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Don't forget the photography

Image of a wall with some text that reads 'insert band here.' Accompanies an article about music photography for bands.

A while ago I wrote a Prescription article about getting your band’s image right (something that, given several looks I’ve sported during my own attempt at a music career, I felt very ill-placed to do). And the other day, as I walked around the corner to get myself an overpriced latte, the article came back to mind.

This is because en route to my latte supplier, I saw a group of scruffy men standing against a wall, looking grumpy. And accompanying this group of grumpy scruffy men was a man with a fairly cheap-looking camera. I don’t think he was a photographer. He was just a mate. Of a bunch of non-descript grumpy scruffy men, who stand up against walls. 

Now obviously, said group of grumpy men were clearly what is known in industry parlance as a ‘rock group’. They might have been a very good rock group – in fact, they could have been the Next Big Thing. I say ‘could have been’ because that day, they did irreparable harm to their career prospects by standing up against a very average-looking sort of wall and getting a mate to take a picture of them with a crap camera.

The reason is simple: in this industry, there are just too many badly-taken pictures of bands standing up against walls looking grumpy (I have been responsible for quite a share of them, so believe me, I know what I’m talking about). If I had a pound for every time a band asked me to check out their website only for me to discover a badly-taken picture of them standing against a wall and looking grumpy, I would be a very rich individual. And if I’m seeing a lot of grumpy-man-wall pics, that means that other music industry professionals are seeing a lot of them, which means that when that A&R guy with the cigar asks the inevitable ‘what do the band look like?’ question he is not going to be madly impressed by a badly-taken picture of grumpy men standing up against a wall in Hackney. The world is full of such pictures. Very few are any good. Yours is unlikely to stand out.

What I’m getting at is this: don’t forget to take your band photography very seriously. Whether you like it or not, the music industry pays as much (if not more) attention to your look as your sound, and for obvious reasons your photos determine the ‘look’ bit of things.

So, here are some tips for sorting out your photoshoot so that you don’t just end up looking like a grumpy man standing beside a wall. 

  • Hire a professional music photographer, or if you are blagging favours from mates, make sure they are mates who are seriously good with a camera.
  • Plan every aspect of your shoot in advance; research locations, clothes and photographers in depth – don’t just go for the quick and easy option.
  • Use lights if at all possible, at least when taking some of the pictures. They add a hell of a lot of atmosphere to shoots, and when a big light is shone in your face, it can make you look younger than any Oil of Ulay product ever could.
  • Choose a decent backdrop for the shoot, ideally one that somehow reflects your music (tip: not a wall).
  • Try to use a mix of indoor and outdoor locations – this will result in a greater variety of pictures.
  • Don’t just stand around looking grumpy. Try a load of different poses, even if they seem outlandish or make you feel uncomfortable – you sometimes get some very interesting shots that way.
  • Take your time, and try to get as many images as possible. Even with a great photographer, it tends to take a lot of shots just to get one usable image.
  • Explore post-production options with your photographer. There are often a host of cool things that can be done in Photoshop to make your image look like it was taken in 1977 (which seems to be very important to 2017’s music industry).

Having said all that, I suppose it’s only fair to admit that sometimes a mate will use their iPhone to capture a brilliant, off-the-cuff photo of you casually loitering beside a wall. There is indeed a place for lo-fi spontaneity in rock photography and some classic photos have been taken that way. But more often than not, devoting a bit of time, thought and money to music photography will yield better results than finding a friend to accompany you on a tour of North London’s finest brick walls.

Music photography services from Prescription PR

An obligatory (but pertinent) plug - we now offer professional photography services for bands. You can find out more in our music photography section, or contact us if you have any queries about this service.

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Tips for making your band stand out from the crowd

catpiano.jpg

Pardon the pun, but making your band stand out these days is a tough gig. You end up trying to differentiate your act not only from a zillion other bands on the internet, but every band and artist in (an ever-lengthening) rock history who 'got there first' as far as your type of music is concerned. However, there are a few tricks that you can employ to distinguish your band from the competition, and, as we are generous souls here at Prescription PR, I thought I’d share some of these with you.

Sound different

“Impossible!”, “It’s all been done” and “But I want to sound like the Clash circa early 1981 just after they released Sandinista!” are all fairly understandable reactions to an instruction to make your band sound different. To a large degree, it has all been done (and to be fair, many tastemakers do insist upon you sounding like the Clash before taking you remotely seriously). 

