This week was educational. I spent it in a small, but beautifully decorated, Huntington Beach home working alongside a man who considers branding his life. If you aren't familiar with that term, good for you. It's a word that people use to cull those who don't know from those who know. It's jargon, and all jargon is built to establish exclusivity. Branding is the creation of an identity for a product, service, company, or person. It can start with the birth of a logo or "brand." More and more often, it starts with esoteric idea mapping that has more in common with new age spirituality than simple mission statements or trademarks.
If you've played a role-playing game with a character-generation element, you've had experience at the current idea of branding. You've been forced to ask yourself what separates your character from other characters and ask yourself why the world needs your character. Then you delved into the basic elements of branding: you designed a unique look for your character based on the traits of his/hers you'd like to advertise to the world. Just take that approach and apply it to grape soda and you understand branding. In a way, the concept of branding is in your genes. If you grew up in the Western world, you inherently understand branding the same way you understand three-act structure. It's so much of what you encounter, it feels inborn.
The man I spent the week studying under is good at his craft. He's part of a company that has managed to sell a very simple idea as an exclusive brand. Some of you reading this likely have some of their products in your closet. While I worked with him I did my best to absorb the strategies he'd propose and apply them to my personal ventures. My band, my comics, my persona. What became clear in short order was that so many of the bands appearing on people's radars are there because of clever branding. What also became clear is that I'm not built for it.
Let's take some of the key elements of branding and look at how bands have implemented them.
- A recognizable logo that conveys some of the feelings the brand is supposedly imbued with.
The best example of this is The Misfits' Crimson Ghost.
Appropriated from a from a horror film serial, the image carries exactly what the band hoped to convey: a lighthearted sort of danger.
The Social Distortion skeleton is similar. It's a death icon, but is instilled with a youthful "live fast, enjoy it" vibe.
The Integrity skull, pinched from a Kent Williams comic book cover, is much darker in tone, complimenting the band.
In each case, the listener (read: consumer) can infer something about the band before having heard them. This idea informs their listening experience and draws out characteristics that fit with their initial beliefs. That is to say, is the band creepy/cute/serious/etc because they are fully that thing OR because the listener believes they are before the music starts?
Another important branding tool that bands employ is a consistency of product. People coming to a new town will justify wanting to go to The Olive Garden over a local family-owned restaurant by saying, "I just want to know ahead of time what I'm getting." People don't want surprises. By and large, they want familiarity and franchises exploit that fear of the unknown by providing not just a like scenario, but an identical one. Fucked Up has used a consistent aesthetic (while, to their credit, changing their sound). The uniformity of the design elements on their records has given the band the appearance of meticulous planners, something they cultivate as part of their band persona.
This idea of consistency as a desirable trait is demonstrated in the use of genre names and record label specialization. "Grind" comes with a different set of expectations than "jazz" and only a fraction of that difference is musical. Actual musicians understand that genre has no bearing on what sounds good or sounds bad. But the average music consumer is not a musician. It's someone looking to align themselves with a tribe. They crave an identity and alienating music separates the listener (at least in his/her mind) from the dominant culture. Instant identity. "Hardcore kid" or "punk" or "deadhead" or "raver" or "juggalo" or a million others. More pop up at the convenience of advertisers, i.e. "shitgaze." It's all the same idea. People align themselves with a tribe and cultivate the persona that it allows for. Genres tell that group member what to extol or what to damn. It has almost nothing to do with music. Likewise with record labels. Ever wonder why they have very specific roles in the music world? Why one label only puts out metal and another only puts out pop punk? You don't actually think label people are one-dimensional cartoons only capable of liking one thing for the duration of their adult lives, do you? Labels maintain their identities because the culture of the label appeals to a tribe and the tribe becomes loyal consumers. It's risky for them to venture out of that because the people who align themselves with what the label has done up to that point will view change as a betrayal.
This is why it's so ridiculous to read people deny genres like "mysterious guy hardcore." To say it's made up is fine. So is punk, jazz, rock, reggae, electronic, and every other. There are just similarities used to group. It's up to the listener to determine if those similarities are such that they should be linked. But for many genres it has nothing to do with music and everything to do with branding. Mysterious guy hardcore is the ultimate expression of that. The fact that the people that listen to it are the first to deny it exists furthers the point. It's a means of talking about yourself without talking about yourself. "I AM NOT the most handsome man on Earth! I don't know why people keep saying that! It's crazy! Me? The most handsome man on the planet? Ha! No way!" Same idea as, "I don't know what you people are talking about. Mysterious guy hardcore isn't even a real thing. It's just hardcore. Maybe you forgot what real hardcore sounds like, that's why it's mysterious to you." Great branding tool. It has its limits because it relies on exclusivity and that reaches critical mass as soon as the REALLY uncool kid starts liking it, but in the meantime it's helping pay the rent of a couple manchildren label-heads.
Band branding crosses into personal branding when members search for visibility for non-band activities for the purposes of tying them to the band. This can be simple, like wearing ridiculous clothing or more involved, for example Courtney Love harassing Axl Rose on television or Pete Doherty's constant legal trouble. Punk music has a smaller platform for people to launch their band personas from, but evidence of this sort of branding is still everywhere. Every time you hear about a band punching someone in the audience or attacking a bouncer or inciting a riot, etc, ask yourself, "can I see this person doing this outside of a band context?" More often than not the reality is that they are not a crazed wildman and rather just a person who understands conflict = controversy = discussion = popularity. The most basic form of this is the "punk name." My name is Patrick Kindlon. Kindlon does not roll of my tongue well and I find myself repeating it when doing introductions, but otherwise it's an OK name. But Pat Servo might be better. Easier to remember; sexier. Maybe Patty Shitstorm would work even better. More dynamic; makes me appeal wild.
They write books about this shit. My friends that work at major labels are forced to read books on the topic and attend courses taught by branding experts. They're there to pick up skills in selling you a need. Some of them are very good at it.
I don't want anyone to read this and think that simply because I can't do something that I'm saying it's "wrong." That would be a strange word to use when talking about something with no moral repercussions. It's preference, pure and simple. Some people are comfortable marketing their band one way and others do it another. I respect anyone that is good at what they intend to do. Lungfish designed to make the best music I've ever heard, and they excelled at that. Marilyn Manson set out to sell black shirts to cutters. He's the best there ever was (sorry, Slipknot). What I've learned about myself over the past year is that I can't sell myself. I can sell any other product. I've sold products that don't compare to my band in terms of quality. My band is worth billions. But forcing people to agree with me on that idea isn't something I wish to spend my time doing. We have our little emblems and whatnot,
but they aren't adorning any beer coozies and I may be the only one with them tattooed on me. We act like normal adults trying to navigate life. We're piss-poor at trying to give off any vibe but "human." Consistency doesn't interest me at all. We'll write a ska record tomorrow if that's what suits us. Visually I might try to keep it somewhat consistent from now on. I like that part.
Someone might feel like I'm shitting on their band here or shitting on a fan for liking something. No. "I'm not judging you, I'm judging me." Knowledge makes some things uglier as it makes other things more beautiful. Learning about marketing has underlined something I guess I always knew: many of the decisions I believed to be artistic on the part of a band are marketing choices, whether they know it or not. Sometimes I respect it. I awe at someone who can enter into a punk band and have a plan with it. I was always just banging about making music. But someone else sees potential from the start. Whole of the moon. It's cool in a lot of ways. Just not where I'm at.