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Performing Songwriter Cover

Endorsements 101:
How About Some Free Stuff?

Originally published in Performing Songwriter Magazine
Issues #35 & #36, March-May 1999

We all remember the instruments our heroes played – Jimi's Strat, Paul's Hoffner bass, Elton's Yamaha grand, Bonnie's Fender, Emmy Lou's Hummingbird... the list goes on. We assumed they played those instruments because they loved them, not because they were paid for posing with them.

We learned to play while dreaming of owning an instrument like theirs. We tried "their stuff" at our local music stores, hoping some of the magic would rub off on us. We never thought it about it from the manufacturer's point of view. Heck, we didn't even think there were manufacturers!

But for the company building and promoting those instruments, your dreams translate into potential dollars. As Chris Gero of Yamaha says, "You look at your heroes and want to emulate them – that's where we want to plant our seed."

In this article we'll look at endorsement deals – what they are, what they bring, what they cost.

I can already see you shaking your head. "Nobody gives endorsements to folksingers/songwriters/people like me".

Wrong. There are people just like you getting some form of consideration from manufacturers – so read on.

At the start of an artist’s career, endorsement deals offer huge perceived benefits:

  • Free stuff! This is usually the first thing we think of when we hear "endorsement". It's a good feeling when the maker of gear you love is willing to give you a steep discount, or let you use gear for nothing. It touches the vein in us that says "My talent's not worth anything in the market yet, but it is to these people. They believe in me." I can't over-state how important that is, the sense that an entire company has faith in your talent and your future.
  • Credibility. In a business where just being able to say "I spoke with Bob Dylan's manager's secretary's assistant today" is cause for celebration, being able to say "I'm a Martin Guitars endorser" gives you immediate cachet. I mean, if Martin Guitars believes in your future, everybody should!
  • Profile. The hope of showcases, advertising mentions, and press that the company will arrange, furthering your career by exposing you to larger audience numbers, different promoters, possibly radio and television (or at least, cable television.)
  • History. The drive to become part of that elite group whose names we see in large ads dotting our favorite magazines. The dream that some kid, somewhere, dreams of being like you.

When you're starting out, any piece of affordable gear is a luxury. The first guitar I owned cost $75.00 and couldn't be played above the seventh fret; it was the most beautiful instrument I'd ever played.

As we become more accomplished, we become more discerning. Our standards rise as our pockets expand. The successful artist may not need more profile, or want to be associated with such commercialism. They also understand that the company isn't giving them equipment because of the beauty of their eyes. There's always a trade-off. Some artists feel they'd be in debt to the company if they accepted an endorsement; they prefer to remain debt-free and purchase everything themselves. Some artists, like myself, work with companies whose equipment they actually prefer to use – for instance, I'd be playing a Santa Cruz guitar and using a G7th capo even without having a relationship with those companies.

And some artists (major touring bands, though I won't go into names here) just grab whatever gear they can from whatever company offers the most, use a few pieces here and there, then sell the rest on line, or privately. I've known tour managers and equipment people who have a thriving business selling endorsement goods. Personally, I find that really distasteful (unethical, anyone?), but that's just me.

What is it, and what's in it for me?

Years ago while visiting a friend named Ken Schaeffer (eventual inventor of the Scherwin-Vega Diversity System, the first usable wireless guitar system), I took a wrong turn and wound up in his hall closet. It was stuffed to the gills with free goods – chocolate bars, toilet paper, clothing, anything and everything. I asked him where he'd gotten all the stuff and he laughed. "I just write a letter saying how much I love their product, and they send it!" Ah, the good old days....

Nowadays, it's gone way beyond chocolate. As an endorser, you can get guitars and keyboards, cables, amps, strings, picks, foot pedals, tuners, straps, road cases, and gig bags. Mixing boards, recording equipment, wireless guitar systems, stools, ear monitors, microphones, luggage. Not to mention the usual swag – T-shirts, sweatshirts, caps, work shirts, Zippo lighters, even eyeglasses and jeans! There's a world of free and discounted goods out there.

But... nothing in this life is really free, right?

Back in the generous 60's, and the coked out 80's, manufacturers gave away goods to any working artist who showed an interest in their product. The manufacturers thought they were beginning a relationship with each artist; the artists thought they were getting something for nothing.

A lot went wrong. Manufacturers discovered they couldn't give away more than they could sell; worse yet, many of the artists' careers went no further than the manufacturer's door.

Artists discovered they were expected to use those items exclusively, on stage, in the studio, in photographs. Many artists decided it would be simpler and safer to purchase their own equipment.

