Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Music Guidance. Thinking About... How You Look

This article originally appeared on the blog at Songeist.com.

In this special weekly guidance series we’re going to be exploring three key aspects of your band’s existence and encouraging you to consider these elements of your act with as much thought and deliberation as you write your songs. Simply expecting the inertia of creativity to steer your ship into the right direction is rarely enough; your band’s command of who you are, what you do and how you come across are all hugely important to consider. Across the series, Barney will use some real-world examples to illustrate how important these factors are and help you to apply these concepts to your own band.



You've identified the original and unique mix of styles with which your band is going to explode onto the musical landscape. You've found every last webzine to pursue, each blog writer to email and sussed out all the happening underground hotspots for your particular style. But what do you look like? And not just what do you look like but what does the band look like? Visually, what does your art evoke? A consistent aesthetic across all your output, from your clothing to your artwork to your interviews is ideal. Your average metalcore band's music is very different from that of an indie-folk act, and so it makes sense that their attire, promotional material and artwork looks different too. If it's representing you visually, it's worth thinking about how it defines and adds to your brand. And there it is, that dreaded marketing speak! But brand is something that all successful acts have a handle on, even if they do their hardest to pretend they've never even considered it. And there's nothing that gets some bands more defensive than talking about that dreaded little word... image.

The Specials, a band with a strong image, across all their content.

Some bands balk at the very notion of discussing image. Some bands detest the idea of their appearance affecting their art. But a successful band without a decent image is very much the exception to the norm. By image I don't necessarily mean that you need to look ostentatious, showy or even fashionable. And while I understand the sentiment behind the cliché that 'people have paid to see you, so you should make some effort', that's really not always the case. A grunge band might look just great in ripped jeans and second-hand lumberjack shirts. But if three of the band members dress like that and the drummer dresses in sports gear, it's just not going to look right. By image I simply mean a consistent look across your band's appearance that relates to your music. There's no hard and fast rules to this and great band images vary wildly. The Police simply each bleached their hair blonde. Your image could even be that you all look completely different. As long as you've discussed your image and have decided what it is, you're on the right track. Certain members in any band are inevitably going to be more stylish than others, so if you're not one of those, consider swallowing your pride and let them help you dress. Franz Ferdinand and Blur were always bands where it looked somewhat like the singer dressed the drummer, but they were both bands whose image was a great part of their appeal. The really tricky part is making it look effortless. Bands like The Specials and The Ramones are some of the most credible bands around, but they also have two of the most iconic band images in history. It’s hard to imagine those groups of people discussing their wardrobe and haircuts. But the evidence that they must have is there, be it matching leather jackets or pork-pie hats, in every promo shot.

If image is something you're struggling with, it's worth thinking outside the box. In my band, image was something that we knew we had really lacked in our past attempts at being in bands. We decided that it was hopeless to try to dress the same because there was a range of styles within the band itself (a contrast of styles we actively drew upon in the music). Faced with the impossible task of streamlining our wardrobes, we decided to simply wear whatever we were comfortable in, but match the colours across our outfits. Red, Black and White was the, on reflection slightly unpleasant, combination I chose, but there it was, and we stretched the scheme onto our CDs, website and merch. We knew we were never going to set the world alight in the fashion stakes but we at least we had something that pulled us all together. Over the years, we’ve changed our colour schemes many times but we’ve always stuck to this strategy.

 The Ramones. Just happened to all dress exactly the same.
YOUR VISUAL BRANDThink about some adjectives that describe your music. They could be words like abrasive, dark and menacing. Or words like tender, fragile and comforting. Now consider if the visual assets of your act, from band photos, to logo design, to record artwork, express these words too. Pop and rock music are art forms that have a strong visual element. It isn't just your band image, your visual brand is part of everything you do, even your stage show. Fluorescent sticks and ultraviolet lights were staples of the live shows of bands in the new rave scene back in the early noughties, bringing the scene's luminous artwork to life onstage. It's simply worth remembering that how you look, both in person and represented by your assets, has a huge effect on how people perceive your music. If that makes you uncomfortable, instead of thinking of it as having to use your image and assets to lie about your music in a way that's dishonest and showy, it might be more useful to consider how your imagery can support your music and the ideas and emotions that you want it to evoke.

