Mike Emery. The Business of Entertainment. Editor: Robert C Sickels. Volume 2: Popular Music. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.
The Rolling Stones’ “Bigger Bang” tour was the top-grossing tour of 2006 despite the fact that this group has not had a hit single in more than 15 years. That year, another venerable rock act, AC/DC, was ranked number two on Australia’s list of highest grossing entertainers of 2006—second to children’s act The Wiggles and above Oscar-winner Nicole Kidman—even though the group has not released an album or embarked on a full tour since 2000. Even semiactive and defunct rock acts such as KISS, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin are continuing to reach audiences through T-shirts and other merchandise sold at mainstream retail outlets. These veteran rock artists are enjoying continued visibility and commercial success and reaching mass audiences regardless of whether they are actively producing recorded music or performing on stage. Ironically, they may even be enjoying more visibility than many younger, contemporary popular artists.
More than anything, these classic rock acts are thriving because they have built successful brands. A brand is defined as any product or service that fosters audience and consumer beliefs by maintaining a consistent identity and offering repeated experiences that are emotionally rewarding.
Veteran rock artists such as the Stones, KISS, and others have sustained durable brands that are going strong long after their creative and commercial peaks. In this ever-competitive music industry where trends come and go, new artists—particularly groups—can take note of how classic rock brands have survived and continue to attract new audiences.
Now more than ever, good branding is vital for new artists and groups. Once upon a time, the earliest records by the Rolling Stones and KISS were not commercially successful. The dynamics of yesteryear’s music industry allowed both groups to evolve into top-selling performers and ultimately multimillion dollar brands. Today, however, the music arena is more competitive, and labels (not to mention audiences) are less patient when it comes to second chances.
In an age of online digital music purchases and satellite radio, new artists are challenged with making an instant connection with audiences. Even more difficult is maintaining that connection. By understanding effective branding, artists can forge stronger identities that can resonate with publics for years to come.
Daniel M. Jackson contends that a good brand needs more than simply a name. A catchy name paired with a superior product creates the blueprint for a successful brand. He defines a brand as, “Any idea, stemming from a belief that through its consistent identity, experience and the positive emotional investment of stakeholder creates sustainable benefits.” While names are strong brand identifiers, logos can also serve as tools for helping connect a brand with its publics, writes Marc Gobe. Gobe cites the IBM logo, a personification of a corporate, business-driven organization, and Apple, Inc.’s logo, which is more human and reflective of the baby boomer generation’s values. For a logo to be ultimately effective, it must communicate valid customer experiences. Customer beliefs must be attributed to the actual brand before a logo can convey meaning.
As Jackson observes, Daryl Travis acknowledges that belief in a brand is conducive to its identity. Brand identity, he writes, exists purely within an audience’s mind and carries specific expectations and promises. Such expectations build audience loyalty, which helps the audience save time during purchase decisions. A familiar name, combined with the expectation of a positive experience, allows an audience or consumer to make an instant purchase decision without comparative research. Brands generate belief, Jackson suggests, by asking stakeholders to make a positive emotional investment. He cites McDonald’s as an example of a brand that is built on its audience’s beliefs and expectations. The founders of the fast-food franchise promised quality food at low prices and have delivered on this promise. Enhancing this pledge to McDonald’s customers was the fact that all of its locations provided the same services in a similar—if not identical—physical environment. Belief in brands can be defined as an investment of consumers’ emotions, Jackson states. By recognizing belief as an investment, stakeholders are able to identify with the importance of brand belief. Matthew W Ragas and Bolivar Bueno maintain that belief is only one aspect of cultivating a brand. A brand must not only generate belief, but it must inspire individuals to tell others about why it is great.
A brand cultivates identities by developing reputations and generating narratives, acknowledges Douglas B. Holt. These stories speak to an audience’s desires. Customers value symbolic brands, and they value the stories that are conducive to developing unique brand identities, asserts Holt. Likewise, customers support the brands that personify admirable ideals and help them express their personalities or beliefs. Brands that do this successfully emerge as “iconic brands.” An iconic brand consists of identity myths or simple fictions that address cultural anxieties from worlds other than those in which an audience resides. Such myths involve imaginative aspirations that speak to audiences’ desired identities.