Many manufacturers got burned by artists who accepted free goods, then posed with the competition. Everyone took a big step back. For a while there, getting free or discounted goods was impossible unless you were Aerosmith.

Things have settled down now, and both sides are working to develop mutually beneficial relationships. A lot of what modern companies offer an artist goes way beyond traditional endorsement benefits (goods and press). Companies offer personalized tech support, and gear modded out to artist specs. Sometimes, they'll even bring an artist on board to "beta test", and they'll listen closely when an artist says "Hey, I love this because..." or "Hey, there's a problem here!"

Case in point: I use D'Addario strings. About 15 years ago, they came out with their first "long-life" coated string while I was on tour in Europe, so I took a bunch with me. My sound man loved them, and it was great to have strings that lasted five or six shows, but... I found I was having to change where I muted strings. (For non-players, a good guitarist doesn't just depend on hitting the notes; a lot depends on damping the notes at the proper place and time, so they don't run over one another, creating cacaphony. It's not something you do consciously until you have to think about it.)

The sound man and I argued, and argued, and argued, until I finally emailed D'Addario and told them what the problem was. My answer? "Yes, several other artists have complained that the decay on these is different from the phosphor bronze. We're working on it."

Hah!

So having an actual working artist who'll beta-test, on tour or in the studio, can be helpful to the company as well. Professionals are a lot pickier than amateurs. We have to be; our living depends on it.

The companies themselves have worked to develop ties with television and film companies; they try to get their artists exposure, preseint showcases at major industry events to showcase the artist (and product). They provide exposure and credibility at all levels of success, in the hope that their product identity will be reinforced, and the beginning player will be motivated to go to a local store and check out the merchandise.

Percussionist Jim Brock says "Endorsements are a wonderful thing in the eyes of the envious. Being part of a large company, rubbing elbows with respected peers, and getting free stuff in exchange for your likeness on advertising sounds great. If you're lucky, you can become a part of product development, and develop a relationship with the artist relations person."

In other words, not only do you get free and discounted equipment, but you may even get in on the ground floor of developing new equipment, adding your expertise as a working musician and performer to their new designs. This is rewarding for artists who wonder "Why doesn't my onstage guitar sound like it does in the studio?" or "How come nobody's come up with a gig bag that floats?" One of the thrills I get from working with L. R. Baggs is that, having known Lloyd Baggs since the mid-70's, I get to bring my ideas about everything from amps and direct boxes to audiophile equipent to him directly, or sit around after dinner looking at specs for his newest project.

The companies get excited, too. "You can't buy television exposure", says the Gibson rep. "When Kiss appear on the Superbowl playing our instruments, with millions watching, we get something we can't afford to purchase." At that level, the artist receives 24-hour tech support (yes, they'll fly the tech in if necessary).

Manufacturer's reps sometimes travel with the tour, pay a portion of the advertising budget, take out big ads in concert programs, and work like hell to get their artist and their equipment in every newspaper and magazine around the world. In return, the artist poses with that equipment, uses it faithfully, talks about it in trade magazines, and meets the company bigwigs.

Who gets these deals and what are they?

It would seem like the biggest acts don't need goods or discounts – what do the Rolling Stones want with free gear? The truth is that everyone wants it, so competition is tough. One company rep told me he was looking at two huge boxes full of requests and promotion packages from relatively unknown would-be endorsers, plus another sixty or seventy packages stacked on the floor. And that's only one week's worth!

If a company doesn't take chances on little-known artists, they may be missing the next Taylor Swift. Every company I spoke with, from the smallest to the largest, said they examined every single proposal that came in. They know many of us can't afford to buy equipment at retail; if they turn us down and another manufacturer picks us up, they may have missed a golden opportunity.

Still, it's sometimes easier, as a beginning artist, to develop a good relationship with your local music store instead. Stores will discount up to 40% for an artist they know in order to keep their business; often the manufacturer can't do any more than that for you. Additionally, maintaining a good relationship with your local vendors will allow you immediate tech support from them, as well as benefits like loaners (if your instrument's in the shop they may lend you one for a few days, or let you have a new piece of gear to try in your show).

Shops usually give free stuff to good customers as well, picks and strings, straps, even cases. As inexpensive as they are compared to the purchase of a new instrument, it still adds up. Many times they'll give you as good a discount as the manufacturer will. They sometimes resent artist endorsements, feeling (rightly) that it cuts out their profit as the middle man.

Remember that everyone's also competing with Amazon.com. Most of the time you can literally walk in, look at a piece of gear, check the Amazon price on your phone, and have the store meet that price. It's good to support local businesses, and again, the relationship will stand you in good stead.