First and foremost, think about your band photographs. Once you've nailed a consistent look across the band in terms of your clothing, all the style and philosophy of your music may also be expressed elsewhere in these images. While it's an extreme cliché to have an old-school rapper stood in front of graffiti on an urban wall, it's a fairly clear example of this concept. Just as we discussed how important it is that your music represent where you're from in PART 1 of this series, the setting of your photographs can relate this too. Record artwork is another great way to express the character of your band and the ideal place to start in terms of brainstorming approaches to capture the aesthetic of your music in a visual form. Perhaps nailing the right artwork for your band is the jumping-off point you need to then go back and re-assess how you present yourself in terms of image? You can continue this through to your logo design and the way that you present your website. If you're a cool, quirky, tropical indie band, your logo and web presence should look completely different from that of a dark dubstep act. After all, the emotions that your respective music styles evoke when people listen to them are completely different. The key is to consider the characteristics of your music that are evocative and choose imagery that reflects those characteristics.

Aphex Twin's imagery is cold, unsettling and complex, just like his music, and supports his music across all his platforms.

How a band looks can even go beyond the visual. Any text related to a band is a great opportunity to push the band's brand and express your philosophy, image and style. If you're a hip-hop act whose lyrics are deep, complex and intellectual, then any text related to your music should have the same attention to detail and character as your lyrics. Use your biographies, social media and blog output to express your character and write with the same tone as the list of adjectives that describe your music. I wrote a blog for our friends at the Unsigned Guide called the Top 5 Mistakes That Bands Make on Their Biogs that highlights the perils of going too far with this approach, but as long as you remain aware of the purpose that your writing is for, having some fun with the style of its delivery is a great sizzle on your steak.

Another tremendous opportunity to put across your philosophy, image and style, are interviews. With the amount of internet blogs being written about bands right now, it's inevitable that you'll be asked to do one sooner or later. Remember, just like when you are writing your biography, an interview is a chance for you to put across your band in words and not a dull exercise where you literally answer the questions. If the questions are bad, nix them and answer the interviewer with what you want to say about the band. Steer the questions towards what you want to express that is interesting about your band. I recommend that bands "use the biography to highlight the music’s truth, not relay the literal truth" and I feel the same about interviews. Finally, it doesn't hurt to have stock answers to a range of questions that you, as a band, sit and hash out to keep the whole band 'on message'. As well as meaning that there is a consistency in your story that way, it provides a great opportunity for you as a band to touch base about your philosophy, bounce around ideas about your art, and refresh your memories and vision of where you're at and where you're heading.

THANKS AND GOODBYE FOR NOWI hope you've enjoyed this series as much as I've enjoyed writing it and the ideas presented have enhanced your grasp of who you are, what you do and how you look. To re-iterate my point from the introduction, "these blogs will be most beneficial if used as a jump-off point for discussion between you and your band members. The whole idea is that you, as an emerging band, get on the same page about who you are, what you do and how you look. If you have a unified vision, it's half the battle. Organise a band meeting, hash these things out and I guarantee you'll be making a positive and productive step for your band."

