“Hey, I think we might have a video for you,” a woman from Lost Highway Records said in a phone call to Andy Gesner in January 2003.
After Gesner replied, “Bring it on,” the woman paused and said they weren’t sure what to do with the video.
Gesner, a Rutgers graduate, had started his company HIP Video Promo a few years earlier. While most of his friends thought he was crazy to focus on music videos nearly a decade after MTV largely stopped playing them, Gesner saw the future of videos on the Internet long before the rest of the industry. As strange as it sounds, music videos are more important now than ever. And, for Gesner, that phone call would be the moment his business would be put on the map.
He asked who the artist was and she told him it was Johnny Cash. “You mean, the iconic Man in Black? The most legendary American musician?” asked Gesner. She confirmed it was him, but added, “The problem with the video is that it looks like he’s going to die. And it’s not even a song of his, it’s a Nine Inch Nails cover.”
She sent Gesner the video for “Hurt” and after wiping tears from his eyes, he told her they wanted to promote the video.
“From there, we were literally off to the races,” recalled Gesner. “We did Death Cab For Cutie, Thirty Seconds To Mars, Paramore, and Maroon 5. We were doing all the cool Vice stuff like Chromeo and Bloc Party; and then Drive-Thru Records came on board, so we were doing all the pop-punk stuff. It was all about being in the right place at the right time and not folding up like a cheap lawn chair. Just keeping the grind alive!”
It all started at the Harvest Moon Brewery in New Brunswick on a New Year’s Eve. Gesner was 39 and realized he wanted to do music and nothing else. Long involved in the Jersey music scene, he was a member of Spiral Jetty for a decade. After making his decision, he went to work with Alan Douches at West West Side Music mastering records, but soon realized he wanted to be his own boss. He began working on music promotion with music videos and putting out compilation records under the name Artist Amplification - a series that gave many artists like Val Emmich and Matt Witte their first recordings.
But getting the labels on board as clients was a difficult task.
“It’s the catch-22,” said Gesner. “How do you get anyone to hire you until you’ve worked with someone? But how do you work with someone cool if no one is going to hire you?”
Eventually he fell in with Elektra Records and began doing some work for them. And then 9/11 happened. He didn’t get hired again until the summer of 2002, but he never stopped trying. He convinced Sub Pop to give him a shot and worked with videos for The Shins and Iron & Wine when they were just starting out. His efforts finally paid off when Cash’s “Hurt” fell into his lap.
Gesner was convinced that music videos would become the ultimate resource for an artist back in the days of dial-up internet. It was back when watching visual content on the web was virtually an impossible task.
“At the time, if you wanted to watch visual content on the computer you could click on the link, go make a sandwich, mow the lawn, take a quick trip to Shop-Rite, come back an hour and a half later and it might play,” said Gesner. “Emphasis on might play. But a good friend assured me that it would be only a matter of years before everybody would be watching video content on their computer.”
Of course, nowadays it’s not even just your computer, videos are watched on phones, Roku, Apple TV, Google ChromeCast and more. The combination of websites like YouTube and the evolution of music blogs and embedded videos have made music videos one of the most important promotional tools for an artist. Plus there are still music video shows on BET, MTVU, Havoc TV, and regional outlets like California Music Channel and JBTV in Chicago that run videos all day long.
But simply having a video is only the start. What HIP Video Promo does is make sure videos are seen on blogs, websites, and terrestrial television. Before that happens, the company makes sure all of the artist’s online properties (from the official website to social media channels) are fully optimized, they create the story of the band to pitch around the video, and secure an outlet for the video’s premiere.
Everything is geared towards developing the “super fan.”
“We do a lot of social media marketing with our clients in that if you’ve got a great piece of visual content, you need to use that content to help grow your digital online footprint,” explained Gesner. “So literally every single day for our clients we’re reaching out to people on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, and we’re building their YouTube subscriber base. What we’re doing is using their music video as the carrot you dangle in front of the horse. The horse being those most active fans on social media of like-minded bands and artists.”
“The idea being if you’ve got great visual content you’re got to figure out every kind of way to connect it to a potential new fan that you can turn into a super fan,” continued Gesner. “I still contend from 1980 to this day that it’s the super fan that is going to make all the difference.”