So what kind of deal do I want?

Companies offer various stages of endorsement. A discounted price is always safest for them; that way they get back the actual hard cost, and you get a break. They hope you'll be loyal, and you hope they'll provide technical support and a shoulder to lean on. Some companies are more generous with beginner acts than others; they don't need (or can't afford) the higher profile acts. But all companies expect something in return for their help. As "Chris" Martin says, "When you get something for nothing, you undermine your own credibility."

In 1999, when I first wrote this article, Yamaha were the largest music manufacturer in world – four times bigger than the nearest competition. (They've since been supplanted by Akai and Fender. Or by Gibson and Harman, depending on which statistic you find.) Yamaha's Artist Relations/Artist Events office was then fielding more than two hundred calls and emails a day, from Elton John to Nobody Famous. They've worked very hard to set up a three-tiered endorsement program that covers all the bases:

  • At the bottom is the complete unknown, a regional performer who works a lot but has no record deal, or perhaps a writer, producer, sideman with good prospects. They'll receive help with pricing, and direct technical support.
  • At the next level are the people who support the top-tiered artist – a musician, producer, songwriter, a guitarist in a famous person's band. Also included are local heroes – the regional performer who's well-known and respected in their state or on their coast, the songwriter who finally got a "big cut" but is still relatively unknown themselves. They receive better discounts, or free goods, depending on their profile and that of the artist they support. 80% of Yamaha's tech and equipment request calls came from this group.
  • At the top tier is the established principal artist or band, whose face is on the album cover, who got a Grammy nomination for best song. The one whose name everyone knows. Obviously, that's their favorite kind of artist!

In general, the smaller companies can't afford to be as flexible, though they're often more generous. Lloyd Baggs says "We have two types of endorsements, 'Full Ride' and 'Artist Accommodation'. With the former, we supply product in return for advertising consideration from successful artists; to qualify, an artist must be a high profile national figure who appears on TV and fills concert halls. James Taylor and Lenny Kravitz fall in that category.

"In the other, we're a little more flexible; it's our way of supporting struggling but worthy professional musicians. We look at this as our 'Musician's Aid', and offer them any product we make at dealer cost. Our decisions are made on the basis of the music, the press kit, and the letter; all we expect in return is that they talk up our products to their friends. We hope some of these artists will make it to fame and fortune, and remember to talk about us then."

I fall somewhere in-between, which goes to show that all "deals" are different! Having known Lloyd when we were both struggling, and having used his DI's literally since the first one he made, I can not only ask for whatever gear I may need – I can ask for extra gear to pass on to studio engineers, or artists I may know with a higher profile than mine. Or even, occasionally, for struggling artists who really need a break. I can also call Lloyd myself to ask about a piece of equipment I'm having problems with, or a new piece I'm particularly thrilled with.

In return, I use the Baggs products at every show and every studio session. I credit Baggs in album liners and on my website, as with all "my" companies.

Baggs is a small company, as these things go – they're not a Fender, or a Gibson. They have the luxury of personal relationships, even with the head of the company. They also have the luxury of only working with artists whose work they love.

A large company can't think as much with their hearts. They can't afford to pass just because they dislike your music. If they do, they're not doing their job, which is to increase sales.

Smaller companies who specialize in one item (though they may offer others) can be choosier; they don't want their product represented by a horrible player. They also don't want to work, often on a daily basis, with someone they don't like. Larger companies have secretaries and assistants they can use to buffer calls from idiots.

Why isn't there more free stuff?

Because artists are greedy. Because manufacturing costs have risen. Because the artists who came before us burned a lot of bridges. Because nothing worth having in this life is truly free.

Most artists, especially at the beginning of their careers, don't worry about their credibility down the line – they worry about what they're going to get right now. We tend to live in the present; waiting is the hardest thing we do. We don't like hearing "No", we don't want to hear "You really should...", and we hate hearing "You have to...". We're a real pain to deal with. If someone presents us with a product we like more, we grab it, and often forget to discuss our reasons with the people who've been providing us support.

Here are two quick stories:

A major manufacturing rep I know once concluded a full endorsement deal with a top-ten solo artist. The artist received seven top-of-the-line guitars, along with flight cases, amplifiers, drums, PA stacks, monitors for the entire band. In return, they posed for pictures that were to be used in a major advertising campaign.

All well and good, except a week before the campaign began, the same artist appeared for another manufacturer in their campaign, holding their guitar, standing in front of their amps.

As Chris Gero of Yamaha says, "You can't undo damaged credibility. Once an artist does an ad with our competitor, we've lost credibility." And credibility is all a company has going for it – your belief that their gear will work, will hold up on the road, will be used by the people you believe use it.

