Written by Jim Murphy | Photos by Anthony Harden
Crissa Requate, of Mason Jar Media, handles public relations for huge music festivals and internationally known bands, as well as smaller regional events and up-and-coming local musicians. It’s a business constantly in flux—and one that’s deeply gratifying, too.
Eighty thousand fans turn a sleepy pasture into a summer music festival. A new album release draws strong positive media coverage. A band sells out its entire 18-city tour. And a small company in Asheville takes a modest bow. Working behind the unassuming name Mason Jar Media, Crissa Requate and her team consistently rack up successful promotions for about two dozen music clients a year.
Crissa started Mason Jar only five years ago as a one-woman operation with two clients, working out of a small room in a downtown Asheville recording studio, Echo Mountain Recording. As Requate recalls, she had been working at a local publicity agency “and then I realized that I wanted to have more control over what clients I worked with and how many I worked with at a time. So I decided to go out on my own.” Now she leads a team of four professionals in a building on the edge of downtown Asheville that she bought last year.
The Mason Jar headquarters is exactly the opposite of what one would imagine a publicity agency to look like. A one-story, quiet gray exterior sits at the back of a small parking area on a side street adjacent to downtown Asheville, not far from Echo Mountain. No colorful sign hangs outside to announce the headquarters of Something Big. No elaborate entryway impresses the visitor that this is an Important Place. And the doorway doesn’t even have a bell. A visitor must knock.
Once inside, the visitor might have trouble identifying what this Mason Jar company does. There is no music playing; the walls are painted in quiet earth tones; no one is yelling into a phone. It is as quiet as a library. Indeed, the drums that beat here in the office are heard only out where the media and the fans are listening. In here the sound of publicity is no longer the sound of a marching band, but the click of the send button.
Crissa sits in a comfortable leather chair at her tempered glass desk with two computer screens “so I can see two things at the same time.” She lets out a breezy laugh as she takes another nibble at her lunch. “I order lunch every day from Roman’s Deli. It’s the best.” Today’s lunch is a salad and a giant chocolate cookie. Armed with a ready grin and an easy way with a conversation, she’s a thirty-something mother of a three-year-old daughter, with another child due in December. Her husband, Billy Jack, is an architect.
Her professional family includes a database—what in a simpler age was called a Rolodex—that she estimates at 9,000 names. She quickly explains how some of them overlap. “I might have three or four contacts at the same radio station.” Good contacts are the life blood of a publicist, but the job also requires creativity, persistence, and, perhaps above all, an ability to deal with rejection. Crissa offers a story to illustrate those two character traits.
“We were promoting the Shaky Knees music festival in Atlanta. It draws about 25,000 people, so it’s a pretty big deal. Well, I had been pursuing the music editor of an Atlanta alternative weekly for weeks. I sent him email after email and never even got a response. It was driving me crazy. It got to the point where I emailed him, ‘Chad, I’m coming to meet you and I’m coming from Asheville and I’m bringing some craft beer. Let me know what time to show up.’ He emailed me back right away and said, ‘Four o’clock sounds fine.’ That’s all it took. Shaky Knees got the cover of his paper that year.”
Rejection. Persistence. And a bit of creativity.
“New York has an energy, but it never felt like people were able to enjoy themselves fully. I went to a show in Asheville and people were dancing and singing along.”
Taking The Leap
Crissa’s career reflects those three traits as well as a fourth: The willingness to take a chance. She attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, starting as a voice major, but soon made change number one. “I realized when I got there that wasn’t the lifestyle I wanted to live. Being in clubs and on the road is just not in tune with my nature. So I still was taking voice lessons, but I began to concentrate on the music business. I went through all the jobs and realized publicity seemed the most natural path for me.”
She stops to take a bite of the cookie and continues reminiscing. “When I graduated, I went to New York,” she explains, adding that after a couple of false starts she landed a job at the William Morris Agency. The job didn’t last long; change number two. “I quit my job at William Morris after three weeks because I didn’t like the way my boss told me I had to answer the phone.”
Her voice takes on an indignant tone as she recalls the details. “He wrote me a script, and the next day he came back to me and changed it. I thought, I can answer a phone. This is not for me. So I quit. I left a really good job, but it didn’t feel right, so I quit and I waited tables for a few months until I got the job at Putumayo.”
