How to create an image for your band

July 14, 2014{ 21 Comments }

 How to create an image for your bandImage: what is it, what’s yours, and why does it matter?

Last month we published an article by Brandon Seymour called Your image is more important than your music – especially if you’re an indie artist.” As you might be able to tell from the headline, it inspired some heated comments, both in agreement and dead-against.

Here’s an excerpt from the article to give you an idea of Brandon’s argument:

The music industry (and I use that term very loosely) isn’t concerned with art or expression. It’s not about identity or originality. And it’s definitely not about talent. It’s about money. I’m not saying that you won’t ever be appreciated as an artist. I’m also not saying that being an artistic genius precludes you from mainstream success. I’m saying that the music industry as a whole doesn’t care who you are unless they can profit from what you have to offer – regardless of how amazing or awful you actually are. It’s not evil, it’s just business. As with any other business, even the greatest products can’t sell themselves; the image or brand perception is what makes people want to buy.

Brandon had this realization — “image is everything” — after making music as a hobbyist for almost 15 years. Then one day he decided to form a new band with a friend who shared a similar vision, and they attacked the new project with the mindset that their image would be central to their success. Within a few months of forming they’d gotten great local press, been named “best band in South Florida” by two publications, opened for a few national acts, headlined some local festivals, and were playing about five times a month.

Granted, it wasn’t national stardom, but it’s rare for a brand new act to make such a big regional impact so quickly. Impressive, especially for a band that, in Brandon’s own words, is not especially talented or good looking. In his assessment, IMAGE made the difference.

What artists really think about the “image” issue

CD Baby artists’ opinions about image were shared mostly in the form of objections to or agreements with Brandon’s argument. There were two main criticisms of the article:

1)  Forget image. It should be all about the music.

* Ezra Weiss said: This is drivel. This is DRIVEL. Image is not more important than music. Let your music speak for you… Be human. Be multifaceted. Be honest. Have high expectations of your listeners. Let that expectation raise the quality of your music. Let music be your focus. Always.
You won’t get rich by taking my advice, but at least at the end of the day, you’ll look in the mirror and know who you are, and remember why you started all this in the first place.

* Samtheman57 said: Truly great music has nothing, NOTHING to do with image. Let me ask you this: How many people talk about the level of “brand awareness” Miles Davis or The Beatles had? Answer: They don’t…. Does anyone remember who the Season Two winner is from “American Idol” or “The Voice” ?

[Answer to the American Idol question: yes, my aunt — one of the few people I know that still buys lots of CDs.]

* Busta Speeker said: You have very succinctly pointed out one of the main reasons why contemporary music, for the most part, sucks beyond belief. Serve the song. First, last, ALWAYS. TRULY great tunes will always outlive an image. What is still keeping Elvis’ catalogue more than viable? VHS copies of a morbidly obese shadow on his “comeback” tour, or the music itself? If his tunes sucked, no one would know or care who he was, now…

While I applaud (and kind of want to theoretically agree with) the purist sentiments expressed above, my response would be this: the music biz has ALWAYS been about image, going back at least as far as Mozart, when his daddy manager dressed him up in cute little outfits and schlepped him all around Europe.

Plus, Elvis and The Beatles? They’re the quintessential early examples of image-obsessed mass-media pop stars. If it weren’t for Elvis’ swaying hips and sweet jackets and jumbo guitar and slicked back hair, no one would have even cared about the tunes. Same goes for The Beatles. They were certainly brilliant artists, but they had Brian Epstein worrying about their suits and their hair and their interview humor and everything else. IMAGE fed Beatlemania just as much as (if not more than) songs like “Please Please Me.”

2) Brandon offered no specific advice about image.

I agree completely. In his defense, I believe the author meant only to anecdotally convey something about his own experience in a local band, not to give specific advice (though he’s offered to write a followup with some actionable tips). But it brings up an interesting question…

What IS image in the first place?

Natalie Van Horn asked: How would go about creating a “brand”? This article gave me an idea of the direction to go but I haven’t got a clue about how to get started.

I responded to her comment with this: 
Well, your brand is about lots of things: your look, your sound, your vibe, etc. It’s not something you can just present to the world overnight. You have to build it, both for yourself, and for the world. But I think if you start with a clear vision for what your music should sound like, what your band should look like, and how that works with your logo, album art, website design, etc, — then you’re off to a good start.

Although image consists of many intangibles, it’s probably safe to assume that most people when they hear the word are thinking of the overall impression created by:

* your sound/genre

* your choices about fashion/clothes/hair/body — and how those choices are conveyed stylistically in photos, videos, on stage, etc.

* the visual aesthetic for your logo/album art/concert posters/website/etc.

* the way you talk to the media, your fans, etc.

* the instruments you play

* the brands you associate yourself with

* your backstory, your bio, etc.

If it hasn’t been made clear already, I’d like to mention that image does NOT have to be about pop culture. It does not have to play to trends. A guy performing folk music in a subway station dressed in a jean jacket has an image, even if it’s not one that’s currently en vogue with young listeners at large.