And yet…it hasn’t all been done. That’s because most bands – The Clash included – don’t live in your house. Eh? Well, in your house you will find a plethora of kitchen utensils that you can hit, record and insert into a drum loop; you can sample the cat and turn her into a funky synth that you can then play on a keyboard; or how about turning your bathroom into a real-life echo chamber? Very few – if any musicians – will have access to your cutlery, cat or bathroom, so the sounds you make using all of these will be completely your own.

Moving outside your house and walking down the road, you will discover that in your local flea market there are host of little Casio keyboards that nobody would in their right mind think of using on a song – except you; there’s also a guy selling a cheap Italian organ from the 80s with some sounds that you haven’t encountered, perhaps for good reason, on any records before.

The point I’m making is not to rely on the standard plugins in Pro Tools or instruments that everybody else uses to make your music – look outside your sequencer or even studio for inspiration and design your own sounds. It’s harder than relying on Pro Tools plugins and presets – but it’s a lot more fun, satisfying and it helps you to sound unique.

Look different

Particularly if you are in the ‘it’s all about the music man’ camp (and being a fashion disaster myself, I sympathise very much with that point of view) it’s easy to disregard or overlook the importance of image. That’s why there are so many rather dull pictures of grumpy bands in jeans standing against a wall in existence. The other mistake bands tend to make when it comes to image is to try to look exactly like their heroes, to the point where the act looks completely unoriginal, or worse, like a tribute band. In the UK the a recent Government-commissioned report has highlighted a serious problem with the number of indie bands that STILL look like Oasis circa 1997.

The answer? A bit of time and thought put into styling your band; use of interesting backdrops for your photoshoots; and hiring a professional photographer with ideas that extend beyond the “let’s all stand up against the wall and look cross lads” approach to photo-taking (and maybe a few lights to boot!).

Unless you are going to make your own clothes (dress the band in bin liners anyone?), you will find it difficult to come up with a totally unique look, but by taking style, shoot locations and choice of photographer seriously, you are making a good start in distinguishing your act from a lot of drab-looking indie bands. 

Position yourself differently

A lot of bands assume that releasing a record simply involves issuing a press release that tells journalists that the new album is out soon and that it sounds, well, a bit like Oasis only with a synth sound that was generated by sampling a cat. Actually, you may find it more productive in some respects to forget about the music for a moment and dwell a bit more on the people making it. Does the drummer in your band have a secret criminal past involving cabbages? Has the lead singer had a relationship with a goat? Does the guitarist emit special pheromones during solos that make his performance sound more pleasing to ladies’ ears? All extreme examples (although I’d bet my bottom dollar that they’ve all been mentioned on press releases before) but what I’m getting at is that by looking at your band members' personal lives, you will often find ‘creative angles’ which can be used to generate high-profile human interest stories in the press.

There is a danger here though: sometimes human interest stories can overshadow the music to the point where either rock critics don’t take you seriously (suspecting that your angle is being used as a substitute for a record deal or talent or both) or where the human interest story completely overshadows the music, to the point where punters focus on the story, view the music as secondary, and ultimately neglect to buy the album. It’s a question of getting the balance between the music and the angle right.

So there you have it: sample some cutlery, wear a bin liner, and have a relationship with a goat: a recipe for instant success. And with that I’m off to investigate my secret past with a cabbage.

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Why you need to find your musical niche

Musical niche - image of a flute on top of some sheet music

Musical niche - image of a flute on top of some sheet music

A recurring source of bun fights in the Prescription office is my general distaste for what I would term ‘silly’ music genre names involving lots of hyphenation, and my colleagues’ enthusiasm for bandying references to future-soul-post-chillwave-witch-house around the place. I’ve been told in no uncertain terms that such terminology is important in today’s music industry and to stop slagging it off in Prescription articles that might be read by purveyors of well, future-soul-post-chillwave-witch-house or the journalist(s) that dig(s) it. And as I prepare to be rapped over the knuckles or caned soundly across the backside for daring to open this article with yet another swipe at portentous genre names, I contemplate that actually, my colleagues (and occasional editors) sort of have a point. These long-winded incomprehensible genre names ARE actually very important.

Here’s why: we find ourselves in a post-post-post-post-modern era where there are an increasing number of independent bands who plunder and combine ideas from an ever-lengthening (and, thanks to streaming, increasingly audible) music history, inject these ideas into songs using an ever-increasing amount of audio equipment (both new and vintage) and inflict the results onto an online sea of music listeners who, thanks to the efforts of the aforementioned indie bands, the development of pop music over time and the disruptive nature of the internet no longer really have particularly homogenous tastes in music. What you end up with is niches. The kind of niches that yes, really do generate fans of future-soul-post-chillwave-witch-house.

