This post is going to become the first in a series of items geared toward up and coming musicians who need advice on advancing their careers. There are so many things I’ve learned along the way that I wish someone would have pointed out to me, so hopefully this will help some of you out.
Today’s topic is the importance of effective branding. Like it or not, this crazy thing we’re involved with is called the music business for a reason; that’s because it’s exactly that — a business. Back when I first got started playing music almost 20 years ago, any band perceived to be making any profit off of their music would be chastised and labeled a sell-out, among other things. However, in the age of electronic distribution, DIY ethos and cutting out the middle-men (IE: record stores and labels) the term sell-out is somewhat antiquated, especially since what we’re selling is effectively ourselves.
Even if you’re lucky enough to make a living doing this, you still need to keep food on the table and if it’s still just a hobby or something you’re working toward, you should at least get some form of reimbursement for what you do. This can come in many forms, from the obvious ones like the money you get paid for performing and selling CD’s and T-shirts, to some not so common things like endorsements and sponsorships.
This post will focus on your image and branding through effective merchandising (we’ll save endorsement deals for another post) because it is one of the things over which you can have 100% control. First and foremost, this entire concept can be summed up in one sentence:
Your Band Is Your Brand.
My goal is to hopefully break the misconception that many punk rock bands have, that if you’re punk your graphics and merchandise have to look like shit. You can have a nice slick package and still be “punk”. Look at some of your favorite bands: take a really close look at the design of their merchandise and CD’s (and I’m not talking about Blink-182 or Green Day, although, to be honest, their graphic designers should be commended) and you’ll see that there’s a certain level of professionalism there. This is important.
The first thing to do, if you already haven’t done so, is to make a striking and visually impacting logo, or find a friend to help you out if you’re not artistically inclined. (My good friend Bliss helped me with the crows in ours.) It should be visually striking, and it’s main purpose is to sum up your entire band in a nice tidy graphic. Think of it as your ambassador, because it will be the single thing drawing new fans to you before they even hear your music. (Robert Burke wrote a great article on The Greatest Punk Rock Logos a couple months ago)
Take a look at The Murder logo. I chose black, white and red because it is quite possibly the strongest color combination there is. (Not to mention the fact that you can get a discount when ordering black and red stickers on white vinyl from StickerGuy!)
It is strong, legible, and conveys the double-entendre of the band’s name, with the flock of crows and blood splatter.
When designing a logo make sure you make a vector graphic. I recommend Adobe Illustrator. The reason you want to make it a vector as opposed to raster (like Photoshop) is so you can scale it and reproduce it at any size you want. Trust me on this.
Once you have a slick looking logo, put it EVERYWHERE!
Whenever you book a show, make a flyer with your logo prominently displayed. You can also do other clever things, like theming your flyers to fit your bands name and/or image, like our good friend Shawn Refuse did on one of our recent flyers.
If you book a show though someone else, send them a high resolution copy of your logo. You should have one with a black background, a white background and a chroma green background, to accommodate whatever type of flyer they make. We did this by making a booking page on our website and keeping all relevant materials in that one place, so we can just link promoters to it.
You should also get stickers made with your logo, and URL on it. You can get 500 4.25×2.25″ black red and white stickers for about $86 from StickerGuy! (Jen, I expect a discount on our next order!) but I recommend getting at least 1000 or 1500 to start off with, if your budget allows. Give these away to your family, friends, fans, everyone. Leave them at music stores and other local hangouts to get the word out about your group. Don’t be stingy! Think of them like business cards to get the word out.
Speaking of which, while you’re ordering stickers you should also put in an order for business cards. The first couple of years in The Murder I didn’t have any, thinking that stickers were enough, but low and behold, I never actually had stickers on me. I recently got some cards made up, and I’ve already handed out about 100 or so in the past month. They are fairly simple, yet still eye catching, with our logo on the back and our website and the phone number to our booking line on the front. You can get about 5000 of them on glossy UV coated card stock for about $45, shipping included, from Flyer Studios. (Tell Larry that Roach sent you.)
As an aside, I have a personal policy that anything we give away as a promotional item has our URL prominently displayed on it, while any merchandise that we sell for profit does not (with the exception of music releases). It is my feeling that if someone gives you money for your merchandise with your logo they are essentially advertising for you anyway, and there is no need to be more blatant than necessary about it. Again, this is just my personal view on the subject, and your mileage may vary.
