Before Alex John even thought about starting a career in the music industry (and well before she rose to her current role as a Director of Publicity at RCA Records) she had a deep passion for the art form. Suburban Detroit wasn’t exactly an environment that made music feel like a realistic career choice, but she dove into the business out of love, creating and selling mix CDs in high school and eventually starting her own music blog a few years later. Eventually, her passion for music won out: she went to college for a “more typical career path,” but spent a large chunk of her two years there wishing she was doing something in music — and wound up striking a deal with her family, where they’d support her pursuit if she could make it work on her own. “That ended up being the best decision I could’ve made,” she says. Despite the uncertainty, she moved to Chicago and started off networking in the local nightlife and music scenes, undeterred by whatever odd job she was holding down to pay rent. Her perseverance ultimately led to more writing opportunities (such as VIBE Magazine and DJ Mag) and her first internship in PR, and she moved to Los Angeles soon after. “While school definitely yields results for many, stepping outside its confines and gaining real-world industry experience helped me find my footing and dictate my own career path,” she notes.
John’s experience as a journalist influenced her view of publicity and provided her with a significant advantage that she still uses today by exposing her to the various ways publicists pitch an artist. “In some cases, a pitch may be your first encounter with an emerging artist, so how they are positioned can help pique interest and encourage you to learn more about them,” she explains. She has spent the past year and a half working with a range of artists on the label roster to plan and carry out the publicity strategy for their singles, albums, tours, or anything else the artist is interested in marketing as the current Director of Publicity at RCA Records. She describes to Hypebeast the specifics of her position and her day-to-day activities while also going through the requirements for professional success.
In three words, how would you describe your job to someone who isn’t familiar with the music industry?
Advocate, nurturer, cheerleader.
What is the scope of your job as the Director of Publicity?
We work directly with the artist’s team – the artist themselves, management, sometimes an external PR agency as well as other departments within the label – to make sure we’re aligned on what targets and goals are important to the artist and determine the best plan to get there.
Other facets of my job include working closely with RCA’s Head of Publicity, Jamie Abzug, to help oversee and execute press opportunities for RCA executives, in addition to helping to onboard and train junior staff members of the Publicity department.
Can you run us through a day in your work life?
Most days involve a mix of team meetings, strategy/planning and media outreach. The latter can be anything depending on what is coming up on the calendar – reaching out to editors or writers to gauge interest in a new project or artist, pitching a TV booker for a performance, sending out music for reviews, etc. If we’ve received an offer from an outlet and confirmed it with the artist, then it’s doing all the necessary legwork to prep and get it over the line. We work with the outlet from concept to completion.
Days can also include meeting with media to network and develop new relationships, being on-site for photoshoots or performance tapings, traveling with the artist if necessary to oversee any press trips they may be doing, or attending a red carpet event to walk an artist through photos and interviews.
What would you say is the foundation of a successful campaign?
At the start of a campaign, it’s important to be aligned on what story the artist is looking to tell and how we want to express that narrative through the media. A song or an album is a representation of the artist’s thoughts and emotions, and it’s our job to convey that.
I think a successful campaign also requires a level of trust between the publicist and the artist. You are acting as an intermediary between them and the media, so there needs to be trust that you understand the artist’s vision, that you are engaging with the right outlets and journalists who will also understand and see that vision, and you are also shielding them from anything they may potentially not want to discuss. Before they’re put on record in an interview or step foot on a photoshoot, an artist needs to know that they have someone in their corner who is making sure the environment is comfortable, any necessary questions or measurements beforehand have been taken, and that they’ll leave feeling that the final piece will be an accurate representation of their identity and art.
Tell us the most memorable experience or campaign you’ve had with an artist yet.
I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of memorable experiences in my career thus far, though I think the ones that stand out the most are the moments where you felt like you worked to secure a piece that helped take an artist to the next step.
While I was at Red Bull Records, I had the pleasure of working with LA-based rapper Blxst for his No Love Lost EP and a few other releases.I helped secure a lot of press looks for him, but one of the ones I value most was his XXL Freshman Class cover in 2021. That was one of his first national magazine covers, and I think there was a shift after that came out — he really came onto the radar of a lot of new audiences.
Even now at RCA, the most rewarding moments I have are when I can help champion an artist and see that work come to fruition. Helping artists like Saucy Santana get their first late-night television booking, securing a magazine cover for artists on the rise like August Royals, Isaac Dunbar, or Deante’ Hitchcock, or even working with a global popstar like P!NK to orchestrate a press run for her latest album, are moments I cherish.
As a Director of Publicity, what is your metric of success? When can you say that you’ve accomplished your goal for the artist?
I think success looks different for every campaign because different projects have different needs. In some ways, the success of a press campaign can be measured because we have tangible things to point to – an artist can see how many outlets have covered their project, if the reviews were positive, how many interviews or performances they’ve done, etc.
For many artists, especially if they are still developing, I think a metric of success is if we are seeing growth from project to project. We’re seeing those journalists or publications that have been supporters before continuing to engage, but also starting to forge new relationships or gaining exposure and opportunities in new outlets, which hopefully, in turn, helps grow the artist’s audience.