And with this niche comes opportunity. Your niche might not be huge; sticking with the future-soul-post-chillwave-witch-house example, maybe there are 500 people worldwide who understand whatever that means and really dig it. But if you as an artist know how to find this audience, and how to speak to it, then you open up the possibility to do two things:

  • generate an income from this niche: in my experience, people with minority interests tend to have less opportunity to indulge them and so splash out more willingly when the opportunity to indulge arises. So even if the audience you are targeting is really small, it may be more financially valuable to you than say, trying to convince a multitude of Coldplay fans to buy some music.
  • develop a fanbase that will be far more passionate advocates of your act than the average joe (thus, hopefully, helping you to eventually gain popularity outside it).

But how do you find and speak to your niche audience? Well, I’ve been thinking about this lately with a view to increasing the popularity of my own brand of retro-ever-so-slightly-camp-but-occasionally-dark-art-rock which I will one day unleash again on the world, and these are some ideas I’ve come up with.

1. Find out what your niche actually is

You may think you sound like David Bowie mixed with a bit of Brian Ferry. Actually, you sound more like Phil Collins mixed with a dash of Usher (interesting).  But hey, don’t diss the post-Phil-Collins-Usher audience! If that’s the micro-genre you fit into, dem's the folks you’re looking for, so stop going after the hipper neo-Bowie-Ferry fans. In other words, before you start promoting your music, gauge opinion on it – not in terms of quality, but in terms of who people think it sounds like and what genre it belongs to. This will help you identify the precise audience you need to speak to and stop you hitting lovers of intelligent 70s rock with inordinately high-pitched squeals combined with big floppy eighties drum solos.

2. Find out where your niche lives

Once you’ve actually decided you are a post-Phil-Collins-Usher act, it’s time to find the post-Phil-Collins-Usher fans. The internet offers you two main ways to do this: push and pull. You can push post-Phil-Collins-Usher music on the world in a couple of ways: firstly, through social advertising tactics that allow you to display ads to fans of a very specific list of bands - i.e., fans of bands that you sound a bit like. In your case, you would probably be paying Facebook to show your videos to well, Phil Collins and Usher fans. Secondly, you can try to identify fan groups and forums dedicated to your micro-genre and SENSITIVELY present your work. Time to politely introduce yourself to the Phil Collins fan club, in other words.

In terms of pull, we’re talking about SEO and blogging here. If you make the (somewhat unusual) effort to ensure your site is optimised to appear in searches for Phil Collins and Usher, and regularly blog about the genius of Phil Collins and Usher (thus generating a lot of keyword-rich content about post-Phil-Collins-Usher music), you may well find that your audience, seemingly by magic – but actually because of algorithms – starts coming to you.

3. Find advocates of the niche

You will find that with every niche genre come advocates of that niche genre: certain bloggers, journalists, rock critics and DJs who simply love it. Particularly if you are dealing with something REALLY niche like post-Phil-Collins-Usher music, you may find that there are less artists operating in the genre to pester these poor souls for coverage and airplay, meaning YOU get more opportunities to get publicised (to a smaller - but as mentioned above - more dedicated audience). Being aware of your niche also comes in very handy when it comes to hiring music PR agencies, radio pluggers and so on - if you hire an agency or a plugger that is really into your niche genre, they are more likely to be experts in it and more keen to work hard for you as a representative of that genre. Crucially, they'll know what your niche audience reads or listens to and will pitch you for those papers / shows. Conversely, if you hire an agency or plugger that says 'yes' to every project irrespective of niche or genre, you may find yourself sans publicity quite quickly, or with a feature in Take a Break when really you should be being plugged on Noisey (or vice versa). 

4. Talk to your niche in the right way

Once you’ve discovered that you are a post-Phil-Collins-Usher band and found the post-Phil-Collins-Usher online audience and the media champions of post-Phil-Collins-Usher music, it’s time to ‘talk’ to them in the right way. Obviously, the most basic way of doing this is to present them with music that they like (i.e., stuff that sounds like a postman and Phil Collins mixed with Usher, ho ho). But it’s also important to meet their expectations in other ways. Do you look like a post-Phil Collins-Usher artist? Do you talk like one? Do you dress like one? Do you dance like one? People have very specific expectations when it comes to micro-micro-genres, and are extremely particular about how they should operate and who should operate in them – which of course, is probably why I’m not allowed slag off future-soul-post-chillwave-witch-house in public (crap, I did it again). But it is important to enthuse your niche audience as much as possible and you won’t do this by confusing them. You don’t necessarily have to conform completely to your audience’s expectations, but – initially at least – you do need to meet them to some degree or you won’t be recognised and loved as the post-Phil-Collins-Usher act that you know you really are.

