Many artists have some passing familiarity with the concept of branding. Maybe, they even feel that quiet nagging voice in the back of their minds saying that it’s something they ought to be doing…and yet, the regular and intentional application of a brand strategy is far from common practice. Why is that? While there may be a number of factors, I believe that there is a kind of fear at the root of some of our most basic and unexamined assumptions regarding the nature of ‘freedom of expression‘.
As artists, we are students of flow. When closely examining the nature of the creative spark for myself, I find the most poignant moments tend to feel more like getting out of the way, rather than ”forcing it”. This is the kind of flow I’m talking about. Regardless of the genre, music that has an earnest, human-center possesses within it a living, breathing essence. There is an authentic experience that, to me, feels greater than the result of a cold, calculated construction.
At face value, this intuition may first appear to be antithetical to some prescriptive branding regiment. This is the first unexamined assumption I would like to address.
Implementing a strong understanding of your brand is not a creative limiting factor.
Let us begin by defining what a brand is.
In short, your brand is your story. Things like color palettes, aesthetics, and recurring motifs, are NOT your brand. They are in service of your brand. Your brand is the common thread that ties all of these different modalities of expression into one cohesive tapestry which, for brevity’s sake, I will refer to as “your story”. I want to be clear here, when I say ”story“, I’m not talking about a chronological regurgitation of events that happened to you. I’m talking about the content of the transmission that only you can give.
A good story takes you on a journey. You can think of your brand identity as the main character in the narrativization of that journey. In order to get anywhere, you must first understand where you’re standing.
“Some people say they haven’t yet found themselves. But the self is not something one finds; it is something one creates.”Thales of Miletus (640 – 546 B.C.)
When speaking with artists regarding the resistance to defining themselves, a common theme seems to be the feeling that we have not quite “found our voice” as artists yet, as if it’s hidden in some treasure chest buried deep in our unconscious. Supposing this idealized version of you does exist, just waiting to be unearthed, let’s follow that thought to its conclusion. How long until you’re bored of that one too? When that inevitably happens, your options become: keep doing what is making you unhappy, quit, or continue to evolve. The purpose of this article is to discuss how to approach this evolution with intentionality and artistic poise.
One of the most exemplary cases of this that I found in recent history is the UK-based, pop-rock band The 1975. For this article, I would like to focus on what the band has been deemed “the trilogy“ of albums.
Self-titled album The 1975 (2013)
“The album isn’t a haberdashery of past singles and old stuff, it has been focused down into a collective piece of work”The 1975 Lead Singer, Matty Healy at the time of release.
Not a moment is wasted. This album begins by establishing a tradition that would span the better part of a decade. To date, every album begins with a track titled “The 1975”. The band uses the same vocal samples but creates new supporting arrangements. Healy explains, “I suppose what we’re doing is checking in. Like when you haven’t seen someone in a while and they’re like ‘oh your hair is different’”. He continues, “It’s about inclusion. The video games and movies I would obsess over would always be the ones that made me feel personally addressed. If you don’t know the band, you may just hear it as a piece of music. It’s like an in-joke”. He goes on to explain how this fosters a greater sense of community by rewarding those paying attention. In another interview he compares this choice to that of the SEGA start-up sound.
Visually, this era was primarily defined by high contrast black and white moody imagery. The band cites the early, overly-filtered, Instagram aesthetic as an inspiration for this albums presentation. This was paired with lyrics sprinkled throughout depicting a touch of “teenage hellscape”. They expressed a desire to speak in the aesthetic voice of that unique moment in time.
The majority of the music videos accompanying the album were also in black and white, with the notable exception of “Girls”, one of the albums poppier tunes. The band however, never misses an opportunity to be self-referential. The music video for Girls begins with the band on the sound stage complaining that the music video feels “too pop” and that “it needs to be black and white for a start”. The video proceeds by gradually adding more splashes of pastel pinks, yellows, and neon light. I consider this to be a betrayal of expectations, more than a betrayal of brand, as the betrayal of expectations became contributive to the brand itself. This video also acts as foreshadowing for the next album.
I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It (2016)
Let’s start by noting the similarities between the two albums. The “box” is still serving as the central focus of the bands album covers, but the color palette went from high contrast black and white to neon pinks. It appears the band is playing with the duality of opposites, Even in the choice of naming the album something so eccentric and long as “I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It” is contrary to the simplicity of its self-titled counterpart. However, even on the opposite side of the expressive spectrum, the art is still recognizable and feels like it’s coexisting in the same creative universe. Almost as if the music video for “Girls” opened a sort of aesthetic Pandora’s box.
