Artist Stories: Branding And Authenticity

Contributed by Rorie Kelly, a NYC-based indie rocker documenting her quest to go from part-time musician to full-time musician.

I want to talk to you today about branding.

Specifically, I want to talk about why I hate the word "branding". Every music blog on the block seems to want to tell artists how and why they need to brand themselves and I see it result in a lot of confusion and inauthenticity. I think this obsessive push to teach artists advanced marketing techniques and buzzwords like "branding" can do more harm than good to a young artist's career.

When arguing this point on Twitter, I’ve had a few people comment that, in fact, I have a very strong brand that flows through my Internet presence. I don't entirely disagree with them. What they're really saying is this: I'm consistent, I know who I care about reaching, and I speak right to them. That, many marketers will tell you, is the essence of "branding."

Maybe so! In my opinion, my "strong brand" is actually this: I allow myself to be publicly human, and I know my audience. Yeah, I use the same fonts in various places. Yeah, I have a logo and I try to make all my social media look similar to each other and to my website. These "important branding steps" are just the basics of looking professional. But will doing these things build you a loyal tribe that will show up at shows, help you fund albums and reconnect you with your true purpose when it gets hard? NAH. 

After years pushing hard to build a name as an indie musician, I don't trust the word branding anymore, but dinosaurs are one marketing technique that has served me very well.

It started several years ago when I was maybe 15 "likes" shy of 500 on Facebook. I wanted that shiny round number! So I announced on my Facebook page that the 500th follower would get a hand drawn picture of a dinosaur and to please spread the word.  I shared it on my regular profile too. My numbers started to creep up and within a few hours I had hit 500.

People were excited. A few messaged or posted on the page to say, "Is it me?" "It's me!" "Do I get the dinosaur?"

Flash forward several years and those fateful words: "I will draw you a dinosaur," have helped me hit the 1000 mark on Facebook and the 2000 mark on Twitter. I also just successfully crowdfunded an album on Rockethub -- and my dinosaur drawings were responsible for a full fifteen percent of the money I raised. One could make the argument that dinosaurs are now a part of my brand, and I would agree. I can also guarantee you that no marketing professional would advise a singer-songwriter who wants to empower women with her music, "DINOSAURS! That's going to be the ticket for your brand." Yet dinosaurs have helped me more than double my social media fanbase and have played a crucial role in crowdfunding my album. In other words: they're inadvisable in theory but they're working great in practice.

So what's my point? The people who support your career are not just supporting a product or an avatar or even your great songs. They are, really and truly, supporting you. Your weird, imperfect, awkward human self.

The people in my tribe want to celebrate my weird dinosaur drawings right alongside my inspiring songs. They want to laugh with me when I break a string in the middle of a song (another "inadvisable, unprofessional" thing I am known for—but now people associate it with my passionate performances). They sympathize with my honest frustration as a non-wealthy, non-connected individual trying to make a career transition into one of the most difficult industries on the planet. And knowing that I go through these struggles makes them celebrate even harder with me when I hit a milestone. Because I have shared myself wholly with them, it's not "my" milestone anymore—it's ours.

For the longest time, I felt I had to be "a brand" and, in the words of many advice articles, "portray an image of success." But the real truth is this: the more human I am, and the more weird silly parts of myself I share with my people, the more success and love and support I get back.

The moral of this story is: don't be afraid to be flawed, strange, or ridiculous with your community. Don't be afraid to draw childish dinosaur pictures for them. Don't be afraid to be honest about your politics or your deepest fears! Don't be afraid to be a human being. Humans like to interact with other humans. Share the real you, even if it's scary. Your community will be there to catch you.

As artists, we all struggle with this question of how much of ourselves to share publicly, and how to appear simultaneously authentic and professional. I would love to hear how you deal with these challenges in the comments.