Taking Care of Business
ProMO Image’s Shelly Mullins Guides Musicians Through the Music Business with Exposure and Wise Words
By Stephen Pitalo
Shelly Mullins’ journey from a small Missouri town to veteran Nashville publicist was jump-started by exposure to the amazing festival music in her childhood.
“As I was growing up, my Dad’s three favorite pastimes were to pick guitar, drink beer, and camp,” explained Mullins. “So, my family and I would spend many weekends in bluegrass festival campgrounds listening to some of the best pickers on the planet. It was years before I realized that there were big acts on a stage beyond the campground! This being said, one of the earliest music memories was in Winfield, Kansas. I think I was about 5, maybe 6 years old. It rained like crazy that year and I remember everything in the campsite being really wet. This woman walked over with her hair in curlers with a clear weather poncho draped over her housedress. She brought cobbler and her mandolin and sat and played with my Daddy’s group for hours—so long in fact, that she had literally hollowed out a small patch of mud as she had tapped her foot, which had become partially refilled with water. As a very young girl, my brain recorded this sort of watery whooshing noise that emanated from it as she continued to tap her foot—that sound has stayed with me forever.”
“Fox on the Run” by the Country Gentlemen was one of her first favorite songs. The Osborne Brothers were never far away from her father’s turntable during the 70s and 80s, and she recalls this as the era where Ricky Skaggs, LRB and New Grass Revival were all entering her consciousness.
“Brashear, Missouri, is just a short distance from Greentop and Kirksville, where the Vincent family lived,” said Mullins about her early connection to that family’s mountain music. “Therefore, I grew up watching Rhonda, Darrin, Brian, Carolyn, and Johnny Vincent as The Sally Mountain Show. Of course, I was fixated on Rhonda, who was about my age. I even tried to pick a little mandolin. Decades later, after I had established myself in Nashville, I had the joy of working with Rhonda on her One Step Ahead album. Years later, I ended up working with Darrin as he and Jamie Dailey formed Dailey & Vincent and began to tour. It was also around this time, I had the opportunity to work with Rhonda’s daughter, Tinsel, as she interned in Nashville, so my experience with the Vincent family now spans three generations!
“I moved to Nashville at the age of 28 after stepping away as a top-performer at a lending company and spending the last few years before my move as a weekend-warrior/musician playing a 6-state circuit. It was at the height of the honky-tonk line-dance craze, so I made much better money playing music! I wanted to see if I could grow music into a career, so I made a new year’s resolution, which I kept, by moving to Nashville on Jan 1, 1996, not knowing a soul.”
Mullins initially pursued a music career in her young adulthood, and within a year, she was singing backup and playing keyboards for David Frizzell as “his Shelly West,” but she soon found that bus bunks gave her claustrophobia. She decided to use her business skills, and trade in her gear for a desk gig. Her love of music has always connected her publicist skills to her love of country music; she has worked in music publicity for the past 18 years now and in the music industry for 23.
“Over the years, I’ve worked a number of great jobs–I was a studio/royalty manager for Creative Workshop/Southern Writers Group, an Agent Trainee at William Morris, a Creative Assistant and Assistant Production Supervisor at High Five Entertainment, a Line Producer at Shop At Home television, and Marketing Director at the Cumulus radio station cluster, but my most rewarding work has been in publicity as it allowed me to utilize all of my natural skills (business, English composition, and people skills), and to approach the work with the heart of a musician.
“I spent nearly a decade as a publicity manager/publicist at two of the biggest independent publicity firms at the time, Webster & Associates and Kaleidoscope Media (one which was music-focused, and the other that was corporate/event-focused) before quietly hanging my own shingle as ProMO Image in 2014.”
Mullins revels in the arduous work that publicity requires, and her creative energy goes straight into gaining exposure for her clients.