This is my last guidance blog for Songeist. If you've enjoyed my advice and writing, please keep up with my band HERE, my blog HERE and follow me on Twitter HERE. Thank you to everyone that's read, commented and shared these blogs and thanks to Songeist for the opportunity to write them.
The Specials shot courtesy Walt Jabsco's Flickr used under Creative Commons License.
The Ramones shot courtesy Sean Davis‘s Flickr used under Creative Commons License.
Aphex Twin Logo courtesy Richard Roche's Flickr used under Creative Commons License.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Music Guidance. Thinking About... What You Do

This article originally appeared on the blog at Songeist.com

In this special weekly guidance series we're going to be exploring three key aspects of your band's existence and encouraging you to consider these elements of your act with as much thought and deliberation as you write your songs. Simply expecting the inertia of creativity to steer your ship into the right direction is rarely enough; your band's command of who you are, what you do and how you come across are all hugely important to consider. Across the series, Barney will use some real-world examples to illustrate how important these factors are and help you to apply these concepts to your own band.



When many young bands see their idols headlining festivals it's natural to want to emulate them. Many emerging bands see, say, Foo Fighters up there and want to do the same, so they start a band that sounds like Foo Fighters. But it's vital to remember that Dave Grohl started out in a van in a cult hardcore band called Scream and built up his career from there. Queens of The Stone Age didn’t start as Reading-headlining rock titans; the seeds for the band grew from Kyuss and the stoner rock and desert music scenes. For Metallica it was the bay area thrash scene. For Green Day and Blink 182 there were scores of compilation appearances and toilet punk gigs. For every huge indie band like Foals, there are a hundred arty underground gigs played with like minded-bands put on by DIY promoters under their belt. For every 'overnight success' story like Royal Blood, there are always years of van mileage, local line-ups and band names in their wake. You can’t, and shouldn’t want to, skip this essential part of a band’s development.

For guitar bands, EDM acts, hip-hop artists and practically anyone other than the kids on Pop Idol, throwing yourself into the culture and activity of the underground scene of your chosen genre is essential. Not only does it provide a gigging circuit, an audience and that vital context for your act, it provides an opportunity to learn from a thriving culture that informs and influences the mainstream. Every successful band that I have ever seen live before they exploded, from the aforementioned Foals, to So Solid Crew, to You Me At Six, to Gallows, I saw in the context of an underground, grassroots show, showcasing similar acts as part of an underground scene. Many more of today's stars, from Dizzee Rascal and Chase and Status to Frank Turner and Enter Shikari began as big fishes in small musical ponds before making that coveted leap to the Main Stage.

Josh Homme: I Remember When All This Was Just Deserts...

The wisdom of starting your band at the grassroots of your chosen style is not unique to one band or scene, these ideas can be extrapolated across all styles of music. Take any hugely successful rock or indie or dance act and the majority have a history within an underground gigging circuit. So your approach to gigs should be studied and specific and this is what so many emerging artists playing mixed bills, looking for A&R in their local venues, forget. The lifeblood of any underground scene is the gigs and this cannot be understated. Grassroots music scenes work through friendships, not strength of demos, and the difference between being shunned by a scene and being immersed and accepted into one is often about what you put in. Returning favours and being an active participant at live shows will reap rewards for an emerging band that your songwriting might not. Fundamentally, there is no point playing the kind of gigs where a promoter ropes together miscellaneous local bands with no thought about style or customer, just to open the bar at their venue. Ultimately, the crowds at those gigs are made up of friends and families of the bands, who leave as soon as their artists have finished their show. Even worse are the ghastly ‘pay to play’ shows put on by promoters who ‘showcase’ whomever they know will sell tickets to their circle of friends, at no financial risk to themselves. That’s not a promoter of music, that's a promoter of a bar. Those gigs are pointless and don’t attract A&R. For all the reasons I have already outlined, no matter what the promoter might promise, A&R don't randomly cruise around local shows looking for bands; they wait for bands to begin to make ripples in their own scene before they come to them. At best, local mixed bills are an opportunity to play live, but that can be done D.I.Y with just a little hard work.