In another instance, the guitarist for a successful singer doing a stadium tour received eight instruments, with hard shell cases, for his own use – free, no strings attached except the company's request to say "So-and-so, lead guitarist for Artist A, uses our gear". A few weeks later the guitarist called and said bluntly "I'm re-doing my stage gear. I want leather cases for all twelve of my guitars, even though most of them aren't made by your company"

Now, why should the manufacturer provide cases for guitars his company didn't make? And why should the guitarist expect free goods when he didn't even have the courtesy to say "I love your leather cases, and I'd like to see about a discount if I buy one for every guitar I take on the road"? Chances are if he'd taken that tack, he'd have gotten the gear he wanted. As it is, he got nothing but an end to any future goods.

It's insulting when you take something for granted that way!

Adding insult to injury, many bigger artists expect that just using the equipment is enough. They don't want their names placed in ads because they don't like "that magazine". They try to make something mysterious out of their sound, and refuse to divulge what equipment they're using. They demand everything, immediately and rudely, while avoiding any obligation to the people who help them.

Again, Chris says "We're not in the business of giving away gear – we're in the business of developing long term careers with reciprocal relationships that will develop our outward image. We're not Coke, with a million a day to spend – we really depend on the people who use our equipment.

"When Elton played a Yamaha piano at Princess Di's funeral, there was an immediate, overwhelming interest in that product in the US. We provide a real service, and tools for the artist to further their career. In return, we expect a certain level of commitment and integrity. Some artists just see Yamaha as a huge cornucopia that spills out to whoever calls." That's just not right.

What do the companies really want?

  • They want you to become a huge star. They want you on the front page of USA Today posed with their product. They want coverage, they want sales, they want to keep their jobs. What did you think they wanted? To give you stuff because they like the color of your eyes? Hey, nice as that might be, it ain't business.
  • They want a reciprocal relationship. Absolutely every manufacturer I spoke with emphasized this. Yamaha, for instance, still remembered when I beta-tested their CP-80 keyboard on tours during the late '70's, and the amount of feedback they received from myself and other testers. Martin remembered the letter I'd written telling them my stolen guitar had finally been recovered. Everyone I've ever dealt with let me know that they appreciated getting tour updates, release schedules, new CD's etc.

    The manufacturers are proud of their product. They want you to be proud, too. They don't like it when people call and make demands; they want to work you, not for you. They want your feedback, your good will. They want a relationship with you that continues and benefits both sides. Ideally, the goods you're asking for are something you would purchase anyway, paying list price if necessary.

    A constant gripe from the manufacturers I spoke with was the lack of common courtesy when hopefuls contacted them. Many times, the artist was completely unfamiliar with that their products – sometimes they didn't even know what that manufacturer made! A man called Yamaha one day, demanding to speak with the artist rep, and said "Hey, I just got a record deal and I'm going on tour with my band – I want a full endorsement for a set of Slingerland drums. I need it next week; can you ship tomorrow?" When he was told that he'd called Yamaha, he did an about-face and said "Oh... then can I get a set of Yamaha drums?"

    This is insulting to both parties.

    As Mary Faith of John Pearse Strings says, "Don't ask for an endorsement from a company whose products you don't use. There's nothing more ridiculous than someone calling who has no idea of what your company makes!" In an ideal world, you're looking for gear you'd buy anyway. Maybe you can't afford it right now, but that item is exactly what you want, and you can tell the manufacturer so.

  • The company wants to know that you're working. They have to be selective; with a new artist, they ask whether there's a label spending time and money to promote the act, because that increases the chance of the artist doing something that will eventually help their product. They don't demand that you have a big label, but they want to see credible support around you, whether it's management, publisher, agent, or even a local club that's familiar to them. You'd be surprised how much artist reps know about your region's possible areas of promotion, from TV stations to clubs and bars.
  • They don't need you to be super-famous. Most guitarists, like Preston Reed or Peppino D'Agostino, are not household words. However, they attract a strong and loyal niche market, who are willing to pay for expensive equipment; in that way, they support their endorsers.

    One rep I work with pointed out that when I did an interview with Guitar Player magazine, I spoke extensively about my equipment, from capos to guitars. I named manufacturers, talked about product development, shared my secrets. "You could have just talked about yourself; instead, you also talked about how you do it. You made all of us look good."

    That's payback, folks. That's being good to the people who are good to you.

