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The Publicist: Scott Thompson

The Publicist: Scott Thompson
B.D. Lenz By

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Getting their name out, getting them known is what I do as a publicist. —Scott Thompson
My previous column at All About Jazz called, Mind Your Business, covered the aspects of managing your own music career as a DIY jazz artist. Throughout that twelve-part series I covered such topics as booking, promotion, and touring. I've had to learn all of these skills on my own and figured there were artists in the same position as myself that might be interested in what I had learned along the way. Having completed that series, I now look to pick the brains of the professionals who do these jobs every day for a living. In this new column, I'll interview a different subject, each with a different job in the industry. I'll talk to booking agents, talent buyers, radio promoters, label representative, etc. The questions I ask come from the perspective of a musician looking for guidance and advice to better themselves and their careers. My first subject is Scott Thompson who is a storied publicist. He's worked with some of the greatest musicians in the jazz world at, arguably, the most prestigious jazz venue in the world.

About Scott Thompson

Thompson served as Assistant Director of Public Relations for Jazz at Lincoln Center for nearly a decade. He was brought in to help launch the organization's new facilities in the Time Warner Center Building at Columbus Circle in 2004. He was also publicist for Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola. During that time, he established himself as a leading publicist in the entertainment field, garnering praise from peers and music professionals alike.

With a background in broadcast journalism, Thompson's voice and work has been heard on the Associated Press Radio Network, the Mutual Broadcasting Network and NBC-AM New York with the Imus In The Morning Show. He has covered everything from Presidential press conferences to hard news in-field assignments. Thompson co-produced the New Haven Jazz Festival from 1994-2000, and worked in the New Haven Mayor's Office of Information. His experience spans radio, television, print and the internet. He knows how to pitch a story and to whom. Thompson has interviewed everybody from the Defense Secretary of the United States to Frank Zappa.

A prolific writer, Thompson has contributed to All About Jazz, DownBeat, JazzTimes, Jazziz, and the All Music Guide. He penned the CD liner notes to Herbie Hancock Head Hunters, Weather Report 8:30, George Duke Brazilian Love Affair, Stan Getz The New Collection, The Essence of Maynard Ferguson, and The Essence of Al Di Meola. He writes the monthly Playbill lead features at JALC, totaling 80-plus articles to date. He is one of the original members of the Jazz Journalists Association.

Scott Thompson: My story starts with Jimi Hendrix. That was the first concert I went to when I was living in Kansas City I was about 15 years old and I said, "look, we got to go see this guy." We ended up at the stage, I don't know how we got there, but he smashed his guitar, he was humping his amps. It was the height of 1969 I think. I'm reaching for the splinter of his Stratocaster, trying to get it, and a cop comes over and steps on my arm. So that kind of started my rebellious... whatever. It was '69, I mean I'm 65 years old, so I've been around for a little while.

All About Jazz: That's pretty amazing you got to see Jimi Hendrix.

ST: I saw Hendrix. So I walked out of there saying, "what just happened?" I've always been a fan of music. I remember sitting in the backseat of a station wagon on the way to grade school, Motown was always on the radio, it was just a very fertile time for music back in the '60s and '70s. We heard everything. I never really had a life plan to be a publicist or to work in music. I was just plodding along.

AAJ: That actually leads me to my first question which is how did you end up in this field?

ST: First of all I'm a music fan, and I love music, and that's what led me to the field. I went to college and studied mass media, advertising, communications and so I have a broadcast journalism background. I developed the art of the interview. It's an art to interview somebody. Especially when you're doing live radio and they're like, "yes, no, yes," and you're like, "oh man this is killing me." A trick of mine is to say something that will piss them off, "yeah what about... I heard that..." and they go "oh no, that's not what happened..." And then we start talking and end up being friends by the end of the interview. It's definitely an art. I literally went from covering a Reagan press conference one day to interviewing Frank Zappa the next day.

So I started in radio. Broadcast writing is very short, to-the-point. The "who what where, why, when, and what," in one paragraph. It's perfect for today. With emails we get their attention for eight seconds, I mean, I think it's down to eight seconds before they move on. There's such a proliferation of information now. Everything has changed in my lifetime since I've done this.

So I started interviewing people and before I knew it I had a box of interviews of cassettes. I go, "man I could only use it for a couple of runs on the radio for thirty seconds. I gotta make use of it." Like interviews with Wayne Shorter, Dizzy Gillespie, and Freddie Hubbard. So I started transcribing interviews and found I could make money selling them. That's how it began. I mean I grew up a rocker but my younger brothers are jazz musicians.