Basically, all this seems cynical and formulaic and frankly, it is. But on another level, it’s just how record labels have made bands popular since time immemorial: find out who likes a certain sort of music and sell that sort of music to them. And it actually kind of makes sense. It’s just that these days, it’s not just big record labels that have the opportunity to be cynical and formulaic. Thanks to cheap recording gear, access to every other band in history's music for free online, iTunes and Mark Zuckerberg, you do as well! If you fully understand the power of all of these (ahem) tools and (crucially) you’re actually making some really great music, who knows how you might fare.

And actually, if you do find that niche audience, they might actually get a kick out of being found too.

Chris Singleton used to work at Prescription PR. Until he disrespected them fancypants genres.

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Typefaces: why they are important and tips on choosing the right one for your band

Typefaces

Recently I bought a new pair of glasses. A pair that are a little bit more ‘out there’ than some of my previous spectacles. When I say that, I mean they are big and goofy and more in line with something that Clark Kent would sport than my more restrained, sensible eyewear purchases of yore. And to be honest, they are my sole nod to fashion. The rest of me looks as scruffy, non-descript and as ignorant of the latest trends in clothing as ever, but – oh! – you should see my eye-area. It now looks totally at home in any Dalston bar full of hip-spectacle-wearers that you care to mention. The top of my face has become fashionable; it looks like somebody has done a professional job on styling it.

I’m tempted to just leave this article at that, leaving you in awe of my spectacle-purchasing decisions and imagining what my improved eye-area looks like, but I suppose the purpose of these posts is actually to provide music promo advice, so I’d better try to find a way to turn this anecdote about glasses into something of relevance to the rock-success-craving muso. So read on and I’ll explain why the transformative power of my specs is going to help your music career.

You see, a good pair of glasses is like a good typeface. Useful. Possibly sexy. Quite often cheap. Image-changing. And before you put your promo CD in the hands of any A&R guy, or point any unsuspecting music listener in the direction of your website, you need to ensure that you’re using the right fonts on both. That may sound like a ridiculously cautious approach – or overly-reverential of fonts – but there are some very good reasons for ensuring you’ve got your typeface selection right before you unleash your music on an industry contact or a member of the great unwashed.

Firstly, the typeface you use on your promotional material is one of the biggest clues about the kind of music you make. Say, for example, you are in a band called The Folk Poppers and you make polite folk pop. The drummer in the band says he knows a thing or two about graphic design, and he duly whips up a logo using a typeface called Squealer, which is rather reminiscent of the font-du-choix of AC/DC. Not knowing any better, you plaster this all over your album sleeve, your posters, your website and your e-newsletters.  In doing so, you become a hard rock band before anybody’s even heard your CD full of tasteful folk-pop ditties. This of course means that you now run the risk of having to deal with some seriously confused hard rock fans who are absolutely disgusted by your CD; and worse, you might never reach the eardrums of those who are into polite folk pop, because they took a look at your album cover and assumed you were a hard rock band.

Secondly, a font can instantly tell an industry contact or potential listener how professional you are as an outfit (and thus how seriously to take you). For example, if you design promotional material that makes extensive use of Comic Sans, you immediately come across as amateurish. Your tracks may sound great – recorded with vintage analogue synthesisers run through valve pre-amps that only accept inputs from cables that end with quarter-inch jacks made of gold – but if the song titles are presented in Comic Sans, well, seriously, you’re screwed. That’s the kind of font that mums and dads get the pleasure of seeing when they receive a newsletter from a playgroup. It screams ‘small time’. Childish. Local. Unambitious. Not very rock and roll. And ultimately unworthy of further exploration. (Note to any kindergarten-users or proprietors amongst you: it’s fine, however, for playgroups to use it; probably quite appropriate).

It all comes down to this: in showbiz, preconceptions are everything. And typefaces are actually one of the earliest generators of these preconceptions. Like band photos, they technically don’t have anything to do with the kind of noise your band makes – but they sure as hell make people think they know what you sound like, without you ever playing a note.

