Different For A Reason

This weekend, I took a road trip to St. Louis to see Casey Driessen opening for Zac Brown Band. From the moment I got there Friday afternoon, I started seeing signs that this tour was different than other tours where I've been lucky enough to peek behind the curtain. It got me thinking that this tour isn't just different in what they do and how they do it, the really interesting part is why they're doing everything their own way.

It isn't about selling CDs, tickets and t-shirts. It isn't even about making great music and sharing it with the world. While those are a part of it, the real point seems to be a belief that music should be a part of something bigger and more important. It's a connection, a shared experience with friends and family that involves making music, cooking, eating together and having real conversations instead of staged moments. Zac Brown Band takes an almost Italian approach to life, living in the moment and savoring the things that matter.

But what really sets this tour apart is that the intimacy and family feeling is inclusive - not exclusive. Not only is the group large, but they ask strangers to come and be a part of it. And they ask that with the belief that if people feel like a part of it, they will show it the same appreciation and respect they would if they had built it themselves. I was asked in and treated as if this were my tour, too. As were the fans. The Eat & Greet invites 200 or so fans, friends and business partners backstage each night for an amazing home-cooked dinner and real conversation with the band and crew. No pictures, no autographs. Zac and the guys would rather sit down with you than pose next to you. They understand that a personal connection and memory is way more valuable than a souvenir - for the fans and for the band.

So by setting out to create a feeling and an immersive experience around the music - the WHY - Zac and his ever-growing community of family and friends have built something pretty amazing. People DO buy the music, the tickets and the t-shirts. But they buy that t-shirt because it represents them, not because it represents the band. It's an integral part of the whole experience. It's more like college sports than music. This isn't just some band name on a shirt. It's the team colors. YOUR team colors. And you don't just buy the shirt and a ticket to the game. You spend the whole afternoon in the parking lot eating and drinking with your friends and family. You wear the colors. You talk about the game, before and after. You do it all because this is YOUR team. And it's as much part of you as you are of it.

As I think about the experience and how it might apply to other artists and clients, I keep coming back to this thought: I don't know if anyone else could pull it off. If they tried, chances are it wouldn't work. It works for Zac because it's an extension of who he really is. He has a vision. And he has great instincts and believes in them to the point that he and his team will risk it all to do it the right way. It's easy to say you believe in something, it's another thing to put it on the line every night.

So I'd like to say thanks. To Casey for the invitation and to the Zac Brown Band, their friends (like the Wood Brothers) and their road family for the hospitality. The night left me with good music, good food, new friends and a first-hand education about what people should mean when they say "music is about building a community." Though I must say, I don't know if anyone believed it could look quite like this. Well, no one except Zac and company.

What The Hell Is A "Brand" Anyway? Part 2

In Part 1, I talked about how a brand is simply what people think of when they think of you. It's important to note that I didn't say "what you WANT people to think of when they think of you." That's because–and this is important– you don't get to decide what your brand is, the audience does. That's right, folks. You are NOT in control. You can (and should) try to influence it through your music (or products/services), messaging, design, photos, pricing, events, charity work, publicity and so forth, but ultimately the audience will decide for themselves what your brand represents. And that is exactly why the two biggest ideas in building a strong brand are CONSISTENCY and DISCIPLINE. The more you reinforce the same key messages the better the chance that people will remember and believe them.

Not only will people decide for themselves, but it will vary from person to person, even with the best brands. Look at Apple, probably the most consistent and disciplined large company in the world. Depending on who you ask, they are either a company that makes technology easy to use through great design and intuitive software (the message they want you take home) or they are a style-over-substance bully that overcharges for their products (Steve might not agree with that assessment). Both positions are born of their owners' experience through some combination of using the products, price points, newspaper and magazine articles, Apple's ads and the opinions and experiences of their friends. Two totally opposite opinions. One brand. That's life.

In the end, not everyone will agree on what your brand represents. And that's okay. With smart, consistent, disciplined work, you have a good chance to get the ones who will listen to tell the story you want them to tell. And that is the mark of a great brand.