Navigating new media
To Melissa Taylor, PR is never just about marketing. It is always about information, too. Even the website of her agency, Tailored Communication, feels more like a magazine than a promotion platform, offering a wealth of background data as well as useful links to relevant articles, interviews and mixes. And yet, it is really the music that does the talking. Taylor is extremely selective about the artists and labels she chooses to works with, passionately stressing the importance of quality as her main acceptance criterion and only throwing her weight behind music she can really get behind herself. It has made Tailored one of the leading – or perhaps even the leading – promotion agency in Berlin, running the gamut from underground club tunes to sensual soundscapes, from techno to ambient and from electronica to dubstep. Electronic music may tend to be a fast moving and short-lived world, but there's a good reason why so many of her clients, which include the Ostgut Ton label and the legendary Fabric club, have been working with Tailored over an extended period of time: To Taylor, good promotion stems from a mutual understanding, which can only be built over time. It is never just about information, it's always about partnership, too.
When did you start out working in and with music - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I began working in music at university - I and all my friends were music lovers, going out whenever we could afford to, throwing house parties, buying records and my flatmates had a pirate radio station for a while as well, with the aerial hidden on the roof of the tower block in our halls of residence. The clubs in Manchester were really awful at that time - the Hacienda had closed and there was a lot of violence in the clubs - but we still went out to drum n bass, UK garage and funk nights. In London we’d go to Turnmills or FABRICLIVE once that opened. I was blown away the first time I went to Fabric, I couldn’t believe such a fantastic club space existed without playing shit music or having a terrible crowd. With my boyfriend at the time, DJ Will Saul who now runs Simple Records and Aus Music, I promoted some of the event nights. Then when I left university I took a job at a mainstream music PR company. I hated the job and the company, but I met a lot of good people, and it was them that kept me working in music.
What do you personally consider to be the incisive moments in your work and/or career?
The turning point for me was working at Fabric in London. Before that I was working as a freelance music journalist and considering my career options. I joined Fabric on a short contract but I loved it and they never managed to get rid of me once I had my foot in the door. I met the two people I consider to be my mentors there - Keith Reilly, who created the club, and Judy Griffith who curates the Saturday Fabric nights. They taught me a lot of things about music and life and living that I can’t really sum up in an interview. They were a great influence on me and my self-belief, they nurtured my young spirit and then encouraged me to set it free. Judy and Craig Richards turned me onto techno and the musical path I exist on now.
Another significant moment was when I finally decided to move to Berlin and begin my own agency, initially working for Ostgut Ton, Monika Enterprise, Playhouse and Simple, as that’s probably the biggest step I ever made. It was hard, but I’m so grateful I had the balls and the support to do it. It’s made all the decisions after that seem quite easy.
How would you describe and rate the music scene of the city you are currently living in and how important is it for you in terms of the artists you're working with?
I live in Berlin now. I came for the techno and I stayed here for everything else. You can experience every kind of music here, partly because it’s such an international city. There are so many spaces for music and incredible clubs, that it’s the perfect city for me. The only downside is that it’s changed a lot in the last decade and really isn’t the same city that I fell in love with. The parties are full of out of town visitors, which can make them less intimate and less wild than they used to be… you could say it’s all gone a bit PG 13! There are less electronic music parties focused on the local music talent than before, which is unfortunate because I find a lot of international DJs coming to the city end up playing what they expect the crowd to like rather than what they love to play. It’s like the reputation of the city is somehow a pressure. But out of this the music scene, newer parties are springing up always raising the hope of exciting new experiences to come. I also think as a place to collaborate and try new ideas out, Berlin has no rivals. I don’t think I would have been able to build the agency I have and supported as many new artists and small labels as I have if I had been still based in London.
PR agencies have taken on a plethora of new functions over the years. How would you describe your role in the creative process? What is the scope and what are the limitations of what you are capable of doing?