    Manufacturers pay thousands of dollars every year to companies that find their names in print; they know when you mention them. On the other hand, manager Ginger Warder was able to get major endorsements for Disappear Fear, a completely unknown group when she first began working with them. "They'd made their own CD and sold 22,000. They were doing 265 gigs a year nationally and had created their own national marketing base, with mailing lists to back it up. It's not about having a record deal, it's about having profile. We showed the companies our information, and they took us seriously."

  • Companies like statistics, they live for hard data like that. Presented correctly, the lack of a record label can actually look like a plus sometimes. Present them with lists of your appearances, at least for the past year, no matter how small the gig. Show them how many CD's you've sold, how many Facebook "likes" you have, how many Twitter followers. Have a decent press package. Even if you only have an online "press kit", have a one-sheet with the basic bio information, statistics, contact info, and URL to your website.
  • In summing up, I quote Lloyd Baggs:

    "It's really all about credibility. Artists are trying to build trust -–with agents, promoters, managers, and companies." That means don't lie on your promotional package to them; emphasize the important things. If you have no record deal, show that you're working steadily. If you have no manager, show that you've got good relationships with area promoters.

    (More on all that later.)

    If you're unsigned and unknown, but have a tremendous amount of dates and self promotion, most companies will start with influential pricing (steep discounts). During that first year, they'll watch you to find out whether you're continuing to do what you promised. If you're a songwriter who's gotten eight cuts in the last six months, with singers who have some profile, they'll work with you. If you're an artist with a strong local following and a good mailing list, they'll help you. The main thing is to prove to the company that you're in a position to show off their goods, whether it's to stadiums or clubs or to other people you co-write with.

Where's the catch?

There is always a catch. Companies tend to promote their newest gear without mentioning any problems they've been having, whether it's slow download time on a synth, or bracing that falls apart when you play too hard. Credibility goes both ways.

Many artists, including myself, beta-tested guitars for a then-new manufacturer (Ovation) during the late '60's. They were wonderful-sounding instruments on stage, with the first built-in pickup most of us had ever seen, and a very odd body shape.

My Ovation guitar worked beautifully during my US tour, but when I flew to the Bahamas with it, the bridge came unglued and flew off the guitar during my show! I called the manufacturer, who said "Oh. We've been having problems with the glue in high humidity. We're working on it."

We're working on it?! When I'm onstage fighting to get my hand unwrapped from the strings that almost took my nose off when they snapped, they're "working on it"?!

Research the equipment you accept, ask around, don't take their advertising word for it. "We're working on it" is meaningless when your show's at risk. Sometimes what you get for free isn't worth the price you pay.

When I worked with Kevin Ryan, who makes beautiful guitars, I took two parlor-size to England for a tour. My road manager knocked on the door before our first show and said "Um... we've got a problem with the bridge." What problem? The entire thing was coming unglued. Fortunately, although we were well in the hinterlands, there was a brilliant local luthier who agreed to take a look. He called me back, furious, saying the bridge angle was set so high, there'd be no way it could survive.

I phoned Kevin, who explained that he'd been "experimenting" with ways to get a bigger sound out of the guitar, and since I like a low action, lifting the bridge seemed one way to make it work.

You don't experiment with instruments when someone is dependent on them for their living. Much less when you know they're headed out on a three month tour out of the country, far from you and your repair facility! Kevin learned a good lesson, and fortunately, the local luthier was able to replace both bridges

Things to beware of

Some very small companies have been offering what they call a "Key Man Endorsement", set up to get their product seen and played in your area by locally and regionally respected players. They offer a discount that appears to be a great deal, and in return ask for a photo of you and the product, at your own expense.

Beware! The discount they offer is off full retail – in other words, a bass that lists for $800 is "discounted" by them at 30%, making the cost to you $560. You probably already know that stores almost never charge full retail; that same bass may be available at your local music store for $600, and your buddy at the store will give you another $50 off to keep your business. The two prices are usually identical, and if you go with the manufacturer, you'll have lost your local store support base.

Additionally, smaller companies can easily go out of business, or change reps constantly. That great deal you got with tech support is worthless if they don't have a support staff. The equipment they promised to have ready for your tour isn't useful if they're no longer making it.

Rarely, companies will try to pass off their second-rate goods. This is stupid, but they figure you're getting it for nothing, so why should they give you the best? Or they'll send you something that's actually a prototype and hasn't been road-tested. Most new companies stand by their product, working hard with active artists to ensure that all feedback is noted and acted upon. The smart ones make sure every single product is tested by real road rats before it goes on the shelves. But sometimes, a small company will get a great idea and put it on the market before it's ready. I make it a hard and fast rule not to buy the first generation of anything if I can avoid it, from software to road gear. Unless I'm beta-testing, and told that up front, I'd rather leave the headaches to someone else!

