The Use of Image as a Music Strategy
Schuyler Gallagher on October 19, 2017
Artists from Pink Floyd to Miley Cyrus have created an image. How did they use it as a music strategy and continue to reinvent themselves?
Image is everything. The music industry, for one, is no exception to that rule. Think of your favorite groups and artists, what is the primary impression that conjures up? Symbolism in music is part of the branding. It helps create a unique appearance and trademark that sets it apart from anybody else in its genre. We all know sex sells. Reinvention stirs up excitement and anticipation among the masses; from diehard fans, to “meh” listeners who might have just heard a song or two on Pandora, or seen a video on Youtube.
Music strategy, according to brands, is about metamorphosis. Before there was Lady Gaga, Madonna had emerged and a year or so in was still in her “Like a Virgin” phase, from her debut album, aptly titled Madonna. What better way to get your first impression out there than to have a racy song on the radio, and writhe onstage at the VMAS in a wedding dress? Grant it, her first breakout song (“Everybody”) was a couple of years before. But her string of successful Hot 100, Top 40 hits that reached the number #1 position during her debut album release skyrocketed her to stardom. It was thanks to a multitude of variables; her dark eyebrows and bleached hair, her streetwise sass, downtown funky aesthetic and memorable, danceable songs. Image branding for the 1980’s.
Of course, when you think of musicians and reinventing, you might think of David Bowie. Every album he put out was an experience; every new character had its own distinctive style, it was fresh, it was exciting, original, and like nothing quite before. From mellow, folksy psychedelic bohemian rock “The Man Who Sold The World” to just a year or so later, with a distinct shag haircut and bright sunrise dye job later – helped herald in a new era of rock music. A few years before, a then-unheard of David Bowie, thanks to his own endless innovation, and his wife and the bluster of business partner Angela, had created a glitter rock unisex alien from outer space called Ziggy Stardust. This was the change that was needed in his burgeoning – and possibly floundering – career needed. The ahead-of-its time “Man Who Sold The World” was considered a disappointment upon its release. Out of its ashes, a touchstone in rock n’ roll was spawned: David Bowie had released The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, the glam rock epic that justifiably put him on the map. Now, teenagers alike who felt outcast, different, weird, and misfit had a figure to look up to. Again, reinvention and image resuscitation. This was music strategy at its finest.
Music strategy in mainstream media is often contemplated by artists themselves, their management, label, and whoever else is on their team. Business partners conjure up what type of aesthetics they are going to set their pop star apart. In terms of classic rock groups, consider this: imagine what the follow bands would be like without their infamous logos? Picture Pink Floyd’s iconic prism and rainbow on the cover of Dark Side of the Moon. Led Zeppelin’s trademark with the angel, or Bon Jovi’s logotype with the heart and knife through it. When you think of influence, a band or artist’s trademark is a vital component, and ultimately going to be the thing that will end up on book bags, folders, school papers, and desks. By utilizing an image to go along with a fun, entertaining visual (thanks to music videos, and whatever else you can get featured in), the need to always change it up is omnipresent.
Many times, change happens to an artist rather organically and not because of a conscious choice per their manager. Take Miley Cyrus for instance, she went from sweet, pop starlet to uber wild, no holds barred buck wild club kid. Part of her complete transformation stemmed from a simple alteration. She had cut her below shoulder length locks to platinum blonde and then to a mohawk, saying it was the best choice she had ever made. For a few years, all you ever saw of Cyrus was tongue, tons of exposed body, huge volumes of glitter (even more than Ziggy Stardust had prior), and lots and lots of bright, bold, colorful clothing to match her big, bold, colorful personality. Unfortunately, this period was not well received by her Hannah Montana fans, and scores of them flocked to social media, in particular Cyrus’s Instagram, begging her to grow her hair long again and stop acting so different. Personal reasons and much needed space prompted a bit of an re-emergence for Cyrus, and she seems more comfortable in her skin now and well adjusted, releasing the pop rock LP Younger Now, on its cover looking every inch the rhinestone encrusted jeans, black leather jacket, country and western throwback. In a short timeframe she went from using highly surreal visuals in her “We Can’t Stop” video and twerking with Robin Thicke onstage at the VMAs, to becoming an activist for animals, the LGBT community, and voicing her support for Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton during the 2016 Presidential election.
When you consider other types of alterations and style changes within the music industry, another standout example is the transformation of Hole frontwoman, Courtney Love. Love was, and still is, an icon of 90’s “kinderwhore,” the epitome of female grunge. Think super messy bleach blonde locks, adorned with little girl hair clips, messy eye makeup and lipstick, torn stockings, and heels. In 1996, Love nabbed a co-starring role in Milos Forman’s, The People Vs. Larry Flynt, as well as a cameo in Julian Schnabel’s, Basquiat. During the award season that year, her fans were taken aback by how she had “gone Hollywood” – shedding her dirty, unapologetic image to a now polite, polished, glamourous image. Love’s attempts at going Hollywood was short lived, however, and she reverted back to her typical look that made her famous.
Every artist has a look, a distinct image, to match the material they put out. They want their fans to recognize them and hopefully have their material resonate with them. Every reason for change can be subjective to the individual, however, more often than not, the main reason is to create excitement with fans worldwide. Decoding the motives per artist, musician, or entertainer can be very insightful. Generally speaking, besides having music be a primary passion and hobby, a musician (and in particularly one who wants to make it big) has the goals of wanting to sell multiplatinum records, make tons of money and be famous in their own unique way. Taking a look into learning how people in the public eye can alter their brand goes beyond music strategy. It’s something that all artists consider at some point. Is this going to be the haircut and unique makeup style that makes me famous, or sell lots of records? To judge a book by its cover in the music industry is nothing unheard of. We all do it. Mainstream musically speaking, it boils down to being perfectly packaged and having a niche to go with it.
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