Introduction to Cover Letters
Believe it or not, the cover letter is your best ammunition when it comes to job and gig seeking. Often taken for granted and or re-created from a template, the cover letter has far more power than it's been given credit for. The cover letter is an integral part of your job-hunting strategy, and for no reason should you send out a resume without one.
The cover letter is your first chance to make a positive impression on a company. Many companies will not even entertain a resume without a cover letter. After all, how will they know which job you are applying for?
Your resume provides a chronological description of your career and related experience, but it doesn't communicate why you are the perfect fit for the studio, company, gig, or job. That is the job of the cover letter. While a large part of getting gig as a musician is networking, in many cases you will also be asked to describe your value in writing, so you want to be sure that you can write a strong cover letter if asked to send a resume.
There is always more than one way to do something, write something, or play something, so be creative. You wouldn't be interested in the music industry if you weren't a creative individual! However, it's best to also follow a few general guidelines in creating your cover letter.
There are four primary cover letter formats:
- The Invited
- The Cold Call
- The Referral
- The Recruiter/Talent Agent
We'll examine each of these in more detail and provide examples of some good and not-so-good cover letters.
You send an invited cover letter in response to someone who requests your resume. This is usually a job that you heard about through networking. There are advantages and disadvantages to the invited job opening. The advantage is that the company has in mind a specific job description and is eager to hire someone. With a specific job description in hand, you can tailor your cover letter to show how you meet the requirements for the job. And, you can get the letter to the appropriate contact. Usually in these cases, however, the job has been publicly advertised, so more candidates will be up for the position.
You've seen your dream job in the newspaper, online, or in your favorite trade magazine. It seems that you meet all the qualifications. How do you go about converting the opportunity into an interview? There is a lot of competition in the music industry, so it's likely that you are up against 200 to 300 others. Be assured that the HR department staffers are scanning the cover letters and resumes quickly to weed out the good ones. The key is to catch their eye. A typical letter is simple and straightforward. One thing that's likely to be scarce among cover letters is letterhead. Using letterhead may help make you look more "put together." If you don't have the know-how to design your own letterhead, find a friend to help you out. Think about using a different kind of paper that is a departure from the standard white copy paper. You might even consider using a different color. Just be careful not to go too far. Remain professional and subtle. Pale yellow paper may be appropriate and is subtle. Flourescent yellow paper will stand out, but will be difficult to read and will look a bit tacky. Here is an example of a simple format put together in PhotoShop in less than five minutes.
The Cold Call
Less than twenty percent of all available jobs are advertised. That means that the remaining eighty percent are waiting for you to find them. This is where the cold-call cover letter becomes your ally.
The cold call letter is sent with your resume to a company that has no idea who you are, and that may or may not even have an open position. It is submitted either with or without your resume, in the hopes of getting an interview. You send it into the unknown, often blind, as you may not know if the company is looking to hire new staff or not. In the letter, you introduce yourself and express in specific terms why you are interested in the company and what you have to offer them.
To get started, create a wish list of companies you would like to work for and target them. Maybe you choose them by geographic area or company type. Once you have made a wish list, assemble a self-promotion direct marketing campaign. Get the correct spelling of the company name and address. Check out their Web site or research them in business directories. Identify the specific contact person who might be hiring for a position you're interested in. Address the letter directly to that person.
Never send a resume and cover letter to a general department! Letters addressed to general departments (especially HR departments) are usually discarded. There are many, many jobs available and there is nothing a human resources person likes more than a proactive job seeker. Send them a great cover letter that convinces them you are a highly motivated candidate.
The cold-call cover letter can often be the best way to target a company band or educational institution that closely suits your talents. But getting the inteview, whether it's informational or for an open position, will most likely be determined by the effectiveness of you letter and resume. Be creative with your format.
Here's a great example. At a large PR firm, a prospective employee was asked to write a pitch letter for a prominent scissors manufacturer. Upon finishing the letter, he used a pair of scissors to cut a fringe around the edges of the page to demonstrate the effectiveness of the product. That really caught the eye of his prospective employer, who looks specifically for creative talent in all their hires.
In crafting your cover letter, remember these things:
- people's names, spelled correctly
- correct address, including the department
- correct spelling and grammar
Also remember your follow up. Let your reader know that they can expect a call from you within a specified timeframe, or even a specific time and date.
Here is an example of a great cold call letter sent to Keith Hatschek, author of How to Get a Job in the Music and Recording Business, Berklee Press.
Hatschek writes, "Although I wasn't hiring at the time, I would have given this person time for an informational phone interview based on the quality of the letter and the attached resume, and that would have been a positive learning (and networking) experience for her."
Networking, networking, networking, and more networking is the theme in the music industry. Whether you subscribe to berkleemusic.com and participate in the valuable online musicians' network, or you have an offline network of buddies in the industry, your continued success will rely on the help you can get from (and offer to) your music industry contacts. In many cases, the job you want will be unlisted. Your "in" will be based on the connections you have to the person who's hiring for the job.
