Rock Paper Scissors is a PR firm set up by Dmitri Vietze in the late 90s to secure press coverage for international music artists and labels. As of the last decade, that focus has shifted exclusively to music tech companies, and given my previous conversation with one of his clients, Tracklib, I decided to reach out to Dmitri for an interview. The result was a wide-ranging talk that covered his background, the formation of RPS, public relations in general, and clients such as CD Baby and Artiphon. When referring to “world music”, quotes are used to signify that it’s a general term for a genre comprised of global artists.
– Hi Dmitri. Pleasure to be talking to you. I heard you moved from Nashville to New York as a child and developed your music interest by listening to cassettes in your local Queens library. Is that true?
I was actually taking music lessons in Nashville before I found the Queen’s library. My dad put himself through college by playing the upright bass in jazz bands and my mom was an international folk dancer. Her family was full of guitarists, banjo and mandolin players, and I remember being ten years old when she woke me up to watch the end of the Woodstock documentary on TV. So I developed my music awareness from things like that.
I moved to New York at age twelve, which is where my parents are from, and it opened me up to a whole new world of street musicians and performers in places like Washington Square Park and South Street Seaport. As you touched on, the Queens public library had a ton of cassettes that I’d dub to take home. I can’t remember everything I came across, but that’s where I discovered stuff like Fela Kuti and Croatian instrumental music. I also became interested in hip hop thanks to acts like KRS-One and Stetsasonic, which led me to discover other acts like De La Soul and Public Enemy.
– What did your years at LaGuardia High School look like?
I went to LaGuardia in the 80s, also known as the “Fame High School” from the TV show. The music department was overly focused on classical music, which was something I’d become bored of by that time. The school offered a lot of creativity as a whole, but the music program was quite stiff – if you didn’t fall within their classically-minded structure, there wasn’t a lot there for someone like me. It also lacked interdisciplinary crossover, so a dancer or theater performer would rarely interact with the music department. Thankfully, the school had one jazz teacher, so I took his improv class three times because I really enjoyed it. The rest of my time was mostly spent playing music with friends in the streets or parks, or in the subway for money.
One positive thing about LaGuardia was the cultural diversity of the students. The school clearly made an effort to enroll kids from different socio-economic groups across all five boroughs of New York City, and the result was that I immersed myself more into activism than music when I was there.
– What did you study in college once LaGuardia was over?
My high school activism taught me that social change comes from affecting the core of society, and since business seemed to be the primary driver in most of the world, I studied Business Management at Antioch College. I didn’t do much formal music education during that time.
– You ended up in Portland after that, no?
Correct. My wife and I met in college and both did internships in San Francisco, so we wanted to move to the West Coast and settled on Portland because California was too expensive. My first job there was for an educational nonprofit where I worked with a domestic Peace Corps called AmeriCorps. One of their administrators let me develop a workshop using music recordings and my instrument collection to teach about cultural diversity, and that was a pivotal point in terms of my work with music. Soon after that I got my first job working in the music industry.
– I believe that job was with Allegro, one of the largest distributors of indie music. What events led them to recruit you?
My wife Antonia worked in the PR department of the Portland Art Museum, so when her boss later became the Head of PR at Allegro and was looking for a publicist, Antonia introduced me and I got hired. Allegro is where I learned how to do PR, and we worked with a lot of international acts from places like Africa, Latin America and the Balkans.
– What did your job at Allegro entail? Writing press releases?
Not just that, but also doing the outreach since we had a radio promotion branch. PR isn’t solely about sending press releases and waiting for things to happen; real PR requires a lot of diligent outreach and convincing along the way, as well as doing multiple pitches to the same people until they open their emails or text messages. So even though I was a publicist and radio promoter that wrote press releases, most of my work involved pitching.
– What did that role teach you about how to strategize when doing PR? Did you gain any insights about how to communicate with the media?