Companies can be unscrupulous, just as people can. I have some friends currently enjoying their first hit record; multi-platinum, top ten, the works. They were sent two instruments by a new manufacturer, who contacted the tour manager and said they were a gift to the band. No strings, no demands, they just hoped the band would play them onstage. A few months later an invoice arrived. "That's just a paper trail for our bookkeeping, ignore it." Two months later the same invoice arrived, stamped PAYMENT DUE IMMEDIATELY. The company was contacted; they'd changed their minds, the instruments were no longer free, surely the band could afford them now? The instruments were returned, but one had strap buttons installed in the interim. The president of the company called management, irate, and said they'd been sent for evaluation only but had now been damaged. He even threatened to sue.

What really happened? Maybe the president was unaware of a subordinate's decision, or maybe the subordinate had left the company. Maybe the tour manager misunderstood. Maybe you should never take anything that's "free: without carefully examining it and getting some paperwork, just in case.

You may find a piece of equipment you like better, or want to use in different situations. When I went to Santa Cruz and asked them to help me develop a stage guitar, I was very clear that the guitar would be for stage; I never promised to use it exclusively. As it turned out, that is the only guitar I play onstage, and usually in the studio – but they also know that in the studio I choose my guitar to suit the song and arrangement, so sometimes I'm playing a Martin, or a Bozo, or a Ryan. Be clear about that up front, so there are no hard feelings later.

A working relationship with a manufacturer also takes time and effort. Few of us have the infrastructure to provide monthly itineraries to twenty different companies, or send out regular press clippings. Credibility takes time and forethought, and for most travelling musicians, it's very difficult. Yet if you don't "keep them in the loop", you make them feel like all you're doing is using them – and you are.

Sometimes the relationship you've spent years developing will backfire on you. I've known Lloyd Baggs since 1975, when he made me a stunning guitar I play to this day. I've beta-tested his pickups since he began making them, and have always had a very warm relationship with his family. So when I began seeing ads for his pickups that mentioned a host of my friends but excluded me, I thought it was an oversight. After two years, I finally called and said "Hey! How come I'm good enough to beta-test but not good enough for your ads?" Lloyd, confused, said he hadn't wanted to presume on our friendship by using my name in them. He'd been trying to protect our friendship, and I'd been wondering if I just wasn't famous enough for him to want my name out there.

Friendship. It's a beautiful thing.

How can I get an endorsement deal?

First, find out if the company has an artist relations person. Call and introduce yourself. Calling is better than e-mail; it's more personal, more immediate, and harder to ignore.

Be brief, be specific, be friendly, as in "Hello, my name is Albert Martin. I'm a singer/songwriter out of Portland, Oregon, and I've been working the club scene here pretty hard. I saw your Model N at a local store and was very impressed. Although it's a little beyond my means, it's the instrument of my dreams. Could I send you a package showing what I'm doing, along with a cover letter about the guitar?"

As Karen Sternberg, primary contact for the artist Prince during his most halcyon years, says, "That's your foot in the door, so rehearse your presentation and make sure all your information is current. Remember, this is exactly like a gig; they are your audience."

When they say yes, ask if it would be all right for you to follow up with another call after they receive your information.

Then put your package together. Make it professional! Your bio should be type-written, not scratched in pencil on a sheet of dirty yellow paper, as was one I saw recently. If you're with a label, try to use their stationary to impart immediate credibility. Include a listing of your own support team – management, booking agent, publisher, accountant, anyone you can think of who might make you appear more credible to a prospective investor. Because that's what the company will be doing; they'll invest time and money in you, just as a bank would if you applied for a mortgage.

Remember your goals. You want to prove that

  • You can attract an audience
  • You're actively seeking to improve your career
  • Your show will be a viable place for them to showcase their equipment.
    (Photos of you playing their equipment don't hurt.)

Presentation in our business is everything. To quote Ginger again,

"Include a press packet. If you're doing 200 gigs a year in small venues, that's as good as 20 in a larger forum. Show yourself in the best possible light, and encompass all phases of your career."

I admittedly have the luxury of a long career behind me, so my package also includes a list of "prime venues" I've played like Carnegie Hall, Sydney Opera House, Royal Festival Hall. I also show opportunities off the beaten track – places where I've lectured, universities and colleges I work with as a teacher, discography, a note that I've had ten Grammy nominations (winning two), as well as data about international touring and recording. My discography lists which albums went gold or platinum in which country, and whether cuts were used on major television shows or films.

My resume is designed to impress! While you won't have that kind of resume when you're starting out, you could include any local awards you've won, any relevant educational background (Berklee graduates, for instance, tend to be highly self-motivated), placements at festivals like Kerrville, and press clippings.

