A few months ago, I wrote a piece on branding lessons we can learn from music's biggest names. It includes some great advice on branding yourself, the power of collaboration, and knowing when to reinvent your work. Luckily, there are dozens more examples that exist is today's mainstream market that you can use to redefine and better focus your career. In this article, we'll take a look at what independent musicians can learn from stars like J. Cole, Lady Gaga, and Dave Grohl.
1. Be authentic (especially when others aren't)
Authenticity is something all artists should strive for, but many artists are tempted by showcasing illusions of grandeur to their fans. This is especially true in hip-hop. You have folks talking about their gold-plated knickknacks and cheetahs on leashes. While I'm a huge hip-hop fan and actually really dig braggadocious rap, artist J. Cole slowly began to evolve when he saw it wasn't sticking.
Cole was no failure by any means. His debut album, Cole World, was acclaimed for its lyrical precision, but radio really just picked up on the more poppy tunes such as "Work Out." This catchy but simplistic song actually led hip-hop pioneer Nas to claim that he was "disappointed" in Cole for releasing the track, as his skill is much greater than that. This led Cole to release "Let Nas Down" on his sophomore release Born Sinner.
Born Sinner, again, was an acclaimed album with numerous tracks going to radio, award nominations, and chart success. Many critics, however, felt he wasn't showcasing his full skill. While it was certainly more eclectic (and successful) than his debut album, there was still a bit to be desired.
Cole's fight with catchy rap songs and lyrical skill finally came to a head in 2014 with his latest release, 2014 Forest Hills Drive. The album contained no guest features, which is rare for a hip-hop album, and it was all Cole telling true stories of his life and showcasing his true, solid lyrical style. Tracks contained stories of growing up in a small town, apologizing to his mother for leaving when he got famous, and much more.
It was very apparent that he made this album for himself, rather than to appease the masses. This was something fans picked up on, and in turn, could get behind. This authenticity became even more real when he simply got in his tour bus and traveled the US just to meet fans. This was paired with a Twitter campaign where he would announce his next meet-and-greet spot. He traveled coast to coast, and then months later embarked on a national tour.
What a DIY artist can learn from all this is that sometimes it may be better to go against the grain and do what you know is meaningful to you. Sure, your work may not resonate with the masses, but it'll resonate with the folks that matter. Better yet, you may even find out that the stuff you thought was too personal or too intellectual will actually resonate better than expected. The fact that Cole went on a national meet-and-greet tour also shows the necessity and effectiveness of never being too big or famous of taking the time to meet and talk with your fans.
2. Showcase your true talent
Lady Gaga is most associated with her meat dresses and other avant garde behavior. However, what most people forget is that years before gracing the stage as Lady Gaga, she was a very respected and well-known songwriter and backing vocalist. She was brought in to oversee and consult various projects in pop, musical theatre, and rock genres. Not to mention that she was accepted into NYU's musical theatre training conservatory.
Gaga has talent, but it's often overlooked by the live performance aspects of her work. While she has certainly not failed in her performances regarding everything from branding her fanbase (Little Monsters) to generating a very solid brand, she's recently reached new markets by simply showcasing her true vocal talent.
Gaga recently put out a crooning duet album with legendary singer Tony Bennett, which put her in good graces with vocal purists and an older generation. Similarly, an astounding Sound of Music tribute at the 2015 Oscars put her true vocal ability in front of many new fans. While true Little Monsters were likely aware of Gaga's talent from day one, this opened many new avenues and brought in new fans.
A lot of other artists slowly showcase their skills. For instance, John Mayer is easily one of the best guitarists around these days. His early music, however, put more focus on his vocals, and his work gradually turned into a more bluesy showcase. This evolved to the point where he collaborated with artists purely as a guitarist, which even further boosted awareness of skills.
We can learn a lot from this, namely that you should always showcase your true talent. If you're a great jazz vocalist, try and integrate it into your work. If your pianist is great at blues numbers, put that into a track.
3. Be a leader
Dave Grohl sure has become a thought leader in our industry. It happened slowly, but seemingly suddenly as he was consistently quoted in the press, delivering keynotes at events like SXSW, and much more.
The thing about this is that it even furthers his new work, as he's consistently in the limelight. Similarly, Taylor Swift penned columns and gave interviews on her thoughts on the industry and streaming.
You don't have to write editorial columns for the New York Times, but by being involved in your community, you obviously up your brand's worth and enter the public's minds in a different way. It can be for a cause you believe in or even by leading your community by offering music lessons or your thoughts on topics to local media when the chance arises. It's a small tactic, but a powerful one!
Wanna learn more about branding? Check out these articles:
- 8 Ways to Build and Strengthen Your Band's Brand
- What the Ad Industry Can Teach You About Running Your Band Like a Brand
- 3 Musician Branding Fails We Should All Learn From
- 8 Steps to Building Your Personal Music Brand
As a music marketing strategist, Tyler Allen works with an extensive array of artists, labels, music tech, and music retail entities. Tyler began his music industry career with Sony Music Entertainment and RED Distribution, as well as the advertising industry. He is dedicated to giving veteran artists the tools to preserve their legacy, and new artists the tools to begin theirs (as well as everything in between). Learn more at wtylerconsulting.com.