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If You Build It They Will Come

Why sacrificing artistic integrity for good branding is bullshit

There are more people trying to “make it” as artists now more than ever. If you live in a city with an unusually high concentration of creative types such as Nashville, Los Angeles, or New York, then you have probably experienced this firsthand. Living in Nashville myself, a lot of my friends are aspiring musicians, photographers, filmmakers, and producers, and I’m sure that most of their friends probably fall into at least two of those categories as well. Competition is fierce in places like Nashville, especially for songwriters– there are a ton of people here trying to stand out from the crowd. Everybody is trying their hardest to be noticed in a number of different ways, one of which, inevitably, is good branding.

If you talk to any artist manager or business-savvy artist who knows what they’re doing, they will all tell you that building a successful act is very similar to building a brand, or, starting a business. And they aren’t wrong; developing a successful act is a lot about building a strong brand. But developing a successful act is a little bit more than that– it’s not the same as building a brand for coffee or computers. After all, we’re talking about art here, not artisan lattes.

It is true that branding is highly effective (and necessary, to some extent) for differentiating yourself from others, but if you or your management staff comes to the point where you care more about your brand as an artist than you do about creating original, valuable art, then it’s time to reassess your priorities. If you are building your career as an artist around a brand image rather than good music, you’re wasting your time as well as other people’s time. Branding is good for helping you stand out, but it can only leverage so much power. Do you really want to stand out? Strive for excellence. At the end of the day, people will remember you the most for how incredible your art is, not for how “aesthetically pleasing” your band logo is– and you’ll be able to sleep much better, too.

When you think about legendary artists such as Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Johnny Cash, what comes to mind? You probably think about classic songs that mean something to you, not the artist’s branding, though these artists certainly had distinct brand images. When we begin to approach art from the standpoint of building a brand and allow that to consume our focus, we commoditize our art and reduce it to a price tag on a shelf. Music is so much more than that.

Creating music from a business standpoint produces content. Creating music with excellence and honesty in mind creates art. The minute we start to think of music as “content” instead of art, we have succumbed to valuing branding over what is actually important– creating something of value that resonates with people. And if you aren’t creating something of value, something worthwhile, then what are you really after?

Great artists aren’t after fame, success, or fortune. Great artists are concerned with creating something meaningful, lasting, unique, and beautiful. While branding and marketing certainly do play essential parts in the career of any great artist, it can be very easy to allow those aspects of the craft to take center stage and to cloud our vision. The world may have more musicians than ever trying to “make it,” but what the world really needs is musicians working to become artists. That distinction makes all the difference, and your career will be better for it in the long run.