In the Silence of the Mind: June 20th, 2014
Being a Band – Part 3 – Rebranding
Welcome back. If you’re reading this and you even recognize why this is “part 3,” you’re ahead of the game. Long ago in another land I was regularly writing this column (all the way back in March!), but then life happened. I’ll spare you the details, but the short version is that God called my wife and I into a new ministry context and since then we’ve moved our family from Tornado Alley (Oklahoma) to the land of Radio U (Columbus OH), where I am now the discipleship pastor at Meadow Park Church. Add to this the fact that I am currently taking the class I taught on campus at Mid-America Christian University and moving it to an online format, and you may start to see where the last few months went…
But, back to the music! If you’re completely at a loss for what’s going on here, be sure to check out the links at the bottom of the page to “Trek back through the Silence.” As a refresher, in preparation for this column I asked some of our favorite bands to share their thoughts on a few key topics, which I would later post together as “The In the Silence of the Mind Interviews,” also linked below. From these interviews, and the one included here that has yet to be published anywhere, I wanted to give an inside look at the struggles of becoming a band.
So far, we’ve talked a bit about what it looks like to form a band identity through branding. But, what happens when it is time to re-brand a band? And how do you know if it’s even the right move to keep an existing branding that fans will feel comfortable with after major changes. When must a band readdress their public image? What if a key member leaves? What if you change sounds?
My first thoughts about rebranding came back in the early 2000’s. In an age where Napster was running wild and iTunes and YouTube were still just a dream (literally… my friends and I used to talk about what it would be like to be able to pick and play songs on a CD in the same way that you did cassette tapes!), a few of my friends formed a Christian rapcore band named Broken. As this was the age where information travelled much more slowly, the guys began to build a brand around the name “Broken” as they toured Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana. Little did they know that this branding was going to have to change and the heartache that could cause even a new, up-and-coming band.
A few months after the band had a name, one of its members, Rob the Celibate Viking, and I were visiting The Bible Superstore in Ft. Collins Colorado… because if you wanted Christian music that didn’t sound like Michael W. Smith, you had to drive hundreds of miles to a very specific store to get it in those days. Wonder of wonders, what would our little eyes see on the shelves, but another band… who just happened to be Christ-centered… and rapcore… and named Broken. I mean, seriously, what were the odds? “Broken” is obtuse enough that any old band might pick it, but one that met the exact sub-genre and faith focus of my buddies’ band was a little on the nose.
A little later at a P.O.D./Blindside concert in Denver, the band started to discuss what their next options would have to be. Even though some of the members wanted to keep their existing branding in place, it just didn’t seem like the right thing to do in the end. Thus was born Broken Few. Sure, it would be easy to dismiss this as a simple change where a three letter word was added and think that this was all easy enough, but when you have a few young guys who have already spent their hard earned cash on banners, head shots, and T-shirts, this change did not come without its pains.
Now, take that pain and the earnest angst that went into a little band in Wyoming that only a small number of people have heard of, and with only a modest amount of momentum and name recognition, and extrapolate it against a band like Underoath and you begin to see the dilemma bands find themselves in. Even with nearly every original member having left Underoath, the boys decided to keep existing branding in place. Arm-chair quarterbacks, myself included, laughed to hear that “Underoath” was running around without Aaron Gillespie, at least, in tow and still calling themselves “Underoath.”
But putting it through the lens of what happened with Broken Few, who also later changed sounds in the dying light of rapcore’s demise, and it began to make more sense. Here you’ve got a band with a slightly massive following, you’ve got instant name recognition, you’ve got shirts still sitting on the shelves at Hot Topic. Things begin to get a little more muddy. After all, Underoath had already gone through the loss of Dallas Taylor and remained Underoath, so what made this (and subsequent) changes different?
In our exclusive interviews, Silverline frontman Ryan Edburg joked about the fact that Christian bands don’t change names, they just change members and keep going. Certainly, looking at The Newsboys and Audio Adrenaline, this seems to be the case. But, the Christian market has one disadvantage (well… one… or a lot more than one…) in that the mass market appeal doesn’t stick the way it does with secular bands. Nirvana (or Dave Grohl, at least) could become the Foo Fighters because it was in the public eye and well recognized… and people still buy Nirvana albums to this day… and Foo Fighters albums… For dc Talk’s Michael Tait to become “Tait Band” just didn’t have the same effect. There is not the same devotion to be found. However, The Newsboys was an established brand that was still kicking.