So, given all the above, how do you actually get your band typeface right? Here are some tips:

  • Before you start thinking about fonts, think about your music. What kind of noise do you REALLY make? Try to nail down the genre as best you can as this will eventually inform your typeface choice. (This can be surprisingly difficult in these post-post-post-modern days of ours, but try your best.)
  • Do some research. Look at the typefaces used by bands that operate in the same genre as you and compile a list of potential fonts that get your act into the right ‘font ballpark’.
  • Use tools like Myfonts.com to see what your band’s name looks like in a particular typeface (just whack your act’s name into the ‘sample text’ box above font search results). If you see another band using a particular font, and are minded to nick it, you can also use Myfonts.com’s “What the Font” tool to find out what the name of that typeface is (by uploading a screengrab of it).
  • Once you’ve decided on a particular typeface, gauge opinion on it – ask some music industry professionals, your Facebook fans, etc. what they make of it, and if they think it 1) suits the sort of music you play and 2) looks professional.
  • Remember that if you want to use a particular font for general body copy on a website, there must be a ‘web font’ version of it available. However, if you are particularly keen on a using a typeface for your band name, but there isn’t a web font version available, you can just convert the band name text to a graphic – for use in headers and so on –  and use a similar / complimentary webfont for general text on the site. (A good source of free web fonts is Google Fonts).
  • If you feel in any way out of your depth with typefaces, do consider getting a graphic designer on board – and preferably one that regularly works with bands (rather than one who does corporate stuff – you don’t want to end up with your band’s name looking like the Barclay’s logo or similar).

And finally, remember this above all else: there is nothing funny about Comic Sans. Even if you are in a comedy band that sings extremely jovial songs, it is still worth avoiding like the plague.

About The Prescription

‘The Prescription’ is written by independent musician and Head of Digital Communications and Irish PR at Prescription PR, Chris Singleton.  

Find out how Prescription PR can get your band noticed - contact us today. We offer music PRdigital marketing and music web design services.

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The power of enigma

Enigma

In pre-internet days of yore, there was a clear barrier between rock stars and their fans. If a rock star wanted to communicate with fans, this was generally done at gigs attended by thousands of people, through big newspaper interviews or via appearances on TV shows watched by millions. The communication was generally one way, with the rock star talking to (or sometimes even down to) his/her fans using the 'traditional' mass media. 

Fast forward to our whizzy fancypants digital era and, to a large degree, the internet has brought this barrier crashing down and changed the whole way stars communicate with their audiences. Firstly, the rock stars in question are able to inject themselves much more easily into a fan’s everyday, personal life, via appearances in Facebook accounts, email inboxes, Twitter feeds, Instagram pictures and so on in a way that was unimaginable even a few years ago; secondly, they can’t seem to resist using this power to divulge sometimes quite boring details of their personal lives that would never have been shared by their rock star forbears. Finally, the communication between a star and his/her audience is now two-way, with even the most successful of musicians replying to fans’ online comments on Twitter, taking part in Facebook conversations with them and so on.

All the above has led to the arrival of a conventional wisdom which says that bands – particularly unsigned bands – need to ‘engage’ with listeners in order to attain success. The idea being that artists need to develop a very direct relationship with their fans, where they must reply to even the most inane of queries; do requests of cheesy Christmas songs; go round to fans’ houses and play gigs; post pictures of themselves at home doing the washing up and so on (and yes, I've probably done all or most of these things myself at some point or other throughout my, ahem, music career). Through these personal interactions with fans, the theory goes, an artist eventually develops a fanbase comprising people who feel like they really know that musician, are friends with them, and ultimately feel compelled to buy their music when that oh-so-engaging artist finally finds time to stop chatting with fans online and actually record and release an album.

In many – perhaps most – situations, the above approach works, not least because fans, accustomed to the two-way communication processes facilitated so easily by online technology, almost demand this level of interaction and attention. And for emerging bands with small fanbases, where the act effectively knows each and every one of their listeners, it seems almost rude to ignore them. 

However, something huge is lost in all of this personal, two-way, share-everything communication business: the mythology that used to surround musicians.

When, many moons ago, I was a teenager, following a band meant devoting time and thought to a bunch of guys you really had no direct relationship with or access to. This meant imagining what that band was like. Forming your own idea about what the front man ate for tea. Developing weird and completely unfounded notions regarding what the band liked to do with their groupies at the weekends. It did not mean being shown Instagram pictures of an artist’s cat, or being subjected to tweets about a band’s preference for a shot of vanilla syrup in their lattes. The inaccessibility of musicians (coupled with the imaginations of fans) meant that rock stars ultimately ended up shrouded in enigma.

And enigma is a powerful thing, because it provides two key ingredients for rock success: interest and ‘cool’. It creates interest because an enigmatic star often represents the ultimate, sexiest mystery for fans and the media to get to the bottom of; and cool because it is the enigma surrounding an artist that makes him/her stand apart from the crowd – they form a hip clique all of their own. But too often bands today (particularly those using social media for the first time) tend to use the digital communications tools available to them to strip away anything remotely enigmatic. Inevitably status updates of the ‘I’m having a sandwich for lunch now’ variety appear, and there is nothing particularly cool, enigmatic, or curiosity-generating about that (unless your listeners really want to know what was in the sandwich).