That's where the referral letter comes in. The referral letter is written in response to a job that you've heard about through your network. For example, perhaps you have a friend whose brother is the scheduler in a recording studio, and you're looking for a job as a tape copyist. Ask your friend the name of the person to speak with about getting a job, and send them a letter telling them who referred you.
The referral letter is a highly effective approach, as long as you send it to the right person and they recognize the name of the person who sent you their way. Make sure you have a contact name correct! The name alone won't get you through the door, however. A confident and well-written letter that clearly communicates your fit for the company or gig is most important. Here is the beginning paragraph of a good referral letter.
This is a strong letter because the writer cuts to the chase. In the very first paragraph, she introduces herself, mentions her contact, outlines her background, and indicates what she is looking for from her reader.
Writing a Cover Letter to a Recruiter/Talent Agent
Some people choose to find work through a third party, such as an agent or recruiter. In many ways, that person representing you has the ability to launch or further your career, so you want to make sure that you build a good relationship with them from the start. The really good agencies often have large rosters of clients and talent to handle, and are difficult to break into. They will be a challenge to get an interview with. For them, you need a very strong cover letter and resume that introduces you as someone who will be a benefit both to them and to their clients. As you are not applying for a specific job, the style will be different to the other formats we outlined.
Organizing Your Cover Letter
With an understanding of the marketplace and the ways to go about finding jogs and opening doors, let's look at some ways to organize cover letters, and some good and bad examples of each.
The cover letter includes three main sections:
- The Introduction
- The Body
- The Ending/Follow-up Instructions
The Intro/First Paragraph
The introduction is the most crucial part of your letter. In many cases, the letter will be quickly scanned for key words. A strong beginning is key. In the very first paragraph, tell your reader what job you are applying for, and why it interests you. Many people forget to do this. This is a great opportunity to grab the reader's attention by creatively displaying why you are an ideal candidate.
"I am writing with tremendous enthusiasm about the Promotional Assistant position advertised in this week's issue of Billboard. With my lifelong passion for music and my current hands-on experience in artist promotion, I feel I can offer a great deal to a company seeking a motivated individual for its promotional department. I understand that my skill-set is closely aligned with the requirements of the job. As a recent graduate of Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mass., I am eager to put my Music Business and Management degree to work in an appropriate environment."
The body section of the letter should closely address the requirements of the job, and demonstrate how your experience parallels it. You can have more than one paragraph, but remember to only include more than one if it is necessary. For example, if you have very detailed experience, you may need an extra paragraph to describe projects or skill sets. Below we've put the job description and the cover letter body together so you can see the parallels.
"During my four years at Berklee College of Music, I worked in a number of creative capacities. I have considerable working knowledge of video pre- and post-production for both TV and Internet broadcast. I served as Vice President of Berklee TV, the college's television station. Also, I produced video excerpts for the college's Web site during a two-semester work-study position in the Information Technology department. Through this experience, I developed a comprehensive understanding of all video production technologies and processes. These include: scanning footage, digitizing, editing, compressing video for the Web, capturing stills for print, and database cataloguing."
The end of the letter is as important as the beginning. This is where you demonstrate that you are proactive, by stating your next next steps. Ask for a job interview and express your confidence, describing how you are a perfect fit for the job. Tell the employer that you plan to follow up within a specified time. For example, "I'll call on Friday, October 21st to answer any questions you may have regarding my experience," or "I look forward to hearing from you soon."
"I will be in Boston between August 4th and September 4th. I would very much like an opportunity to meet with you and learn more about the position and about North Face studios. I will call soon to see if we can arrange a meeting. Thank you for your time and consideration."
The Email Cover Letter
With so many employers requesting job applications via e-mail, it's more important than ever to understand some key techniques that will help you get noticed.
The Importance of the Subject Line: Your Personal Tag Line
The subject line is the first contact you will have with your potential employer and your first chance to stand out from the group. So make it count! Sum up your skills and experience in one short phrase. It should get the attention of the reader and encourage them to open it immediately. For example, "Music Composition Software Development Expert."
Keep It Brief
Employers are busy, so be concise. Make your point in three paragraphs or less: briefly detail your experience and fit for the position, ask to meet them, and sign off.
Employers look for specific keywords as they scan the applications. Use keywords to ensure that if they save your application in a database, you will be picked out in later searches. So, identify the important words from the job description, and use those very words to describe your relevant experience.
The most popular format for e-mail and databases is plain text (ASCII). If you create your letter in a word processing software program, make sure to convert it to plain text before pasting it into the e-mail. Remember: You are at the mercy of the recipient's e-mail software, so plan accordingly. Plain text is viewable by all e-mail technologies.
Unless requested, never send you resume or cover letter as an attachment. There are too many chances of error with this procedure. Include your resume under the cover letter in the body of the e-mail.
Don't even think about hitting that send button less you have thoroughly checked the letter for spelling and grammar mistakes! Better yet, have someone else proofread the letter to make sure you haven't missed anything.