Allegro was big on databases, which I learned was a great way of keeping oneself organized when dealing with thousands of journalists. It’s important to know who to reach out to and keep records of where a conversation ended. Databases also help keep track of what kinds of music a journalist likes and what angles were effective in a previous pitch.
Allegro also taught me about something I call “pushy diplomacy”, which I teach to my team at RPS. You can’t be shy, but you just as equally have to be diplomatic when reaching out to people, and you can never lose your cool because each journalist is a bridge you’ll need for the next client. You’ll need that relationship more than any single article, and expressing frustration over declined press coverage can ruin that.
– “World music” has been described as an outlier genre because of its limited commercial potential. What kind of challenges did that present when you were pitching acts like Antibalast or Cesária Évora to NPR or The New York Times?
My pitches were about highlighting the personal and cultural stories of the artists. You catch the interest of an audience by showing them how to relate with things unfamiliar to them. For example, Cesária Évora was from Cape Verde, an archipelago country most Americans had never heard of, so readers of The New York Times and NPR thrived on getting exposure to that kind of music. Those were globally-minded audiences that wanted to learn more about the surrounding world, and “world music” served as an entry point for that.
– How lucrative did you feel “world music” could be given that it rarely broke through to the mainstream?
A lot of genres have scenes that won’t reflect whatever’s topping the Billboard or Pollstar charts. Their artists don’t make millions, but many of them were able to have careers thanks to the live performance side. The 90s saw an emergence of venues, promoters and festivals that had a similar mindset to NPR’s audience – they’d book artists from around the world and the public would attend to get exposure to music they didn’t know. However, the flip side was that some of those artists struggled to develop a consistent fanbase because the audience was more interested in the novelty of the genre than the songwriting or the aesthetic. That’s where our job as PR reps came in; we’d help our artists get more money for their tours by securing exposure in places like Pitchfork or Rolling Stone. Those kinds of write-ups could add a zero to the end of a performance fee, and that’s where we saw the real success happen.
– How long did your job at Allegro last?
For two and a half years, until August 1999. That’s when I had my first kid and started Rock Paper Scissors from her nursery because it was the only usable space we had. So my first office was a room with a crib, a changing table and my computer (laughs).
– By the way, what happened to your “world music” trade publication, “DubMC“? That seems to have disappeared.
I’m surprised you know about that. It was a trade publication for the “world music” community in North America where we published content on how to tour in the US and what conferences to attend, etc. When I started Rock Paper Scissors, the first dozen years were entirely focused on “world music” and helping to break those artists in America. We continued doing that until the live music scene came to a halt during the pandemic. The genre had already taken a hit in the transition from physical to digital because their audience favored CDs, so with touring shut down we decided to stop with artist PR altogether. It was challenging enough to help artists see a return on their PR investment, and it became uncomfortable for me to keep charging the fees I needed to sustain a team, so RPS decided to fully pivot into music tech PR, and that’s why DubMC got shut down.
I’ve never really explained where the name came from, but “Dub” stood for “W”, as in “world”, and “MC” stood for “music community”.
(Below: Dmitri circa 2006)
– Interesting. And where does the name “Rock Paper Scissors” come from? Is it arbitrary?
I wanted something that was flexible because I didn’t know what all our services would be. I also wanted something lighthearted that inspired positivity. When I bring on a new publicist, I explain that PR is like a game, just like rock, paper, scissors – you don’t know what a journalist will throw back at you, so it can be an unpredictable exchange. But if you lean into the playfulness of it, it’s easier to maintain the attitude needed to play another round. I later created some additional mythology around the name, but that was the actual origin.
– Thanks for sharing the origin story. Now let’s talk about RPS’ first clients. Which companies were those and how did you go about getting clients in general?