It’s also important to remember as you start to build your image and persona that these things should never feel inauthentic;  instead, they should feel like a more supersized, dramatic version of yourself  — or some aspect of yourself that you want to convey to fans.

For more advice about finding your authentic performance persona, check out Episode #2 of CD Baby’s DIY Musician Podcast. 

Why does image matter?

In my opinion, image is crucial because the saturation of the music marketplace means listeners often need other elements BESIDES the music to inform their decisions. What new song or artist are you going to check out next? The one with the image that most resonates with you, right? That’s why a new band needs to make some kind of memorable impression before listeners even hear one note of their music.

TotallyRandomMan said: The role of “image” for any artist or band is hard to overstate, and oft misunderstood. It’s a heady subject to take on, and more bands would do well to give some thought to what they’re presenting to the world, and how.

What you’re presenting to the world (apart from your music) is what will make someone either ignore or listen to your music. Or put another way, if we break it down into two phases: before someone has heard your music, your image is the ONLY thing that matters. Once they press play, your MUSIC is the only thing that matters — it just happens to matter last.

Your image is the invite; your music is the party. 

Is anyone showing up? If not, you better write nicer invites. If people are showing up then it’s important to ask yourself once the guests have arrived: is anyone having fun at my party? If not, sure, it might be that your music sucks; that’s always a danger to consider. But chances are you might’ve just invited the wrong folks! That’s when you know your image is failing you and your music.

As I said above, your image (and how well it’s supporting your music) is not necessarily quantifiable, but it can be tested with a few questions:

* Is this look or vibe appropriate for my genre?

* If not, how does playing against genre or cultural expectations help me?

* Are people responding to my image in the way that I want them to?

* Are they finding ways of describing my band that have to do with something besides my music? (If so, that means you’re creating an image that leaves an impression, at the very least).

There’s no correct answer to the questions above, but I think it’s important to ask them, and to think seriously about the affect your image is having on your music career.

And now to leave you with one last funny comment/word-of-warning concerning the image issue…

esolesek said: Nirvana built their fame on image, but more importantly, they built it on talent. Your article is the worst of sell-out suggestions. I could name 100 acts in show biz who look good and sound terrible. You can get temporary success from image, but you can also get a lifetime of disrespect for relying on it. I agree that most successful acts have some kind of image, mostly that of youth and rebellion or freedom. Other than that, an artist can end being a real chode for focussing on image.

So I guess I’d summarize by suggesting you find an image for you that feels real, leads people deeper into your music, and doesn’t make you look like a vacuous jackass.

—-

What do you think about image? How did you create your image? Let us know in the comments below.

To hear us discuss some of these same concerns about band image, listen to this episode of DIY Musician Podcast. 

Marketing your music 101: 
essential tips for getting your music out there

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  • Kevin Sayah

    I agree that image IS important when building a music career, but it should NOT be. When I first heard most of my favorite bands, it was either online streaming or radio or I risked buying a CD and ended up loving them – without any glances at what they looked like. I don’t have a care in the world for what a musician wants to look like or what their visual art style is, all I care about is their music. Why isn’t that the standard for everyone?

    • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

      Yeah, it’d be great if we relied on our ears alone to assess an audio art. I agree with that in theory. But people just don’t behave accordingly. Visuals still play a huge part in perception. Bummer, huh?

      @ChrisRobley

    • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

      Yeah, it’d be great if we relied on our ears alone to assess an audio art. I agree with that in theory. But people just don’t behave accordingly. Visuals still play a huge part in perception. Bummer, huh?

      @ChrisRobley

    • Lance King

      I agree with this statement, I’m first a music lover, then a musician, and lastly a label owner, developing in that order. The bands I loved, I rarely saw what they looked like before the 1980s, it was all about the sound and the songs to me. Honestly it is where I’m at now owning a progressive metal label and doing that sort of music now myself. However, I was a product of the 80′s, I started gigging in 1981, and when Motley Crew came out with SHOUT AT THE DEVIL, I thought they were cool! The look got my attention to their music, I didn’t like their music as much as their look, but it fit the 80′s in a big way and that was what I was doing at that time in a clubbing cover band.
      It fit my intention of being the party director if you will as the frontman in a hard rock / metal cover band, we moved into originals and we created our own interesting look and it worked very well for us on our posters, getting paid people in the door to our shows after which we would sell our own CD’s and tapes and sign autographs. We were regional rock stars at the time and the look was part of the package that helped create the intrigue and was very much a projection of who we were musically and individually.

      With a look, I would say be honest, be daring, be 150% you… This will set you apart, but be a magnification… be bigger than life. This is the peacock in you trying to get peoples attention to what you are doing. Those of us that are born performers and marketing business people understand that aspect, but those that are only about the music may not appreciate it. Music fans are diverse and fickle and come and go with the wind. Sometimes they will stay by a band if they identify with more than only the music, it may be also about who the musicians are, and or the band persona or a combination of any of these things. You ultimately want lifelong fans, and you know you are going to be changing musically and personally over time, so your look no doubt will change as well. Keep it honest but make it bigger than life.

