Pop does intuitively what brand managers work years to learn – create vivid images and distil ideas into single hits of feeling.
Earlier this year, Black Eyed Peas leader will.i.am gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal about his group’s success. “I consider us a brand,” he said, adding such observations as: “Here’s how the consumer can benefit from the collaboration.” Of course, this kind of business speak is the common language of the music industry, but it’s rare to hear stars talk it. The idea of describing a pop group in terms of branding feels wrong to most fans: there’s something distressing, almost icky about it, even coming from this most self-manufactured of bands.
Why is this? The influence of business thinking on music is usually seen as a one-way deal: marketing and branding corrupt musicians’ creativity by turning it into a process. But it’s more fluid than that: even in an imploding industry, marketers and business people can be desperately envious of musicians and what’s seen as their freewheeling individualism. The boardroom-ready language of business is crossing over into pop at the same time as thousands of laid-off marketers are taking to LinkedIn to declare themselves social media “rock stars”. This month sees the publication of Brian Halligan and David Meerman Scott’s book Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead, which fits four decades’ worth of guitar solos and weed smoking into the context of recent American marketing. The Dead “co-created” their image with their fans; they gave content (bootlegs) away; they followed passion not fashion. In other words, their example jibes nicely with the current business fad for being “disruptive” and surrendering control to your customers – or at least talking a lot about it.
Indeed, pop seems to do intuitively what brand managers work for years to learn. It creates vivid images, it distils profound ideas into single hits of feeling, it projects larger-than-life symbols and icons on to the screen of reality. The 4AD label, which turned 30 in August, remains the most successful example of branding I’ve ever seen. Though Steve Jobs may be a genius, even he would have struggled to shift Ultra Vivid Scene albums – but each Vaughan Oliver 4AD design worked to create a sense of shared purpose and trust that gave sometimes under-par records an aura of importance.
Of course, 4AD’s approach is usually called an “aesthetic”, which sounds a lot more respectable than “branding”. And it’s true that part of the hostility towards the idea of bands as brands comes from the language of business being so leaden and clinical. “Brand” itself is a strangely imprecise word – everyone intuits what it means, but turns mystical when defining it. In this, it’s a bit like “soul” or “rock” – you know it when you find it. Some acknowledge that the word lacks romance. In the mid-2000s, Saatchi & Saatchi proclaimed that brands were dead and we should now call them “lovemarks”, which sounds like a Hallmark Cards take on S&M. Or, indeed, a minor 4AD album.
On the other hand, we may not enjoy phrases like “brand halo” or “cross-platform experience”, but we live them every time we watch a new video on YouTube or trust a label’s latest signing. Our recoil from the language of branding isn’t just a reaction to its ugliness, but to the sense of having everyday acts of fandom classified like this at all. As last week’s X Factor AutoTune row showed, people are picky about the kind of behind-the-scenes information they want to know. X Factor is one of the most intensively researched music shows in the world, with individual contestants given week-on-week makeovers based on the ebb and flow of Twitter opinions. The audience likes the results, but would surely not want to see the charts and slides that go into them.
Anyone who succeeds in pop is good at branding, no matter their other qualities. But that is exactly why talking about it is an unwelcome pulling back of the curtain to show the banal mechanics behind the glamour of music. Following will.i.am by imagining bands as brands tells no lies about them. It tells boring truths, which is a great deal worse.