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This Little Act Went to Market Ideas for Successful Self-Promotion

Whether you've been performing for years, or are in the planning stages of your first act, on any budget, you can still put together an audience mailing, press materials, and a media contact list for successful self-promotion. To celebrate Cabaret Month, Back Stage would like to provide you with ideas and tell you where you can find the tools to help. We've also enlisted a few of cabaret's success stories, to offer you tips on what worked for them.

SUB: Let's Start at the Very Beginning

Even before you begin promoting your own act, notice how you heard about other people's shows and what made you decide to see them. Start reading about cabaret and get to know the tastes of its different writers. Back Stage has the "Bistro Bits" and "Laughing Matters" columns. The daily papers give coverage to cabaret for their Friday and weekend listing sections. Time Out covers clubs in its "Cabaret," "Comedy," and "Gay & Lesbian" listings. Cabaret Scenes is a magazine devoted to the medium, and Drama-Logue's "New York New York" features cabaret news. You'll find that theatre magazines have cabaret sections, as does New York magazine. The free weekly newspapers and gay and lesbian club magazines include cabaret entertainment in their weekly calendars and picks-of-the-week. There's also and "Cabaret Hotline" on the web at Often-overlooked ways to get coverage are your home town paper and your alumni, union, and/or company newsletters.

If your goal is to promote your show with a live radio appearance, or if you've got a CD or plan to produce one, start learning about and supporting radio stations catering to the nostalgia-oriented listener. These stations showcase traditional cabaret CDs and live interviews/performances featuring standards, Broadway, and the Great American Songbook. Two New York-based stations to know are WQEW and WOR. At WQEW, Vice President and Programming/Station Manager Stan Martin has long been known as a friend of cabaret. WOR's Joe Franklin and his Saturday night "Memory Lane" broadcasts reach 48 states and Canada, supporting traditional cabaret and crossover adult contemporary talent along with playing bygone favorites. Franklin is a champion of radio's tradition of live in-studio performances.

SUB: Oh Yeah, Wait a Minute, Mister Postman

Even with bupkis for a budget, you can put together your own no-cost media list by doing some research at Barnes & Noble or other shops where they welcome you to read in their stores. (Of course, we know you're going to want to buy this copy of Back Stage so you can keep it as a reference.) At the front of periodicals you'll find their mastheads, where staff contact information is listed.

You'll need to find out the lead time for each publication--how far in advance it must receive your materials. Many list this along with their contact information, or you can call and ask. It's important to know each publication's needs and cater to them. Lead times are like snowflakes: No two are alike. It may take a few mailings, too, before you break through and get that first listing. You'll want to learn how to tailor your pitch or invitation to individual writers by studying their past reviews and interests. It's your job to do the research and target your mailings accordingly. Remember, too, many writers freelance; when you send something to a newspaper it may only be forwarded a few times a month to those freelancers' homes or offices.

If you don't want to invest the time required to make your own list, organizations that sell New York-oriented press lists include Dance Theater Workshop (its package even has a section on writing a press release) and ART/N.Y. (Alliance of Resident Theatres/N.Y.).

The motherload of information sources is "New York Publicity Outlets" (800-999-8448). This is a huge, professional-strength directory with contact information for New York-New Jersey-Connecticut radio and television stations (including local cable), individual shows, weekly and daily newspapers, and every national magazine you can imagine. At $210 it's worth the investment because of its great diversity of listings, its hundreds of pages of editors, reviewers and correspondents, talent bookers, and segment producers and its descriptions of what those people are interested in covering. (There's also a volume for California.)

For instance: You'll find a long list of cat-lovers' magazines you might want to pitch yourself to--if, as well as performing, you have a special feline in your life. Are you a minor, senior, vegetarian, gardener, doll collector, cigar smoker, or do you have a second career that might interest a speciality publication? How about requesting a makeover for your next show? Women's Day and First do them regularly.

SUB: Listings and Mentions and Reviews Oh My!

You don't have to own ruby slippers to get any of these--just a great deal of persistence. Listings are free and ideally given out regularly as space permits, when you've met lead-time requirements. They are used to generate audiences--like free mini-ads. Before you write yours, check publications for examples; be brief, but don't leave out necessary information. Often a publication has a listings editor. He/she doesn't decide whether a show gets reviewed, but does choose who gets listed. Some publications only give listings to their advertisers. (Very important: If you decide to pay for an ad, make sure you'll be getting editorial coverage too, i.e., a reviewer or at least a column mention. Your ad rep should be able to help you.)

"Mentions" are brief non-reviews often occurring in columns or "Around Town" sections. If you've already been reviewed, a writer may not be allowed to give you much space again for a while, but he or she can congratulate you or give you a few lines if you are constantly doing diverse bookings, benefits, or something that makes you newsworthy. (Notice the first three letters in "news": If you're out there doing something new, you'll stay in the news.)

SUB: Reviews!

Everybody wants 'em, whether they're ready or not. Editors often assign writers the shows they'll review, but some columnists can make their own choices, too. Ideally the information you send about a show should be complete enough that if a writer never had the chance to talk to you, he or she could still write up a feature story on you or your revue.