Ultimately what I’m getting at is that in this age of instant, interactive digital communication there are still alternatives to the ‘show all, tell all’ route to pop stardom available, and sometimes an approach which focuses on maintaining enigma and mystique may be far more productive than the ‘let’s engage everybody to the nth degree’ option. Being enigmatic online doesn’t mean that you have to ignore your fans, but it does mean using online tools to communicate with them more cleverly. You can use social media to be cryptic, oblique, dark, moody and mysterious just as easily as you can use it to tell listeners what colour socks you are wearing at any given point in time – it’s really a question of deciding what sort of relationship you want with your listeners, and if you think potential fans will be more impressed with a dark and mysterious musician or one who is good at sharing pictures of his cat.

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Getting your act's image right...

chris-prescription-image.jpg

It appears to me that these days, there are essentially six types of acts that become successful:

  • artists – and I use the word lightly – that are uber-cheesy (i.e., anything that comes out a reality TV show)
  • musicians that are incredibly bland but ‘safe’ (think of the kind of clean-shaven balladeers whose CDs you find at a supermarket checkout or advertised relentlessly on TV in the run-up to Mother’s Day)
  • musicians that are ‘authentic’ (think earnest bearded-types in sandals that eat lentils and play folk festivals regularly)
  • artists that are ‘quirky’ (think anything that’s a bit Madness, or Divine Comedy)
  • bands that are uber-cool, or that can at least convince rock journalists and hip bloggers that they are (I’m not naming names, but I think we do PR for quite a few of these sort of bands…)
  • dead rock stars

There are probably a few more categories of artist that I haven’t thought of, probably involving deconstructed-neo-folk-garage-grime-pop or some other genre that I can’t get my head around. But take virtually any successful contemporary artist/band and you’ll find that they probably fit neatly into one of the above categories. For example Olly Murs is cheesy; Michael Bublé is safe; The Arctic Monkeys are cool and so on.

It wasn’t always this way of course. The most famous band of all time, The Beatles, arguably never sat easily in any of the above categories – they straddled them all at once (sadly, its remaining members are inexorably moving towards the ‘dead rock star’ pile). But today’s music industry is very different from the one the fab four entered back in the early sixties. Firstly, it’s a lot older and has been around the block, meaning it’s pretty much seen it all before (or at least thinks it has) and finds it easier to put acts neatly in a box and only market them if said acts fit into that box. Secondly, it’s got a lot of people working within it that have been to marketing school and just love ‘audience segmentation’. Thirdly, in this age of social media, photoshop tweaks and database marketing it’s got a lot of tools at its disposal which make it much easier (and more profitable) to discover and promote artists that fit neatly into ‘proven’ categories rather than develop a new one. And on top of all that, in a sense pop music has been with us so long now that that it is genuinely quite difficult to come up with anything that new or shocking - hence a reliance on and recycling of familiar types of artist.

So what’s this all got to do with your little band then? Well, what I’m trying to say – albeit very reluctantly, because I actually hate all this image-driven stuff – is that sadly (1) these boxes exist; (2) fitting into them is generally crucial to having a pop at the rock success cherry and and (3) your image is crucial to how you fit into one of these horrible boxes.

Now, in one sense I’m probably very ill-qualified to talk about image (as the above photo clearly illustrates) but, because of my day gig here at Prescription, I regularly encounter a plethora of artists with various images and music industry professionals that have views on them…so I’m feeling increasingly confident about making pronouncements on the subject. 

And my pronouncements are as follows:

1. Image is not just about the clothes you wear. It’s everything.

Before you start recording a note, think about who you want to be. Are you Bono? Or Dolly Parton? Or a weird mix of the two? Who you want to be as an artist should be the starting point for everything else. The choice of producer. The snare sound. The vocal style. These will – and should – eventually inform everything else, from clothes to album artwork, and will mean that you don’t set out as Bono and end up sounding (or looking) like Dolly. 

2. Image is about production values – and not just musical ones

At Prescription we often come across bands that have lavished attention on the production of their music – but skimped on everything else. For example, one of the worst crimes we’ve seen committed by bands is a lack of attention to photography. Yes, it’s easy to stand your band up against a brick wall with a bit of graffiti on it. Yes, it’s easy to get a mate with an iPhone to take a picture of you. Yes, you can apply a funky filter to it using Instagram. But is it a professional shot that gets your image across well to a cynical hack? Er, usually not. We see the same sorts of problem cropping up in other areas – poor album covers; no attention being paid to clothes; websites that look like they were designed by secondary school kids; videos looking like they were shot on a hi-8 camcorder from the 90s (and not in a cool way that would appeal to the aforementioned cynical hack).

