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Making a Mark while Finding your Market: Musical Branding 101

March 6, 2018

Branding sounds like the kind of buzzword you hear on “The Voice,” and one that may feel uncomfortable to you as an artist. Ugh. Sellouts. Branding is a corporate word. 

We know. We get it. Few people want to think about their music as fitting into something overtly commercialized, and your musical personality might seem like a thing that shouldn’t and can’t be simplified into a “brand.” But you wouldn’t call creating an OKCupid profile, trying a local bar, trying a new church or choosing a different t-shirt selling out to the world. Getting into the world of merchandise with your name on it doesn’t have to be different. 

Now, musical branding is a phrase for taking advantage of opportunities rather than waiting because of doubts or fears. But it might be helpful to think of branding in historical terms first. “Striking while the iron is hot” is the most well known cliché of branding but people rarely understand its agricultural roots. The history behind actual livestock branding matters as much today as it did years ago in understanding how to create your brand.   

So, branding developed in cattle ranching, and it developed for a very specific reason: barbed wire wasn’t invented until the late 1800s. And though that same barbed wire symbolizes something different depending on where and when you grew up (Garth Brooks’ “No Fences” versus Kendrick Lamar’s “Barbed Wire”), its invention was pretty critical to western expansion in the United States. Before barbed wire, cattlemen’s herds got tangled up, or stolen, and they needed a clear way to identify them. 

So each rancher who drove cattle relied on a symbol that not only was difficult to replicate, but nearly impossible to mar or change into a different brand used by a rival. They were as unique as fingerprints, and striking while the iron was hot required confidence in what was theirs as well as who they were and what they wanted to do. Branding equated to a mission. If you were driving cattle from Texas to Montana, your brand was what allowed you to do it. 

Branding yourself as a musician is little different, but follows the same basic principles, and it takes some confidence to do it well. A hypothetical talent scout might sound like a movie producer, calling you a “Ryan Bingham with radio-friendly hooks”. That’s not you, though. That’s smashing your sound into a cookie cutter. It definitely isn’t a pillar of how you should and need to present yourself, especially if you want to have more of a say in how you’re marketed (and reap the corresponding rewards). 

So what is your brand, if it’s not a comparison? Your brand is a way to differentiate yourself, to put yourself out to the world with the same confidence you do on stage or in the recording booth. You can think of branding yourself as taking charge, painting a moving picture that evokes your sound in people’s heads whether they see your name, your face, or hear you at a concert or on your Soundcloud.

So how do you build your brand? Think about it this way: how would you look for a band mate? A recording partner? It’s about sound, it’s about values in music, working style and fit. Your logo, music description and songwriting are the textual equivalent of a rhythm guitarist. They add to and reinforce the messages of your work. And they do so throughout whichever media you use to get the word out, which can vary based on what you’re trying to do. 

We’ll delve more into it later but you can have a large fanbase without driving yourself far away from your own thoughts. And by establishing your brand, you can also create the kind of fan-base that leaves room for your sound to change, or your life to open or change. Take Jason Isbell’s response to those who criticized the marketing wisdom of opening up about politics:

If you look at social media, The Mountain Goats often have hilarious observations and promotional messages are few and far between.  For example: 

A Ryan Bingham social media post might be a shirt giveaway, a Leonard Cohen tribute or a behind-the-scenes shot at his next shoot.

Dolly Parton’s social media accounts focus on her charity work, and on celebrating a “Big Hair, Don’t Care” legacy that encourages people to feel comfortable in their own skin, musically and otherwise. 

You wouldn’t wear a full suit to a dive bar, or maybe you would! With a pompadour and bare feet or some other flair, you could pull off a hell of a rockabilly vibe! Either way, putting yourself out there by thinking carefully about your brand can be more like making new friends or meeting your people, even if you don’t want to think of it as marketing.

In the next post, we’re going to delve a little further into the process of branding, and offer some clarity in crystallizing how you think about the relationships between your music, your brand, and your personality. 

But for now, it might be helpful to start to think about the following questions: 

We’re excited to talk more about what to do with that in the next post.