She joined the sales staff of Putumayo, a respected world music publisher that sells CDs nationally. “That job was where I got a really strong foundation in world music. I was there from 2003 to 2008.” She began on the sales staff, but after a couple of years, there was an opening for a publicist. Another change. “I went to the boss and said, ‘I want this job. I can do this job.’ I didn’t have any experience, didn’t have a database. So I put together a packet saying what I would do with one of the albums. It took some convincing, but they gave me the job.”
Meanwhile, she also notched a personal achievement. “I was working in Astor Place and living in Brooklyn. I wanted to live in New York ever since I was a kid and I did it.” Her grin grows wider at the recollection of an early mission accomplished.
Making The Move
If her early career indicated a willingness to take a big chance, the story of how she came to Asheville makes her other moves seem like child’s play.
“I was on a road trip in 2006. I drove through Asheville, and I had never been anywhere like it. I just fell in love with the town. Then, the next year, I was driving to Atlanta for Thanksgiving with my family. I stopped to see a friend here and fell in love all over again. New York has an energy, but it never felt like people were able to enjoy themselves fully. I’d go to a concert, and they’d be leaning against a wall with their hand in their pocket. I went to a show in Asheville and people were dancing and singing along. They were free and feeling the music.
“And there was such a strong arts scene here. And the Christmas parade! I had never seen a small town Christmas parade. It was incredible. I went for Thanksgiving with the family and came back the following weekend.”
She takes a long pause, knowing the impact of what she’s about to say and knowing how to milk it for maximum effect.
“And I bought a house.”
She produces her biggest grin and goes on with the tale. “It was a little two-bedroom, one-bath bungalow right outside Fairview. I bought it so that I would have to move here because I knew if I went back to New York, I’d say, ‘I want to go, I need to move,’ but I would always find an excuse not to.” She lets out a long, joyous laugh and shakes her head at the audacity of it all, finally summing up the experience: “I know it’s crazy.”
Crissa arrived in Asheville in January of 2007, and for the next 18 months she continued working for Putumayo, promoting its albums while telecommuting from her new home. Along the way she met Jennifer Pickering, the founder and executive director of the LEAF Festival in Black Mountain. They became friends, and later, Mason Jar would go on to consult with the festival’s in-house publicist on ways to promote the semi-annual gala.
Jennifer has high praise for Crissa and her work. “Whenever you’re able to talk to someone who has been doing that work for 10 years, it’s extraordinary. Crissa has been quite generous in helping us understand the constantly changing landscape of social media. She has also helped us understand how to get a better balance in the visual impact of our printed and digital materials.”
Recalling projects the two worked on together, Jennifer sums up her opinion of Crissa. “Her passion and dedication for the artists and events she represents are what sets her apart. She is authentic and enthusiastic, and her energy really elevates performers and events to new opportunities. Crissa is one of a kind.”
The appreciation is mutual. Crissa recalls that Jennifer “started introducing me to people in Asheville, and one of them was Sean O’Connell, who hired me to start his publicity department at Music Allies.” (Music Allies is a local marketing company, founded by O’Connell in 2003, that works with music festivals, record labels, and independent artists.)
“Festivals.” The answer comes quickly and forcefully when she is asked what she learned at Music Allies. “How to work publicity in advance and onsite, which is a large part of our business right now,” she says. “We do a lot of advance promotion for festivals. Most festivals draw people from multiple states, and in some cases, all over the world.”
She pauses, glances at her computer screen, and continues with a story that illustrates the power of creative promotion.
“One of the very first festivals I worked was the Hangout Music Fest in Gulf Shores, Alabama. [O’Connell of Music Allies is also the Hangout director.] The year it started was the year the British Petroleum oil spill happened. Beyond trying to get music outlets to do advance stories, it now became crisis PR. We flipped the story and worked with the local convention and visitors bureau to put out the word that in coming to the festival people would be supporting the local economic community. The pitch was, when you come here, you’re eating in their restaurants, staying in their hotels, shopping in their stores. You’re supporting the local economy. We got hits on the CBS Morning News and Geraldo Rivera came down to do a piece. It was a big campaign.”
Molly Kummerle confirms the growth of festivals in the Mason Jar portfolio. Molly began working at Mason Jar part-time shortly after Crissa opened the doors. Now, five years later, she’s director of radio promotions, and says the biggest change she’s seen is “when we started doing a lot more festivals. Now we have at least six of them.”