Any concept or idea that is believable has brand potential, states Jackson. Others can embrace a belief held by one person, no matter how innovative or deviant it is. Consistency is the key in sustaining brand belief. Jackson argues that positive beliefs are more often embraced by wide audiences and have had longer survival rates than negative ones. An example is Death cigarettes, which were sold in the United Kingdom in the 1980s. The product acknowledged the health risks associated with smoking. Death ultimately met its demise due to the fact that it perpetuated a negative belief. Timelessness also contributes to brand longevity, and when audiences begin to associate certain qualities or characteristics to a brand, it has developed “brand essence.” Some brand architects apply unique traits as a means of developing brand identity and as a tool to create “fans” or loyal followers of a brand, stress Ragas and Bueno.
In addition to being consistent, a brand must be memorable if it is to maintain a long life. While memorable advertising assists in generating brand belief, the brand itself must remain embedded in the public’s memories. Disney has succeeded, through its films and characters, in creating positive memories for children, who then retain these experiences through adulthood.
When people believe that a particular brand is superior, that belief actually becomes a fact in their minds. A brand can achieve this perception of superiority by effectively proclaiming its authenticity. Claiming legitimacy (such as Cola-Cola’s “the real thing” slogan) often makes a brand credible in the eyes of its audiences. If audiences believe that a brand is credible, they also believe in anything that is said about it.
To sustain veteran rock brands, attention must be placed on reaching ever-changing (and ever-aging) audiences. Once, brands such as The Rolling Stones or KISS focused branding efforts toward teenage markets. Now, brands like these must appeal to fans of all ages. The successful rock brand must cater to the evolving lifestyles of its original audience and acknowledge the fact that its members are no longer youngsters but rather parents or grandparents. It also recognizes that this longtime audience now demands a much different concert experience than it did 20 or 30 years ago. With that, artists consistently find new ways of reaching their core fan base while winning over new, younger audiences.
Veteran rock brands such as The Rolling Stones have maintained credibility with audiences through their catalog of popular songs. Although The Stones have not charted a hit song in decades (the last was “Mixed Emotions” in 1989), their music is heard daily on rock radio stations. Regardless of their current musical output or chart standings, The Rolling Stones were the highest grossing touring act of 2006. Not surprisingly, the group’s October 22, 2006, performance in Austin, Texas, only featured two new songs in the setlist.
While die-hard devotees often appreciate new material from a popular brand, general audiences are more interested in its past hits, says popular culture researcher Joe Kotarba. A well-established rock brand does not depend on new material to keep it viable in the marketplace. Classic material meets audience expectations, he adds. The older songs appeal to younger audiences because they have heard this material on the radio, in film soundtracks, or on television. For audiences who grew up with these songs, however, yesteryear’s classics can symbolize both the artist’s longevity in the world as well as their own. Kotarba cites his recent experiences seeing Paul McCartney perform in Houston, Texas, to illustrate his point:
Someone like Paul McCartney can reach way back into his catalog and play the old Beatles’ songs. This music can speak to the people who listened to this music in the 1960s. Basically, it tells them “we’ve been through a lot, and it’s still great.” Hearing a 30 or 40 year old song doesn’t make people feel so old. Instead, it actually rejuvenates them.
Of course, there comes a time when artists tire of performing the same material night after night, year after year. They then decide to offer a newer product, which often results in mixed emotions from its audiences. In recent years, Bruce Springsteen embarked on two tours that featured all new material and few of the songs that propelled him into the public’s consciousness. His 2005 “Devils and Dust” tour was a largely acoustic affair that featured music from the album of the same title. Meanwhile, the 2006 “Seeger Sessions” tour featured the prolific performer embracing his folk and Americana roots. In both cases, ticket sales were sluggish for a performer who could easily sell out arenas playing his classic hits.
