Building a brand identity—part 1

_DSC0006 Pop music artists provide great examples for how to—and how not to—develop a brand identity.

Playing clubs in LA in the classic rock era, I got a close-up view of some talented acts in their formative years and it was obvious from the get-go which ones were taking control of their brand. (Not that anyone ever used that word in the music community, but many were very conscious of how they wanted to be perceived by the public.)

The top artists eventually acquired big-time managers and record companies who helped craft their image, but the savviest of them had already established a distinct brand identity on their own.

Jackson Browne is someone who managed his image well—whether instinctively or consciously—and built his brand slowly and authentically. (I’ve been reading Hotel California—a book mentioned in a previous post—which details how Browne and many of his ambitious compatriots became superstars in the 1970s.) He had the luxury of time to develop his brand because he didn’t cut his first record until years after other artists had begun popularizing his songs.

Browne took full advantage of his classic good looks, his WASPY-artsy name, and his penchant for writing melancholic but beautiful musical verse. In a few short years he established himself as the song-poet laureate of Southern California. He usually performed by himself, mostly on acoustic guitar, occasionally on piano. In the many “hoots” (open mics) I saw him perform, he dressed simply, played simply, moved minimally, and let his songs do the talking.

And the music critics did plenty of listening. NY Times writer Richard Goldstein included an early Browne song, “A Child in These Hills,” in his seminal book, The Poetry of Rock, three years before Browne’s first album.

Browne further refined his image as a member of the hip LA singer/songwriter community by penning tunes with J. D. Souther and future Eagles’ founder, Glenn Frey. By the time Browne released his first album on Asylum in 1972 his reputation as "a thinking man's songwriter" was well established in the music press, as well as in the Southern California coffeehouses. His hyper-literate hit single, “Doctor My Eyes,” only solidified the image, as did his next two albums (For Everyman and Late for the Sky) filled with smart verse. Soon Browne had a band behind him and the “Lord Byron of rock” was headed for stardom. His music got louder but he was still the song-poet.

By contrast, the prodigiously talented James Taylor who got his start at the same time with many of the same musical friends, struggled to establish a coherent brand identity for himself. He achieved some attention with his first album, James Taylor, on the Beatles’ Apple Records, but the label was in disarray at the time and record sales reflected that. Also, the public didn’t quite know what to make of this lanky, brooding singer who played guitar sitting down and avoided eye contact with the audience. Fortunately his second album, Sweet Baby James, with the hit “Fire and Rain,” catapulted him into glory in 1970. But in the absence of a positive narrative about him, stories of drug abuse and previous mental health struggles filled the vacuum. Taylor's talent was undeniable—he was a top-tier singer/songwriter/guitarist—but interviewers always wanted to bring up his troubled past.

Soon his marriage to singer Carly Simon became the big news, and stories about the "celebrity couple" eclipsed those of his checkered history—a small step in the right direction. Taylor began chalking up the hits, while earning critical plaudits (and Grammys) for his craft. But in the 80s his marriage to Simon fell apart and he bottomed out again, resuming old drug habits. Finally, by the end of the decade he cleaned up his act once and for all. Since then—over a 25-year period—he has happily become an avuncular musical presence, free of controversy, known primarily for his superior artistry and flawless performances. He has aged well, along with his brand. But it took a while.

In business whether you work for yourself, a small team, or a large organization, the lessons are the same. If you (singular or plural) don't consciously and deliberately build and shape your identity, others will do it for you. In the latter case you’re stuck with what's known as a “default brand.” Of course you don’t have total control over how customers will perceive you (“brand impressions”), but at least you can anticipate problems and plan accordingly.

Many businesses big and small get a bad rep from the beginning and take years to recover—or never recover at all. (In the music business I've known scores of talented artists you’ve never heard of who couldn’t get record deals because of their radioactive reputations.) Not to mention mature, successful businesses whose brand later gets tarnished, requiring a long and serious rebuild—whether a corporate behemoth like BP or a one-woman brand like Martha Stewart.

To be continued in a future post.

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    1. Yeah, that's obvious to business folks but not so much to artists. Of course the best case of an artist who defined himself was/is Dylan—again and again.

    1. True enough. But if he’d deliberately created an identity/personality/character/story the public could latch onto he might have doubled his sales. The guy was/is gifted like few others. The first album that fell into the abyss had great stuff on it. But putting financial success aside, James had to endure the obloquy of being labeled a druggie and crazyman and having to undergo humiliating interviews with music reporters for YEARS. (He had a great response to questions about the meaning behind his tunes: “I wrote those songs so I wouldn’t have to talk about this stuff.”) That kind of scrutiny took its toll on him and probably contributed—in a negative spiral—to his further battles with drugs. He’s lucky he survived. If you’re a one-person business, a negative default brand can literally kill you.

  1. Btw, the contrast I've set up between Browne and Taylor isn't completely stark. Jackson did create some controversies, but they never seemed to stick. His legendary womanizing earned him the sexist label, his first wife committed suicide, and his relationship with Daryl Hannah ended with tabloid stories of physical abuse (which all sides have denied). He seemed to enjoy a good relationship with the media, and the public in general. Not so much for Taylor, at least early in his career.

  2. As a teen-aged would-be West Coast fan stranded in St. Albans, UK during the early 70's, I was THE Jackson Browne fan. I think I wore out my copy of "Late for the Sky" within 6 months of its release. I always got the feeling, right or wrong, that he simply lived as he wanted, didn't pay too much attention to fashion, stood up for causes he believed in and tried to be himself. There always seemed to be a certain honesty and integrity that defined him, rather than a carefully cultivated image. Although I guess in a way that his "This is who I am" stance was the image.

    BTW I think that the early JB records were distinguished (a word I use in the widest sense) by the presence and amazing playing of David Lindley. Wow - what a player! (One of the best shows I ever attended was a David Lindley / Ry Cooder show: two master players, dozens of guitars, great songs and some astounding musicianship. But that's another story.) Obviously, JB had the songs but Lindley really brought those early records to life.

    To me, Lindley has to be The Unsung Hero of the entire West Coast movement. He re-united with JB a few years back to do a tour of Spain, which was recorded for a live album called "Love Is Strange." It's a phenomenal concert and one of the most beautifully recorded CDs I've got: you can feel the warm Spanish air and the goodwill of the crowd seeping through the entire recording. Highly recommended.

    1. Browne's brand identity was an authentic one. I don't know if he carefully or painstakingly cultivated it, but when I first laid eyes on him he already had a uniquely distinct persona, nearly 4 years before he released his first record. He was using poetic imagery rarely heard in song ("these days I sit on cornerstones and count the time in quarter-tones to ten") and writing about loss and failure as if he were 80 years old. And the kid was amazingly confident beyond his 19 years. He had a certain aloofness about him too. He usually performed the same songs at the hoots, "These Days" and "Song for Adam," as if to say take 'em or leave 'em.

      Thanks for the tip on the album. Yes, Lindley was the perfect accompanist to JB—as can be heard on the For Everyman album—which was the album I wore out. I saw Lindley perform a few times with Jackson in LA in the early days and was blown away.

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