Saturday, March 03, 2007
Mitch Joel says "yes." Bob Lefsetz says "hell NO!" What do you think? Does the idea of branding cheapen music, or is it important part of the model for the modern music business?
BELT - "My Year On Earth"
Check out BELT on the Podsafe Music Network.
Mentioned in this episode:
- Mitch Joel from Six Pixels of Separation
- PodCamp Toronto videos
- C.C. Chapman
- AIMS (Assoication of Internet Marketing and Sales) Canada
- The Lefsetz Letter
- Rhino Records podcast
I do feel that bands and band members do personify some kind of brand that people latch on to. I don't care if you're New Kids on The Block or Tom Waites. People do associate with more than the music. The brand is not what's manufactured by the label's marketing department (logo, artwork, tour posters, etc...). The brand is the similar experience and feelings we all collectively have about a band. Whether it's that spirit of grace and giving from Bono or the eighties meets modern vibe of Gwen Stefani.
Point is, we're all personal brands - including you and Lefsetz :)
I don't say that a musician or band has to act like a brand at all, or has to act like a brand necessarily to be successful. There are some(!) examples of successful musicians or successful albums which are counter to all branding rules and expectations. And if a band doesn't care for all these things - nothing wrong with that.
But since in most cases the mechanisms of successful brands are more or less the same like of successful bands, I think, at least knowing these mechanisms can't be wrong. Complying with them or not is another matter altogether.
And if a band wants to have success - whatever this means in their particular situation - and the success fails to appear, these branding questions can help identify why it stays away and what they could do different to most probably attract more people and turn them into loyal fans.
What are these rules and expectations? My (admittedly naive) understanding of branding is that in essence it is that it amounts to internal logic -- simply put your brand is what you represent to others, and what they expect from you you. To use a crude but illustrative example: if you're Bono, and you throw up on a plane or give some girl a venereal disease, that's very much running against your brand. If you're Tommy Lee and you do that stuff, well you're nailing the expectations set-up by you brand message perfectly!
Is that a fair characterization?
There is a huge different between a personal brand and what Bob is talking about. It sounds to me like Bob is talking about when companies try to create a corporate brand around an artist.
Two very different worlds.
Why not get the most out of what you as an artist has to offer? Artist deserve to be rewarded for their talents and skill just like any other proffesional. In my opinion monetizing your art form can only better both the artist and the art form by providing more time and resources to truly perfect their unique skill.
P.S. The Beatles are both a band and a brand. Right or wrong, Micheal Jackson proved that when he purchased the rights to their catalog. When you think about it, as AWESOME as the music is, isn't the brand at least partly responsible for keeping the band relevant to new generations of fans?
Yes, I don't think the issue as Lefsetz sees it is a "to sell or not to sell" one. This guy goes back years in the music business and is not that naive. I think Mitch nailed it: "sounds to me like Bob is talking about when companies try to create a corporate brand around an artist."
That said, the points about The Beatles and Kiss are good ones. I think it comes down to authenticity. Gene Simmons is a shill for the Kiss brand, but he's always been a shill so it rings true. If Bob Dylan tried to act as Simmons acts, it would destroy his creditability, and by extension his brand.
Trying to manufacture something that isn't there, I think that's the issue. And I think Bob, Mitch, and all of us can agree that in the end, that's not something we want to see for the music business or the music world in general.
Think of a brand as a jigsaw puzzle. Its pieces are all the little bits and fragments of information in a person's mind, which he relates to the brand. Such pieces can be colors, words, phrases, logos, static or animated pictures, melodies, scents, and much more - virtually everything one can capture with his senses. And the strongest pieces of information connected with a brand are personal experiences - whether they are good or bad.
The combination of these pieces is what this particular person regards as that specific brand. This is also the reason why the resulting image of one brand varies for each person, whereas these differences in the "finished jigsaw puzzle" can be more or less widespread.