One plays trumpet, one plays alto, and so it was back in the '70s when we moved up north to Connecticut and the New York area. The New York jazz scene was still thriving. I mean all those clubs that are now gone, it was back in the day. I remember seeing Charles Mingus, somewhere, it's kind of blurry those years [laughs]. But it was at the Village Vanguard, or somewhere, and he says, "I want to introduce somebody in the audience" and the guy beside me stands up and it's Dexter Gordon. Ya know so New York was hopping back then.

Musicians can tell that I like the music and that's important to them. Before you talk to somebody it's important to research so you know what you're talking about. These guys have been asked the same questions a million times. This is the way of communicating to people and so that's how it started. And I started in radio. I worked in college radio, and eventually on NBC, the Imus in the Morning Show, I was a news stringer. Then I was on Associated Press Radio Network. I was a broadcast journalist. Then I got a job at WJAZ, a jazz station in Stamford Connecticut, and just worked my way up from there.

I mean I've written the CD liner notes for Herbie Hancock's Headhunters and interviewed him. For me, it's amazing to be able to sit across from Wayne Shorter. The stories they tell you, it's just like...my dad always said, "find something you love and get paid to do it." That's what happened man. Along the way I just saw everybody. I hung out with Freddie, did bad things with him back in the day [laughs]. You just start building a foundation, keep adding to it, and the more you write the better you get.

I covered the Newport Jazz Festival and went to all the press conferences. I'd see George Wein there and buddy up with him. And I'd see Mary Fiance who was the PR director at Jazz at Lincoln Center. I'd see her there every year, "come on man, you got to hire me. Why don't you hire me? You should hire me." And finally I got a call. She goes, "I have a job for you," and she hired me as Assistant Director of Public Relations at Jazz at Lincoln Center. And so in 2004, all of a sudden, I'm working at the number one jazz organization in the world, in New York. It's a dream come true. I met everybody at that point.

AAJ: You said you started from a rock background but ended up in the Jazz world. Did you have a love for jazz music or was it something you fell into?

ST: Like I said, my brothers would practice in the garage, with trumpet and saxophone they did a lot of Cannonball Adderley kind of stuff. I'd go, "what is that?" And they'd go, "that's jazz music." So we would go to New York, there was a group of us who worked at a restaurant making money. Back then if you were a writer you got to make money somehow. We'd get our money, we'd pool it, and drive into the city at midnight and catch all the jazz shows. Back in the day you'd go from one club to another: The Bottom Line; Village Vanguard, and you'd drive home when the sun came up, you know. So that's how that happened. Eventually I'm working at Jazz at Lincoln Center, I just built my foundation there. I was there for 10 years and facilitated me to do everything. Tony Bennett was being interviewed by CNN in Dizzy's Club so you get to hang out with Tony Bennett. Backstage I watched Eric Clapton rehearse with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. He comes in in jeans and sneakers and he's intimidated by these master musicians. He's going, "man, I'm just doing my jangly blues thing. You guys are the real musicians." He's very humble.

AAJ: What was a typical work day like for you?

ST: Well it's New York. It's busy from the minute you get in. I would commute in from up near New Haven so I did the full Metro-North line all the way down to Grand Central, an hour and a half in, hour and a half out. I'd always be the first one in. I'm the furthest one away and always be the first one in [laughs]. I'd go in and I'd see Wynton Marsalis. He would be the first one in the office. He played a gig the night before and he's sitting at his desk at like 7:30 in the morning dressed to the nines, nice dress shirt, tie, and working. I don't know when he sleeps. At first we began at a different building and it was a jazz family. We all just worked together. You're at your computer in a cubicle. It's basically selling tickets is what you're trying to do. Fill the hall.

Marketing and PR are kind of close together but there are differences. Marketing, you pay for it. You buy an ad, you know it's going to be there. PR, nothing's guaranteed. You're asking, "can you please review my artist?" So you never know. It's a crapshoot. My style is I have a very easy going personality and it comes across in my style working with the people. Just let me do what I do. I know what I'm doing because musicians are a fun bunch [laughs]. I mean they're artists and it's an ego-driven business you know. You got to believe in yourself to get up on the stage. It's not a negative thing but it's part of the business. So you got to dance around, or whatever you got to do. Just be nice to people. You can get something done by being an a**. Or you can be nice about it and get it done the same way. People respect that and they remember. Who are they going to go back to next time, you know, the a** or the guy who was nice? You start building a roster of clients.

AAJ: You do work for artists directly doing publicity for them. When should an artist hire a publicist?

ST: Well, I stopped working at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2013 and then I started my own PR business. I had made so many contacts. Every artist that I've worked with has called me. I haven't called anyone. Don't burn your bridges, I've got a good name, I'm well respected in the business. For instance, I got a call from a guitarist, this incredible guitarist Sandro Norton in Portugal. He's like Pat Metheny but he does this tapping style, it's really incredible... I go, "well how did you hear about me?" and he says, "Gary Burton told me to call Scott Thompson." I never even met Gary Burton! So once your name gets out there and you get called. What was the question again? [laughs]

AAJ: Why should an artist hire a publicist?

