From Underground to Limelight
Text Vladimir Kozlov
The public relations career of Alexander Kushnir, the head of the press agency Kushnir Production, which is focused on doing press relations for musical groups and artists, as well as for other show-business projects, started in a place as unlikely for that as underground samizdat magazines, Urlait and Counteculture, back in the late 1980s.
Then, few people in the Soviet Union knew anything about public relations. Still, as Kushnir says, sitting in his small office in a business center near Paveletskaya metro station, work on the distribution of an underground magazine in a way helped to lay the foundations of his future career.
“Print runs were between 300 and 400 copies, up to 500 maximum,” he remembers. “But I knew any subscriber in person. And there was a very strong feedback, with people telling what they liked and what they didn’t like. So, if we see public relations as effectively and efficiently forming public opinion, that’s what I did on a daily basis back then. And that paid out when we started to organize press conferences.”
Interestingly, Kushnir’s first press relations job was for his own book, “The Golden Underground,” an encyclopedia of Soviet-time musical underground press, published in 1994. “Me and Sergey Guryev, the literary editor, were thinking about who would be able to organize a presentation of the book,” Kushnir recalls. “And we ended up admitting that we knew no such person. So, we decided: okay, let’s do it ourselves. And it all went well, so we did another press event, a news conference for Kraina Mryi, an album by the Ukrainian-French band Vopli Vidoplyasova.”
Then more projects came along. But there was a long way to go from working as a freelance press agent to running an agency that employs about 50 people and works on some 20 various show business projects. “For a few years, it was just me and a couple of friends,” Kushnir says. “But we soon realized that the number of artists we worked with was snowballing, and two or three people could no longer cope with that amount of work. So we came up with an idea of an agency.”
“In the fall of 1999, there were already about ten people working with me, doing publicity for the record label “Utyekai.” But there was still no office at that time, and we held meetings twice a week in my apartment.”
Kushnir is a little bit nostalgic for that period, when there was just one obsolete computer, one land-line phone, a mobile and a pager, and the team worked as a close circle of collaborators. A trace of that nostalgia can be still seen in the agency’s office today, as an old computer unit and monitor occupy a dignified place on top of bookshelves. “That’s the computer equipment, on which Kushnir Production started,” the agency’s head points out. According to Kushnir, in the formative stages, the agency had to rely financially on producers eager to hire it to do public relations for their artists, or newly emerged record labels, like, for example, “CD Land.”
“Producer Maxim Fadeyev rented our first offices for us, and Yuri Tseitlin, president of CD Land, helped us to move to our present offices,” Kushnir says. “The deal was that we got a big discount on rent and, in exchange, we gave the label a big discount on our services. Also, Tseitlin gave us a $5,000 loan with no interest – at that time that was a huge amount of money – to buy some office equipment.”
But a conflict of interests was unavoidable, as producers and label bosses, who financed the agency at the beginning, wanted it to primarily focus on their artists, and Kushnir Production decided to go its own way. “We were able to become fully independent and self-sustaining within a year, although that was a difficult year,” Kushnir admits.
In the early 2000s, the agency was an industry pioneer. “There was no company of that kind in Russia,” Kushnir proudly says. “Neither were there any after a year or two years. We were like test pilots in rarefied air. We didn’t have competitors, we only had people who taught us, gave us ideas, such as Fadeyev or Leonid Burlakov, at one time the producer of such artists as Zemfira or Mumiy Trol, and Alexander Shulgin, then the producer of singer Valeriya.”
And, according to the agency’s head, there is still no competition today. “There are some companies that are doing press relations in the music industry,” he says. “But give me the name of a company that has more than twenty artists, then I can talk about competition. Otherwise, I think, a question about competitors should not be asked.”
According to Kushnir, although his agency has always been inclined towards rock music, over the years it has been doing various kinds of show business projects – from the IMAX movie theater chain to the musical show Mama Mia! to golf tournaments. The latter was a little surprising to Kushnir himself, he admits, adding, though, that he isn’t a total stranger to this kind of sport as he played it in his youth.
Being busy with his agency did not stop Kushnir from getting on with his writing career. Late last year, he put out a new non-fiction book titled “The Headliners.” The book is an account of Kushnir’s work with the country’s major artists and producers of recent years, and the author predictably uses his agency to promote it. “I’m glad the publisher doesn’t stop me from doing what it doesn’t have time for – promoting the book, but supplies me with promo copies of it,” Kushnir says with a smile.
Despite running a successful press relations agency, Kushnir seems to remain true to underground principles, and personal attitudes towards artists are often more important criteria for picking who to work with than purely business considerations. “Usually we say yes when we like something on a visceral level,” he says. “But there are really few artists of that kind these days.”