Branding: Musical Identity as a Career Move

Branding: Musical Identity as a Career Move

by Rich Tozzoli

On this past Veteran’s Day, the Punch-In ran a handful of videos featuring performances of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Slash was featured in one of them, and in a very rare move he performed without his trademark top hat. Or, we should say, the hat wasn’t on his head — it sat on a nearby guitar stand. And while it was very cool to see Slash honor the hats-off tradition for the national anthem, it also got us thinking about what that signature stovepipe hat is all about: Branding.

Yes, we mean “branding” in the crass, capitalistic, Madison Avenue sense. Of course, the marketing term is based on the red-hot iron brands burned into the hide of livestock. Those indelible marks were used to create a permanent stamp of identity, and that’s exactly what promotional branding is all about today.

If you thought branding was the exclusive domain of Coca-Cola and Apple Computers, well, think again. It also works wonders for that one-and-only guitarist with a top hat, black curls, and a low-slung Les Paul.

Black Magic Marketing
Another great example of a successful brand is Carlos Santana. Did you know he also sells Carlos brand perfume, handbags, and women’s footwear? No fooling. That’s not to mention his Santana Reserve Brut wine and a chain of Maria Maria restaurants with a guitar on the marquee.

carlos santanaYou might chuckle (we did) but do you get why Carlos can sell all of those products when they have nothing to do with music? It’s because he has cultivated a marketable identity. He’s not selling a sound or a song — he’s selling Santananess. He is remarkably consistent with his brand, too: his album covers, clothes, guitar inlays, and his website all share a look and an image. It all started with his sound, but Carlos (the musician) and others like him have parlayed a musical signature into a brand that can be easily identified — and then promoted and sold. The mention of their name conjures a sound and an image all at once. Slash. Metheny. Flea. Hendrix.

And you are…?
So, we have to ask. What’s your brand? How do you distinguish yourself? Is your guitar playing unique in its own right? Do you augment your professional image with some non-musical signature like clothing or artwork — and is it consistent across your blog, your cover art, and your MySpace profile?

Can you describe your musical approach in just a few words? If someone caught your show and wanted to tell a friend about you, what would they say?

Just Do It
300px-Jumpman_logo_011If it’s a little tough to accept that our well-loved art form of music is so entangled in marketing, consider it another context. Think about the brands of certain sports figures, and what they represent: Michael Jordan, Shaq, Allen Iverson, Deion Sanders, Peyton Manning, Derek Jeter and so on. These guys each have a certain “packaging” that is immediately recognizable. Their appeal is shrink-wrapped for the consumer. These people have turned their talent and image into a unique brand that, to be blunt, helps them make money.

Are they so different, really, from Jimmy Page, Robert Smith, the Edge, Eddie Van Halen, Ace Frehley, or Larry “Mr. 335” Carlton? Regardless of your personal likes and dislikes, or your distaste for mixing money and creativity, there’s no denying that the recognition factor is a valuable asset.

Create…and Cultivate
Now step back and think of a few things that might help you build recognition in a media-blitzed world filled with competition. What small lessons taken from the giants mentioned above might be used to help promote yourself and/or your band? What would separate you from the pack and give you an edge?

eddie_van_halenWe mentioned Slash at the outset — his image since the first day the Guns ’n Roses broke has remained consistent, helping to brand Slashness in our minds. For the Edge, it’s been the use of delay and a perennial knit hat. The same applied to Eddie Van Halen for years, with his insane technique, that big grin, and “Frankenstein” guitars covered with bicycle-tape stripes. If you saw EVH playing a sunburst Telecaster, it would be like, whoa, that’s odd! So, what small detail would help you foster a consistent and memorable image? It could be as simple as a cool sticker on your guitar (Tom Morello) or eyeshadow (Robert Smith, Billy Joe Armstrong). It could be a totally unique guitar tone (Bill Frisell, SRV). While the possibilities are nearly endless, it’s important to try to do something to make yourself unique.

You Be You
Finding something that makes you stand apart from the crowd may not be so easy. If it’s any good, it will probably take some work and serious thinking time. Learn from others, both inside and outside of the music business. Observe how they do what they do on television, in print, and elsewhere in the media. Step back and examine yourself as you identify what your USP — Unique Selling Proposition — might be. Then act upon it and keep the message consistent.

Our last bit of branding advice is to think about your strengths as a player. Consider what makes you proud as a creative person. Bear in mind, you don’t have to change who you are or what you create to establish a great brand. On the contrary, you want to hone in on those unique identifiers — and then capitalize on them.

Rich Tozzoli is an accomplished engineer, mixer, producer and composer. He has worked with artists such as Ace Frehley, Al DiMeola and David Bowie, among many more, and is the author of Surround Sound Mixing for ProTools. Rich is also a lifelong guitarist and composer. His work can be heard regularly on FoxNFL, HBO, and Discovery Channel.