The industry in 1999 was still driven by record labels, so we worked with a “world music” label out of Berlin called Piranha. They were our first client and we did all of their PR for multiple monthly releases. Rachel Faro was another early client who was a manager for Los Van Van. We also worked with Harmonia Mundi who set up the World Village label. Their North American CEO, René Goiffon, hired RPS for all their artist releases, one of which was Tinarawen. They played at Festival In The Desert and we did PR for the live album, the DVD and the festival itself. We even got journalists from NPR and Rolling Stone to fly into the Sahara to cover it.
We also worked with Nonesuch Records and did PR for the re-release of the Nonesuch Explorer Series, which were vinyl albums from the 60s and 70s. We later worked with labels that had Afro-pop stars like Youssou N’Dour and Salif Keita, as well as indie labels that put out artists like Mariza and Antibalas. We also had clients who were making a comeback after being big in the 70s and 80s, like Boubacar Traoré or Bembeya Jazz National.
In terms of getting clients, I’d attended Womex, which is the biggest “world music” conference that takes place in a different European city each year. The pipeline of global music would start off in Europe in terms of recording, licensing and marketing, after which it came to the US, so I attended Womex for about eighteen years to meet with managers, agents and labels, and it was the best channel for getting clients and networking.
– When music PR still centered around print and TV exposure in the 2000s, what were some of RPS’ most valuable contacts?
It was mostly journalists like editors and writers. We’d occasionally approach music supervisors to book TV appearances for artists like Ladysmith Black Mambazo or Mary Black, but that only happened occasionally. We also built up a network of concert promoters, festivals and booking agents. A lot of them would keep an eye on our roster and were excited when they booked our artists because they knew the PR support would be there both nationally and locally.
– How was RPS affected by the digital revolution in the 2000s? Did you lose clients as record sales tanked?
There were definitely moments where we thought, “It’s kind of quiet this year… “. I don’t think artists at the time were giving enough thought to growing their careers, so we shifted to doing more live music PR, and that’s when festivals started hiring us. As a result, we worked with the Latino Fest at Queens Theatre, as well as GlobalFest and the Calgary Folk Music Festival.
– I believe you also started another company called StoryAmp around that time or soon after. Tell me about that.
In 2011, I partnered with a tech accelerator called SproutBox to build a music PR platform called StoryAmp. There was so much disruption happening on the consumption and sales side of music that I felt it would affect PR too, so we built an automated platform where bands could put in their tour dates and press releases to automatically have them sent to relevant journalists. I created a framework for things like the amount of lead time, how often it sends reminders, what information to provide, what a short pitch versus a long pitch should look like, etc.
StoryAmp has been coasting a bit in the last few years, but I think it’s time to bring it out of hibernation because of how strongly live music is coming back.
– How commercially successful was StoryAmp?
To be honest, I feel we launched too early, and a lot of journalists weren’t eager to jump on new technology back then. We also made the platform available to all indie artists, and that lack of curation didn’t help in the early days. We later discovered that StoryAmp was better suited for live music press because booked artists had already gone through a curation process and journalists were actively looking to cover local shows. So I didn’t make a bunch of money from it, but once other music tech companies saw how much press coverage we received, it led to RPS getting more PR inquiries. For example, I built a relationship with Tracy Maddux, then President of CD Baby, after meeting him at SXSW. We later launched a partnership that pointed CD Baby’s artists towards StoryAmp, which led me to ask him, “How come nobody knows of all the cool stuff CD Baby is doing? “, and he said, “We haven’t had the best experience with PR…“. So I suggested we change that and he offered RPS the job. A year later they referred us to Rumblefish, and we did their PR for a year until their acquisition by SESAC. Each year after that we doubled our music tech client list, so we had enough clients to pivot away from live music when the pandemic struck.
– Regarding your PR work for CD Baby, how were you able to overcome the perception problems caused by their name?
To combat the notion that their name only implied physical distribution, we emphasized everything they were doing on the digital front. We also pointed out some misperceptions about physical distribution because it’s easy to assume the emergence of a new format implies the death of an old one. Just because a format is declining doesn’t mean it’s not earning millions of dollars each year. So CD Baby was still doing robust physical sales even as they were building a new tech stack for indie artists, and we just kept pointing out all those misperceptions while highlighting their strengths.
