First of all, I want to apologize for the long hiatus between In the Silence of the Mind posts. My original intention was to take the holidays off and return strong early in January, however, life happened in a big way and here we are at the end of the month. On that note, let me first make a comment about this column’s state in 2014 prior to launching into the article. It is my goal this year to post a smaller amount of meaningful columns. Hopefully, I will be able to get some interaction with band members to really pack a little extra punch. However, I also know that 2014 will be a huge transition year for me in many ways (more on that later), so there may not be a “weekly” pattern that is strictly held to as it was last year.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s tackle a huge topic that will likely be a perfect fit for many of our readers – Becoming a band. In the last decade or so, the path to becoming a band has changed drastically as the music industry itself has seismically morphed. If movies like Walk the Line are to be believed (and there is a great amount of researchable history that shows the basics of it can be), breaking into the music industry was once more of a pipe-dream or a fairy tale than a given. Simply putting together a band, no matter how talented, did not mean a hill of beans to the world and the Nirvana/Ramones model of garage to world-stage dominance was not easily reproduced.
In the world of yesteryear, there were powerful gatekeepers that filtered through what was deemed to be acceptable, profitable, and marketable. This is why the Beatles were initially rejected by labels for being too guitar-centric as the gatekeepers of the day (wrongly) saw guitars fading in popularity. In this epoch, radio stations were often the only outlet for such gatekeepers (labels and record execs) to pander their musical talent of the moment (later MTV, VH1, BET and the like would join this fold), with airwaves being somewhat limited. Thus, only a relative few bands/songs would see a proper push and therefore get into the public consciousness. Fame, as it stood, was a fleeting and precious commodity in the music world.
It would be unthinkable for the average band of the day to operate outside of the double-edged sword of an established label and expect much success. However, a series of cultural revolutions happened one after the other. First came Napster, then iTunes, then YouTube (following iTunes as a music platform, at least), then came a proliferation of app based/internet based radio channels, and finally the game-changing nature of crowd funded projects often unassociated with labels (something previously almost unheard of in the world of yesteryear).
Ironically, the world of yesteryear has flipped almost in the opposite direction. Where before powerful gatekeepers kept certain music at the forefront and other music obscure (for better or worse), now almost every voice has the opportunity to “go viral” and thereby bypass the gatekeepers into public consciousness. In today’s American Idol culture, almost any band has at least a shot at fame, but a few key elements have stayed the same.
Perhaps foremost of these is the ever business-centric concept of branding. Just as mega-corporations spend countless amounts of dollars on focus groups to analyze the exact font and spacing of each logo, so the fate of many bands today is tied to a band’s sound, identity, presence, and logo… all of which combine with various other elements to form a band’s “brand.” In preparing for this article, I was able to pick the brain of one of heavy music’s favorite sons, Seth Hecox of Becoming the Archetype. Here are his thoughts on branding:
Branding is an important concept for any entity that wants to garner attention, appear cool, gain followers, or make money. Bands are a combination of these things. A band without a brand identity often appears like a misshapen mess that can’t figure out what’s going on. That’s not a good thing if you want to make it anywhere.
The difficulty lies in faithfully representing yourself while giving the impression that there is something there worth checking into. Branding is no easy task because it’s incredibly competitive. The key seems to lie in not trying to appeal to everyone. I’ve found that the best route is to acknowledge up front that there are certain demographics you just won’t appeal to. If you’re trying to appeal to 40 year old soccer moms and you don’t sound like Maroon 5, then in the words of Morgan Freeman, “…Good luck..”
My aim in branding has always been to find an ideal and find a unique way (at least to me) to show it. When BTA was contemplating the Celestial Completion photo shoot and music video for Magnetic Sky, I felt like there was a huge territory of uncharted terrain that bands hadn’t covered because they either hadn’t thought about it or they thought they couldn’t pull it off. Fortunately for us, we had the inimitable Troy Stains and Jimmie Myers on our side. They are borderline visual geniuses and are able to pull off the most incredible concepts without spending an incredible amount of money. That’s another big part of branding: having people on your team that can pull off visually stunning (or aurally stunning) concepts. You can dream big and in a unique way, but without people on your team that can help make it a reality, lots of dreams die before they even get started.
So my advice would be to look at your band and figure out what is a common theme that is at least somewhat unique about yourselves. This is important. If you don’t stay true to who you are, everyone will find out sooner or later. Worthwhile fans aren’t dumb, they see through a fake. The fans you want are the ones who have the sense to spot what isn’t real, because they’ll stick by your side for a long time.
After you’ve figured out something that is unique and true to yourself, find a way to express it that hasn’t been done before. The Celestial Completion photo shoot was about rising and looked like levitation. The Killers did a photo shoot for Sam’s Town that was similar, but I thought it lacked certain elements. So we did it in (I think) a cooler way, using the powers of magic and technology (mostly technology).
If you accomplish the first 2 steps adequately, there is almost guaranteed to be a niche segment of the music market that appreciates what you’ve done. The challenge then is to get it out to people. People can’t like what they’ve never seen or heard. So finding a way to get those sounds/images to people is a challenge. Getting those sounds/images to stick in their brains is even harder. With a million things going through each person’s brain on a daily basis, you have to find a way for it to stick in some brains. Sometimes simplicity works best. Sometimes a certain mix of complexity mixed with unique simplicity works best. In my opinion, figuring out that mix is a coin flip and you just have to guess the best you can.
Branding can make or break a band. Remember that 90’s punk sensation Magnified Plaid? Probably not. Here is a case of branding that happened by accident, but in a very good way. When the band famously put their initials on the drum set, using the more punk-core “x’s” for their periods MxPx was born. Would MxPx have made it as Magnified Plaid? Perhaps there is an alternate universe where this might have been the case, but it stretches the imagination to think of it. Think of the branding choices that might have happened differently in an inescapable chain of events!?! Would MxPx have been as identifiable without their punk styling on their logo and signature icon? Could the boys have pulled off plaid? Could that have become a thing?
Like it or not, these elements helped get MxPx into the public consciousness. Branding matters. In fact, short of a band’s chosen “sound” and touring presence, it may be the thing that separates the “men from the boys” so to speak. Having a branding presence/package may seem like an element of selling out, but try to find any big band out there that doesn’t have branding encoded down into their DNA (whether by choice or by a label)… it isn’t likely to happen. Even anti-branding (like anti-establishment attitudes in general) can and will become a brand in itself given time.
So, as you form your band, be sure to get someone creative on your team to help you with your branding (name/logo/theme/etc). It might be the difference between iconic MxPx fame and Magnified Plaid obscurity. It really matters that much.
So, there you have it for this week. What are your thoughts on branding? Do you feel it is too much of corporate culture impressing itself on artistic idealism? How essential do you feel it is to your impression of a band? Suddenly feel the urge to give plaid a renaissance? Give me your thoughts in the comment’s section, below and make your viral voice heard.
In the coming weeks we’ll discuss the idea of a band’s sound and what happens when a key member of the band leaves (as in, is it time for the band to re-brand?) with Seth from BTA making his voice heard on another of the sub-topics. Be sure to check back for more. Also, be sure to check out all of the goodness that was 2013’s In the Silence of the Mind, including what I still consider to be The Most Important Thing You’ll Ever Read.