Molly continues to promote tours and albums for the company’s bands. “I’ll send the station a copy of the album when a band is coming through, and I’ll ask if the band can come in and do a studio session.” But the bulk of her time is spent on festivals. “There really isn’t an off-season anymore,” she says. “It slows down a bit in August and September, but as soon as October hits, I’ll be back on calls for the summer festivals.”
When she’s not promoting, Molly is spinning. Working as DJ Molly Parti, she says she does a couple of deejaying gigs just about every weekend. She’s also well-known locally as frontwoman for trip-hoppers Paper Tiger. Her outside work leads her to mention one of the benefits of working for Crissa. “She’s pretty understanding if we have other things to do.” Molly also credits the small, boutique flavor of Mason Jar. “We’re a really tight-knit group. If I need help brainstorming, I can draw on the creativity of my coworkers. And we really only take on the clients that we’re super passionate about. That’s a big benefit.”
Molly goes back almost to the beginning of Mason Jar Media, which was a hectic time in Crissa’s life. It was two months before her wedding when she decided to go out on her own. “My husband was scared. He was like, ‘What are you doing?’ But you notice in my history I’ve never been very nervous or worried about what’s going to happen because I’ve always felt that if it’s not going right, I’ll just change it.”
“Communication is very different now. Twelve years ago a lot of communication happened by phone. Nobody calls anymore. It’s obsolete. Nowadays, it’s all email. I must get between 100 and 150 emails a day. I send 70 to a hundred.”
Shaping The Message
Mason Jar Media recently marked its fifth anniversary, and—in addition to the festivals—the biggest changes have been the addition of some heavyweight clients along with three more staff members to handle the workload, plus the purchase of the building for the offices. In the day-to-day reality of the job, music publicists work with bands on a project basis, promoting the release of a new album. Crissa counts about 25 clients a year, working with as many as 10 to 12 at a time.
Her client list includes major festivals, such as Bonnaroo and Shaky Knees, and the aforementioned heavyweights, nationally known artists like psychedelic/punk jam-band Slightly Stoopid and funk/blues-rockers G Love and Special Sauce. She has built the roster on the strength of personal contact and word-of-mouth. “There are certain clients that when you have those names on your roster, it identifies you,” she says. “It’s very beneficial for your reputation.”
Her projects for an album release generally last six months. “Prior to the release of an album, I’ve been working on it for three months. If I want a review to come out in a magazine with a long lead time, I have to pitch it three months in advance.
“I’ll send an editor a link to Soundcloud so they can stream it without having to download it into their computer. I’ll also send them a Dropbox download, and then I’ll send them a link to an e-p-k (electronic press kit) so they can download all the press material. That will include pictures and copy—bios, album notes, a video, and press releases about the band.”
Once the album is released, her efforts then turn to promoting the band’s tour. Her team pursues radio interviews in the cities where the band will be playing, as well as newspaper and digital coverage. “You’re chasing the editor or writer to write the story, then working to schedule the interview with the band, and keeping track to make sure that happens—to make sure the story comes out. And then you take the finished product to promote that out further on social media. That’s a real big element of any project.”
Shelley Reed specializes in promoting Mason Jar’s touring bands. She contacts newspapers, websites, and radio stations to spread the word that a band will soon be in their area. “I try to creatively structure a message that’s concise, but also enticing and would encourage people to have interest in the band,” she says. “The best part of the job is the satisfaction of knowing that you’re directly influencing the careers of your artists.”
But she shares a major frustration with Crissa. “It’s so frustrating when you’ve tried all the angles you can and no one is picking the story up.”
Shelley has been at Mason Jar a year and a half, and in that time she has developed a strong respect for Crissa. When asked to describe her boss in a single word, she takes a long pause and finally decides: “Powerful. She gets things done.” Shelly offers an example. “Like The Hip Abduction. She really believes in them, and she took them from playing small rooms with a capacity of maybe 80 people, to big places like Brooklyn Bowl. And she got them on SiriusXM. She put their career on fast forward. And she did it without neglecting any of our other clients.”
Whether for festivals or bands, Crissa says 75 percent of Mason Jar’s efforts are for digital placements, and she rattles off a roster of sites that they target: Consequence of Sound, Pitchfork, Stereogum, Live for Live Music, JamBase, Relix, and NPR. “NPR is really important. You really want a song on there.”
Most of that 75 percent comes from the computer of Matthieu Rodriguez, Mason Jar’s digital wizard. His job description includes maintaining the company website, digital marketing, and social media, but his own description of what he does is quite a bit more complicated.