It’s also worth mentioning that CD Baby was first with a lot of things, such as helping independent artists sell CDs on Amazon. They were also first to help indie artists get on iTunes and Spotify. So from physical sales to downloads and streaming, they were early providers of key services.
– Revelator is another client of yours who has a digital wallet solution for collecting royalties. Can you talk about that?
Sure. Revelator’s wallet is about giving artists access to immediate payments by managing their publishing splits. Those splits get paid out in a very rapid fashion compared to the traditional ways. It’s all B2B technology, so it operates inside other distribution platforms by displaying its features on their dashboards.
Some of our other clients include Amaze VR, who’re doing the Megan Thee Stallion VR Tour, and Artiphon, who we got a lot of press for due to their Orba instrument. There’s also Audius, who have the most successful blockchain-based streaming service, and Endel, a technology company that uses a health app to combine music and science, with a focus on sleep, wellness and fitness. We also work with the Mechanical Licensing Collective, a not-for-profit that’s responsible for carrying out the blanket compulsory license for music on digital services.
– Given your evolving client list over the last 20 years, would you say it’s easier to market for record labels or music tech companies?
It depends. Moving the needle for B2B music tech companies can be easier because they only need a handful of articles to help get the investment or partnerships they need, whereas B2C companies have to compete with everything else in the world for attention, from consumer electronics to food. But if they succeed, the return is bigger since they gain access to a mass market of customers.
– With RPS having successfully made its transition into music tech, how many team members does your firm have today?
About 20 – we have nine publicists, two campaign managers, a Director of Strategy, an Office Manager, an Operations Director, a Director of Marketing, a Business Development Coordinator, a Conference Planner, a Podcast Editor, my assistant and some writers.
We’re not trying to grow the team at the moment, nor our client base. That’ll probably change in the future but right now I just want everybody to do well for the clients we have.
– Given your 20+ staff members, what’s your role at the firm? I’m guessing it’s no longer as labor intensive as in the 2000s.
It’s changed a bit. My job at RPS largely involves working with our campaign managers, Director of Strategy and Operations Director to review how we’re doing with our clients. Hosting the Music Tectonics Podcast is another role of mine and I share it with our Director of Strategy, Tristra Yeager. I’m also involved on the operational side of the Music Tectonics Conference when it comes to programming and doing deals with venues and advertisers. The last part of my job is in sales: I and Ben Westenberger, my Business Development Coordinator, are on several calls a week with potential clients. Together we figure out what’s a good fit, what the timelines are, and develop client proposals. Those are my main roles, though I also work on our database and project management system called “The Brain”, which was built twelve years ago. Our publicists use it to keep notes on their conversations and to catalog new media outlets and journalists. I don’t actually do the programming for it though, as we have a programmer who’s worked with me on that from the beginning.
I also have to consider the big picture of where RPS is going as a whole. For example, I have colleagues that do PR in other industries that I’ll occasionally meet with them to talk about how they run their firms.
– Since you mentioned databases, I wanted to read a quote you gave some years back in another interview. “Early in my career, I got to work with some smart and flexible database programmers and I’ve always pushed to make databases work well for my company “. Can you elaborate on the importance of databases?
Sure. We’ve seen other PR firms use a Word document or Excel spreadsheet to keep track of what they’re doing, but going from spreadsheets to a database makes the latter feel flat in comparison; databases allow you to manage multiple points of information like first name, last name, company, project, etc, whereas a spreadsheet only has two axes. I’ve never understood how people continuously update a spreadsheet or start over with research every time there’s a new project. Databases have allowed us to scale in a way that a lot of PR firms couldn’t, and we probably have the best one for music tech press that exists. In fact, whenever we’ve hired press analytics companies to give us access to their databases, they’ve never been as good as our own. Theirs are often lacking in nuance because it wasn’t assembled by music industry people, plus they might only update it once a year whereas we do ours everyday.
