The other night, our guitarist sent us this article. It made for interesting reading, particularly from the point of view of somebody who would, eventually, dearly love to be able to make a living playing his own music (or at least, our guitarist’s music, given he writes most of the songs).
The TL;DR version is that, however good your music is, and however much the author (rightly) hates to admit it, a poor band image is detrimental to your chances of success, as the music rarely speaks for itself these days. And to be honest, I think the article pretty much hits the nail on the head. It just seems to rely on one assumption.
That assumption is that your end goal is to gain interest from a record company. He implicitly admits this when he talks about record companies being unimpressed by second-rate photos. This also validates the idea that you have to “tick a box” – i.e., make yourself look marketable to the record company, so the PR department has less work to do!
Obviously this is a fair assumption to make, given the way the model has ticked over for 50+ years, but the advantage the independent artist now has is that (s)he doesn’t have to impress a record company, let alone reinvent his/herself into a marketable box for their benefit. Because the two routes are quite different, and because, even after achieving the end goal of a record deal, you have to make a living, I’m going to define “success” from here on as “making a living playing your (band’s) own music.”
He’s right, of course, the biggest-selling music does seem to fall into a narrow selection of categories these days. This is, in part, because some people seem to feel a compulsive need to categorise things. It’s made life easier for biologists, sure, but try asking a serious metal fan about the sub-genres of modern metal and you’re in for a long lecture.
The other reason, of course, is that it makes life easier for the marketing department at the record company – hey, you’re a “rock” band! Well, we know that the Foo Fighters shift millions every time they release an album, so can you try to sound more like them?
Or better still: hey, you sound a lot like the Foo Fighters. A few tweaks here and there and we can point you at the same demographic. Now, if you could just run along to the PR office, we’ve got a Nicki Minaj clone to talk to.
Go and listen to your own music (if you have some, of course, I’m not trying to make this blog exclusive. If you’re bereft of an example, by all means have a (free) listen to our EP). Now, what style would you call it? What genre? For those of you who were charged with creating the band’s Myspace page: remember when they asked you to fill in fields for “Influences” and then “Sounds like”? You’d have assumed the overlap between the two would have made one redundant, but I might conspiratorially suggest that certain people would be more interested in the latter.
Still, which box do you fall into? Maybe you’re not cheesy or autotuned enough to qualify as “pop” by modern standards, but not neanderthal and hackneyed enough to qualify as “rock” (or not “sensitive” and “bearded” enough to qualify as “indie”). If this is the case, are your chances slipping away before your eyes?
Answer: depends what you want. Chances are, you’re unlikely to be record company favourites any time soon. But do you enjoy playing those songs? Do other people enjoy listening to them? If both of those returned a positive, maybe you have a chance of succeeding independently. Keep writing the music you want to write – even if it isn’t easy to categorise, you like what you play, and you have empirical evidence that other people enjoy it. People who enjoy it = a market. A market tapped = (potentially, anyway) a living.
800 words later, I’ve got a bit sidetracked from the question of image. Not that the music itself is mutually exclusive, but it’s now time to dig out some good photos of your band. How do they look?
You see, I know I just said that if people like your music then you’re sorted, but I too made an assumption: that people have paid attention to the music because they weren’t put off by you walking on stage looking like you’d just crawled out from under the duvet after a day of Jeremy Kyle and Bargain Hunt. It’s sad but true that as a species, we are inherently shallow. If you’re a complete stranger, you’re more likely to impress me if you get on stage and look the part. Live music allows us to sample you visually as well as aurally, and it doesn’t help to offend either sense.
The opposite extreme is also true: excessive work on your image can lead to neglect of the music. Or worse, you can end up walking yourself into one of those “boxes” so ardently that you end up rehashing your music to sound like something that’s currently fashionable. Hipsters, this is partly directed at you. If you walk on looking like an extra from this video, I will regard you with suspicion. Because 99 times out of 100, you will sound just like the last band that went on stage dressed this way, and I will hate it.
Singer-songwriters, this is also directed at you. I’ve seen plenty of you that look like you spent more time in the gym than learning how to play your acoustic guitar. Granted, you might look like an adonis, but if your songs are all that dull then I certainly won’t be buying the CD that you’ve lovingly covered with flattering pictures of yourself.
Be wary of gimmicks as well. They’re a great way to get attention, but you need to keep that attention. A well-known example was The Who obliterating their gear at the end of a set. An obvious gimmick, a great way to be remembered in the beginning, but because their music was up to scratch, they were able to outgrow it. The simple message is: make sure the music can compete with the gimmick. If it can’t, you’ll just be remembered as “that awful band who went onstage with a goat/in drag/dressed as pantomime horses.”
But if the music’s ok, does the image really matter? Well, unfortunately, yes. Yes in both cases, but for different reasons. Record companies can take a band they like the look of, and tweak the music until it’s passable/generic enough for them to sell – spend some time with the PR consultants and they’ll crowbar you into one of those boxes; problem solved. But if they don’t like your look, you’ll probably struggle to get their attention. Unless, of course, they can hear a hit in one of your songs, then it’s off to the PR department for a makeover that even your own mother will probably laugh at.
The independent route makes image, arguably, more of a minefield, as there’s no team of professionals to fix whichever of the two (music and image) you haven’t got right. As I suggested above, when your music’s good, it can be harder to win an audience’s attention if you don’t look the part. Conversely, when your image is great, the music had better be up to the same standard. You won’t make a living off your gorgeous cheekbones alone. But at the same time, you won’t blow your only chance if you don’t get one or the other right. Music and image are both things that can be worked on, and there are always plenty more strangers you can play to.
Ultimately, the more I read, think and ramble about this sort of thing, the more convinced I am that flogging your records and gigs as an independent artist is the best route if you want to make a living playing your own music. (After all, if you can email the promoters/venues/festival organisers yourself, and publicise yourself through myriad free social media, why pay to have a very large and expensive middleman in the chain telling you what to do?)
Whichever route you choose, the sad fact is that you will have to think about your image as well as your music. You may have a very complete vision for how the band should look and sound – never a bad thing – but at the same time it’s very helpful to be open to criticism. Most importantly, put the music first, and make music you want to make, but make sure the daft costume you’ve picked out isn’t the thing dominating people’s attention. (I say that; I’ve always thought David Bowie was a massive triumph of style over substance in that respect, but he did alright for himself…)