Brand Strategy for Musicians: The Music

David Bawiec, Spire Contributor | January 8, 2019

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Welcome back to another installment in our Branding for Musicians series! If you haven't yet, check out Part 1 on developing an artist style guide and how to figure out who your target audience is, so you're ready to start tackling the first pillar of your branding: your sound.

Find Your Sound

You want people to keep coming back for more, so it’s important to be consistent. Artists like Adele and Nicki Minaj are consistent enough in style and sound that audiences know what to expect, and keep coming back for more. Each of your favorite artists has an individual sound that you recognize. How about you? What is your sound?

What is your sound?

So what exactly do I mean by your sound? It's the sonic character of your music. It's the combination of the five key elements that make up your music:

1. Genre

2. Song form

3. Lyrics

4. Instrumentation

5. Production

These five elements are the building blocks of what we define as “the sound.” Whether you're a new band or an existing artist looking to redefine your sound, focus on these five ingredients to craft yourself a sound that people will be drawn to. Let's take a look at the elements one-by-one to see how they can help you brand yourself.

What is your musical style?

Try to define what style you represent with your music. Blends are great, so if it's hard to pinpoint one specific genre, create your definition by blending a few that best showcase your music. Add this description to your Style Guide. As you're working on each song, preparing for each show, keep referring back to this description to make sure you're staying on track.

What are your song forms?

Certain musical styles will naturally open doors to different song forms. Dance Pop will use the double-chorus song structure, whereas blues will love A-A-B-A, and Jazz will welcome long instrumental solos. Figure out what song form naturally will lend itself to your genre and try to stay pretty consistent with that.

Song length will also be dependent on your genre. Mainstream pop will love anything below three and a half minutes.  If you take Bruno Mars as an example, his songs average 3:30 minutes and have very straightforward forms, always prioritizing the choruses as the critical element.

On the other hand, if you're a psychedelic indie rock band, 5-minute tunes are standard. Tame Impala’s single “Let it Happen” with over 109 million plays on Spotify and 50 million views on YouTube is 7:47 long. The song has a 12 bar intro and a 3-minute instrumental in the middle of it. This isn't something you would ever find in mainstream pop.

The conclusion is, although there are no set rules about what should be the exact length or the form of a song, still stay aware of what style you’re going for. If you want to hit a mainstream pop audience, 10 minute singles aren’t for you. You’re a fusion band? Then go for it!

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What is your lyric-writing style?

Word choice, speed, and language are all factors in our perception of an artist. Celine Dion would never have the words “OMG" in the lyrics of her song (unless perhaps she was using dummy lyrics). Taylor Swift on the other hand would. You don't even need to listen to the songs to identify who wrote a lyric. Sometimes you can identify artists from lyric rhyme scheme alone.

Whether you're a songwriter or a performer who sings songs written by others, make sure that the lyrics and subject matter are relatable to your target audience. To determine the type of language you use, go back to your style guide. Who is your target audience? Your style guide should tell you everything you need to know about how to communicate to that audience.

If you're aiming for adults 50+, singing about Friday night parties might not resonate. Just like singing about letting go of your children might not be a good fit if your primary audience is made up of teens. So know who you want to attract with your music and aim for that group accordingly with your lyrics. Make a note of this in your style guide (this will come in handy once we get to Part 4 of this series).

Instrumentation

Artists can also be recognized by the instruments they use in their music. Can you imagine Amy Winehouse or Earth, Wind, and Fire without the brass section? What about McFly or Queen without their guitars? Michael Bublé gets characterized as being the modern swing guy, so a big band brass sound is always his thing. What’s yours?

Every instrument provides different tone colors, and this directly affects how your music sounds. Playing the same melody on a violin vs. a synth can dramatically change the vibe of a song. The same way that using an upright bass or acoustic guitar will create a vastly different sound from electric bass and electric guitars.

Make a list of all the necessary instruments that you would find in your songs. The more specific you can get the better. Add this to the style guide. It'll help you stay on track and will be helpful if you're working with a new music producer.

Production

The final element is music production, which has a huge influence on your sound. Should your band’s song productions be live/indie-sounding or polished? Jazz bands tend to record live and preserve everything as organically as possible. On the other hand, pop or electronic music is very processed and highly quantized. Which one are you? Will you have some differentiating factor? E.S. Posthumus, for example, would combine beautiful orchestral strings with world percussion and top it off with vocals in a made-up Latin-esque language.

Consistency is key to people falling in love with your sound, and your productions should reflect this. What makes your sound unique? How would you describe your songs from a music production standpoint? Write that down in your style guide.

Bringing it together

When all of these elements come together, that’s when you create a sonic brand for yourself / your band. Keep that sound consistent, and with time people will start recognizing your sound the moment they hear it.

Variations vs. change

When you deliver the same quality product every single time, fans will be faithful and come back to you for it. After all, it's all about developing loyalty.

Does that mean you can't deviate or expand your musical universe? Of course, you can. However, there's a difference between variation and total change, and it's crucial that you understand it.

If you want to slightly deviate from your regular path and feature ukulele on many songs (which usually isn't part of your sound), then go for it. As long as for the most part the overall sound isn't drastically changing, your fans will probably love the newness. Trying something new is okay.

The more you change your sound, the more you risk losing your audience. Have you ever had a band that you loved their first and second albums, but by the third one they changed their sound, and you no longer liked it? Use that as a cautionary tale. Take side streets, occasionally even make a musical detour, but don't go too far too early as you may risk losing it all.

Now does that mean you can't take risks? Of course, you can. Lady Gaga is known for her roaring synths in a dance style. However, in 2014 she released something of a surprise: the "Cheek To Cheek" album with Tony Bennett. This one was a huge departure from her usual dance style, into the world of swing. Some people loved it, others hated it, but it showed a new side to her. But this change didn't mean that Dance Gaga was gone forever. Her next album "Joanne" returned to what her fans loved most. She was already very well known for dance music before she did something else, so her fanbase was already huge and willing to go along for any journey with her even into temporary swing land.

Different sounds

I've seen many artists struggle with this concept. Particularly those who love many genres. So what are you to do if you enjoy the music of one style and a very different one as well, but they won't work together? My recommendation is split them into two separate artist entities, one band for each style.

Look at George Michael who had a different sound than Wham! Or Phil Collins who had a slightly different tone from than Genesis. If you are a solo artist, nothing is stopping you from having multiple stage names, each associated with a different sound. Various names are particularly common for DJs and music producers. Take Skrillex and Diplo, who together perform as Jack Ü. Having multiple stage names will allow you to shape each sound uniquely to the audience that you know will enjoy it.

Conclusion

Developing your sound is an essential pillar of branding yourself and building your audience. So take the time to define your sound. Expand your style guide accordingly to ensure you have a complete picture of your musical identity. Whatever you choose, stick with it for a while to let people start associating that sound with you.