How to brand my band

A guide for independent artists on where to start branding their music project

I write about music marketing via my weekly newsletter, Deep Cuts [Subscribe]. Get daily tips on Instagram @deepcuts.co.

The pandemic is changing the way we listen to music.

“Lean back” tracks (music considered as background soundtracks to the consumers’ lives rather than music played with intent) are emerging as streaming winners. Genres like classical and lo-fi are having a moment due to increased consumer demand for music fitting to the home. Music you can work/study to, chill out to and get some respite from the anxiety-inducing outside world.

23 year-old Dutch lo-fi hip-hop producer, Sebastian Kamae, are primed for success in pandemic-era streaming due to increasing consumer demand for music fitting for the home. This was his 2020 Wrapped stats, he started uploading music just 2 years earlier.

Lo-fi hip-hop producers like 23-year-old, Dutch-born Sebastian Kamae benefit from this. Kamae’s bio promises “groovy drums, jazz melodies and dusty sounds fitting for relaxing on a Sunday morning or hanging with your friends’’. He boasts 1.5M monthly Spotify listeners with a handful of tracks at 6M streams thanks to lean back editorial playlists like Lo-Fi beats (3.8M followers) and ChilledCow, a popular lo-fi beats YouTube channel featuring his work.

Despite impressive streaming numbers for the young artist, he has just 364 Facebook likes and 2,000 Instagram followers. Sebastian Kamae and others have forward-facing artist ambitions but lack a substantial forward-facing artist brand, which threatens their ability to build an audience to support their artistry when playlists go away.

How do you build an artist brand?

This is what branding and art direction come in.

This blog post covers:

  1. The strategic role branding plays in building an artist’s profile and audience
  2. Which assets you need to create
  3. How to go about the creative direction process if you’re a team of one

Why branding raises your artist profile

Before we even start on the how-to’s, I wanna get really clear on why it’s important to brand your band. You’ve spent so long creating music and you want to give it its best shot at success once it’s out. Branding is the first step once you’ve finished mixing.

1) Branding provides contextual cues to hook new listeners, which builds your audience

Today’s music discovery ecosystem lacks storytelling. Streaming services — your first line of defense for gaining exposure and from lo-fi hip-hop producers to classical artists to new audiences, the discovery process is essentially a spreadsheet.

E.g.: when I scroll through my Discover Weekly Spotify playlist that’s updated each week with recommendations their algorithm believes I’d like, as a consumer, my prompt to encourage me to listen to a new song is my ability to recognize their name. The environment is devoid of hints that tell me what a song or an artist is about, why I should listen to them why I should care.

Branding, specifically visuals do the heavy lifting. Visuals add the much-required layer of context to the sounds the listener hears, taking the audible message of the song and creating imagery that conveys its emotion and message. This in turn provides a stronger affiliation to the artist and song.

2) Branding makes marketing more efficient by relying on high impact assets

A neurobiological study by Munroe-Lopezfound audible vs. visual memory discrepancy occurs because the pathways of encoding for auditory and visual memories are different. Visual memory has a direct path for storage, auditory memory must make multiple synaptic stops for memory can be stored. The anatomical pathway for auditory memory being more direct makes recall and recognition stronger. The straight line on top shows the route for visual memory, the curved line below is the path for auditory input to reach the brain cortex. (Source: Individual differences in visual and auditory memory, ARTHUR R. JENSEN. What Do We Remember Better — What We See or What We Hear?

Our visual memory is more powerful than our audible memory. When people see a song, not just hear it, their ability to recall the song is stronger so promoting music with visuals will enhance the memorability of your project, thus helping you stand out from the 39,999 other songs uploaded to Spotify every day.

Secondarily, social media are visual platforms that depend on visuals that stand out. Strong visuals will make people care by striking a stronger connection with new and existing fans.

Steps to determine your artist brand [quick exercise]

Answer this question: “What do you want to be known for?”

Spend 10 mins now writing down as quickly as you can as many answers to that question.

Now, spend 15 mins rewriting that answer as a tweet, 140 characters. The shorter the better. This becomes your north star, which all branding is built off.

I’ll put this into practice looking at Seattle-based rapper, J.Von. J’Von has been described by fans and industry as a multi-disciplinary force — musician, animator, cartoonist, and illustrator. He is known for his bright visuals and Catman.png character he developed for his music.

J’Von’s north star is “savant”

catman.png — the character Seattle rapper, J’Von created as the forward-facing artist brand that earned him fan and industry acclaim.

