Building a career in music is tough. And anything but simple. It always was and it is even more so now. In the pre-digital days, there was a system - a crappy, bloated, intentionally complex system - but a system nonetheless. It was still gambling, but there were winners and everyone played by the same rules. But now, we still have the vestiges of that system and we aren't sure what is necessary or valuable and what is just desperately hanging on to the past. There are fewer and fewer winners and the rules are all but gone. So you have to find your own way. Create your own path. There isn't a book or a website or a person who can wrap it up in 100 pages or a lunch meeting and tell you what will work for you. But find good people and good sources that give you insights and principles and guidelines that you can then apply to your career and your life. There is no "new model" and there are no pre-fab answers for how to make it in music. So know what you want. Read, listen, learn, and work your ass off. Look for opportunities and jump on them when you see them. And tweak it as you go, focusing on the things that do work and throwing out the things that don't. I'm sorry. I know you want something short, sweet and concrete, but sometimes the truth just doesn't fit into 160 characters.
Well, if you happened to read Part 1 and Part 2, you know that a brand is simply what people think of when they think of you and that the audience controls that, not you. Also, if you read those, thanks. In Part 3 of 3, I wanted to quickly cover one other important thing about what a brand is and that is how it evolves over time. First of all, they do and they should evolve. Second, you need to account for that in your plans. The general idea is that they start small and two dimensional and they grow over time to be large and three dimensional.
When you're introducing yourself and your music (or your product or service), you need to tell a very simple story. Initially, your brand will be small and two-dimensional. That's because anything more than that is too much to expect anyone to remember. You are a laying a foundation. And that should be as simple as "he's an authentic rodeo cowboy singer" or "she's the old-school torch singer with the huge voice." Even something that references someone else – "he's the next George Strait" or "she's a modern version of Patsy Cline" – is okay as long as you move past it pretty quickly to create your own story. It serves as a landmark and a shortcut to make people understand.
Then, over time, you start to add detail and dimension to your story. But pace yourself. The story has to unfold over the course of ten years or so. Go too fast and not only will you confuse people, but you'll run out of story to tell. Go too slowly and you'll fail to keep people's interest and attention. Eventually, if you’re fortunate enough to have a long career, your brand will be large and three dimensional. It will be a great story that people love and share with their friends.
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.
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.
I've been referred to as a "branding guy who hates the word 'branding.'" That's because it gets thrown around. A lot. And often by people who don't really understand it. Depending on the day and the person it might be used to refer to a logo or a pair of trademark glasses or the ability to get sponsors. Or whatever else happens to come up in conversation. But everyone is pretty much over-thinking it. Quite simply, your brand is what people think of when they think of you. That's it. It's what you represent in the minds of the audience. Nothing magical or technical about it. It isn't a typeface or a color or a tour sponsor. Those things can be part of a brand: they can represent it, be triggers for it or influence how people think and feel about it. And they can be really important tools. But the brand itself is nothing more than what your audience and potential audience thinks about you. So if reading this makes you think I'm a self-important opinionated jackass with a blog, welcome to your very own version of the BigHowdy brand. Thanks for dropping by. = )NOTE: Keep an eye out for the second and third parts of What The Hell Is A "Brand" Anyway? We'll talk about what it means that different people think different things about you as well as how a brand evolves over time.