- By Merrill Lee Girardeau
Tallulah: Ava Tunnicliffe talks Music PR, Running a Startup, & Barbie
Could you tell your own life story in 100 words?
What would you include? Your hometown, definitely. Your professional accomplishments for some humble-bragging. But what about your childhood fixation with hermit crabs, or that time you took the wrong train and wound up in Amsterdam? How do you leave a reader wanting more without seeming bonkers or, worse, trite?
As a writer, I reckon with these questions whenever I subject my work to the eyes of strangers. But I start thinking about them anew after talking with Ava Tunnicliffe on a June afternoon. From the Soho apartment she shares with two dogs, Ava runs Tallulah, the music PR and management company she started just a year ago.
A fun-to-say word that is also Ava’s middle name, Tallulah serves over 25 musical acts with equally fun-to-say names like Finneas O’Connell, CAPPA, SUMif, Naomi Wild, and Nekokat (here’s a sampler playlist on Spotify).
The company is, bless it, a staff of five women: a publicist, a manager, two interns, and Ava herself, who does PR and manages singer-songwriter Kyan Palmer. Palmer is the only management client at the moment. Managing an artist is a “passion project,” says Ava. “For me to take on another management client, I would have to love that person as much as I love Kyan.”
On the PR side, Ava works with her clients using a wholistic approach to gain press exposure, playlisting, and engage brands and media partners in the overall strategy of her campaigns. She and Angela, Tallulah’s other on-staff publicist, prefer to work with musicians and managers on at least a three-month basis in order to help build the narrative and solidify an artist's image and overall story. “I prefer to work with retainer clients, because I think that’s the much more interesting part of publicity, is working people’s stories,” says Ava.
Ava learns that story, in part, as she onboards a client. She gives them a press questionnaire to discover “who they are in their music and who they are outside of their music,” she says, asking about gender and sexual identities, politics, hobbies, and weird obsessions.
“I always list my own examples to make people feel more comfortable,” she says, rattling off Barbie, Hello Kitty, Disney as predilections she’d want someone to include in a bio about her (check!). She flashes her tattoo of Mickey Mouse ears on her forearm and later gives me a tour of her room as further proof, three Barbies staring dead-eyed at me as I walk in the door. We also discover a mutual enrapturement with the podcast My Favorite Murder. “I would die for Karen and Georgia,” she says of the MFM hosts (a fitting hyperbole, given the subject of the podcast) and shows me a snow globe with Karen and Georgia’s picture inside.
As she crafts a story or writes a press release, the goal is to connect with journalists who connect with readers who actually listen to music. When asked about a publicist’s greatest challenge, Ava laughs. “The hardest part is getting press!”
“Sometimes it’s hard enough to get people to click on a link and listen to the music, and the music is not going to sell by itself,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if you make the best song ever, but every big artist really has some sort of story. That’s why they get big, is because people get invested in their lives.”
Something very obvious occurs to me much later: Ava is a writer. The writer’s work is to spin gold from flax, if flax is the minutiae of our lives, ordinary and beautiful and strange. Ava roots around a musician’s biography looking for buried treasure: the stuff a person wouldn’t think twice about unless they were asked.
I notice, for example, in a Milk piece about Tallulah client Rotana, that the writer mentions the Saudi singer’s gold locket, which contains scripture from the Quran. That locket is, I later learn, Ava’s buried treasure, a private trinket she uses to enrich Rotana’s public narrative.
Beyond writeups and likes, an artist wants a fanbase (don’t we all?). Often, the artist’s manager expects the world to love their artist as much as they do, a fanaticism Ava knows firsthand. She says, “Obviously if you manage someone, you think that their music is f*cking amazing. And I totally understand that, and I hear that, but sometimes it’s just not connecting with press.” That doesn’t mean the music is bad, she continues, but that the promotional strategy needs to shift.
And no artist is going to be Rihanna right off the bat. Fame takes time. “I think a big part of my job is being like, OK, that’s a great long-term goal, but this is the first single they’re ever putting out, and they don’t have any press, and we have to start somewhere,” says Ava. “It’s going to take a second before you can get a Fader cover.”
These seem like the words of a much older publicist (Did I mention Ava is 24? Have I been avoiding it? Who’s to say?), earthbound and confident. I find myself wondering if she’d give me any tips on my own self-promotion, which is basically non-existent.
Ava displays leadership skills in scads, but she also admits to bouts of self-doubt and passivity when issues arise at her company. “It is difficult to be a boss of other people, especially when I’m being so cautious about not upsetting anyone, not pissing anyone off. I don’t like to tell someone they’ve done something wrong,” says Ava. She’s learning to advocate for what she wants, “speaking up for what I need in my business,” even when it involves conflict.
These are lessons too few women—much less women in their early twenties—get to learn in a society where the prototypical boss is still an older (white) male.
Being the boss, especially at a startup, also requires immense self-motivation, a word Ava repeats throughout our conversation. “I’ve become amazing at scheduling,” she says, keeping semi-normal business hours and cordoning off weekends so she can decompress. Still, she has just spent early Thursday morning hours writing press releases, though she knows “I can’t send a pitch at 3 am.” The work looms large, and Ava looks forward to having a larger staff at Tallulah so she can delegate more.
But she wouldn’t trade Tallulah for another “normal” job. “Yeah, you get to leave the office at six, but I don’t live my life in fear, and I do love what I’m doing. And if there’s something I don’t love, I can fix it,” she says.
Now that, dear reader, is a good story. And in 35 words!
Photos by Wallace Morgan