In the Silence of the Mind: March 7, 2014
Being a Band – Part 2 – What’s In a Name?
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” The immortal poet William Shakespeare penned these words as a way to point to the deeper meaning that a thing (in this case a rose) was defined by what it was, not what it was called. In the same way, a band is more than the stylized font that adorns flyers and album covers in their honor. They are a collection of what makes them unique. They are their sound, the hearts and work ethics of their members, their presence, their charisma, and, yes, even their “smell.”
In part one of this series, we looked at how the music industry as a whole has seen seismic shifts in the last decade or so, but how certain business practices have remained. One of these business-centric ideas, branding, continues to hold its powerful grip over the music industry. In that post, Seth Hecox of Becoming the Archetype blessed us with his thoughts on branding and how they impacted his focus and direction.
I wanted to introduce the concept of branding as a whole before diving into some specific elements of how branding impacts those just starting out with a band. With this post, we’ll take a look at possibly the most basic element of branding: coming up with your band’s name. Aside from your “sound” the name of the band is the most essential element in forming your outward facing identity. The name is the first thing most people will get a glimpse of (when it comes to album covers, advertising pieces, and even concert promotional pieces) and, therefore, judge you by. A great name on an average band can improve their stock with fans in strange ways. Likewise, a terrible name on a basically good band can all but seal their doom. It really is that important.
But, as several of the artists I interviewed for this column (see the links, below, or hit up our interviews section), there is so much more to it than that. Justin Olmstead from Righteous Vendetta explains, “We always had a brand in mind while coming up with a name. It came down to having a name that would stand out in a list with multiple other band names and be easy to find in an internet search.” Most bands simply try to find something that they think is “cool” sounding without thinking about the implications down the road.
Take for example a band like The Devil Wears Prada. Although they have a highly recognizable name, it will always have to fight for its place on a disambiguation page. Olmstead makes note of this, “There are certain bands that no matter how big they get, there will always be a movie, color, city, etc. that must be sorted through before finding information on the band.” While bands like Red or Chicago have scores of fans that will have no problem sorting through the disambiguation instantly in their minds, Olmstead’s point is a strong one.
This is where things get complicated for the fledgling band. On the one hand, you want a band name that elicits an immediate response, but on the other hand, you have to be conscious of what else uses that name. The Devil Wears Prada will forever wrestle with the book and movie of the same name. While those in the hardcore scene will likely see the movie as a lesser entity, a large portion of the population may see the band as a knock off simply because of their name. Colossus will always have to wrestle with the X-man of the same name, Greek mythology, and a horde of other “colossuses.” Even bigger bands, like Chicago will forever face ambiguity.
Things get even more dicey when bands choose names that are even too similar to each other. For example, my buddy Rob the Celibate Viking’s first band was a rapcore act known as Broken. However, we happened to be visiting a Christian music store in Ft. Collins, Colorado (The Bible Superstore) and noticed another band that eerily shared the same name, same style of music, and same focus on Christ. Later, in Denver at a P.O.D./Blindside concert, the band had to have an impromptu meeting about changing their name. The result was that the guys became Broken Few to avoid confusion. In the end, however, if there is another product, movie, book, person, etc. that shares the name, fight to make yourself the most known version of that name.
So, how do bands come up with a great name that at once captures attention and is unique to them all at once? While I’m certainly not an expert, I have some insight born out of my time on the outskirts of the music industry and from various interviews over the last couple years. For me, a good band name should first elicit a mental image or present an idea that sticks in the listener’s mind. Demon Hunter, for example, is a great band name (and all around branding) because from the moment you hear that appellation, you get a mental scene that starts to invade. The same goes for I Wrestled a Bear Once. Even though I have never listened to that band, I heard their name once and have never forgotten it simply because it evokes a striking mental picture. Other examples would be Everything in Slow Motion, Sky Sailing, Hope for the Dying, and so on.
A second route would be to focus the name around a concept. Olmstead and company sought to find something that would stand out on a list of other band names and also speak to what they were about at the same time. In every way Righteous Vendetta was a great choice. Though it doesn’t necessarily capture a mental scene, it brings up a visceral emotion and the words play off each other dynamically. Similarly, the boys in Silverline chose their name because it evokes the concept of “looking for the silver lining” mentally. In both cases, the band name speaks to what the band is about, as well, which is another key.
Though outright taking the title of another popular work can have both great and terrible consequences, such as the association TDWP will always and forever have to fight with, pulling ideas or statements from popular works can be another great way to name a band. In my interviews, Dane Harrison from Eyes of Eli connected the concept of what the character Eli from The Book of Eli was all about with how they got their name. Another example would be Sixpence None the Richer, which pull their name from a line of writing by C. S. Lewis. In each case, a source material was referenced, but each was done so dynamically. So, while a band shouldn’t name themselves The Walking Dead under Olmstead’s advice, you could pull from its concepts or ideals. Taking the route of Eyes of Eli, you could use something like “Shane’s Betrayal” or “Herschel’s Farm” and avoid the pitfalls TDWP face to some degree.
Coming up with a band name should also have a personal element of investment. Dorean Lives came from Logan Freeman’s grasping for hope in the midst of heartbreak (see the interviews). Hawk Nelson came from the band’s created character on the Tony Hawk games when they were younger. Southbound Fearing came from a road the band travelled on regularly in their hometown. You have to pick something that makes a difference to you. If you can’t connect with your band name, no one else will either. However, if you have a strong connection to your branding and identity, it will grow on others, as well.
Finally, when it comes to faith-based bands, there is no shame in pulling from sacred sources. Flyleaf is the type of paper most Bibles are printed on. “Haste the Day” is a line from a popular hymn praying for Jesus to return quickly. dc Talk (for you old-schoolers out there) stood for “Devoted Christians talk” and implied that it was a faith journey from the beginning. Of course, this is really just the beginning. Nothing I’ve said takes into account bands named after a person (David Crowder Band, Dave Matthews Band) or other popular band name tropes.
So, really, there are no rules… only guidelines. When everything is said and done, you have to be happy with your band name and it simply needs to speak loudly to others what you’re about. If these guidelines are met, people will eventually adapt. After all, what is a P.O.D. or an MxPx? No one knew until each band made it big. Still… listening to those who have been there ahead of you and heeding their advice certainly couldn’t hurt. so, be sure to check out the band’s responses in the linked interviews for even more tips, tricks, and personal stories on this topic.
Bonus section: Since I have no natural musical talent in my body and therefore will never live out the American dream of joining a band, I submit the following band names for the consideration of the midnight society. Feel free to take them and use them or trash them and bash them, it makes no difference to me. Do you have a great ideas for a band name (that you don’t mind someone else taking)? Put it in the comments section. Perhaps years from now you’ll be able to brag that you unintentionally named the next big thing in music!?! Anyway, here are some of my feeble attempts.
Piloting the Auburn Skies
They’re taking the Hobbits to Isengard (Hardcore bands only… and only if you name your first album “Blood has been spilt this night”)
The Broken People Brigade
A Plan to Save the Future
Awakening at Your Funeral
Trek back through the Silence:
The Most Important Thing You’ll Ever Read; Becoming a Band – Part 1 (featuring Seth Hecox of Becoming the Archetype), The “In The Silence of the Mind” Interviews (feat. Eyes of Eli, Righteous Vendetta, Southbound Fearing, Dorean Lives, and Declaration AD), Part 2 (feat. Silverline, Merge, My Ransomed Soul, This City Awaits)