Another thing to do is to get a large vinyl banner printed with your logo and URL, to hang behind the band when you play live. It will probably cost you about $140 for a nice quality 4’x6′ banner with eye holes, but it will be worth every penny, and then some. How many times have you gone to a show and asked yourself “Who is this band?”. Even if they were really good, I’m willing to bet they were forgotten soon after their set. It is worth the investment to stay in people’s minds. (Flyer Studios can help you with this as well.)
Ditto for custom kick drum heads. It’ll cost about $100 but again, it’s worth every penny. If you don’t have the cash to spend on both get one or the other, but make sure people know who the hell you are when you’re playing live without them having to ask someone.
One big part of promotional materials that is conspicuously absent from this article is your press kit. I have left this crucial element out intentionally, because I believe it is so important that it deserves an entire post of it’s own, which will be forthcoming.
Now that you have a logo and have been using it on all your promotional materials, it’s time to think about the next thing: merchandise. Sure, every band has a CD and t-shirt, and so should you, but you need to think beyond that as well! Besides good quality music and a solid stage presence, nothing will attract people to your group more than great looking, high quality merchandise. Look at it this way, you’re asking people to spend their hard earned dollars on your vision (and by proxy, you). Make it worth their while.
At a bare minimum, you should have at least 1 CD and 2 different t-shirt designs, but don’t stop there! At the moment we have 2 different shirt designs with 2 shirt colors for each design (Def-Star, ask for Steve), guitar picks (Steve Clatyon, one of our endorsements) drum sticks (CustomDrumSticks.com, ask for Jeff) and embroidered patches (Quality Embroidered Patches), just to name a few items. Another thing to try is to try to gear some merchandise to fit specific songs or themes you have. For instance, we have a song called “Rounders” about professional poker players. Everyone in the band is a poker player (our former bassist quit to move to Las Vegas to play professionally), so we had some custom chips made, and they generate a lot of interest because they’re so much different than the norm.
Another example would be the suggestion I made to my friends in The Designer Drugs, which was to get custom pill fobs made, since it goes perfectly with their name and image. Leverage your creativity and imagination and there’s no limit to the ideas you can come up with! Don’t do things just because everyone else is doing it. The market is flooded with good bands, and the only way to get ahead is to work hard, and think outside of the box, and be more creative than the next guy. (For those of you who are interested, you can see all of the merchandise I was talking about on our web shop.)
This brings me to the last topic I’m going to discuss today: presentation. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve been to shows, including record release shows and shows by big name bands, where the merch table was little more than a folding card table with CDs and shirts thrown haphazardly all over it. Once I even saw a band that had a really nice display case, with only 1 CD in it. It looked amateurish and certainly did not entice me to buy anything. Perfect example of not leveraging your resources to their fullest potential.
I have also seen very well conceived merch displays, and the bands that have those have consistently had more people around their table than their card-table bearing brethren. My good friends Bad Ash come to mind, as they had an incredible Halloween display, with all sorts of kitsch and horror related items interspersed with their wide variety of merch.
For The Murder’s merch display, we chose to make an entire display unit from the ground up. We first got a nice merchandise case from eBay and added some cork covered in fabric to the bottom as our base. We then used pushpins to mount everything tastefully so people could come by and browse our wares. For smaller shows, this may be all you need.
We took it a step further and got a mannequin torso (also from eBay) to display our t-shirts. We also have a tiered CD display holder and some latex crows to spice things up a bit.
Our most recent addition was a 3 piece 2’x5′ gridwall system that we got from a retail display outlet. It is an excellent way to display all of your merchandise, and you never have to worry about finding a table to set up with, as the entire setup is self-sufficient. Besides merchandise we have a laptop with email list software for people to sign up, Mp3 players for people to preview the CD before they buy it and free handouts, like stickers, flyers for upcoming shows and lyric sheets. This may seem a bit excessive (and pricey) but search around and find deals, and add on as time and money allow.
To wrap up, keep your brand consistent across everything you do. Even if something doesn’t have your name on it it should be easily identified as having come from your group. Also, just because you’re punk rock doesn’t mean your image has to look like crap. Put time and effort into your craft and people will respond by putting time and effort into your project!
I hope this article helps you out, and if it does, please don’t hesitate to contact me! I’d love to hear all about your experiences, good or bad, with trying out these suggestions, and more importantly, trying your own original ideas!