Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
This week the music industry scored another victory in its crusade to delay the inevitable. In reaching a settlement with Kazaa
, record companies brought another file sharing service into the mainstream and left a hole that several peer-to-peer networks will quickly fill. Presumably, those musicians who crab about losing money from ever declining CD sales were heartened by the settlement.
Three years ago Jay-Z released his Black Album
, sold a fair number of copies, increased his profile and credibility, then turned around and released an a cappella version of the disc for DJs to remix. On the one hand, Metallica
might lament, his work was being thrown away, to be used and abused with out poor Shawn getting a cent. Jay-Z was shrewder than that. His own a-list production team
had put together a good record, but why not try to strike it rich twice? Danger Mouse's Grey Album
, the love child of Jay-Z's lyrics and the Beatles' white album, caused a huge stir and garnered even more publicity
than the Black Album
, much of it referencing Jay-Z and not even mentioning Danger Mouse. Shawn Carter's tally from the Grey Album
when all was said and done: zero work, tons of press, expanded fan base. Jay-Z is a brand, he knows he's a brand, and he's very good at being a brand.
There are only a handful of celebrities that have successfully made themselves into brands. Michael Jordan
, complete with logo, leaps to mind, along with a few other athletes
. Movie stars have had less success since, at least in theory, part of their job is to redefine themselves on a regular basis. Not good for brand stability. Britney never seemed quite comfortable with the brand she chose and eventually spurned the process
all together. Bono has stayed on brand much more successfully.
Those individuals who have branded themselves have done so in the manner of all brands, from Quaker Oats
to Google, over the last hundred years: on a big, fat, national (or at least regional) scale. It takes someone who already has a good deal of success and acclaim to make themselves into a national brand. But as the entire media spectrum goes niche, there are opportunities for smaller acts to brand themselves and ride the wave. Musicians don't need to be as well known as Jay-Z to create their own little commercial identity
. And they certainly don't need to worry about how many albums they sell, but rather how many people they reach; people who then buy the tee-shirt
and go to the concert and visit the website. Niches which use the band's brand to express themselves.
is not a musical act, but it's a good example of the potential of small time branding. Beginning as a website on the nichiest of all media, the Internet, Homestar Runner was a collection of flash animations created by the Brothers Chaps and offered up free of charge. Never cost a thing. Just dudes making flash movies and you could watch them. There's now an established fan base, a line of merchandise, and even a mention in the final episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
. That's a brand. If the Brothers Chaps aren't living off Homestar yet, it's by choice. It's not a huge national following, but it could support a comfortable life.
(For the record, Homestar and his friends appeared in a They Might Be Giants music video
. They Might Be Giants is a band that has focused primarily on their brand, although they might not use those words. They have released albums online, have always had songs available through their dial-a-song service
, and are generally more concerned with being They Might Be Giants
than selling albums. As a result they have a following that has supported not only a dozen albums but also tee-shirts, bumper stickers, shot glasses, a documentary: a catalogue
of products and merchandise.)
Branding may not be a more desirable way to make a living as an artist. It may not lead to better art and it leads very quickly to merchandising and the manufacture and sale of a bunch of useless junk. There are some potential positives: Artists more concerned with listeners than sales could lean toward more enduring quality in their music and the smaller communities of niche media are more interactive and responsive than the behemoths of national media. Regardless, this isn't a question of better, but of different. The financial landscape that harbors artists has never been static. A few hundred years ago, it was through the grace of patrons
that artists worked. Soon it may well be through the grace of the brand.
National brands have lost clout in the minds of those attractive young demographics that musicians are after, but that's all the more reason that niche brands -- brands supported by a passionate following numbering in the tens of thousands rather than the millions -- can be taken up as identity markers. It might mean a musician's dreams of a three-record deal with Sony and bank accounts stuffed with royalties will have to be pared down to hopes of a steady stream of ancillary income and a healthy five-figure salary. Which could be a good thing. Artistic types need more representation in the middle class. Moderately successful musicians could blaze that path. Why should artists cluster on the edges of the economic spectrum, among the super rich and the poor? This isn't manifest destiny
. Not every brand need reach from sea to shining sea.