--if it doesn't, don't use one. Include a complete song list with the composers' names as well as the titles (having to guess or look up who wrote something bugs many reviewers); spell and punctuate them correctly. Write a one-page press release (that's why they call it a one-sheet) that answers every question, from dates and the nearest subway to interesting background on the performer. Instead of a stack of clippings, try picking representative quotes and shrinking them down to all fit on one page. It's a courtesy to send a formal review request to editors, even if you're sending packages to specific reviewers, too. Consider following up anything you get with a thank-you note; that will help you to begin your relationship with a publication. Try to keep your phone calls to a minimum.

Find out what the club you're performing at does to get listings. (A few satisfy this basic mailing with their monthly calendars--so you don't have to.) A booking manager who feels strongly about your talent is a wonderful ally and a good barometer of whether you're ready to seek reviews or should wait and stick to listings. If you don't have a professional-performance background, how can you know when you've got something worth offering to press, instead of just to your friends and family?

Another talent barometer is the piano bars you'll find in a number of clubs and restaurants. Singing at these "open mikes" filled with strangers instead of dear Aunt Tillie and her friends will let you know where you stand. If those strangers ask for a flyer to your next show, or where they can see more of you: congratulations! You've just continued the wonderful tradition of doing teasers (a small taste of your talent to whet the audience's appetite to see you again).

Have a little notebook on hand and always take contact info for your personal mailing list, including fax, E-mail, and business card. If you just give out your flyer and the customer loses it, you've lost the customer. Collecting business cards can help you network in the future--i.e., the website/graphics designer who might help you with postcards, flyers, or a new site at cost; the ad exec who could punch up the writing in your press release. Remember, any one of those contacts might have a "friend of a friend" who works in showbiz/media.

ABC's John Fugelsang, who cohosts "America's Funniest Home Videos" and has been a familiar face on VH1, is also a Back Stage Bistro Award- and two-time-MAC-winner for his one-man show, "Junk Male." After three sold-out years in New York City at the Duplex, he'll be performing on the West Coast in March, including a special one-night performance on the 24th, at The Coast. Back Stage asked this self-described "bland, generic, homogeneous, dime-a-dozen, run-of-the-mill white guy" how he ran so long S.R.O. Without missing a beat he very seriously replied, "I sunk to every level. I whored and prostituted myself."

In edgy comedian lingo, translate that to say he worked his butt off aggressively, going after audience and industry. He kept his cover at $3, ran at least once every month on the same night, at the same club, so people always knew where he'd be. He carried a stack of constantly updated, visually exciting flyers which he daily gave to every soul he met, went to others' shows, and opened for performers so they would return the favor. He had mailing-list cards and collected them diligently. He made phone calls to follow up the flyers and mailed repeatedly to listings in the Ross Reports to pull in industry. He enlisted the help of the Duplex to mention him in its monthly mailings. He ran near New York University, because students were his target market. All of this hard work has paid off, and with cabaret as his launching pad, he has gone on to television and movies.

Cabaret also launched the careers of Karen Mason and Christian Nova, who have extensive touring and Broadway credits, too. They used many of the ideas you've been reading here, before deciding to enlist the aid of a publicist. "You can hire a publicist," Nova confided with a clear, caring honesty that helped win him his second Back Stage Bistro Award this year, "but your job is never done." He adds,"It's important to keep your hand in it. I still do personal mailings and teasers sometimes before and after a show."

Nova chose to enlist a publicist after he came back from touring in "Phantom of the Opera" because he had been out of the loop and wanted the personal connections that only a press Rolodex can bring. He also felt that people found it more professional, and since he had a new CD to promote as well, he found it worth the investment. "Just to get people out at all is such a big challenge," he declares.

Both Mason and Nova used performers' advice when choosing whom to work with. Mason also shared with us that, as a basically shy person, it was a relief to have someone else selling what she does. Nova echoed this, feeling, "People prefer to be able to talk to a third party about you." Mason has found the experience so freeing that she now keeps a publicist when she can on retainer--one who also updates her website at Nova has a site at Both use these to sell CDs and inform their personal mailing lists on upcoming dates. Nova will be singing at the Bistro Awards on March 9, and Mason, who has a very full concert schedule, is especially excited about singing at Carnegie Hall on March 20 with Skitch Henderson and the New York Pops.

It was interesting to discover that, even though Mason had the very high-profile role of Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard" (she understudied throughout the run of the show), she got no added press from the show's publicist and still had to go after press on her own. It was her agent who suggested she needed the help of a publicist. Looking back at what else worked for her and long-time musical director and collaborator Brian Lasser, she notes, "We discovered that working with others allowed us to meet performers and to use their mailing lists, too." Now Nova and Mason appear in other people's shows and enjoy helping out at benefits, which also keeps them "out there." Mason adds that by getting diverse bookings she tries to "have something for everyone--different cover costs and venues, so that no one gets left out." Displaying the heartfelt emotion that has endeared her to so many, she sums up the essence of the intimacy of cabaret: "It's really important to come out after shows and meet your audience. They've just shared a part of you and that means a lot."


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