Clippings mean a lot to manufacturers; they see that you're developing profile. Even with everything I present in my initial package, I still send copies of good press clippings to all the people who support me with tech support and products on a regular basis. It keeps them involved and lets them know I'm working. Remember, artist reps have to answer to someone, too.

When I approached Yamaha about purchasing equipment, after not having worked with them for many years, I began by saying "Here's what my sound engineer and I have been looking at (names and model numbers). We love it, we need it, we're going to buy it either way. We're hoping you can help us with the pricing, because if you can, I'll be able to buy this other piece of equipment I really want."

Because a lot of the equipment was for my new album and pre-production, I also included resumes from the engineer and producer. I didn't expect any free goods; I just hoped for some financial help, and tech support in the studio and on the road. I presented it as a request, not a demand, and Yamaha were responsive because of our presentation. They knew I hadn't called half a dozen manufacturers looking for similar product; I wanted theirs. (And by the way, I got the product free, much to my surprise.)

Your letter might start with "I'm at the beginning of my career, and I think your X guitar is the best product of its kind. I currently work regionally at venues such as The Acoustic Club (list enclosed). I have an extensive e-mail list and am diligent about self-promotion. I've just finished my first CD, and had the opportunity to use your guitar (or – I've just begun planning my first CD, and plan to use your guitar) in the studio/onstage/in my video. I'm hoping to develop a relationship with you that includes technical support, and I'm requesting that you consider artist pricing for me. Enclosed is a package listing my efforts in more detail."

You might include a short list of people you've opened for, but do not veer into the ridiculous – don't say you opened for Leonard Cohen when we all know he doesn't use openers!

One of the stupidest things people do on resumes is list all the big-name artists they've opened for, but instead of saying they "opened for", they say "worked with". They never bother saying whether the artist requested them. Come on! When a headline artist allows local acts to open, the locals are almost always booked by the promoter – the artist has no idea who the opener is, and rarely arrives in time to see their show. If you're going to say you worked with a major artist, let it be someone you've done more than a 15-minute opening slot for once. If you've worked with someone a lot, be honest. For instance, Natalia Zukerman writes "Opened for and accompanied Janis Ian through her recent twenty-show tour of Japan." That's a lot more impressive.

If you don't have management and haven't got any big names to throw in the hat, there are still things you can do to enhance your credibility. Get a letter from a club owner you work with a lot, or a studio, that says how wonderful you are and how far you're going to go. It should also say that they're booking you as frequently as possible.

If you regularly work with someone well-known, whether artist, publisher, songwriter, ask politely if you can use their name as a reference – even if they currently endorse a competitor, the company may see that as a chance to get their foot in the door.

Have your own website! Don't depend on social networking sites to interest a prospective company unless you have something extraordinary going on – 100,000 "friends", or a lot of high profile ones. Companies aren't impressed with a MySpace presence, no matter what your friends think. Everyone is on Facebook, and I'm here to tell you that even with 350,000 "likes", trying to promote yourself – let alone product – through social media is next to useless unless you're a Kardashian.

And really, who wants to be a Kardashian?

With all the great software out there now, it's relatively painless and very cost-efficient to put up your own website and maintain your own domain name. Keep the tour information up to date, include some free samples, make a "Press Kit" tab. All that will show a company you're on top of things.

Gibson and several others send out a questionnaire if they're interested, asking about your number of shows per year, average capacity, dates, whether you've got a video, its rotation, any TV shows and air dates, print articles etc. That gives them an even better idea of what you're doing.

When you call back, remember how many requests these people get weekly, and how many shows they attend each year. The chance of your standing out is minimal – don't take it personally. You're doing really well if they offer you artist pricing. And if they do offer you anything more than "We'd like to start a file on you – please stay in touch", indicate again your desire to develop a reciprocal relationship. If you have some profile, say you understand they hold workshops in your areas, and offer to help – even if it's volunteering to hand out leaflets and not playing. Ask whether there are showcases you can be part of, or industry shows.

Above all, do not expect free equipment. It's pretty rare these days, especially with the higher priced items. Remember that anything you get at manufacturer's cost is a real bonus, and you're just beginning a relationship you hope will continue for decades. I've worked with Baggs since he started his company. I've been with D'Addario for well over two decades. Long-term is good for everyone.

Other Avenues

It's great if you can meet the rep personally. Industry shows like NAMM are a great place for contacts, though as crowded as they are these days, it's hard to stand out. You have a better chance attending smaller conventions, like "summer NAMM" in Nashville, or other local conventions and meetings. Your neighborhood music store gets a small number of tickets to give away, as do the local newspapers and magazines and radio stations.