What has this to do with the success of a brand? Very simple: The stronger the positive image, composed of all the little jigsaw puzzle pieces, is in this person's head, the stronger the brand is in the mind of this person. (Remember that there are also strong but very negative brand images, sometimes based on personal experience, sometimes based on prejudice.) And the stronger the brand, the more it will fulfill its various functions - as a guideline, an orientation, sometimes even identification and an expression of personal attitude and lifestyle. I think to go into these functions in detail and which actions and reactions strong brands can cause would take us too far afield - at least right now.
If we see a brand as the result of what people, e. g. existing and potential customers, members of the target group or the public, recognize as the "personality" of a product, a service, a company, a group of people or even one person, then it is clear, why every musician or every band is a brand in their fans' minds resp. in the minds of everybody having to do with them.
I know that this is a very far reaching and widespread understanding of brands. And of course I agree that in everyday marketing practice it needs a certain amount of jigsaw puzzle pieces before one would call the image in people's minds a brand. But there are fluid boundaries. In my opinion understanding the principle is important.
But we are not finished yet. What makes a strong image in a person's head? Let's go back to the jigsaw puzzle analogy again. If you have a lot of pieces which fit together well and leave only a few small or even better no gaps, you have a clear picture of the complete image composed of all the jigsaw puzzle pieces. That results in a strong brand. If the image in one's mind is clear enough and well composed, the connection between certain "triggers" and the recognition of the corresponding brand can be very strong. The highest form is the replacement of a generic term with a brand name. E.g. in many parts of the world McDonald's is a synonym for fast food. And when did you ask for a tissue for the last time? Instead you usually ask for a Kleenex (or e.g. a Tempo in Germany), don't you? That shows how strong our association of a brand name like Kleenex or Tempo with a certain product resp. even a range of products (tissues of whichever producer) is.
By the way, it's the same when we think of music: James Brown stood for Soul, Elvis stood for Rock 'n' Roll, the Bee Gees stood for Disco, Michael Jackson stood for Pop, and the list goes on. Of course not everybody would agree to a generalization like this. But there also are still a few people asking for a tissue ... The bigger and the more heterogeneous the target group of a brand is, the more difficult it is to keep it crisp and clear with everybody having the same image in mind. A lot of successful brands rub non-target-group-members the wrong way. They polarize because it's difficult to have a precise positioning and at the same time try to be everybody's darling - and because meeting everybody's taste can just make a brand really boring.
But I got off the track. As well as a lot of jigsaw puzzle pieces which fit together well result in a clear picture of the complete brand image, only having very few pieces or pieces which don't fit together, result in a weak, confusing image of the brand. That's the case e.g. if advertised promises ("We offer great customer service") and reality (unfriendly staff, long waiting time, unreliability etc.) don't match. The pieces don't fit together, and because personal experiences are stronger than advertising messages, a negative image of that brand is the result.
If you are responsible for maintaining a company's brand or if you are a band or a person who acts like a brand, it's a narrow path between expectation and surprise. You have to surprise the audience of your brand - at least from time to time - otherwise you have a boring brand. This works work for some brands, especially some old and very traditional brands, but in many cases it is like it is with people: In the long run no one chats with the slowpokes. But if you only surprise your audience and have no continuity at all, you can also be in trouble. That's where people's expectation(s) get into the game. If ten jigsaw puzzle pieces fit together quite well and show a clear common direction, people have certain expectations of how the eleventh piece should be like. You named it Jay: If Bono would throw up on a plane, that would not meet his fan's expectations at all. If Tommy Lee would do the same, it would match the rest of his brand's puzzle pieces - it could even be an intended part of that brand, at least from a marketeer's standpoint.
Knowing these mechanisms as a band can help you with one decision or another - if you consider that some branding guidelines could be good for your career. The game of surprise and meeting expectations can be quite fascinating in the music business - as well as in other creative fields. E.g. think of the Rolling Stones releasing a Techno or Dance album. I think their fans would be quite confused - despite the fact of the musical quality of the album itself. It just doesn't match with the rest of their brand they built up for the last 45 years. Or imagine Britney Spears recording a Trash Metal CD. Not really what one would expect. But there are other examples, too: Robbie Williams, former part of the boy band Take That ("Back for Good" in 1995) and not much known in the US and Canada, is a very popular Pop singer in Europe. In 2001 he released a phenomenal Swing album and made Swing a trendy genre again all over Europe. This certainly met nobody's expectations - but a number one album is a definite prove that it worked. It even expanded his brand. Now he is often referred to as "singer and entertainer".