ST: Well back in the day labels would give a lot of support to the artist. In the last decade, and probably less, the whole industry has changed. You know there used to be a lot of labels and as a writer I would get six CDs in the mail every day from labels to be considered for a review. The labels no longer give support to the artist. They have their favorites but it's not like it used to be. That's why musicians today need a publicist more than ever. It's highly competitive. First of all, it's jazz which is like 2% of record sales. You're battling Taylor Swift, Jay-Z, and everything else for airtime. The publicist is a necessity. You need somebody in your corner because you got to get your music heard. I'll say, "well send me a hundred fifty CDs and a hundred fifty-one sheets with basic information on it and I'll get it to radio and get it airplay. I'll get it to editors." You know I've written for all the magazines. I used to write for Jazz Times when it was a newspaper a hundred years ago. It's so competitive—you have to have a publicist.

AAJ: Can an artist do their own PR?

ST: If they can. Musicians are artists. They're meant to make music so they're not necessarily specialized in that. They can do it. But it looks better and more professional if somebody's representing you. It's a necessary evil. It's actually a good thing. Radio stations get piles of CDs in their inbox. It's become so competitive, especially with a lot of people self-producing now there's so much music out there, there's a lot of noise. But they still have to listen to them or it gets in the way of the good music.

A publicist is important establishing the artist's name, getting them known, getting their music heard, getting airplay, getting reviews, promoting their next gig, selling tickets for them. You have to try to pack the house. It's exposure for the artist. My job as a publicist is to get them publicity and that's what I do.

AAJ: You've been doing this for a very long time so you've seen a lot of changes in the business. Can you tell me about the changes brought about by social media and how it effects your job?

ST: Well I'm old school so I'm not real....like the college kids know the social-media thing because it's their generational thing. That's why it's good to have a social media person as well. I do Twitter, and Facebook, and Instagram, and blogs that are out there. With the new social media everything is changing. In five years CDs will probably be obsolete but right now radio still needs CDs. They still have CD players and turntables.

The only place you can hear John Coltrane or any other real kind of jazz is on listener-supported, non-commercial radio because the commercial jazz radio stations are smooth jazz. It's Kenny G stuff. So if you want to hear real jazz... like I'm working the new Jimmy Cobb release with Roy Hargrove. It was one of his last recordings, it was the last recording that Rudy Van Gelder did in his studio. I remember I had to gather up at this hotel, it was like corralling cats, James Cotton, Taj Mahal, and Shemekia Copeland. Get them in a van and get to a TV station to be live. We went to NBC and they did an acoustic version of "Honky Tonk Woman" with Chuck Scarborough. It was so cool. I brought Joe Lovano to NBC.

TV's hard. It's especially hard. It's radio, television, and social media. Social media is the future and streaming is the future. Eventually the old schoolers are going to fade. You know, I don't know what's going to happen. The music business is a crazy business. Technology is driving it all. Everything is getting smaller, more sophisticated...

AAJ: And more immediate, right?

ST: And more immediate, yeah. The immediacy of radio is why radio is the strongest. You get a CD to them it can be on the air that day. Print, ya know the major magazines, they work three months ahead of schedule so everyone's always going, "well, how come you can't get me on the cover of New York Times?" I go, "man, get in line." It's so competitive that my approach is a very soft approach to the editors because I know the deal. They don't want people calling and mailing, "hey, how come you're not playing my record blah blah blah?" I mean if you mail them a CD they know why you sent it to them. You want to get reviewed. I'll send a short email like, "I hope you got it; hope it's good; keep me posted;" just a light reminder. And, like I said, the Jazzizz issue that just came out I have two artists featured in it, and the new Downbeat that just came out, I have two artists that are featured in it. Not many publicists can say that.

AAJ: How do you get an artist to stand out from the rest of the crowd? Is it just from your efforts in promoting them?

ST: There's many elements involved. A lot of it's luck and talent. I mean if it's a name guy that's what's going to get the headline like if it's Wynton Marsalis or something. But a lot of it depends on what issue they're working on. You just have to pitch it to them and they know that if it comes from me that it's going to be good because those are the artists I take. They say, "well let us send it out" but I say, "it's better if I have my label on it so they see it and put it to the top of the pile. They know I don't send b out." If it's a good recording is what makes it. You can't fool the editors or the public... well. you can fool the public, sometimes, I mean look at what they listen to mostly. Getting a client's name out, getting them known is what I do as a publicist.

Photo credit: Maria Cabeza

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