As much as it pains me to admit, rebranding the Newsboys from the Aussie wonder that they were into dc Talk: The Worship band with Tait worked. Don’t think that I’m against Tait… I’m just slightly against this rebranding as there is an entire generation of kids who will only ever know the Newsboys as the current iteration. But, even saying with sorrow that Peter Furler’s version is no longer the only version people remember misses the fact that Furler wasn’t the band’s frontman initially either (though at least they were Aussie in both original versions). Perhaps, sniff sniff, the same can be said about Audio Adrenaline.
These names and few others have the weight in the sub-section of music known as “Christian” to have recognition just simply based on name and branding alone. That just doesn’t happen often. That’s something you fight and claw to get. Therefore, it is no wonder that bands choose not to rebrand. But, what happens when things do change in drastic ways?
After releasing one of the best albums ever recorded (seriously!) in Celestial Completion, Becoming the Archetype found themselves up against the exact same problem we’re discussing here. Rather than wax eloquent about it, I went straight to the source to find out what happened to Seth Hecox and co. after Jason Wisdom, the band’s frontman, parted ways with his brothers. Here is what Seth had to say:
Rebranding is even tougher than branding in the first place. Once an image is established, it’s difficult to change in a positive way. I worked a lot of hours with the label and with management/PR on rebranding after Jason left. Part of it is to keep as many elements of the brand as similar as possible. This lends a sense of continuity to the enterprise. The parts that cannot remain similar seem to work best when they are of a high quality and you can showcase that quality.
Early in BTA’s career, people weren’t as attached to individual members, but nonetheless, we chose Alex to fill Jon’s shoes because Alex was a technically proficient guitarist. We could have him do crazy solos at our shows and anyone who missed Jon was instantly on board with the “new guy.” Part of our rebranding on I AM was centered around fresh blood and fresh faces. BTA became a much younger band between 2010 and 2012. In the course of a little over a year, I went from being the youngest member of the band to the oldest member of the band by a long shot. In some ways that helped us. In other ways, that hurt our image in the eyes of some of our older fans. Any change will create both positive and negative reactions. The goal is to create more positive than negative, especially in the long run. BTA did that well during those years, I think.
So, when is it time to rebrand? Disciple faced the dilemma when their days as a rapcore band came to an end. The choice to name their self-titled album Disciple spoke volumes about the decision that was made. In fact, it was making a statement. Because the sound had changed so much, it was a matter of “who are we?” Did the name Disciple stand for a specific sound? Kevin and company decided that they could continue on with a new sound and the same name, but this was not without its own ill effects of people who simply didn’t understand why change had to happen at all. Though looking through the eyes of history it is generally accepted that Disciple has owned this “new” sound, for their rapcore fans at the time it may have felt like betrayal.
Or take The Rock and Roll Worship Circus. When the band felt is was time to rebrand, the name The Listening was chosen. There was even that whole “The Rock and Roll Worship Circus becomes The Listening” poster I saw on the wall of a venue in Dallas during a Demon Hunter/Extol concert… but that poster was the first and last time I heard about The Listening, while I still have friends who mention, in passing, The Rock and Roll Worship Circus. Branding is powerful. Rebranding can be deadly.
So, can we blame Underoath for keeping their name in spite of key band member changes? Should Project 86 or Demon Hunter have to rebrand since each band has only one original member? Is it somehow different because that original member is the lead vocalist and frontman? Will Community get picked up by Hulu to make the necessary sixth season happen (#SixSeasonsAndAMovie). These are just some of the questions that happen on a large scale when rebranding becomes a part of the picture.
If you are blessed with a band successful enough that you have to have these problems, you’re probably more blessed than you realize. But, that isn’t to undermine how much of a problem this concept is. People lose sleep over this issue… a lot of it. Friendships are tested. Bands face decisions that potentially create alternate timelines… and fans always assume they have ended up in the darkest timeline no matter which path the band takes. By the way, “The Darkest Timeline” would be a great name for a band… but that, my friends is a matter for a previous post.
In the end, there is no answer to the question of rebranding. Should a band rebrand? What will happen if they don’t? These questions don’t have simplistic answers. And, while people like me will still feel entitled to balk at “The Newsboys” sounding nothing like the band that once caused an entire crowd to lose their minds by simply asking if we wanted “Breakfast,” at least we have to come to respect the painful decisions made along the way. Becoming the Archetype was great as the group that created Celestial Completion, but they were also great as the band that created … I Am. Jason Wisdom created a great album under the band name Solamors. The Newsboys don’t sound or look anything like they used to. But using that name allowed for Tait and company to create some of the most popular songs of our era, and now the band can bring an entire audience to a fever by whispering “my God’s not dead” into the microphone.
Branding is powerful. Be careful how you use it.
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) Part 2: What’s in a Name, 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)