You Can’t Brand Your Music Until You Know What One Is

What is a brand image

One of the things that an artist or band hears a lot these days is the need to promote “your brand” in order to get ahead in the current era of the music business. That’s all well and good, but you can’t promote your brand unless you know the definition in the first place. Here’s an excerpt from the latest 3rd edition of my Social Media Promotion For Musicians handbook that describes what you need to know.

So what exactly is a brand? Let’s look at the classic definition of a brand, and then look at how it applies to music.

A brand is a promise of quality and consistency.

Want a few good examples of a brand in everyday life? How about MacDonald’s for starters. No matter where in the world you go, you can always recognize a McDonald’s franchise by the now-famous golden arches, and you know that a Big Mac will taste like a Big Mac. Beijing, Cleveland, Amsterdam, Sydney, Johannesburg, or Sao Paulo – it will always taste the same.

Then there’s Coke. First you have the distinctive script logo and the signature shaped bottle, then you have the exact same taste from bottle to can to fountain (unless they get the syrup to carbonated water mixture slightly wrong). Once again, anywhere in the world, a Coke’s a Coke. When Coke tried to change the formula in 1985, they unwittingly broke their brand and had to fight to get their customers back because the trust in the brand was damaged.

If we look to the world of electronics, there’s Apple. First you have the identifying one-bite-of-the-apple logo that’s so strong that you don’t even need to have the name spelled out. Then no matter what product you purchase from Apple, you can expect a sleek high-tech design and an easy to understand user interface.

If we look to the world of music, there’s Fender, which was the world’s leading brand for guitars and guitar amplifiers until CBS (yes, the television network) bought them in 1965. Slowly but surely, the new owners broke the brand because they neither understood the market nor cared about the quality of the product. The once mighty Fender name became an insignia for ill-conceived products that didn’t work nearly as well as they once did. It was only when Fender’s management team purchased the company from CBS in 1985 that Fender was able to gradually restore its brand to where it is today as once again one of the great names in musical instruments, but it took more than ten long years to recover.

Artist Branding

For an artist, a brand means a consistency of persona, and usually a consistency of sound. Regardless of what genre of music the artist delves into, the feel is the same and you can tell it’s none other than that artist. Madonna has changed musical and fashion directions many times during her career but her brand remained consistent. Her post-feminist persona remained the same even as she changed to and from the “Material Girl.” The Beatles experimented with a wide variety of directions, but you never once questioned who you were listening to. It was always fresh and exciting, yet distinctly them. The same goes for any of the legacy acts that have lasted 20+ years, which is why they lasted that long.

On the other hand, Neil Young almost killed his career with an electronic album called Trans that alienated all but his hardiest fans, and the well-respected voice of Sound Garden, the late Chris Cornell did irreparable harm to his solo career thanks to his loop- based electronic pop album with Timbaland (Scream). Why did this happen? For both artists, the album no longer “felt” like them. Both Young and Cornell built their careers on organic music played with a band, and as soon as their music became regimented and mechanical, the consistency (and some say the quality) of their brands was lost. After Trans, Young returned to his roots and slowly built his brand back to superstar level over time, and Cornell eventually went back to sing with Sound Garden, which rebuilt his rock credibility.

How do you determine what your brand is? It’s easier said than done. In order for an artist to successfully promote their brand, they must have a great sense of self-awareness. You must know who you are, where you came from, and where you’re going in terms of your music and your career. You must know what you like and don’t like, and what you stand for and why. And you must have an inherent feel for your sound and what works for you, which is usually against the grain of a current trend unless you happen to be leading it.

TIP: Brand self-awareness sometimes differentiates a superstar from a star, and a star from someone who wants it really badly but never seems to get that big break.

You can read more from the 3rd edition of Social Media Promotion For Musicians and my other books on the excerpt section of

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