David Bowie decided to publicly retire his catalog of classics on his “Sound and Vision” tour in 1993. Two years later, the singer would embark on the “Outside” tour featuring a new sound and only including a handful of past hits. Attendance suffered, and the U.S. leg of the tour never was completed. During Bowie’s 2004 tour, the artist quietly “un-retired” his hits from live performance to the approval of his fan base.
Once a brand is established, it can be difficult if not impossible to escape from performing the hits of yesteryear. Some artists may not want to play the same old songs night after night, but they realize it’s what the fans have paid to hear. Just ask Motorhead vocalist and bassist Lemmy Kilmister. In his autobiography, White Line Fever, he acknowledges audiences wanting to hear classic material including his band’s signature tune, “Ace of Spades,” a track that grates on his patience.
The kids want to hear the old stuff. I mean, if I go to see Little Richard, I want to hear “Long Tall Sally,” and if I don’t I’m going to be thoroughly pissed off. Even though I’m sick to death of it, Motorhead should do “Ace of Spades,” and you can’t fight that. To refuse to play it—or those other tunes—is very bad news.
Performing popular material during concerts is one way artists connect with audiences to maintain brand belief, but the actual concert experience also strengthens brand-audience bonds, Kotarba says. Concerts are often more than a performance. They foster an environment where fans often dress and behave in ways they would not ordinarily do at home or in the office. They can offer time away from responsibilities, an escape from one’s day-to-day routine. Likewise, concerts provide audiences with a celebratory atmosphere, one where music enthusiasts come together for the purpose of sheer revelry and the enjoyment of particular artists.
Of course, the level of revelry and enjoyment varies from brand to brand. An audience at a Paul McCartney concert will behave far different than one attending a Rolling Stones show. While a McCartney concert might be perfect for a relaxing date with one’s spouse, a Stones’ concert is the kind of experience that is shared with a group of friends for the party, says Kotarba. “It is all dependent on the brand. When you think of McCartney, you think of this guy who is one of the greatest living pop music composers. He is a revered figure, so the concert experience will be fun but not wild. The Stones, however, have built a brand around being ‘bad boys.’ Never mind that these guys are grandparents now, audiences still look at them as the rebels, so the concert experience will be decidedly more energetic.” Just as most people know what to expect when opening a can of Coca-Cola, many will know what to expect from a Paul McCartney or Stones show.
The Stones, in particular, have taken great strides in preserving the spectacular and wild nature of their concerts. For much of their career, the group’s concerts have been large productions often featuring fireworks and special effects. This has been the case since The Rolling Stones’ 1975 tour, which featured a lotus-shaped stage and had outrageous effects such as a giant inflatable penis. During its October 22, 2006, performance in Zilker Park in Austin, Texas, the penis was gone, and in its place was a giant pair of inflatable lips—The Stones’ logo—and instead of the lotus, a mammoth stage with towers and large video monitors provided the 42,000 fans in attendance a view of the band’s every movement. The concert was as much a spectacle as it was a musical performance. Neither McCartney nor the Stones initially set out to deliver the kinds of concerts they currently do. Music was at the heart of their creative agendas at the start of their careers. After decades of cultivating brand images, they have effectively crafted live shows that consistently appeal to audiences each time they tour.
Other artists, however, have always focused their brands around the live concert experience. Take KISS for example. The group’s bombastic, loud rock was essential in developing its brand but even more so was creating a rock show unlike fans had ever seen. During the 1970s, the group’s concerts became a staple of its brand thanks to intricate costumes, theatrical make-up, and special effects. The audience itself became almost as entertaining as the stage show as fans attended performances in make-up and costume making each affair similar to a masquerade party. This environment was a defining element of the KISS brand and made each concert appearance a must-see experience. During the group’s 2004 “Rock the Nation” tour, the elements that define KISS concerts were still in place (although some of the band members were different), and fans young and old showed up in KISS make-up and regalia.