  • Prak

    Great post, I personally feel that our image can be used as a compass in guiding potential fans and others towards knowing more about what we are about. As mentioned in this article, It is unfortunately used as a means to make money based on how most of us our programmed to choose one thing over another. However, it can also be used in a positive way as well, which can represent a deeper part of ourselves that means something and ties in with our music!

    • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

      You phrased it well. Thanks for sharing that, and for reading.

      @ChrisRobley

  • R G

    You can’t judge a book by its cover, right? However, an interesting cover is a consumer magnet, but that’s only a slice of potential marketing. Marketing increases sales, but marketing needs an angle, a story, a look, a purpose, a cause, a history and/or any point of interest that makes people talk about or consider looking into something instead of just glancing over and locking into something else. In music … since MTV made image the focus, there has been more weight on bands to have something to offer on that level because that is where the competition crushes anyone who only tries to draw attention with great music and talent. I DO understand the debate. I am a musician because I love great music. My pursuit has been to create and perform music that I love. My desire is not to be an “entertainer”, just a musician that interacts with other musicians and creates music that appeals to ME first and hopefully to others as well. As a music fan, I don’t need musicians to have great hair or tattoos or to look goth or punk or glam. I need them to make music that impresses me and inspires me. The thing is … it takes a lot of those bands and musicians much longer to have some one mention them to me if they don’t have some kind of marketing angle. Word gets around slower without some marketing image and that could be cover art, personal look, obnoxious presence, a theme, a unique music style, a stage show, a personal history, a cause or whatever can be used to create a buzz online and in music circles. Music and talent are the most important to me, but marketing has an important place in determining the speed that attention is drawn to great music and the level of success that comes from it.

  • minstrelmike

    If instead of using the word “image” he’d used the word “branding” it would have sounded like a standard mantra from the marketing world. Your music, your genre identification, your instruments are part of the brand, but it ain’t just about the music.

    Popularity is far more fickle than that.

  • http://www.scarecrowz.ca Scarecrowz

    it’s both. if you don’t have good songs, you won’t be remembered…certainly in the long run. if you don’t have good branding (image) than you won’t stand out from the crowd.

  • Rebecca Parks

    I don’t focus on image much, but quite a few people have remarked, “You look like your music.” I must be doing something right.

    • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

      Sounds like it. I wish I knew what my music looked like!

      @ChrisRobley

    • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

      Sounds like it. I wish I knew what my music looked like!

      @ChrisRobley

  • Buckwheat Catapillar

    I am a believer in that Image when you are unknown is everything. It is amazing to me how many local bands look like crap at their shows…and how easy it is to predict what the musicians will look like before going in the door…Try leather jackets, ripped jeans, and multiple tattoos and you’ll be right about 99% of the time.

  • NyNameIs

    Music is more important than image, but Image plays as a big factor in connecting you to fans. You’re an entertainer. Stage performers are in essence the liaison between their art and the audience. Your clothing/costume/style/attitude helps in that presentation.

  • BigEmptySky

    This is a good discussion with many good points made. I believe that image and the music go hand-in-hand. Historically we can look back at all the successful artists, and the not so successful ones, and see the “road maps” they used. Who says you can’t follow those models today (the successful ones)? No one! We are all witness to what’s happening today in the industry (by industry I don’t mean majors necessarily but you could look at their rosters and see the paths they have utilized). There are many highly successful indies out there who have worked very hard at building their image and music and thus are enjoying great success. Is it easy? Heck no! Otherwise everyone would be trying to do this for a career. It takes very hard work on each of our parts to create a successful career. Obviously your image is something you create and that takes time. Have patience and enjoy the journey. The same can be said for your music – if you’re good and you relate to an audience I would claim that helps to build your image within the industry and with the public. I think its kind of simple – don’t burn any bridges – treat people as you would want to be treated – make the best damn music you can – try to get as many gigs as possible (even if that means playing for free) – use all the free social media avenues out there – be honest to who you are – use your brain creatively on the business side as you do on the music side and you will create a positive image that will take form naturally. Your image equals everything that defines you or the impression you make upon everyone you come across in all walks of life. Lets face it most all here are indies and as such we each have to take responsibility for all aspects of our chosen careers and yes that means the business end and marketing as well – not just the music. Your image is everything no matter what career you choose. Example: you go to a job interview – what do you think the interviewers first impression of you is? Your initial image that you present. Aha, presentation! Do you look the part? Are you professional? Come on folks those interviewers form an image of you within seconds – same as any audience you perform for. To ignore your image based upon some utopian view that image shouldn’t matter is madness. Sorry for my long winded post but I just had to get all that out after reading the article and then peoples follow-on posts.

  • Pandamarxx .

    Issue remains the same. Being Indie is a part of your Image so don’t fight it..

  • travelergtoo

    Elvis was never morbidly obese, you idiots.

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    Checking it out now. Sounds good. Nicely done.

    @ChrisRobley

    • Prak

      thanks man appreciate the listen!

  • Henrique

    Good point! I don’t know that much about Motown, but I know it placed a lot of importance on how artists dressed and behaved – and it definitely worked, didn’t it?

  • Henrique

    Good point! I don’t know that much about Motown, but I know it placed a lot of importance on how artists dressed and behaved – and it definitely worked, didn’t it?