– Your website makes mention of a PR process called “Articulate, Crystallize, Amplify”. What’s that?
We created “Crystallize, Articulate, Amplify” after noticing a cycle with many of our clients. We needed them to clarify what value they contribute to the world, and we called that “crystallization”. Writing a press release or article to outline that value is the “articulation”, whilst “amplification” is about getting the message out as widely as possible.
Another reason for that process was to educate our clients on how PR works because we had instances of people telling us, “We already have a press release, so can we hire RPS to send that out to everybody? “. Thousands of press releases are sent out every day, and copying the most salesy one won’t convince any journalist to cover your company. You need a storyline that’s compelling and makes a good case for your business, so “Crystallize, Articulate, Amplify” helped put that in place.
– What would you say is your biggest challenge when doing RPS work?
Our job is to spread our client’s stories to the widest audience, but some companies are so particular about their narrative that our biggest challenge can be showing them what the best story is. From doing this for 20+ years, we know the client isn’t always right about what the most effective story is, so we work best when they see us as a partner with helpful expertise rather than a vendor or service they just have to pay for. From our perspective, journalists are trying to tell the right story to their audience, so we have to understand that audience in order to get the desired coverage from writers, and clients don’t always make that connection.
– Do you have a foolproof coverage-getter if your back is against the wall?
No, not at all. A traditional PR firm has to earn their media coverage through outreach, whereas paid media can be achieved through advertising or advertorials. So if you absolutely want attention, you can pay for it, although it’s questionable whether you can pay the right amount for the desired conversions. Clients may want user acquisition, but they also want legitimacy, and a YouTube or Instagram ad that’s obviously paid for does nothing to give that credibility. Things like that won’t create the same impression as being featured in an outlet like Billboard or Sound on Sound.
– As you say, PR professionals can’t guarantee press coverage in spite of their retainers, so how do you convey to your clients that RPS’ services are worth it?
Because of “The Brain” database, we know what our averages are in terms of securing press coverage. If a client sticks with us for six months, we can estimate how much press they should expect, but to be honest, some of that stuff is out of our control. Our guarantee is that we’re going to present our clients with the best story to help with the best possible strategy, but we can’t make the press say “yes” to a pitch. That’s why I tell my team that “no” is the second best answer because at least you know where you stand. Also, no one outlet is going to make or break anybody’s business. A lot of tech startups want to be featured in TechCrunch because it has a lot of weight with investors, but if you don’t get TechCrunch and still get Fast Company, Wired, Forbes and Inc, that’s okay too. No investor will refuse to talk to you because you didn’t get into TechCrunch. So there’s a cumulative effect that happens across multiple outlets, and that’s what we aim for.
– You previously mentioned the Music Tectonics Conference, which debuted in 2019. What led you to create that?
I’ve always been a fan of using community-building to market my services because it organically leads us to those who’d hire us, plus we always got more leads from conferences than anything else. We’d attend events like SXSW, NAMM or Music Biz to do meetups or panels, so the next step was to create a conference of our own, and we chose to build it as a standalone brand so people wouldn’t think it was only for our clients. That said, many of our clients choose to sponsor or attend, though we also want people from the music innovation space to be part of it, whether as attendees, speakers or sponsors.
– Wrapping up, can you tell me what your favorite news outlets are as a PR person?
– Thanks for talking to me, Dmitri. I’ve learned a lot about how PR works in your business. What’s next for Rock Paper Scissors?
We’re adjusting to the new practices of having a semi-remote team but we’ll continue building our network in the music tech space. In regards to Music Tectonics, we haven’t done a physical conference since 2019, so we’re hoping that our attendees will be ready for in-person events by October, which I believe they will be.
(Below: Rock Paper Scissors logo)