I see my function as an A&R and curator, as well as a publicist. We are searching out the best new talent to work with all the time and supporting labels and projects that we believe have something special to say. I won’t even discuss a project before I’ve heard the music and I’m often surprised that’s not the standard industry approach. In that way we carefully curate the music on Tailored, sifting the wheat from the chaf, so our repertoire is of the highest quality music of all different genres and our contacts know they can rely on us to deliver a certain standard and style to them.
Further than that, it’s up to us to think of more interesting ways of speaking to the press, presenting the music and reaching out to the wider audience. And aside from the more usual PR functions, we also consult about music, hooking our projects in with other opportunities with brands or labels looking for artists and doing management for a few artists that we work closely with. The main limitations are always the same, time and money.
In which way does the way music is presented and written about change the way it is perceived? Do you feel that, as part of your work, music needs to be explained/categorised or should it retain its “inexplicable nature”?
Yes, I think it’s very important for music to retain its “inexplicable nature”. That’s the magic that allows the listener's own senses to come alive. For my own work with electronic artists, I like simple presentation of information… For me there’s nothing worse than reading some hyped up, name dropping press release full of pointless clichés just to fill the space on a page. I’d rather know nothing at all. I like to know who the artist is and what their idea with the music was and how they made it, something of their journey. I think that’s all the information you need.
Personally I prefer not to categorise music and at Tailored we don’t split releases by genre, for a couple reasons. Firstly, I dislike forcing things into boxes that ultimately then prove difficult for artists to climb out of. Secondly, I think it limits the music’s potential to reach people. To the listener, music is what you make of it and the feeling you take from it, no matter what the intentions of the artist were. So I like to leave that all open to interpretation - even if it annoys DJs to get a weird experimental promo from me without a warning sticker. I love to read the different genres that DJs and the press make up, in response to the records we send them. Emo-step and gothic-dub were a couple of favourites from last year.
What are currently your main challenges – and what are more general challenges of the PR industry as a whole?
Adapting to changes and the decline in print media. Making the most of the new opportunities with digital media, blogs, internet video and streaming - the same as the challenges that face record labels and artists. The whole EDM craze in the US has brought even more publications into the electronic music sphere and it’s a challenge for us to maintain quality. I’m quite aware that these days a lot of the press is now just filler, rather than valuable or enlightening criticism and interesting or creative promotion. So it’s a fine line to tread if you are concerned about the longevity of your artists. For us, we have to make the most of new opportunities while maintaining our integrity and that of our clients. I still believe that in most cases with press, less is more.
Social media and platforms like Boiler Room, YouTube and Soundcloud have completely changed the landscape over the past few years. Fans can now communicate directly with their favourite artists and labels, and vice versa, in many different and highly effective ways. The role of music journalists as guardians of these mystical artistic creatures, as it was in my youth, has now disappeared to a large extent. The way people are discovering music doesn’t depend on reviews of a record or performance anymore, because for the most part you can watch live streamed performances, listen to archived sets and podcasts, pull up as many music videos and interviews as you want in matter of seconds.
We’ve also entered a new phase in electronic music promotion with widespread sponsorship by larger brands that seems to be expanding rapidly. Whilst I think it’s really positive for artists to have the opportunity to have patrons in these thin times, it also makes me slightly uncomfortable on some levels in a couple of particular cases. Ultimately, I think it’s vital for the scene to always retain its independence and power to do things ourselves. Our DIY ability in Europe, in particular, has always been our strength.
What, other than your personal taste, are criteria for defining quality and for selecting artist whom to work with?
The A&R side of Tailored is done by me and my team, we all have slightly different but generally good taste (!), and there’s a lot of office banter around these decisions. Ultimately it just comes down to whether we like a record or project if we will work it. So the criteria are simple - do we like the music and would we buy it? Is the idea behind the project interesting and fitting with our own ideals and interests? Do we have the time to give it the attention it deserves?