In a few weeks I’m going to teach a media literacy workshop with teenage girls from my community. We’re going to talk about how they feel about the images they see (or don’t see) from the music industry (specifically hip-hop and r&b) and most importantly what they can do to change those images. Sounds noble. But, preparing this type of workshop takes you to a dark place in music. Places you’d rather not think about. Where math takes the place of talent. Where music becomes centered around the “right” demographics and the “right” image.
When musicians play music, we often talk about the “feel.” Well, there is no “feel” in this place.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Music is a job and branding is an important part of the business of music. Hell, look at Kiss; their brand has sustained there careers. What I’m talking about, however, is that thing that happens beyond logos and costumes, here your artistic integrity can get diminished to protect the bottom line not only for you but for the companies to which you’re signed.
Don’t worry; I’m not going to preach (or type) a sermon about artistic integrity, or taking responsibility for your image as an artist (although, those sound like great ideas for future posts…). This whole workshop got me thinking about the delicate balance of branding and creativity.
I think branding of an artist somehow became a lot like branding for jeans or chips, when previously, in my observation, an artist’s brand used to be more about the signature sound than the look. Like Michael Jackson’s “shamone” and “hee-hee” paired with his sequined glove, penny loafers and white socks. Like Tupac’s bandana tied in the front and the vocal cadence of his “can ya feel me.” The whistle tone of Mariah Carey comes to mind before her image, for me anyway. Think about Hendrix, Dylan, Aretha, Whitney, to Premiere, Timbaland, Missy etc. I can call these people by one name and you know who I’m talking about and what they sound like. That was the brand – the uniqueness of their sonic talent. When you heard that signature sound, it could only be that artist and no one else. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen now. I’m just saying there is not that much emphasis on it as there was before. If there is no more emphasis on your sonic identity, then when someone comes along that’s looks like the 2.0 version of you, what keeps your fans supporting you? At the end of the day, what makes you you anyway?
But here’s the thing that really gets me: every interview or documentary that attempts to answer the question of why this is happening points to you guys, the audience. The excuse is that this is what you want. They have done studies and this is what tests well. It’s what makes Musiq Soulchild release a mixtape as The Husel seemingly abandon his R&B sound to gain more commercial appeal.
Now, I’m not saying this type of branding is wrong; it’s simply different and it really makes me wonder if it’s a sustainable business model for the artists involved… or even, the big corporations, for that matter. I have more questions than I have answers on this one. Just thinking out loud.
Sooooo, is this type of artist/branding what you really want or nah? Sound off in the comments.
– Queen D. Scott
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Photo credit: Helen ST (https://flic.kr/p/kRoBD)