How music publicists work to build and promote an artist’s image

Pi’erre Bourne is a client of New York-based publicity agency, Audible Treats. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Is an artist’s image more important than the music?

When thinking of the most boundary-pushing musicians in history, all of them have (or had) an edge to their persona that was both magnetic to their audience and dissident to the status quo. Regardless if the persona is an extension of self or a projection of something auxiliary, it’s a vessel that amplifies the outreach of their art. 

A performer who dances and wears a silver glove on one hand is bound to get loose comparisons to Michael Jackson by someone in the crowd. The rappers who started growing dreads and tattooing their faces grew up with iPods full of Lil Wayne mixtapes. And depending on who you ask, every oversized knit sweater ever worn belonged to Kurt Cobain first. That’s the kind of impact an artist’s image has.

It helps when the music is actually good, too. The lore behind it is intertwined with symbolism and mystique that can’t really get traced back to anyone else. In turn, their swag gets bit by an entire generation of impressionable disciples. But that’s not the point.

Musicians who reach or seek out a certain level of exposure build teams around them that specialize in maximizing their creativity and expanding their social bandwidth. Publicists play a crucial role in this team, taking charge of media relations and bolstering their artist’s image through networking and promotion. Opportunities for interviews, press releases and media coverage are curated by an artist’s publicist, ideally bridging the gap from relative obscurity to ubiquitous familiarity. 

It’d be nearly impossible for a musician to reach widespread notoriety without the backing of a publicist, a manager, and/or an agent who works tirelessly to push their name and image to the masses.

Yuni Morales, 32, is a Cuban-American Miami-based music publicist with her own public relations agency, Livewire PR. She’s worked in the music industry for years as a journalist, publicist, manager, and now aspiring musician. After starting as a writer for Brain Bakery Mag in 2016, an online rap publication based in Broward, she became acclimated with familiar faces like XXXTentacion, Ella Mai and Adam22.

Morales describes the main function as a publicist as “facilitating promotional services” for an artist through radio and digital media. For her, most of the time this is done through publishing articles as a way for her to use her writing repertoire. The return for the artist comes in the form of a boost in search engine optimization, or SEO. SEO is the increase in traffic towards a website or online link, essentially resulting in more exposure.

With direct experience as an event coordinator, artist manager, and tour manager, Morales believes that her extensive involvement in different facets of the music industry has helped bring her success, awareness, and fulfillment. Her work has given her access to everything from concerts and festivals to movie premieres.

Yuni Morales (Photo Courtesy of Morales)

“Going from being a fan of film or music and being around these environments is very inspirational, and it’s very fulfilling for my inner child,” she says. “I feel like anyone who’s in the entertainment business is [seeing their] inner child be fulfilled by being around potentially some people we looked up to, musically or whatever.” 

Work in the music industry is far from perfect, though. T’Keyah Hayes, 24, is a music publicist from Brooklyn who works at Audible Treats, a huge publicity agency that oversees world-renowned conglomerates like Netflix and Tik Tok, the Rolling Loud festival, and artists like Chief Keef, Pi’erre Bourne, and Lucki. 

Hayes graduated from Howard University with aspirations for a full-time career in music journalism, but after dealing with toxic work environments in her desired field on top of the effects of the pandemic, her goals were derailed. At the end of last summer, she pivoted to being a music publicist and hasn’t looked back.

The fast-paced, volatile work environment she finds herself in now has been a transformative learning experience that she’s grown to enjoy. She relishes the unpredictability of being a publicist in a major agency with major talent, as it’s given her the opportunity to work with an abundance of different figures from different places.

“What keeps me on my toes is mainly the fact that my schedule changes often and that I do have to deal with multiple personalities,” Hayes says. “I love a job where every day is not the same, I’m not necessarily a fan of routines in certain areas of my life. Working with several moving parts can get confusing really fast, so keeping in mind who you’re talking to and what their specific needs are makes a huge difference in how you carry out certain tasks.” 

It’s crucial for workers in the music industry at any experience level to be aware of the importance of climbing the social ladder. Conversely, the biggest caveat is realizing that what it takes to climb up that ladder is anything but straightforward. There are gatekeepers who hold the key to coveted positions and events, and there are artists who may want too much control over how they’re marketed.

T’Keyah Hayes (Photo courtesy of Hayes)

Life as a publicist can simply be a war with words. 

Hayes cites relationship building as the biggest obstacle towards success, noting that “the way you word things matters” in order to ensure all your bases are covered with a task at hand, leaving nothing up for interpretation. 

Morales’ experience has seen no shortage of “underlying politics” in the industry that thrives off of favoritism and hierarchy. Additionally, she points out that there are times as a publicist that can be negatively affected by clients you may not see eye to eye with. 

“If the client trusts you enough to facilitate the rollout and strategize fully, awesome,” she says. “If not, you kinda learn to detach yourself from them and just get paid for what they want you to do, which can be controversial sometimes. Not all money is good money.”

Ultimately, working extensively behind the scenes in any subsect of the entertainment industry can be just as rewarding as it is taxing. Music publicists are fully aware of the sacrifices necessary for the betterment of their artists, their brands, and the agency they represent.

It’s a full-on commitment that might not get the same recognition as the poster child they place at the forefront, but still, they’re much more significant than they get credit for.

Olivier Lafontant is an aspiring music journalist who is pursuing a Bachelor's degree in digital journalism at Florida International University. He enjoys thrifting, collecting vinyl, taking film photography and watching sports in his free time.