Another measure of success I hold is if we are achieving press coverage in the places that best suit the artist and give the audience an insight into who they are. If an artist has an interest in fashion, securing them a photoshoot in a high-fashion publication may be more impactful than an interview in a more traditional music outlet and can help solidify their presence in that space and open future doors. If an artist is an incredible vocalist, a stripped-back TV performance or series like NPR Tiny Desk or COLORS can highlight that and be a game-changer. If an artist has something they are passionately speaking about, something longform like a podcast or panel can give them more room to share their insights and experiences. A winning press look, for me, is one that lets the reader or viewer walk away discovering something new.
When the outcome of a campaign doesn’t yield the results you and the team were hoping for, what’s usually the first course of action you take?
The first course of action is to take a step back and evaluate the campaign as a whole. What goals did we meet, and where did we fall short? If any of our target media declined to cover an artist or a project, what was their feedback as to why? Was it due to lack of bandwidth, was the ask’s notice too short, or was this particular project just not for them? Are there other targets or press features we should be looking at before an outlet will start to consider an artist? What lessons can we take with us for future campaigns?
The media landscape is frequently shifting, and the closures of several influential publications have made opportunities less available. More artists are competing for the same available opportunities at the same time. We have to be able to be fluid in our approach, and if something isn’t going the way we anticipated, we have to try and be nimble and explore other opportunities.
What are the necessary first steps someone should take to enter a career in music as a publicist?
Be passionate about music. Your job is to be an advocate for these artists and to help get their art exposed to the world. Having that passion helping to fuel you each day really makes a difference and will make your working experience better.
It’s also important to be reading and consuming media and consistently find new ways to discover media and artists. You need to have insight on what the media is talking about, what journalists or editors are fans of or typically cover beat-wise and be able to observe the cultural zeitgeist to understand how your client could be a part of that conversation.
Lastly, you should be networking as much as you can. Getting to know writers, editors, other publicists, managers and more. Having strong relationships within the media space is crucial because you can take those connections with you throughout your career.
What was the biggest challenge you’ve had to face so far, and how did you overcome it?
I spent a lot of years dealing with imposter syndrome, and it still creeps up. I’m a perfectionist, and it can be very easy to see and compare yourself to what others are doing.
It’s important to check in with yourself when you are starting to feel those emotions and also celebrate your wins when they happen. It’s also important to learn from those around you and rely on your team. A great idea can come from anyone, and I believe a win for the artist is a win for the label, no matter who it came from. I’m very fortunate to be surrounded by incredibly talented team members in the RCA Publicity department, and I rely on them for their insight and expertise — and their help brainstorming if I’m feeling stuck.
What is one thing about your job that most people would find unexpected or surprising?
I think publicity is often viewed as a very glamorous job, often because it’s portrayed as being in proximity to celebrity, attending exclusive events, etc. The publicists you think of the most in mainstream media is someone like Samantha Jones from Sex And The City.
It has its moments, but I would not encourage someone to enter publicity if that is your specific motivation. It’s a job that requires a lot of hard work, a lot of long hours, and at times it can be thankless. If you’re willing to put in the time and work, though, it’s very rewarding.
Is there a secret to career longevity in this industry?
I think networking and being able to build relationships within the industry helps your longevity. In publicity, you are working closely with a lot of different writers or editors, and you never know where someone will ultimately end up working. I think it’s important to try and be kind to everyone and remember that when you’re pitching to the media, you’re still pitching another person at the end of the day.
What are some habits you follow regularly to always maintain a good headspace for work?
It’s important to take time to separate yourself from your work. The music industry isn’t a Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job. Sometimes you’re working late nights or weekends. In publicity in particular, there is an urge to be almost chronically online, constantly aware of media trends and movements, social chatter or breaking news. It’s easy to teeter on the edge of burnout or fall victim to it entirely.
I try to take time to be unplugged and away from my phone. Go to the gym, read a book, see a movie. Therapy is also important, so if there is any residual stress I’m feeling, I’m making sure to deal with it in a healthy and productive way.
What does a day off look like for you?
Before I left college, I took a lot of film studies classes. That’s always been my other passion outside of music, and I thought about trying to get a job as a film critic when I was younger. There’s a local theater about a block from my apartment, so I’m there at least once or twice a week.
Otherwise, it’s just about taking time to reset. I’ll cook, ride my bike, see friends, walk my dog, and spend time with my partner.
How do you see your job evolving with the music industry in the next five years?
We’re at such a pivotal time right now with the overarching shift in the media landscape. We’re seeing magazines that have been around for years shutter and journalists starting to find less traditional opportunities available. We’re faced with questions about what the future looks like, and how new technologies like AI can impact media, and whether it’s helpful or harmful. Even younger generations aren’t necessarily turning to traditional media outlets, they are finding new points of music discovery like TikTok, and we’re trying to adapt to how that plays a greater part in the music industry in real time.
Change is not new to media, but it feels like it’s accelerating at a speed that we’re still reckoning with. It’s hard to say what media or my job will look like in five years, let alone the next two or three. I remember when media shifted from largely print to digital, and then digital to video content. Real-world events like COVID had massive impacts, and in some ways, we’re still feeling reverberations of that because there are publications that just didn’t recover or had to adapt in new ways.
I believe there will always be a need for public relations because there will always be a need for an intermediary between the artist and media, but in what capacity that looks like and in what ways we’ll need to adapt, I think, remains to be seen.
If not working in music, what would you be doing?
If I weren’t working in music, I’d probably either be working in film or fashion. That or I’d have just gone in a completely left-field direction and be living off the grid in some small coastal town, running a sanctuary for senior dogs. That’s at least my retirement plan.