The visual consistencies presented in the self-titled run of music videos was also present in the bands sophomore release. The thread of neons were represented in the majority of music videos from this era. The black and white theme however, was still present, but became the minority theme. You may notice this is an inversion of the formula for the first set of music videos.
I would like to shine a light on one specific music video from this era. In the music video for the song “The Sound”, the band is performing the song behind plexiglass for an audience of critics. The music video cuts frequently to pastel pink title cards with criticisms the band has received after the success of their freshman release. Critiques fill the full screen such as “This band believes they have a charismatic singer…they are mistaken”, “is this a joke?”, “They’re essentially making robotic Huey Lewis tunes” and “I only heard Chocolate once, but I hated it” (a criticism that was common among casual listeners). By the end of the music video the critics had swapped places with the band, which feels like a commentary on how musical critics have themselves become regurgitative and contrived.
For another point of reference, this artistic stance reminds me of Norwegian painter, Edvard Munch (famous for his 1893 work “The Scream”). If a painting of his were to be damaged, his position was that the damage is now a part of the paintings history and therefore a part of the art itself. Such damages eventually became the marks of authenticity used to distinguish originals from imitations by art collectors. The 1975 has betrayed the old model of rockstars above and outside of their criticism, by incorporating it. Not ignoring or pushing against said criticism, but rather integrating the very words meant to tarnish them and re-appropriating them in the aid of inclusion.
Munch also selected twenty-two of his most iconic paintings from throughout his career and displayed them under the collective title “Frieze: Cycle of Moments from Life“. They were divided into four thematic sections: love, the passing of love, anxiety, and death. I see a similar holistic approach taken by the band in their ability to create a trilogy composed of unique constituent parts, that when brought together feel continuous and whole.
A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships (2018)
In a bold move, the band moves out of the dualism represented in their first two albums and into a more aesthetically deconstructive direction. The album artwork itself was inspired by an art style known as Neoplasticism. One of the primary statements expressed with this art style is that of calling for a balance between the individual and the universal, and for the liberation of art from the constraints of tradition. In the same spirit, The 1975 broke from their own self imposed traditions. Most every measurable pillar of stylistic identity was broken. No aesthetic law was revered.
This does not mean the album was devoid of direction, but rather the message was intentionally delivered in a more polychromatic, heterogeneous fashion.
The album covers a wide myriad of subject matter, but one recurring theme is the exploration of the unexamined distinction made between online intimacy, versus traditional intimacy. Compare this to the aesthetic inspiration of the first self-titled album, which was informed by the burgeoning Instagram filter culture. As the technology evolved, so did our relationship with it, and our world evolved alongside. The band is not outside of that predicament. Just like us, they are feeling around in the dark trying to figure out what the relationship between us and our digital reflections are. There is a larger story arc on display, and that is the story of us ‘navigating this changing world.’ Much of this album is an attempt to put words to the thoughts and feelings that we are experiencing for the first time in this unique moment. It seems, in order to tell a larger story, the band found the duality of black & white, or neon pink was simply too small a stage and they required a larger canvas.
Within the larger theme of change, the band takes a more externalized lyrical stance in the song “Love It If We Made It“. The opening lyric reads as follows:
We’re f***ing in a car, shooting heroin
Saying controversial things just for the hell of it
Selling melanin and then suffocate the black men
Start with misdemeanors and we’ll make a business out of them
The song delves into the weighty topics of social justice, modernity, and the state of socioeconomic affairs regarding marginalized groups. You may find the imagery strong, but I don’t believe it to be so needlessly. The point being made with the opening line is that if you’re more offended by words rather than true injustices, your offense is shallow and rooted in egoism more than righteousness. The song also includes some thinly veiled references to former President Trump. In an interview, singer Matty Healy pointed out the irony that in order for that song to be played on the radio, the band would be under greater scrutiny and censorship than that of the sitting president.
There is a point of comparison to be made between the subject matter of this song, versus the smaller lyrical sandbox of “teenage hellscape” depicted in their self-titled album. This is one example of how the brand has evolved organically and how the supporting aesthetics expanded to accompany that.
I am not advocating that you do exactly as this band does. The path of evolutionary potential for every artist is as unique as the artist themselves. My hope for this article is that it has left you with some new ideas and possibilities to better equip you to see the larger picture.
May your art be plentiful, honest, and may you never get bored.