3. Image involves research

Before deciding upon an image, you should ideally do some research. What successful bands influence you? What do the lead singers look like? What sort of artwork do they come up with? What sort of gear do they wear on stage? Do they have beards? It’s not that you have to slavishly copy, but it’s important to get a sense of what’s hot or not, so that you can either go and steal an image or rebel against it.

4. Image involves trial and error

A photographer mate of mine told me about a music manager that decided on his protégés’ image thus: he got the band into a room, threw a load of second hand clothes on the floor and got the photographer to take hundreds of shots of the bands in hundreds of different outfits procured from the heap of clothes. The resulting photos were all reviewed and the one that the manager felt summed the band and their music up was the one used on all the promo material. Now, I’m not necessarily entirely advocating this approach, as I feel that, as discussed, the music should be the starting point for an image, not a random heap of clothes on the floor – but that said, it’s important to try a variety of approaches; not just with clothing, but album art, photography, web design etc. until you get it right. In this day of social media and fan engagement etc., you can often get instant feedback on concepts from the people who arguably matter most – your listeners.

5. Image involves objectivity – and outside help

You may be the greatest guitarist, songwriter or rock-shape-thrower going, but that’s not to say you are Alexander McQueen when it comes to fashion or Storm Thorgerson when it comes to sleeve art design. Yes, you live near a H&M and yes, you have a cracked copy of Adobe Illustrator at your disposal but you are not necessarily a) objective enough or b) talented enough to sort out your wardrobe malfunctions or design a great album cover. Costs may be an issue, but always try to find people who know what they’re doing technically to advise you on how you look, sound and so on. Even if that’s just a mate.

As I mentioned above, I don’t always feel comfortable talking about image. Partly because I hate the fact that the music industry places such an emphasis on it (the music, in my very long book, should in an ideal world just talk for itself) and partly because I don’t really feel that I’ve ever cracked the whole ‘good image’ thing myself. However, as is usually the way with all the topics discussed in my Prescription articles, I think I've made enough mistakes to allow me to impart some advice. In this case, the advice all boils down to this: think about who you want to be, get some outside help, and execute things well so that you can actually be the Dolly-Parton-cum-Bono hybrid that you really want to.

About The Prescription

'The Prescription' is written by independent musician and Head of Digital Communications and Irish PR at Prescription PR, Chris Singleton.  

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Managing your online reputation

Online reputation - a star rating

If you read The Prescription religiously – and there are worse things to read religiously incidentally; try a Jilly Cooper novel; a Melanie Phillips column; or that bit in the Old Testament where Lot’s wife turns into a pillar of salt – then you’ve probably picked up on the fact that a hell of a lot of my advice to you young musical upstarts involves the internet. And this, quite simply, is because the internet is now the fulcrum point around which the music industry is turning; the current rumours that the major labels are to abandon the CD in 2012 in favour of selling files only underline this point.

The net gives most independent musicians something that they otherwise really would not have had – the opportunity to have their music heard by a large number of strangers (this was previously largely the preserve of signed acts). But it does something else too: it allows musicians to communicate directly with these strangers in rather sophisticated ways, through all manner of powerful tools: social networks, live video streaming services, email, the good old-fashioned website...the list goes on. This means that not only can strangers judge your music, they can judge you ­­and form an opinion on how hip / sexy / annoying you are (delete as appropriate). And sadly, with the music industry being what it is, it’s often (perhaps usually!) the latter judgment that is of most importance to your career prospects. So getting your online reputation right is really important. Besides which, your online reputation is probably the only reputation you have. Sorry to be a bit downbeat about things, but the chances are that if you are reading this article, rather than sunning yourself in Barbados, then you are part of that non-exclusive club of musicians who are getting no press or airplay whatsoever and have turned to the internet in a desperate bid to compensate for the lack of general attention from the media. Understandable enough – but too often, musicians use the only tool available to them to come across as complete idiots.

Now, I have an admission to make: I’ve been a bit rubbish at managing my online reputation in the past. There are several traps that I’ve fallen into, possibly with the result that the music world thinks I’m an irritating Irish man who posts status updates way too often, and usually about his cat. I’m sure that as a result of my poor use of social media and email, there is a large section of the population that finds me more objectionable than Frankie Cocozza (who, incidentally, now has 331,000 people following him on Twitter; how did that happen?). Anyway, as it seems to be my role in life right now to let other musicians learn from my mistakes, in this article I thought I’d share some do’s and don’ts about managing your reputation online, so that you can avoid ending up as unhip as me.

