Sometimes it’s difficult to tell whether an artist places more importance on their art or their “brand.” This thought was at the center of my mind when the Daily News recently reported that Lady Gaga—who has been in the midst of a weight gain “scandal”—is planning to release a line of bottled-water-like beverages. Putting aside the obvious question of what will be in this “not-quite-water,” the story made me think seriously about the overall state of branding in music. Musicians have used their likenesses and personalities to sell unrelated products for as long as I can remember, and many times these extensions take on a life of their own. If I have to see one more female songstress shame her adolescent fan base into buying a lifetime supply of Proactiv, I might punch a wall. What effect do these efforts have on the continued readability and authenticity of their music? Can art and branding remain successful and separate?
Before an artist can even consider building a brand, they must connect musically to listeners. This process can differ depending on genre, but whether it’s bringing tired dancers back for one more run or giving angst-filled teenagers something to weep to, this connection has to occur before the artist can even think of capitalizing on his or her own image. This is why we listen to music, and this is why we develop such loyalty to our favorite artists and the image they create of themselves. Many of us reach a point where our association with a given artist is so positive that we will buy anything that contains their name. I’m not ashamed to admit that I once considered buying a set of bamboo spoons at a Jackson Browne concert.
The danger when musicians attempt to capitalize on their image is that the music and branding can switch places. What was once an artist’s reason for being becomes merely an instrument for selling more sneakers, or champagne, or headphones. There’s nothing wrong with being a consumer products mogul, but it’s hard to build that successfully while continuing to progress as an artist. This also holds true for musicians that attempt to become movie or TV stars while simultaneously pursuing their music careers. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like every actor or actress I’ve ever seen on the Disney Channel has come out with an awful yet successful album whose only purpose is publicizing his or her TV show.
One way in which I think this can work is when the side project strives to capture not only the artist’s personality but also the music itself.
Someone who I feel has done a remarkable job with this is the musician/performance artist/actor Tom Waits. His songs often feature dark, disturbed, or downright strange characters, and his acting career has mirrored this with roles in “Down By Law,” “The Book of Eli,” and most recently “Seven Psychopaths.” The characters he portrays in films are remarkably similar to those that inhabit his songs, and his remarkable management team constantly puts to use a coherent website, email, and YouTube strategy that adds depth and breadth to Tom’s singular artistic vision. This summer (as a loyal email subscriber), my inbox received multiple disturbing stills of Tom with cryptic captions as a means of promoting his trippy video for “Hell Broke Luce.” Granted, it’s easier for someone like Tom Waits to accomplish this, because as an experimental musician his brand is permitted to be more flexible. But the principle should be the same for all musicians.
I truly believe that art and branding cannot be both separate and successful. If they separate, then one will become dominant over the other—and if they are both successful, then there must be a connection. Musicians create music, first and foremost, and that music presumably comes from somewhere deep inside of them. If they are to be truly successful in their other endeavors, whether they are for financial gain or pure enjoyment, then they must come from that same place.
David Ecker is a sophomore in Columbia College. Slightly Off Key runs alternate Fridays.