He’s built a brand off the idea of being a multi-talented threat by releasing a new cartoon caricature of himself, Catman with every release. Over time a visual world of pastels and vibrant characters was created that reflected his music.

Fans and industry started pegging him as a savant so he made that his brand. In an interview with KEXP he said…

“I think I accidentally made a brand in a lot of regards because it was just me just kind of facetiously putting stuff out. I know that some people see the whole animation thing like, “Oh yeah he’s just a multi-talented threat.” I never really marketed it like that. I was just kind of like… I wanted to do some more cool stuff. But now it’s become, “Yo this man, he does everything.” I’m trying to embrace it now. Like, “Yeah, I do everything. I’m Godzilla. Whatever.”

animation based the character of yuudo (THUNDERBOY) for J’Von’s 2020 LP of the same name. From YouTube “[yuudo] taking care of a plant, until his luv made it grow ok! produced, arranged, and animated by j’von.”

What started as encouragement from his girlfriend to post drawings to Instagram became the central branding element that made people care about his music.

“My girlfriend was like, “You have an Instagram. You have like two thousand followers and you don’t post anything. You should at least draw stuff.” And I was like, “Oh, well, I guess.” And it’s been doing pretty good… People like it. People care.”

Working with creative collaborators — when you cannot DIY visual branding

Once you have your north star, you can engage creative collaborators to bring your ideas to life. When you start working with creative professionals whether that’s graphic designers, art directors, creative directors, music video commissioners, photographers, stylists, or glam you have a responsibility for the following 3 things. This will ensure a smoother collaboration in bringing your brand to life.

  1. Asset checklist: your list of required creative needs with delivery deadlines.
  2. Preferred appetite for collaboration. Some artists will be more hands on in the art process where some
  3. Moodboards to convey aesthetic direction

1. Write a list of ‘essential’ and ‘nice to have’ campaign assets

You need is a list of everything you need to be created. Your budget will determine how to prioritize these assets — what can you do yourself, where do you need help?

Branding assets for new forward-facing artist project, TRZTN, by renowned producer & composer Tristan Bechet. Debut LP, TRZTN released January 2021.

Asset checklist for a new artist campaign

→ ESSENTIAL ASSETS

  • Album artwork
  • Single artwork
  • Press photoshoot
  • Music video treatment & music video
  • Logo
  • Typography
  • Color palette

→ NICE TO HAVES

  • Remix artwork
  • Styling moodboard
  • Tour admat
  • Social skins
  • Merch design
  • Visual guideline bible
  • Vinyl/CD/cassette layout
  • “Coming soon”, release date reveal and “out now” graphics for social media
  • Stage or livestream concept
  • Website design
  • Mockups for merch and physical products. To be used on website and social media
  • Visualizer for YouTube

2. Determine your appetite for collaboration

One thing your collaborators need to know is how much you want to be involved in the process. Some artists are hands-on, others are happier to lean on their collaborators’ expertise.

How much you want to be involved should be determined by your own capabilities and confidence. You may want to get involved in some aspects of your brand but outsource others. For example, Australian queer-pop 4-piece, Cub Sport design all their own merch getting on the tools to actually draw out the designs and see through the production. However, they are happy to bring in directors into the fold for video assets.

Cub Sport’s 2020 LP ‘Like Nirvana’ performed live in its entirety. The promotional video involved many collaborations: Directed & edited by Joe Agius, Produced by Rachel Owen & Tilly Towler, Lighting Design and direction by Dan Black — Colourblind, Director Of Photography — Nick Maguire

3. Create moodboards

Moodboards help convey your ideas to collaborators. They can be visual through images and videos, text with adjectives you’d describe the project as and/or sonic through other tracks inspiring the mood.

If you’re going at it alone, check out my interview with creative director to Elton John, Kanye, Rihanna and U2, Tom Bird. Bird lays out his step-by-step art direction process to creating compelling visuals for a new artist. It’s loaded with insight from an esteemed creative as well as a blueprint you can rip for yourself.

To summarize, branding builds your artist project by creating a white space that makes people care about the music. It can be tackled DIY or with other collaborators but your responsibility as the artist is to have the idea, the vision and find collaborators to bring it to life. In doing so you’re building a thing that’s bigger than you and can be remembered beyond a Spotify playlist add.

Music marketing consultant. Downtown Records & Big Spaceship alumni. Writes about music, strategy and feels at Deep Cuts http://bit.ly/2yphFYx