Making music isn’t enough anymore. For bands to be financially successful these days, a group must build a miniature empire, complete with albums, T-shirts, stickers, DVDs, Web sites, video blogs, coffee mugs, skate decks, product endorsements, action figures, and maybe even a line of shampoos (because let’s face it, your singer’s feathery hair is the silkiest you’ve ever seen). In order for any band’s empire to flourish, it greatly helps to have a finely tuned marketing machine at the helm, dexterously positioning the band and its products for maximum success.
This is the art of capitalizing on music already written (not quite selling out) and it’s time to bring out the inner shrewd businessman and start analyzing and branding everything involved with being a band.
The first thing any booking agent, manager, or record-label suit will ask is “what kind of band is it?” For some, that question is a no-brainer — Jimbo’s Genuine Jug Band Experience probably speaks for itself. For more eclectic bands, the query can lead to an alarmingly hostile debate among members. All too often bands grab from many genres when describing their sound and in the process can confuse or terminally bore the unlucky soul who asked. Industry folk need something they can sell, and if it doesn’t fit into a specific category, that makes the explaining, routing, and selling process a bit more labored. It’s a painful procedure for most any band, so pick a genre with the least revolting stigmas, remember that it won’t be on your tombstone, and let the music do the rest of the talking. If you don’t label it first, someone else will, and it might not be so pretty. Beat them to the punch.
Band names are the unconditionally supportive representatives of the music. Through good notes and bad shows they are always there, representing, but below the surface they’re much more than just titles. Because of genre-specific trends within band names, a name can aid in both conscious and subconscious categorizing of styles to the new listener. Sometimes a name alone can either deter or entice people into giving 30 seconds of their time. It’s very common for the name to be heard first and the music second, so consider it a gateway to the ears. While we all want to be unique (just like everybody else), having a name suggestive of a genre can help route the music into the right hands.
Trends aside, typically the best band names are those that are intriguing, somewhat stylistically suggestive, and easily pronounced. Whatever the name may be, it has to pass the bar exam: When someone in a noisy bar asks the name, it must be understood immediately, within two deliveries. If it needs to be written on a cocktail napkin for comprehension, it fails. Onomatopoeias from a drunken uncle, strange esoteric words from a late night game of balderdash, and dead languages from the Discovery Channel all make for interesting names, but they also create fundamental marketing struggles.
On a more utilitarian level, it’s very helpful to have a name that is search-engine friendly. Certain words are simply too common to yield any narrowed results (imagine the broad mess with a name like The People) and odd symbols and punctuations can make typing and searching more difficult (my own band, Super Adventure Club, made the mistake of including an umlaut in our album Üntz, and as a result it doesn’t show up under searches of ‘untz’). Prince, however, got away with his symbol back in the early 1990s because he’s Prince. Nuff said.
What’s the first thing people encounter with a band? Is it the Web site? A live show? An album cover? A flyer? And what does that encounter convey at the gut level? Revolting? Sexy? Shocking? Funny? Visual appearance is arguably as important as the music itself because it’s another gateway to the unfamiliar. It doesn’t have to be pretty (Lemmy Kilmister, quite possibly the ugliest man in show business, is the poster child here), but it’s got to have some character, something to attach a feeling to. Rule of thumb: If the mother hates it, it’s working.
Look cool, scary, irresponsible, scandalous, “authentic,” whatever, but make it look legit. When posing for promotional photos or on stage, the band should have a visual statement of some kind, and preferably dressed with a theme amongst members that implicitly says, “Yeah, we’re a band.” GWAR, for instance, rose to fame specifically because of its members’ outrageously gruesome costumes and stage props. The idea is to give people something to talk about, whether it be baby blue mariachi uniforms, MC Hammer pants, this year’s birthday suit (trust me, that last one works), or 100 gallons of fake blood — because nobody wants to talk about four guys wearing khakis and faded tech company shirts. And for Pete’s sake, quit taking promo photos in front of railroad tracks and brick walls.