Personality can’t be pirated
In the past, a personal brand was something plastic; you could create a shape that you thought would appeal to a market, and feed it to them exclusively. It didn’t matter much if it had anything to do with reality; Britney’s brand was virginity long after Britney herself had set hers aside.
Fans always wanted more, really; they wanted an inside scoop, they wanted to know the real artist. They wanted a human connection. But with no way to get it, they were stuck with whatever information the brand was willing to release. In a situation where scarcity of information is the reality, whoever controls the information controls everything.
But information isn’t scarce any more.
Now the personal is public. Without even trying, I know what Arnold Scwarzenegger eats for breakfast, what music George Stromboloupoulis listens to, and which kitten pictures my relatives think are funny. Every day I’m being mentally sandblasted by personal information that erodes the brand that’s been established for any individual.
There are a lot of guides out there for creating your brand as a musician, and staking your territory on the digital landscape. From where I stand, it’s all about as useful as a box of hair. If your brand sets you up as an environmentally-aware artist, one photo of you with a plastic, single-use water bottle can do enormous damage. If your brand sets you up as a nice-guy artist, a few interactions with fans where you behave like a surly old cuss can turn huge swathes of your audience against you. If you’re going to maintain a brand these days, you’re in for a lot of delicate balancing and constant vigilance.
If you really would like to insulate your real self against your fans, then I suppose the work is worth it, but I also suppose that you aren’t going to last very long as a performing artist, either. Eventually, everyone knows everything. You can’t hide behind a brand when your mom’s out there posting your baby photos online.
Go to any corporate brand website: the message is carefully controlled and consistent, everything cheerily one-note. And boring. There’s nothing to hold you there; you might visit strictly for information, but you won’t stick around. That’s branding; making a product – or a person – so boring that no one cares about them. You can update your status all you like, but if all it boils down to is “I’m a nice person! Buy my album!” even the people who like your music and believe that you’re a nice person won’t be sold on your brand.
Because they’re designed to maximize appeal to a certain market, brands can also isolate you from potential fans who don’t fit your marketing scheme. As genre disintegrates and generations wade into each other’s traditional stomping grounds, a strong, specific brand could alienate people who might otherwise become dedicated supporters.
What fans are looking for from artists is perspective, opinions, dimensions, connections, ideas – in short, personality. Your personality, in fact. It’s the one thing no one can pirate, or duplicate effectively. We’ve got a million things available at our fingertips, and if we want a soulless corporate hack or a lack of connection we can have it, easily, instantly. What we don’t have is you. Warm. Real. Connected. Geoff Berner‘s touring stories, sent with his upcoming schedules via plain text email. The Good Lovelies photo galleries of the band goofing around and charming the pants off the nation. Hawksley Workman‘s voice in your ear via podcast, telling you about the songs you love, what the weather was like when he recorded them.
You don’t have to spend all your time on every social network buzzing up a storm; but if you can find a medium that fits you – your personality, your approach – it’s going to come off as much more genuine than all the brand strategies and frantic social networking in the world. Because it will be. And audiences are looking for genuine.
I know that part of the comfort of a brand is the security in knowing that, whatever your flaws, whether people like it or not, it’s not you out there for the world to see, it’s your brand. I get that you may actually be a surly old cuss, and that you may fear that people won’t get past it and on to your music if you don’t pretend to be something else. But some of the artists that I love most are battleaxes and harridans and jerkfaces. They push boundaries. Some artists are as legendary for their character as they are for their music (I’m not dismissing bad or unprofessional behaviour as ‘character’; that’s a whole other kettle of fish). And I think all artists are better in their own skins, telling us stories from where they sit.