There are very few perks to being a music critic. It’s a thankless low- or no-paying career choice that usually means being loathed by the very people you’re writing about (if you’re honest). The few perks that come with the job are generally provided by publicists.
Music writers depend on publicists to help them do their jobs. They’re the people who line up interviews with musicians, get them pre-release albums and make sure us poor writerly types are “on the list” for concerts when the talent they represent comes through town.
In most cases, a music critic’s access is only as good as the publicists s/he works with. If the publicist is a boob (and there are plenty of them), interviews drop through the cracks, records aren’t received and — worst of all — names get left off lists, and there’s nothing more demoralizing than walking up to the counter at a show and asking if you’re on the list only to be told, “Nope, nothing here.”
None of those things happened whenever Catherine Herrick was involved. She worked for the past 10 years as a publicist for The Beggars Group, a consortium of record labels that includes such stellar imprints as Matador, XL, Rough Trade and 4AD. Anyone who’s interviewed, say, Cat Power or Guided By Voices or Interpol has probably worked with Herrick. She was the best publicist I’ve worked with over the course of my 20-plus years as a music journalist. She was iron clad, a go-to person who kept me in the loop and followed through on everything I needed help with. I could count on her, and that’s the best thing you can say about any publicist.
Needless to say, I was bummed a few months ago when I read that Herrick was leaving Beggars Group to tour with her band, The Everymen; a tour that brought her to fabulous O’Leaver’s — Omaha’s premier dive-bar music venue — this past weekend. I would finally get to meet the person who had been my lifeline to so much good music over the past decade.
I’ve been to O’Leaver’s probably a thousand times, but always late at night, when concerts are scheduled. This concert, however, was part of their Sunday Social Club series, which meant it began at 5 p.m. O’Leaver’s on a hot Sunday afternoon in July is a surreal experience, like stepping onto the set of a ‘70s-era Robert Altman movie (M*A*S*H comes to mind). All the usual characters I’ve seen in the dark were strolling around outside in the bar’s “beer garden” holding sweaty cocktails in the blazing heat while an O’Leaver manned a barbecue, frying up large greasy kielbasa. Across the parking lot in the fenced-in sand pit, half-naked volleyball players slathered in sunblock slammed PBR tallboys to the sound of Van Halen’s “Panama.”
Meanwhile, inside the dark, cool confines of O’Leaver’s, The Everymen were setting up for the afternoon gig. There was Herrick, a pretty shortish 30-something with long, dark curly hair fiddling with a microphone while the rest of the band plugged in their gear. For the most part, it was a traditional line-up — two guitars, a bass, drums, with Herrick sharing vocals with the band’s frontman, Mike V. The wildcard was the saxophone. That sax player (who switched between bari and alto when he wasn’t singing) provided the band’s defining sound, along with Herrick, whose vocal intensity reminded me of Heidi Ore, front woman of legendary Lincoln punk band Mercy Rule (and her current band, Domestica). I passed the compliment onto Herrick outside after their set, but it was lost on her as she’d never heard of Ore’s bands (though she promised to look them up).
I asked Herrick why she gave up a career as a successful publicist. She said touring in a band was a dream come true.
“It’s crazy, it’s kind of like doing things in reverse order,” she said. She began an internship with Beggars Group right out of college and was hired full-time shortly thereafter. “I started my path toward working in the music business two days after finishing college, so I didn’t get to try things out. This is me sort of doing that 10 years later.”
So instead of working in a posh Manhattan office building fielding calls for rock stars, here she was, talking to a hayseed writer in a parking lot after playing in front of 30 people on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of nowhere.
“I look at everything as a worthy experience,” Herrick said. “I’ve worked with all sorts of bands — baby bands who were just starting out to bands that were established. It was interesting to see some inexperienced bands skyrocket. I always thought they were cheated. All bands, regardless of who they get signed by or how much money is behind them, should go through a touring bootcamp to see if they can survive it.”
This tour was Herrick’s first extended road work — seven weeks’ worth. “It’s been illuminating,” she said. “I’ve had glimpses of it before, but now I really understand how grueling it is.” Grueling as in having a house party performance shut down by cops during South By Southwest or not knowing where she was going to sleep tonight — a perennial problem for all indie bands on their first tours.
On one hand, her years at Beggars gave her a perspective most bands never see. “You realize when you’re on the other side of things how hard it is and how many bands come and go,” Herrick said. “Had I started (in a band) when I was in my teens or early 20s I would have expected things that I now know not to expect. I know what I’m doing is especially crazy.”
On the other hand, she needed to try something other than PR. “I’d been doing it for so long, it was time for something else. I realized I need that ‘eat pray love’ experience to figure stuff out.”
Would she ever go back to being a PR flack? “I don’t know. Maybe. In some ways I think I’d like to, because I can appreciate certain things more now.”
Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.