SEO? “Search engine optimization,” he says, and realizes he’ll have to explain. “It’s the verbal map on your website that allows search providers such as Google or Yahoo to find your website. The more times you can include your key search words, the better your chance of getting a higher listing on the search page.” Sitting in his darkened office, with his monitors providing most of the light, he tries to sum up the contribution his technical savvy brings to Mason Jar. “It’s really about doing things in a way that looks aesthetically pleasing; however, there’s a lot of work on the back end that we can do to put our clients in position to do better than they expected.”
The digital aspect manifests itself in a number of ways. Crissa has been a publicist long enough that she can recall the “good old days” as little as ten years ago.
“When I first started, I remember faxing press releases. You would turn the fax on at night and it would cycle all night. You’d come in the next morning and you’d be facing a stack of faxes that had come in overnight. By 2005 it was all digital.”
Warming to her topic, she leans forward, brow furrowed, voice growing intense.
“Communication is very different now. Twelve years ago a lot of communication happened by phone. Nobody calls anymore. It’s obsolete. Text? That’s an invasion of privacy. A text is really rare. Nowadays, it’s all email. I must get between 100 and 150 emails a day. And I send 70 to a hundred.”
Does she have time to do anything else? The grin comes back, and she breaks into a laugh, shaking her head. “No!”
For all that effort, all those emails, the process can become a deflating experience. “It’s incredibly disappointing,” she admits, “when we work with a client that we believe in and we are doing the footwork to help that client become known in the media, and the media doesn’t latch on to it. You feel like you’re writing something, and it’s going into the ether and no one’s going to read it.”
Her grin has faded, and she leans back, considering missed opportunities. “There’s a lot of sweat equity and blood, sweat, and tears that goes into that client. But there is a lot of noise out there. There are a lot of bands, a lot of events.”
Aside from the day-to-day frustrations, Crissa recalled what she considers the worst day in her company’s short history.
“The worst day was when a music festival that we had grown from its beginning, that we had spent years promoting, that we had gotten in Forbes, Rolling Stone, and Billboard, that we had done on-site publicity, dealing with regional writers and photographers, became big enough that the promoter sold it to a major producer.” Her voice has become quiet and her pace halting as she revisits the pain of a distressing situation. “They thanked us for all our work and moved the publicity to their in-house staff and we were out of a job.” She takes a long pause, staring into the middle distance at images that are now a year old. “That was the worst day.”
But Mason Jar recovered. Crissa and her team continue to promote festivals, artists, and albums, but she offers a surprising lesson on the economics of the music business. “People don’t buy albums anymore,” she says. “Which is why I tell my bands it’s more important to tour than to release an album.” She grins at the apparent paradox of her statement, and then pursues the thought. “Now I explain to bands that their album is like a business card. You’re presenting to the audience what you sound like so they’ll come to your tour.” She takes it a step further. “I’m not opposed to a band putting an album out there for free as long as people are coming to your show and buying a ticket and buying a T-shirt and buying a poster or a hat or a jacket.”
Building The Brand
After five years, Mason Jar Media has established itself as a successful agency with a strong track record and a solid roster of clients. But, as her personal history shows, Crissa is not one to sit still. So what might the next five years look like? Might she want to branch out, perhaps become a manager?
“I am a manager!” she says, unable to contain a hearty laugh. “I manage The Hip Abduction [St. Petersburg, Florida, world music/roots-rock collective]. I manage only one band because it’s very time consuming, very involved. There’s a lot of communication that takes place with the band constantly.”
But is that a secret ambition? To evolve Mason Jar from a promotional agency to management? She pauses for a minute, thinking it over. “I’m not sure,” she says. “I love managing The Hip Abduction, and if that’s where the path goes—if I find another band that I love, that I believe in, that I think I can make a real difference to their career, then I’ll take them on. It would be a lot of fun. It’s really exciting to be directly responsible for a band’s success.”
Her imagination was percolating, and she shifted to another possibility, one that would stretch Mason Jar all the way to Beer Can.
“I would love to work with the breweries in town. If we aligned with a brewery or two, I think we could provide them with marketing and publicity campaigns for beer releases similar to how our bands release albums. That’s especially true, social media-wise. We could build fan bases for a brewery and brand recognition and loyalty, letting people know when a certain beer is coming out and also promoting events that are happening at a brewery and things of that nature.”
After five years, Mason Jar Media is sitting pretty. But when you listen to Crissa Requate, you realize it’s definitely not sitting still.
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