Part of the reason HIP Video Promo has been successful in promoting over 2,700 videos throughout the years is because the company is filled with musicians in key positions. In addition to Gesner, the company includes Rob Fitzgerald (Senior Vice President) and Mike Kundrath (Director of Publicity) who were part of the Jersey band Hero Pattern. They understand what it’s like to have a music video released.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of bad advice out there for bands. Many are instructed to not only find websites to premier their videos, but give them exclusive rights to the video for periods of a week up to a month. Gesner does not believe in that practice. According to him, websites should have exclusivity to a video for just one day - something he says is standard throughout the industry. The concept makes sense. Premiering a video gives the website and band something to promote, but rather than putting all of your eggs in one basket you then allow the video to be seen on hundreds (if not thousands) of websites starting the next day.
Gesner points out a famous line by the great hockey player Wayne Gretzky who once said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
Essentially, if 100 websites begin promoting your video, that’s one hundred times the exposure you’d get from a single website holding exclusivity. It’s also 100 times the amount of people essentially pushing your video to music fans. And it’s having your video in front of 100 different audiences - each with users who could share the video among their friends, building a network of viewers that goes far beyond any single site.
HIP Video Promo gets most of its business these days from referrals. The company is well respected among the industry as one that will not promote videos it does not believe in or that are poorly constructed. By maintaining these standards, they have established a level of trust among video channels and websites who know they aren’t sending garbage to them. While HIP Video Promo has promoted nearly 3,000 videos, Gesner says the company has likely turned down four times as many.
“You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” explained Gesner. “In other words, if I took on the clients that sent me crappy videos, my programmers wouldn’t respect me in the morning. A crappy video is a crappy video. So instead of taking their money and saying it’s great and lying to them, I give them the hard truth. The truth has a certain ring to it. It’s like, ‘Not for nothing, I know you put time and effort into this music video, but this isn’t going to fly my friend. Because if I send out this video and then six months from now you make an incredible video, the people who see the first one are going to remember it and they’re not going to even look at your next one.’”
He laughs, “I am constantly saving Indie Nation from themselves!”
Despite their importance, Gesner stresses that music videos do not have to cost a fortune. In fact, the company has actually received and run a few promotions for videos produced on smart phones. The cost behind the making of the video isn’t important, the quality of the video content is.
“I know when I have a killer video if I get done watching it and I have no other visceral urge other than to watch it again,” said Gesner. “That’s when I know I’m going to be able to hit a home run for the client.”
As musicians themselves, the company understands budget issues. Gesner believes that while financial constraints are difficult, promotion is a must for artists.
“You’ve got to figure out how to promote yourself and if you don’t have the money now, there are ways to get it,” explained Gesner. “Like P.T. Barnum said, ‘Without promotion, something terrible happens… nothing!’”
Many artists have been successful raising funds for promotional campaigns with crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, and GoFundMe. There are numerous options available for reaching out to the artist’s fanbase, friends, and relatives.
Gesner, who grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and moved to the New Brunswick area in the early 1980s, credits part of his success and drive to his friendship with Matt Pinfield, who was working at the WRSU (Rutgers University) radio station at the same time.
“Being friends with Matt Pinfield made me confident to always be enthusiastic and always be ever-excitable,” said Gesner. “He taught me that a positive attitude, being upbeat, always ebullient, and excited won’t always make your life great but it will annoy enough people along the way to make it worth the effort. He made me realize that if you’re passionate about something, emote. Don’t hold back. So what if someone thinks you’re a whack-a-doodle or on chemical extractions, what do you care?”
His popular band Spiral Jetty, from his Rutgers days, never officially broke up. Adam Potkay became an English professor at William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA. He steadily rose through the ranks to become Chair of the department. Potkay has written numerous books and is even recognized as a “happiness expert” - in doing so, he established himself throughout academia. Last year, Potkay was invited to come to Princeton to be part of a think tank, meaning a return to New Jersey.
“He’ll be back in July and I smell a Spiral Jetty reunion!” said Gesner, noting that Potkay, Gesner, and drummer Dave Reynolds have remained close friends over the years.
If that happens, odds are there will be a music video and Gesner knows just what to do with it.
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.