Making the Brand: Exploring the Role of Branding in Popular Music

Jeremy Wade Morris
Communication and Culture, Ryerson/York University
August, 2005
 

Abstract


The line between culture and commodity is a blurry one. As an ever-increasing amount of cultural goods are mass marketed and distributed, the distinction between valuable expressions of culture and commodities sold for profit decreases. As much personal value and meaning as individuals derive from films or albums, cultural goods are subject to the types of business plans, marketing strategies and tactical advertising campaigns that normally accompany basic consumer commodities. The goal of this thesis is to trace the effects of this product logic on the music product, specifically examining how popular music artists and their products are marketed to consumers.


Branding has become a dominant paradigm in the marketing of consumer commodities and a host of products and services are currently scrutinized as brands. Music artists and products share attributes with other branded commodities but are rarely discussed in this light. Using Hirschman’s (1986) “Culture Production System” model in conjunction with literature from popular music, communication and cultural studies, this thesis considers whether or not music artists and their products can be considered as brands? If they are subjected to similar marketing tactics as other products, then what are the specific components that make up music brands? How are they created? To explore these questions, I present case studies of marketing materials from four album launches: Keane’s Hopes and Fears, Radiohead’s Kid A, U2’s How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and Wilco’s Yankee Foxtrot Hotel. The descriptive analysis examines sound, video, CD packaging, website and press reviews and considers the possible impact of branding on artists, music and consumers. Against the backdrop of an ever-changing technological landscape that is threatening the music industry with new ways of producing, distributing and consuming music, this thesis also considers how new technologies affect the process of branding.


By combining Negus’ (1992) notions of “brands” and “total star texts”, I advance the idea of the “artist brand”. A primary force in the consumption of music, the artist brand reveals itself as the combination of elements that contribute to an artist’s overall perception among consumers (including sound, image, video, web, concerts, and press reviews among many others). Consumption of music extends beyond sound and involves an entire collection of symbols, images, emotions and beliefs. Different levels of the cultural industries work in tandem with listener experiences to create artist brands. Branding is a useful tool for maximizing marketing efforts across diverse media but it also creates expectations among consumers, critics and others. Expectations can trap artists into a particular sound or image and can hinder artist creativity. Branding can also result in increased standardization of the music product as music companies invest safely in brand ideas with which they have seen previous success. If brands are artist-driven, they may offer artists a level of control. Strong brands can also be extended into other markets but brand extensions can do as much harm as good if they are inappropriate versus other brand efforts.


The act of consuming music is integrally linked to the act of consuming music brands. This investigation and its conclusions have implications for all parties involved in the business of music, be they artists, managers, record labels, distributors etc. As new technologies flourish, there are also implications for new music services (e.g. satellite radio, iTunes, etc.). Finally, building on the work of Adorno, Marx and newer communication and cultural studies scholars, this research provides academics interested in the cultural industries a unique way of analyzing the impact of marketing and branding on commodities while taking into account the complexities presented by the consumption of cultural goods.
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We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.

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