Even if there would be lots of things to tell about bands and brands, I think I can sum it up like this: A band who knows that each decision they make, every piece of information which is available to the public - may it be the music itself, their band name, their look, their album covers, how they act on stage, what they say in an interview or how they treat their fans - pays into their brand account, can use this knowledge to create a clear, crisp and consistent brand image. The better their efforts are, the stronger the image in their fans' minds will become. And in the end this leads to a better identification of the fans with the band, more loyal fans and more success (however each band defines success). It also helps "selling" the band to club owners, A&R reps and other people who want to get a preferably comprehensive impression of the band in a very short time. If the description of the music/genre, the press kit, photos, cover art and music harmoniously fit together to create one strong image, chances are good for being booked - good quality music presumed.
I think a band as a brand. Everything everyone else has said about identifying with more than just the sound of a band is entirely true. To me Uncle Seth is much more than just the music. It's hanging out with you guys, it's the dynamic on stage, it's the podcast, it's the vibe.
And all of that is crucial to getting people on board with the band (buying your cds, coming to shows, whatever). BUT, it isn't necessarily what is going to keep them as fans.
For example. Mark Blevis made a comment at Podcamp about how he nearly abandoned Uncle Seth when he heard about the line-up change. He was afraid the sound would change. It didn't matter that he likes the podcast, he likes you guys, whatever. What mattered was the music.
That being said, is the music itself a brand? Hard to say. I know that there have been times when I've made comments to the effect of: "Wow, that song is really Uncle Seth, the sound is really you." How do you define a sound as belonging to a particular band? And as the sound of a particular band changes, does the brand? I think it all depends on the audience.
I think branding, when it comes to bands and their sounds, is a bit more complex because it's a bit more emotionally involved than your shoes or your car. But then again, some people are more emotionally involved with their cars or their shoes than they are with music. So maybe it's not more complex!
I was sitting at Smokeless Joe's in Toronto on Friday, killing time between the Canadian Music Week conference and the music festival. If you don't know Smokeless, it's a small downstairs pub, and it's the kind of place where everyone sits at the bar and just chats to whichever stranger they sit down beside. I was next to two guys from Philadelphia talking to a local couple. The guys were, apparently, HUGE Volvo fans. Not just car fans... Volvo fans. I'm not much of a car guy to start with, and I certainly know very little about Volvos. I was listening to this conversation and thinking it must be what people think when they hear me and my friends debating the relative merits of Roger Waters solo tour band line-ups or something equally obscure to most people. Or, to some extent, Joesph Jaffe creating his own Nike commercial.
The point is I don't think we should be smug as people who are passionate about music specifically, not that I'm saying you were doing that Char. But I think the things that others are passionate about, be it music, sports, cars, whatever, shouldn't be looked down upon. They have more similarities than I think we often realize, and we have a lot to learn from how people get the message about them out there. To just say "music is different from everything" potentially discounts the lessons that can be learned from other areas.
Also think of fans of a certain sports club or sports team. This is a relationship between fans and a brand which is as emotional as between fans and a band. And in sports it's even more about the brand. The identification with the brand happens to a high degree via all the things which are around the team, which actually should be the core of the brand. But in fact, in most cases the structure of the team constantly changes - much more often than this would happen in a band. So while the brand core is quite inconsistent and changes from season to season, fans identify themselves with the more consistent things around this brand core, e.g. the team's or club's name, the logo, the mascot, the stadium, all the merchandise, even other fans or fan clubs.
There are lots of things bands can learn from such emotionally loaded brands like sports clubs. In a much smaller scale, some of the things they do right, are also useful and affordable for independent bands.
Choose your name and be creative. oh yeah
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