Today we sat down with journalist-turned-publicist Billy Johnson, Jr. As the Senior Editor at Yahoo Music for almost 18 years, Billy interviewed the likes of Beyoncé, Janet Jackson, Quincy Jones, Kanye West, Eminem, and countless more. Few know the ins and outs of publicity as well as Billy does, so we were excited to pick his brain.
This article features some of the highlights from our talk, but make sure to check out the full interview on the Music Business Lounge podcast!
- Know the difference between yourself as an artist and yourself as a business person. Present yourself in a way that is going to make people want to work with you.
- Be friendly but savvy during interviews. Answer questions, but make sure you are getting across the points you want to talk about. It’s up to the artist to make sure that the audience “gets it.”
- Be proactive and go the extra mile. Make the call or connection your peers won’t.
- Ask questions and seek out mentors to improve your own skillset.
- Constantly analyze others who have had success.
- Identify and embrace who you are as an artist and go with it. Be willing to be different and take non-traditional paths.
Thanks for being with us, Billy! Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got to where you are today.
BJ: Thank you guys! I attribute a lot of it to just home life. My dad was such a huge influence in terms of me embracing music. My parents had every album you could want. My brother and I would listen to the records and listen to like 3 seconds of each song until we found the ones we loved. That helped me as a music critic later on in my career as far as being able to recognize a hit single.
Originally I enrolled in college as a computer science major. At the end of my first year I looked at my transcripts I saw I was doing well in English. My professors loved me. I loved storytelling. I thought it would be pretty cool if I could write about music. I changed my major to communications, started interning at the local community newspaper, and got a radio show on the campus radio station. I’ve always been really focused. I take a long time to think things out but once I have it all set in stone I go for it and I go hard. That was the beginning of a great, exciting career.
The newspaper hired me as a production assistant but within a year I said “Hey, could I be the Entertainment Editor,” and they said “sure.” I just started picking up the phone, calling up the record labels and saying “Can I interview this artist?” or “Can you send me more music?” If there was an album I was interested in that we weren’t receiving, I would go to the record store, and look up the record company on the back. I’d call 4-1-1, gosh! I would just talk my way through it. I didn’t know what the heck I was doing, but I was trying to figure it out as I went along. I’d look for mentors. I asked a lot of questions. I was a go-getter.
Wow! I think the vast majority of people are not going to go that extra step. In particular, you having the guts at that point to pick up the phone and call those record companies. What do you think was the difference between you and the people around you?
BJ: Ironically, I wish I still had the confidence I had then! I’m starting to tap into that again. My classmates weren’t intending to be journalists. They would look at me like “You want to be a hip hop editor, really?” It was really not conceivable to them, even. I always was thinking about the future. I wanted to do things my way. I saw that one of the ways was to prepare myself and strive for excellence. I was reading the LA Times and Entertainment Weekly. I aspired to write for those publications. I started thinking “If my goal is to write for one of those publications, I should be striving to take my writing to the next level.” I would use them as models. I always want to take new things and apply them for the sake of trying to be better.
So what was the process of going from there to starting with Yahoo?
BJ: I got a job at a rap magazine as the managing editor, and while working there I decided I wanted to go digital. I wanted to go more mainstream. I wanted to be in a place where I could have flexibility. So I just quit! No lie. I told them i would substitute teach until I found the next thing. The first person I spoke to the day I gave my resignation, they told me someone from Launch (Yahoo!) called and said they just created a position for a rap and RnB editor. She said they recommended me but that they wouldn’t be able to get me to quit! I said “give me the man’s number.”
The guy said “people keep telling me about you.” He was calling around asking for recommendations. “Billy Johnson, Jr. knows how to make a portfolio!” I made one of my killer portfolios. I was showing I was already tapping into the mainstream coverage. Little did I know, he was a former senior writer for Entertainment weekly and knew my editor at Entertainment Weekly. All these things just aligned. He offered me the job the day of. I had that job for 18 years.
What really sticks out to me is your relationship building. That you’re just a cool guy that people want to engage with. Can you talk a little bit about building those relationships – what makes someone that is trying to get coverage appealing?
BJ: I feel like relatability on just a basic human level is so important. How do you make friends? Based on things you have in common, or things you admire, respect, or have interest in another person. It’s no different with music, you like the artists or the way they sound. From a publicity standpoint, artists need to pour their soul into their art. A true reflection of who they are.
Mary J. Blige, for instance was quickly identified and embraced as the queen of hiphop soul. She was singing about such an authentic kind of pain. People identified with her. When she did interviews, even though she got a lot of flak for not being media trained, it was just raw. People just loved that. Just find that place for yourself and go with it. Be who you are. We want to talk to people who have relatable stories who are interesting.
So if an artist thinks that they have that unique perspective, what is the best way to present that? How do you catch a journalist’s eye?
BJ: The artist has to wear so many hats. They wear their creative hat when they’re recording but when it comes to representing themselves in person, they have to be able to be professional and present themselves as a business. You want people to remember who you are as an artist and what you’re selling. Present yourself in a way that will make people want to do business with you. Know the difference between yourself as an artist and yourself as a business person.
What are some mistakes you see people making in the area of publicity and trying to get coverage?
BJ: Artists are pulled in so many directions. They get so little sleep with traveling. Someone else is managing their schedule. They can get into a zombie mode. There have been times I’ve interviewed someone and their mind was just someplace else. They show up to an interview and they’re like “just ask me the question and I’ll answer.” I think that that is completely the wrong approach.
You need to be selling your music. Selling whatever product you are there to endorse. As much as you want to be available to answer the questions, be sure you’re communicating and relating things back to what you want to talk about. You want that to show up in the story. Don’t just go along for the ride. Emphasize what you feel is important for the audience to walk away with. Give them something to pull them in. It’s up to the artist to make sure that the audience “gets it.”
What is one actionable idea you can give us to start improving our publicity skills tomorrow?
BJ: Immerse yourself. Make things happen. Just jump in the water. Preparation, of course, is so important, but you have to go for it. Strategize and come up with ways to present yourself to the media. Put your ideas into action.
Like what you read? Make sure to share this article! Let us know if you had any thoughts or questions in the comments section or at email@example.com
You can find our full audio interview with Billy on the Music Business Lounge Podcast, where we dive even deeper into Billy’s thoughts on publicity and development for musicians!
Be sure to connect with Billy:
He received his BA and MS from Boston University and also holds a certificate in Music Production from Berklee. Jeff has helped clients earn coverage in countless international media outlets and was a "Top 40 Under Forty" selection for his accomplishments as a young entrepreneur.
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