. My friend told me there were universities that did Music Business courses, so I looked into it and I ended up going to Bucks New University in High Wycombe where I enrolled in a Music Industry Management and Marketing course. I met loads of like minded people from different backgrounds there.
The course had a hookup with AIM [Association of Independent Music] and they were offering internships which I ended up applying for. One of them was a press internship at Beggars Banquet group, which I thought was something I’d be quite good at. I got the placement which was meant to be for six months, but I ended up staying there for a year. Through that, I got a job at Beggars working on reception and I’ve worked my way up from there.
How long have you worked at 4AD and when did you become Head of Press?
Beggars Banquet owns 4AD, Matador, Rough Trade, XL and Young Turks, so I took the job on reception because I knew it would be a door into the industry, and I essentially waited for a role within the Beggars press department to come up. That took a while and I’d applied a couple of times to get into the press department but was unsuccessful. Eventually I managed to get a role doing regional and online PR which was the entry-level position. During that time the press department became independent label PRs. So instead of one team covering all of the labels, each label had their own department, and so I ended up working for 4AD. At first there were four of us and now there’s just me, but maybe that’s because I just didn’t leave!
Did University prepare you for working in the real world?
Honestly, not really. It’s one thing learning in an academic setting, and another thing actually being there and learning on the job. I think if anything, doing work experience helped me understand the way the industry works a lot more. I don’t think me doing a degree in music business was any more beneficial than if I had done a degree, in say, English, and then ended up getting a job in music. The one thing that was most beneficial was doing the internship, which I guess I wouldn't have got access to without going to university.
You’re now head of press at a hugely respected label. Have you experienced doubts in yourself over the years when it comes to your ability to do the job? Do you still get those feelings even now, and how do you overcome those thoughts?
All the time! I feel that way constantly. It’s imposter syndrome and I don’t think you ever get over that, but in a weird way, it’s a good thing to have that feeling because it stops you from feeling complacent and forces you to constantly reassess what you’re doing and learn new things. If I thought I was great and the best at my job, I wouldn’t strive to do more. That constant need to educate myself and explore what’s upcoming is really important. It’s a bad thing if you don’t have that in this industry because the whole point is that there’s always a new thing coming. There will always be new people who you think are better connected, or better at doing their job, but you just have to use that as a catalyst to keep improving yourself.
What does your day-to-day entail?
Pre-pandemic, my job would involve lots of travelling and doing things like taking a journalist out to see an artist who’s based in America. A lot of my work is kind of being a conduit between an artist and their manager and the publications we deal with. Making sure everyone is happy and writing lots of press releases!
There’s also a lot of emails. I spend most mornings dealing with emails that have come in overnight from people in Australia and the US, and then I have a couple of hours where I do some admin before lunch. Then in the afternoon I usually get more emails. I deal with a lot of international promos so I work with people who are on different time-zones which I have to bear in mind. I usually try to finish around six or seven but it’s so easy with email on my phone to reply to someone while I’m watching Sopranos or something, so I never truly clock off as much as I think I do. I just try not to be on my laptop after six.
How many people work in the 4AD office and what’s the structure like there?
There’s ten of us in the office and we all have different roles. There’s me, two project managers, someone who does social media, someone who does marketing, someone who does back-catalogue, a label manager, a couple of A&Rs and a studio manager, because our basement is a recording studio. We also have staff in New York and LA. Then we’ve got the Beggars Group who do bits around the label. So although we’re a small core team, we’ve actually got a bigger family of people we work with. It’s a really collaborative effort which is nice, as it’s not an easy thing putting out a record.
Talk us through how a typical PR campaign for an album release might run from start to finish.
When I know we’ve got an album announcement coming, and we’ve got everything ready (the music, album artwork, lyrics, bio, photos etc) then I’ll speak to news editors to prep the story, and I’ll speak to commissioning editors and line up some features and interviews. That will take place anywhere from three months to one month in advance of announcing the record, depending on who the artist is.
Around the time we announce the album I’ll send the record to press. I’m not fussy about who I send the record to first because I think that everyone who wants to hear it should have it. Then I’ll spend a bit of time pitching individual features to the publications that I think are appropriate for that artist. Once I hear back from those I’ll arrange interview times in the lead up to the release. We’ll generally release one or two singles before the album comes up, so I also speak to online editors about coverage for those single releases as well. I spend a lot of time putting press reports together to let everyone know what we’ve got lined up.
If I’ve worked with an artist before on an album then I’ll already have an idea of who their fans are, so I’ll know who will be interested in doing a feature. A lot of it is about feeling out who you think will respond well to an artist’s music.
For someone interested in working in music PR, what qualities do you think are needed from the outset?
I think you have to be diplomatic because you’ll spend a lot of the time placating an artist and their management, and a journalist and publication. It’s important not to have an ego because that can get in the way of having good relationships with people. You also have to be able to write, or at least be able to communicate with people pretty well. The role of a PR is to communicate an artist’s message about their art, so you need to be able to take their jumble of ideas and present it to someone who has no idea of where that artist is coming from, in a way that is digestible and accessible. Most of all, you have to love the written word and love reading magazines, newspapers and websites. Ultimately, if you don’t care if someone’s landed a big feature, or you’re not bothered about reading it, then why would you want to do that as a job?
How do you feel the industry has changed since you started?
The publishing industry has changed so much. It’s suffered quite a bit in the last ten years. It’s quite a tough time to be a music PR because a lot of the publications that we normally would have spent time building relationships with are gone. Q being an example of a recent one. Music isn’t seen in the same light as the film industry is, in the sense of musicians being celebrities. So unless you have an artist like Kanye West who is also a celebrity, it’s really hard to get coverage for an artist in non-music publications. There’s also a lot of pressure on publications to sell tons of magazines and have as many clicks as possible, so a lot of their default approaches are to put already massive artists on the cover because they know it will sell. There are fewer column inches given over to elevate newer artists now, which is a lot of who I work with. So nowadays it’s not enough to have a really great record, people also need a human element or a story to hook them in.
What are the prospects for your area of the industry post-COVID? Can you see any positives medium to long term?
I’ve seen first hand a lot of people being made redundant because of COVID, so it’s quite a scary time but it’s forcing a lot of people to reassess how they do things. Everything has been changing massively in the last five to ten years anyway, with the popularity of people streaming their music rather than buying it, and that has changed how people approach music as an art form. We’ve gone from the days where we had a really positive UK press who had the ability to break an artist’s career to that same press not having much sway. I hope that something positive comes out of all of this, because as long as people love listening to and discovering music, there will still be jobs in the industry.
Finally, what has been your favourite campaign to work on?
One of the biggest highlights was working with David Byrne. I got to go to his office in New York and meet him a few times, and he was lovely. Working on something that high profile was a real gift. Other projects I like working on is things like Future Islands, where we signed a band who had a hardcore fanbase but hadn’t quite crossed over to the mainstream, and we helped them cross over. Also working with The National from their early days and seeing them now headline huge arenas is such a privilege. To work with artists and see their development from playing the Barfly to big sold-out shows where everyone is screaming along to their songs is amazing. It’s great to play a part in that and get them the features they deserve and having normal people say to you “I’ve heard of that band, I loved that record”. Then you know it’s not just people in the music industry talking about it, it’s reached the populace and that’s a great feeling.