When you meet a rep, you can give them your card, but they'll probably lose it. Try to get their card instead. Don't hustle on first meeting; ask if there's an appropriate person to send your request in to, get their name and address, and leave it at that. They're not going to have the brain waves to spend on you when Top-Of-The-Charts-Artist is askng to speak with them.

Be brief, because industry shows are a madhouse.

Keep an eye out for new products; newer companies are often more creative in their marketing strategy, and can afford to take more chances. Elixir Strings created a strong presence at folk festivals and conventions by concentrating on new artists, and on the smaller festivals and conventions, where there'd be less competition. G7 Capos reached out by e-mail and mail as well, and I liked their product so much that I asked for extras, which I promptly gave to high-profile artists like Vince Gill.

Ask if you can have a set of strings, or some picks to try. Often just writing to the company will get you some samples.

If you work foreign territories at all, ask your reps there. I was with Sony Publishing Japan for many years. My rep there, June Shinozaki, introduced me to Yamaha Japan, who then agreed to custom-make thumb picks I couldn't get at home – at a very reasonable price. You never know.

But be careful! Foreign products come with instructions in their own language You haven't lived until your Japanese DAT player has gone down and you've tried to find someone to translate the specs.

Write to companies – getting an actual letter is rare enough that most companies will pay attention. Send fan letters. Send e-mails. I used Kyser capos for many years (still do, if I need to double-capo) and was bothered by a manufacturing detail. I wrote to the company, telling them how much I liked the product and wondering if this one area could be improved. Before I knew it, Milton Kyser himself had sent me a box of two dozen capos he'd personally changed for me, along with a lovely letter.

Above all, and I can't stress this enough, know the product you want. Be specific, be clear, be brief.

The Last Word(s)

The most important thing here is your credibility. Whether it's exaggerating your worth in the marketplace, or saying "I have interest from the following record labels" when all you've done is send them your demo, don't do it. Stick to the facts, and you can't get hurt.

Know what you want and how much you're willing to pay for it. Know its retail value, and the best store pricing available. Don't barter and don't badger, people don't have time for it. And don't whine! It's not their fault you can't afford the product!

To quote some of the many people interviewed for this article:

"Be very selective about which manufacturers you work with. Manufacturers want to work with reliable, professional musicians, and to establish long term relationships with them. So take your time, choose a few non-competing companies to work with, and be loyal. If you truly love the companies' products and can wholeheartedly endorse them - then go for it." (Lloyd Baggs)

"Most of our relationships are long-term and reciprocal. We had a grandiose moment in the 80's, during the DX-7 era, when we just sent out equipment. That's all changed from a feeding frenzy to an insistence on reciprocity. We weeded out the bottom dwellers, those who don't respect the relationship." (Chris Gero, Yamaha)

"Don't expect free goods – expect support! And get the word out. If you like the product you're endorsing, let people know about it. Sometimes we just hear someone's using our strings, and we get in touch with them ourselves." (Merry Faith, John Pearse Strings)

"Be loyal to those who've supported you. Companies like Martin or Yamaha play it very cool for the first year, until you've proven yourself. They've been burned too many times." (Ginger Warder)

"If I say 'I don't like that type of music', I'm not doing my job. When a person in my position looks at someone's style, I have to be unbiased. So don't take it personally if we don't offer you free equipment, or as big a discount as you'd hoped. I may love your particular sound, but that's not my only consideration." (Gibson)

"Musicians who jump from one manufacturer's products to the competitor's, seeking the latest greatest 'bigger better deal', become like so many NBA free agents. They lose their credibility – and their usefulness. We call them 'product whores'." (Lloyd Baggs)

Last but not least, these words from Carol Kaye, bassist on everything from Beach Boys hits to Ray Charles and Motown, from Mission Impossible to The Addams Family themes, who says she's done over 10,000 (yes, ten thousand) record dates and is widely regarded as a legend in our industry:

"Janis, I am very different from most endorsees as a studio musician and jazz performer. They can offer me 1 million and if the gear isn't up to my personal liking to play, I will NEVER endorse the product. I only endorse what I use every day -- people have offered me all kinds of free stuff, all kinds of offers, but I turn them down. Once I find something I love to use, I am totally loyal. Whereas others like to endorse all kinds of products whether they use them or not, that's not true with me. Kind of boring, but that's the truth."

And like the saying goes, "There ain't nothing like the truth".

* An earlier version of this article was originally published in Performing Songwriter Magazine, issues #35-36, March-May 1999

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