Visuals branded the radio star: how technology transformed the music industry

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Adam Reader, host of Wasatch.FM and founder of Refinement Records, loved the band The Smiths as an ’80s teen. But Reader didn’t have the Internet, video or visuals of the band to view, so the group members’ core identities were a mystery in his mind.

He closely examined their album covers, pored through their lyrics and listened to their music endlessly. It was a sweet, slow ritual. He cherished time spent getting to know the band better through its music alone.

It’s not the ’80s anymore

People consume music differently today. Reader sees his children interact with music more quickly and casually than he did in his youth.

“When they hear a song they like, they find its name using Shazam on their phone,” Reader said. “Then they can add it to a playlist and quickly Wikipedia the artist to learn about them. They’re done with it in 15 minutes, and they’re on to the next thing. It took me years to do something like that.”

The new generation often consumes music in a digital setting. Musicians today feel pressure to stand out because there’s so much music to sift through. Many aim to enlarge their entertainment packages. For most, this means visually branding themselves, hoping their fusion of sight and sound will arrest a consumer’s attention.

Imagery brands artists uniquely

America craves visuals. According to a study by digitaltrend.com, Instagram is growing faster than Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest combined. The nation’s swelling interest in this photo and video-centric social network demonstrates a collective fascination with photos and video.

Stephen Aldridge filmed the Red Yeti MicroTrilogy, which includes a documentary, music video and short film. (Photo by Caleb Beazel
Stephen Aldridge filmed the Red Yeti MicroTrilogy, which includes a documentary, music video and short film. (Photo by Caleb Beazel)

“We are visual creatures,” said Stephen Aldridge, who filmed local band Red Yeti. “Even when we are only listening to a song, our minds are racing to supply imagery to go with the words and music.”

When filmmakers like Aldridge shoot a music video for a band, they provide their own visual interpretation of the music. This unique band branding forces artistry to meet marketing. According to YouTube Statistics, more than 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. With so much content at America’s fingertips, every musician blends artistry and marketing in their own way to stand out.

It’s common for artists to cement and market their visual brand through their own personal look. Stylist Tara Brooke works with musicians to create a look that will set them apart and give them an edge on their competition. An artist’s fashion-consciousness can communicate to fans that they are forward thinking, Brooke said.

“Being open to moving forward with fashion helps show a fan base that they are growing and keeping up with the times,” Brooke said.

Brooke said fashion-conscious musicians can find success in creating a look that transcends their music or genre. Establishing their own unique brand can help their music sell.

“Artists are not only selling their music,” Brooke said. “They’re selling a product; a full experience. Having a look is very important for maintaining your brand.”

Visual aftermath: Music v. celebrity

Some who experienced music more than 30 years ago fear that today’s music industry focuses too much on marketing the celebrity. Reader said in the past, artists used visuals to push the concept of the music and art forward. Now, he fears, visuals are too often just marketing tools.

“The music almost comes last in people’s minds when they’re creating the music product,” Reader said. “They’re creating it to be monetized, and I think in some ways that defeats the purpose of the art.”

Reader contrasted larger-than-life, somewhat contrived visual presences, such as Miley Cyrus and Beyoncé, with the visual output of the greats of the ’70s and ’80s.

“The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin thought of visuals in terms of, ‘How does this move the music forward? How does this make the music bigger?’” Reader said. “And now I think it’s about, ‘How does this make the celebrity bigger?’ And that’s sad.”

My Fair Fiend lead singer Callie Crofts found a unique way to fuse celebrity and music so they are one in purpose. Her band’s success stems partly from her own visual identity on YouTube. Her personal YouTube channel, “Callie’s Brain Log,” boasts 77,000 subscribers, towering over the 2,000 who follow her band’s page.

Callie Crofts of My Fair Fiend promotes her band through her personal YouTube channel "Callie's Brain Log." (Photo by Zac Bryant)
Callie Crofts of My Fair Fiend promotes her band through her personal YouTube channel “Callie’s Brain Log.” (Photo by Zac Bryant)

Given these channels’ respective followings, Crofts chose to release a bulk of My Fair Fiend’s videos on her personal YouTube account. Their sometimes silly, always dark and contemplative music videos match the style of her own vlogs well; wit abounds. The two visual presences connect.

However, Crofts plans to make the switch and start uploading My Fair Fiend content to the band’s YouTube account. Although she’s enjoyed the positive reception the band’s gotten from its association with her YouTube personality, she wants to separate and solidify her music’s visual identity.

“It is a tough decision to make, but in the end you have to take risks for the dreams you hold the highest,” Crofts said.

Crofts has already issued pleas in her vlogs for viewers to subscribe to the My Fair Fiend channel. Willing to strengthen the brand of her music over her own thriving personal brand, Moore wants the band’s visual presence to come first.

“Music has always been my priority and dream,” Crofts said. “I never wanted to be any kind of personality celebrity or reality star. I just want to be a successful musician.”

Branding’s bittersweet fruits

Photographer Arash Armin, who has photographed Soundgarden, 30 Seconds to Mars and The Moth & the Flame, said pictures speak for artists, showing their audience how they want to be seen. He sees visual branding as a positive thing for bands.

“It recharges them and gives them a renewed desire to keep expressing themselves through their music,” Armin said. “Images are powerful, and when a band sees themselves in a new way, they often feel capable of producing new and exciting things that reflect that.”

But Armin acknowledged that compartmentalizing an artist in a visual way can sometimes restrict their creativity. Reader took this sentiment one step further, saying media like music videos restrict an audience’s imagination.

“What’s important about music is that it means something to you as an individual,” Reader said. “Putting a visual on it defeats its purpose in some ways, because you’re giving the audience it on a silver platter, saying, ‘This is what it is, and this is what it should mean to you.’”

KURT COBAIN
Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain prioritized his music over image-consciousness. (AP Photo)

He also noted that music celebrities’ constant connection with fans through visuals and social media can be imposing. Not much is left to the imagination anymore. The slow, sweet ritual of getting to know an artist through music alone is a thing of the past. Visual connection has dethroned mystery.

As musicians seek to expand their visual entertainment packages, sacrifices are made. Reader claimed that many are learning to entertain first, instead of learning to feel.

“And that takes away from it all,” Reader said. “So many people are trying to be a singer and entertainer instead of an artist. An artist is someone who creates art. That’s the difference; there’s honesty.”

Reader called the grungy, anti-image-conscious band Nirvana the “last great moment in rock ‘n’ roll.”

“I almost wonder, if artists would put as much effort as they put into their image into the actual production of music and really try to revolutionize, would that bring the next Nirvana?” he said.

“There aren’t as many true artists out there today,” Reader continued. “But I think that can blow up. Anybody can come and change it at any time.”

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