To attract an audience to your music, you need to tell a story, and a deliberate approach to building your artist brand is key to doing it right.
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As an independent music artist, one of the keys to your success and longevity is building a clearly definable artist brand. That means two things. First, you need to create brand awareness. In other words, getting fans to know your name. And, just as importantly, it means positioning yourself in your fans’ minds. Who are you? And what are you like?
I want to focus on this second piece: How do you position yourself in your fans’ minds so they have a clear mental image when they think about you? There are plenty of examples of great brand positioning by music artists. Just consider these names and how they want you to think about them.
- Bruce Springsteen: New Jersey, working-class hero.
- Snoop Dogg: Compton gang-banger with an affinity for THC.
- Taylor Swift: Young, smart, and focused on getting revenge on her ex-boyfriend and anyone else who she feels has wronged her ever.
- Kendrick Lamar: the intellectual observer and chronicler of life In the hood.
- KISS: over-the-top rock and roll theatrics. When you hear that name, don’t you immediately think makeup, tall platform boots, and spitting fire and blood?
These artists are pretty much indistinguishable from their brand image. I mean, when you think of Eminem, for example, how can you not think of him as the angry white Detroit rapper with dysfunctional family dynamics? Talk about some strong brand positioning.
Branding by accident?
So, do you think the brand positioning by these artists was an accident? That it just happened? I can assure you that it most decidedly did not. The brand persona of each one of these artists and just about every artist you know who made it big was carefully crafted by those artists. And sometimes by a whole team of label and PR professionals.
Now, you may think, “If it was created by a team, then that brand was clearly not authentic.” And you might be right. Sometimes an artist’s brand positioning is not authentic. I’m looking at you, Machine Gun Kelly.
However, most of the time, what those PR teams do is take the authentic background and image of the artist and then carefully craft a story to build the brand to create that mental image in people’s minds whenever they hear the artist’s name.
Having a strong brand was an essential part of the success story of all the artists I just mentioned. Why is that? Why is building a brand so important? I’ll give you three reasons.
#1. A distinctive brand makes you memorable
When Madonna first exploded onto the scene with “Like a Virgin,” that brand positioning was essential to not allowing anyone to forget about her.
#2. Your brand sets you apart from others
Sticking with Madonna, her positioning clearly set her apart from the other female pop singers of the day. Or let’s look at a more recent example. Lil Nas X was already unique enough as the rare black pop/country singer and then took his brand to the next level when he came out as gay and embraced flamboyant outfits and visuals.
#3. Your brand helps you find your key kindred audience
Fans relate deeply to Adele’s lyrics about heartbreak because those lyrics resonate with our own personal experiences with heartbreak.
In fact, a strong brand image can even attract fans who are decidedly not kindred spirits. There are plenty of white suburban kids who got into NWA and Dr. Dre because of their positioning as dangerous, sometimes violent anti-establishment figures. These kids had literally nothing in common with the artists, but by listening loudly to their Cali rap, they felt a little different, a little rebellious, a little cooler.
What do you stand for?
So, how do you build your artist brand positioning? Number one: be clear on what your brand or your image stands for. Want people to consider where you’re from like Springsteen or Eminem? Or more about what you represent, like Adele or Dr. Dre?
Second, you need to tell your story. How do you do that? How have the artists I mentioned done it? With their song lyrics, visuals, promo photos, album graphics, and videos. With their look, clothing, makeup, and jewelry. And they told and reinforced their story over and over again in interviews and in the press.
And then number three: be consistent. Just telling that story once is not enough. You need to constantly reinforce your positioning through your look, your lyrics, and the stories you tell. It takes time to build a strong artist brand. And consistency in the stories you tell is critical.
Can your brand evolve?
So does your brand always need to remain the same? Well, yes and no. In the early stages of your career, you need a consistent brand image. Once you’re an artist with a long career and a level of fame or notoriety, it may be desirable or even necessary for your brand to evolve.
Consider Jay-Z. His brand started out as a smart, talented ex-drug dealer working his way out of the hood despite his 99 problems. But over time, as he became extremely successful, his brand evolved into one of a wealthy industry mogul with a taste for the finer things in life. Heck, you could even say that his marriage to Beyonce reinforced the evolution of his brand.
And even though Jay-Z’s brand clearly evolved, the origin story remained critical. Former drug dealer turned rapper turned industry mogul turned billionaire.
Now, I have news for you. Whether you like it or not, and whether you are deliberate about brand building or not, the way you behave, the music you make, the clothes you wear, your haircut… all these things are creating some brand image of you.
Why is this important?
I want to leave you with these two questions. Question one: Is the brand image you create deliberate or is it accidental? In other words, are you consistent with the image you portray and the story you tell, or are you letting a story be told about you that you’re not really in control of because you don’t really think about it?
Question two: Is that image you portray the optimal one to set you apart in your fans’ minds? If your brand image is being accidentally created because you’re not deliberately focused on it, it may be a good idea to take an hour, sit down with a pen and paper, and give some thought to the brand you want to portray.
Who are you?
Who are you as an artist? What do you stand for? What sets you apart from the artists around you that can give you a unique, memorable hook in your fans’ minds?
Once you’re clear about that, give some thought to how you can consistently portray this in the way you look, dress, act, and create music. If that all sounds too artificial for you, too fabricated, I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong. But I would call it deliberate as opposed to fabricated.
You see, one of the most effective ways we have of teaching others something is by telling stories. And this is no different from what you have to do to make yourself memorable to your fans. You have to tell your story and do so consistently.
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One little plug before I end, CDs are a great way to help tell your brand story. The different packaging, the panels that fold out, the space for photos and graphics, the lyrics and info you include. Even the fact that you have a professionally-produced CD in this era of commodity streaming legitimizes you as an artist and sets you apart.
Yes, physical media is an important tool for telling your brand story. And of course, when you’re ready to make those CDs or vinyl, you know where to find us!
Watch more great videos on the Disc Makers YouTube channel.
Tony van Veen is the CEO of DIY Media Group, the parent company of Disc Makers and BookBaby. As a college student, he played in indie bands, created his own LPs, cassettes, and t-shirts, and sold them at shows. Today, he collects CDs, vinyl LPs, and concert t-shirts to support the artists he loves.