When I started my band, one thing we got right due to previous bad experiences was our resolution to never, ever play a 'pay to play' show, a battle of the bands or a miscellaneous mixed-bill on a local band night. We didn’t look at Manchester any different from any other British city and we were not vaguely interested in being a ‘big’ local band. We decided we would forge the path ourselves to become part of our chosen scene and those other things would come on board as we went along. We identified the touring bands that we wanted to play with that were within our reach and then booked those that were affordable to play the venues ourselves. We then put our band and other like-minded and stylistically appropriate local bands in support. After putting on several gigs, favours were returned and we were invited to other cities to play and that lead to strong relationships with other bands. When the bands came back on tour, I let them stay at my house and we became friends and part of the circuit. Pretty soon, we were getting booked all over the country and once we had a record deal we were seasoned enough at playing live to go on tour. But we’d had to take the risk of putting on our own shows and all those steps to build relationships with our peers to make that happen. It sounds calculated, and it was, but we had great fun doing it and made some wonderful friends and I recommend that hands-on approach to gigs to all emerging acts.

Dizzee Rascal. Exploded with his debut album, but began in the grassroots pirate radio grime scene.

Any scene will have its own webzines, perhaps even print fanzines, and so it shouldn't be at all difficult to identify the other bands, promoters and movers and shakers and jump right in. With the blogosphere and online promotion as huge as it has become, there is an immediate networks of blogs and taste-maker sites for practically all styles that are easy to find if you just put in a little effort. I don't want to make it too easy for you, but the list of links on Andy Von Pip's excellent blog is a wonderful starting place. Hype Machine should make short work of figuring out the blogs that relate to your style and the music that's making waves right now. Exciting and thriving though this network is, remember, it's there to help your band along and support good music, not to build your career alone. Only concentrating on your online music listens isn't going to cut it if you can't play live or create a presence in your scene. I've seen bands with quarter of a million online listens that couldn't draw double-figures at gigs. Although MP3 downloads and online plays might have replaced the rigmarole of sending CDs to club nights, the concept of getting to know the people who represent your chosen style at the grassroots remains. So while it's tempting to grab that list of blogs and send your EPK to everyone on there, it's actually better to simply choose a few that you know cover, and have a history of supporting bands that sound like you, and push it to them personally.

The famous story goes that Bloc Party were signed after they gave their CD to Steve Lamacq at a Franz Ferdinand gig. That wasn't an accident, it was a result of knowing the players and playing the game correctly. For my own part, on a much smaller scale, my band's initial approach to sending out our recording was the same as it was playing live. We weren’t initially sending our demos out to the big managers, agents and major labels. We made a rough and ready three track demo before we’d even started playing live and sent that out to all the ska fanzines and nascent webzines we could find. Fortuitously, one of the tracks was chosen to appear on a compilation by the UK’s leading fanzine of our style, which got our name out there very early in our existence. At Reading Festival I was handed a flyer with the name of a club night in London which displayed a list of bands that were spun by the DJ that had a great deal of crossover with my band's music. I sent a demo over to the club, addressing it c/o the club night’s name. A few weeks later I got a phone-call from the promoter inviting us to support a US band doing their only UK show in London. The promoter went on to put us in the studio to produce a professional demo (which ultimately got us signed) and subsequently he also went on to manage us for a number of years. These things never would have happened if I hadn’t seized the opportunity to send the CD to that club with a decent covering letter, based on a list of bands and a wing and a prayer. Just like Bloc Party, I had identified where we fitted in and the places that were playing the kind of music we were playing and it all went from there.

Bloc Party. Good mates with Steve Lamacq.
Next week, in the last blog of this series 'Thinking About... How You Look', I'll talk about another couple of things that you don't necessarily consider when you're getting your band together and those are image and interviews. For now, don't forget to let me know what you think of the blog and please share it! Thanks for reading.
Queens of the Stone Age shot courtesy NRK P3's Flickr used under Creative Commons License.
Dizzee Rascal shot courtesy michael dornbierer‘s Flickr used under Creative Commons License.
Reading Festival Bloc Party shot courtesy Mark Freeman's Flickr used under Creative Commons License.