1. Think about who you want to be online

Before you go near a computer, think about who you want to be online. Are you Jarvis Cocker or Cheryl Cole? Or the bastard lovechild of both? It’s very easy to set up a Wordpress site, a Facebook page or a Twitter feed, but whatever online tools you use to create your online presence, it should absolutely embody the kind of artist you want to present yourself as. Too many musicians just set up an online presence because they can, but really, you should only put anything up online once you have a very clear idea of who you want to present yourself as, and how you want to communicate. Just as you would not create a CD cover without thinking of the kind of music that’s on your album, you should not create a Twitter page only to use one of their default backgrounds and their standard egg-like profile picture. Your choice of photography, design elements and your tone of voice  online are going to define your reputation on the web; get these wrong and you’re off to a really crap start.

2. Don’t overcommunicate

Social media makes it hideously easy to share your thoughts. In ‘real’ life I generally try to avoid articulating every thought I have, as they’d probably get me arrested or at the very least lead to some very embarrassing moments, but Facebook and Twitter seem to scream ‘Go on! Say it! Share it with the world!’. And a hell of a lot of bands seem to take Facebook and Twitter up on this offer, posting boring inanity after inanity (or in my case, lots of fairly non-rock-and-roll trivia about my cat Millie, who is a rather extraordinary black and white creature with a big tail…hang on, I’m doing it again). Anyway, what I’m getting at is most people aren’t interested in reading the drummer’s innermost thoughts on cheese every five minutes, so be careful not to overdo it in the tweeting and status update stakes. The same goes for email – do not send an e-newsletter every day to your hard-earned mailing list informing them what you’ve had for breakfast, unless you particularly enjoy seeing your unsubscribe rate treble.

3. Don’t undercommunicate

Just as it’s easy to overdo it, it’s easy to underdo it – some musicians are loathe to use social media at all. Sometimes it’s because they are too ‘old school’; sometimes it’s because they don’t understand its relevance or importance; sometimes it’s because they think their music is so good that a big, fat record deal will come along without any online effort on their part whatsoever. Whatever an artist’s reason for not taking online communications seriously, it’s a big mistake. You absolutely need to keep any social media profile, blog or site you run up-to-date with interesting content: for A&Rs, journalists, DJs and even those boring, normal people who may be inclined to check you out, these are generally the first port of call – and if it looks as though your online presence consists of an out-of-date Facebook profile with 10 fans (11 counting your mum), they’ll quickly draw the conclusion that you generally don’t give a shit. And consequently, neither will they.

4. Don’t spread yourself too thin

There are so many free online music services available to bands that it’s tempting to feel that your band has to have a profile on absolutely every single one of them. Or that if your band does, it will somehow become more successful. But it’s much better to focus on a few key areas rather than setting up 20 different profiles which you never update. Pick 2 or three profiles, and use them well; ensure they are well-promoted and always packed full of interesting content. Personally, these days I’m mainly concerned about Facebook, Twitter and Soundcloud, but whatever tools you use, use them wisely, give them love, and keep the content fresh.

5. Don’t go on about your band all the time

Yes, you are primarily setting up social media profiles, websites and so on with a view to promoting your band’s music; and yes, the people who follow you will in theory like the racket you make. But even if your devoted fans think you’re the greatest artist since Daniel Bedingfield [we need a word - Editor], the chances are that your music is only going to form a small part of their lives (unless you’re dealing with the weird stalker type – I’ve had a few American fans which I’ve filed under that category, and I’ll fess up to being slightly proud about that). In short, your followers will not want to only ever receive updates about your latest album; they’re real human beings with interests outside of your music and will find you more engaging if you talk about stuff that relates to aspects of their lives. That could be topics like other artists’ music; politics (although be careful there); art; leather pants – whatever. But nobody likes a self-promoting bore – and as somebody who considers himself something of a self-promoting bore, I can tell you that for nothing. You will lose friends and alienate people if you only ever talk about your own music.

6. Remember your production values

The digital revolution hasn’t just made it easy for people to set up a Facebook page; it’s made it infinitely easier than it was even 5 years ago to create astonishingly professional-looking videos and photos, and fantastically well-produced music. Consequently, there is now a very high level of expectation from music fans regarding the kind of production values they encounter from an unsigned or indie band. OK, so you may want to be deliberately lo-fi, which is fine when done well. But in general, don’t post tracks that sound like they were recorded in a toilet, videos that were recorded on a phone, and photos that were shot by your Aunty Mavis on a family holiday in Torquay (unless she’s a great rock photographer). They just make you look crap.

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