What does image mean to indie bands? The notion of an artist having a ‘persona’ is an intricate one. If an artist is too advert about it, it can come off as self congratulatory and make them seem selfish or – even worse – out of touch, but if they fail to have a persona than many of their potential followers will have difficulty finding anything to connect to. If you look throughout the history of popular music, most of the enduring figures are the ones that people were able to connect to some sort of idea or movement. While this is often ideological, there are certainly other ways to get at it and to accentuate your role in whatever artistic community you might choose to ascribe to.
Here’s the germ got me thinking about this notion of having a persona: When you’re at a show talking to people, and you bring up a somewhat obscure band that have a main figure with a particular persona, or perhaps an overarching band ethos, how does the other person respond? Well, usually, even if they’ve only heard of the band they’ll probably say something like “Cynic? The band with that Buddhist dude – what’s his name now – Paul Masvidal? I’ve never really listened to their music, but what a smart guy!” Hell, that’s how most conversations how shows tend to start. People may say things like ‘It’s all about the music’ but they oftentimes need something else to latch on to to truly make a band memorable.
Think about it this way: There are a lot of perfectly good bands that don’t have a particular public persona some of whom are fairly popular, yet don’t seem to generate intrigue. When’s the last time you talked about the Strokes at a show for example? Part of the reason that a contemporary like Jack White has outlasted them is that he has always been able to drum up intrigue about his persona whereas the Strokes tried to cash in on the ‘rock and roll saviours’ gimmick that crops up once every couple of years (If your band is currently trying this please do yourselves a favor and stop). Jack White in his perpetual weirdness was able to touch on something more timeless and become an enduring figure – a true rock and roll savior.
Don’t think though that you need to become an enduring figure to be able to differentiate your band. A lot of acts who have managed to stay relevant for years on end have simply appropriated an existing ideology and used their music as a vehicle for that. Other artists have been able to stay relevant simply by creating a group identity that makes people remember them, at times simply reinvigorating an old concept into a modern context. An example of this would be One Direction – despite the reliance on Zayn to reach those high notes, the band is going to continue strong with their boy band image, for better or for worse. (A note from the writers 16 year old sister: Have you seen Harry Styles hair? The evolution is for the better.)
The fact of the matter is that most people want something to identify with, even if it’s something like the notion of anti-image as Morbid Angel pioneered in the late 80s. Don’t think though that this doesn’t work on a local level. For example, the Paris band Unscarred profited off of a singer who used her story of being an Iranian heavy metal exile to bolster her bands success. Sure, her story may be a bit extreme, but everyone has a story that they can use to help make their band a bit more iconoclastic and memorable. As Kevin Smith frequently says “Everyone has stories of shit that’s happened to them” and you can use these stories to help to market yourself.
While these may range from things like depression, to grander topics like political agendas, these are the things that help to make people remember bands. If you look at memorable figures from throughout history they all seem to have similar story arcs, arcs that reflect movies. If you want people to remember your backstory you have to pitch it in a way that they are familiar with. Though it may no feel like it there are definitely ways to keep your band honest and true to its beginnings, but also the universal subconscious. The way you present yourself is vital. If you want to know more about how great historical figures stories have been formulated so that people remember them I highly recommend you listen to the Shocking Ways Reality Is Based On Movies of the Cracked Podcast. You can easily be your own PR man, but so much of this relies on starting off with a memorable and exciting image that gives people something to relate too. The secret is to start with making sure that you fit everything significant that happens to you in a part of a broader narrative to facilitate the public perception of your art.
Examples of adding to ones narrative include Beyonce’s recent self titled record and Drakes If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Both of these records were used to help paint the artists as spontaneous and exciting, even if they’re both clearly products of modern pop culture. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that) While you might not have a surprise album to your credit, you can certainly plan a one off show with something to make it truly special, not just opening for a much bigger band. The first example that comes to mind would be seeing a handful of French local bands play a massive festival stage in front of a few hundred people in September of 2013. The bands who did well on that particular day became veritable legends in the scene and those pivotal performances were never forgotten. The bands who did poorly… well let’s just say fate was less kind. If you’re going to do something like that, make sure that you do it well because otherwise you could have a very hard time finding a gig in the aftermath.
There’s been a lot to take in with this article. It’s a hard thing to not violate ones artistic credibility and yet also pitch oneself in a way that remains memorable and exciting. Model yourself after your favorite bands, that’s what they did when they were unsigned and independent (Hell, knowing this blogs readership your favorite bands probably still are unsigned and independent) Know that as you continue to craft a narrative about your band people will be more able to connect you with different aspects that define your art. Having a persona is one of the most important aspects to being a successful artist in the modern context, and it will almost certainly be what brings you to the next level.