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Getting your act's image right...


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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