“I wouldn’t know what to do with that energy if I wasn’t elbow-deep in it,” she admitted. “I guess the biggest joy I get is fresh ink and watching an artist leverage that to grow their career to new heights. It’s not only a product of a job well done, but as a former artist ‘wannabe,’ I take great pleasure in giving artists the guidance and opportunities that I wanted when I first came to Nashville.
When asked to specify the missteps that younger artists make that they could easily avoid, she notes candidly that artists’ ignorance and lack of experience usually play a part. “I think probably one of the biggest mistakes younger artists make is that they don’t understand the music industry when they first hit town and people take advantage of them, to the tune of hundreds and thousands of dollars sometimes,” she noted. “There is a book that I highly recommend anyone who wants to pursue a music career — whether behind a microphone or a desk — called Everything You Need to Know About the Music Business by Donald S. Passman. It’s an easy read and should help them navigate the plastic money trench without getting snake bit.”
“The other BIG mistake that young artists make is that they don’t treat the music business as a business,” she continued. “There is music and there is business. When you play music for your own enjoyment, that is one thing, but the second you want to try to make money at it, then it becomes a business and should be treated as one. So often, musicians come here thinking that their ‘smash hit’ or their monumental talent is going to be enough to set this town on its ear, but it isn’t! There are thousands upon thousands of hit songs already written and waiting to be recorded, and oodles of people who ooze talent. Like any business, if you aren’t networking or don’t have relationships, you’ll never achieve your dreams. You have to assemble noteworthy teams, budget for your project, keep office hours, and treat this dream of yours like your paycheck depended on it. If you don’t invest time in yourself, no one else will want to invest in you either.”
Mullins has a ton of memories from her career that pepper her conversations, sometimes revealing surprising details.
“I’ve bowled with Peter Frampton, had ice cream with the Bellamy Brothers, shared a Christmas dinner with George Jones, and helped juggle media/crowds for Dolly Parton,” she said. “But I’ll admit, I did finally have a moment a few years back when I got pretty weak-kneed. A couple of years ago, I went with Ronnie Reno backstage at the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Ford Theatre when Glenville State College honored Bobby & Sonny Osborne, Jim & Jesse, Mac Wiseman, and former Rocky Top X-Press fiddler Buddy Griffin. There I was sitting with some of Bluegrass music’s notable Hall of Famers–all I could think about was how proud my Dad would have been. It nearly brought me to tears and I had to remind myself to keep it together!”
She also noted that the pandemic has affected the entertainment business on all levels, but especially financially, causing everyone to tighten their belts in the “new normal.” She tries to inspire her clients and stays enthusiastic about the opportunities.
“From bankrupting the tour bus companies and live events, to losing venues and budgets drying up, it’s a hard time for everyone!” she declared. “In my world, it means single releases instead of albums, because who can drop an album without a tour to support it? And that means smaller budgets and more work. It means that I have had to put on several hats to survive. I’m even doing a little booking myself now for one or two of my artists to earn mailbox money and make ends meet. But I tell my artists that there is always a silver lining and with the lockdown comes time to build fan engagement and get creative. Out of sight is out of mind in this business, and is a death knell, so this is not a time to stop their endeavors, but to pursue them in a more meaningful way with fans and with their music!”
ProMO IMAGE ARTISTS TO WATCH:
“He’s a black country music banjo player—he was featured in the Bank of America promo for the Ken Burns Country Music documentary. He’s got an incredible story of survival—he broke free from Hobart Freeman’s cult and now uses music to help fund getting medicine to those who need it around the globe.”
In the Americana realm, they sound a bit like Graham Parsons meets the Eagles meets the Allman Brothers. It’s the 70s/80s southern rock. They just signed a pretty big management deal and are in the studios working on new music.
I also just helped this independent country sister-duo with their debut album, GROWING WINGS, which hit #24 on iTunes a couple of weeks ago when it came out. (We are still gathering press on that project.)
A great independent vocalist/songwriter who has hit Billboard’s Indicator with her last couple of singles. She’s got a single that dropped on February 19 that is all about women’s empowerment. I’m really excited to see how that will be received.