To make the concert experience even more memorable, however, KISS offered fans an opportunity to purchase VIP packages. On the 2005 KISS concert DVD Rock the Nation Live, a segment focuses on fans that purchased these VIP packages during the group’s 2004 tour. Fans are shown meeting the members of KISS during these backstage meet-and-greet sessions. On the DVD, these fans discuss their gratitude to KISS for the years of entertainment it has provided. During these scenes, singer/guitarist Paul Stanley acknowledges that these interactions are particularly important for understanding the brand’s current audience.
Those fans pay hard-earned money to come see us, and it’s up to us to make sure that we live up to those expectations. It’s important to know where they’re from, their history, what they like about the band, what they’re feeling about the show. This is a way to stay in tune with the people who keep you in the position you’re in.
In an article titled “Branding on the Internet,” Helena Rubenstein writes that a brand-audience relationship depends on a dialogue. Once, brands spoke to audiences with no feedback. As with KISS, live dialogue can be facilitated for a price, but lesser-known brands will communicate with their constituencies at no charge.
This was the case when L.A. Guns took time to meet fans following its August 21, 2005, performance at the Sunken Gardens Amphitheatre in San Antonio, Texas. Another former radio staple Faster Pussycat did the same following its August 16, 2006, appearance in the Meridian nightclub in Houston, Texas. Rock vocalist Eddie Money makes himself available to fans for autographs and photos following performances as he did at Arrow Fest—an annual outdoor festival in Woodlands, Texas, featuring veteran rock brands—on October 14, 2006.
Rubenstein indicates, however, the Internet is becoming more important than ever for brand-audience interactions. Once, brands spoke to audiences with no feedback. Now, the Internet allows audiences to respond to brands. Many rock brands’ Web sites contain message boards or forums that allow fans a chance to pose questions directly to the artist or to engage in dialogues with other fans. In the case of L.A. Guns, its members often respond to fans’ questions themselves, or they post messages regarding tours, products, or other topics. The official KISS Web site (www.KISSonline.com) has a section titled “Ask KISS,” where members of the band answer fans’ questions. Others, such as The Rolling Stones official Web site (www.rollingstones.com), have online forums devoted to tour performances in which fans can post reviews of recent performances.
The Internet also serves as a marketing device that brands can use to pro-actively connect with audiences. Song downloads available on brands’ sites help motivate purchasing decisions of audiences by allowing them to preview sections of songs from upcoming recorded material. In addition to offering product previews, the Internet helps brands communicate new product offerings to audiences. The Rolling Stones, for example, reach audiences through extensive electronic mailing lists. Fans that register with The Stones’ Web site receive regular e-mail notices regarding upcoming performance dates, ticket sales, and available merchandise. Online communication has been integral to twenty-first-century branding. Brands now have the opportunity to build and maintain relationships with their most crucial stakeholders through dialogue and instant communication 24 hours a day.
Logos As Branding Tools
Effective logos can bolster a brand’s visibility, as well as its longevity. Just as rock brands use artist-fan interactions to reach audiences, they also reach desired audiences through the consistent use of logos. As indicated in the following case studies of Motorhead, The Rolling Stones, AC/DC, and KISS, consistent logos define brand essence, build brand loyalty, create new markets, and are employed as key identifiers.
In the article “Grow Your Logo into a Brand,” Jerome D. Smith writes that a logo can become the sum of a brand’s vision, values, characteristics, and attributes. One particular rock logo that has captured these elements of its brand is Motorhead’s “Snaggletooth.” In its original rendition or in its variations, its vicious visage indicates to neophytes that the rock trio’s sound is traditionally hard, raw, and abrasive. For longtime fans, it’s a reminder of the group’s penchant for lyrical subject matter focused on war, sex, and outlaw activities. The image also matches the band members’ nonglamorous, no frills image, particularly that of lead vocalist and bassist Lemmy Kilmister. With his trademark moustache, rough voice, and rugged exterior (large warts protrude from his left cheek), Kilmister is an unlikely rock idol.
Since forming the band in 1975, Kilmister has fostered a tough image to match Motorhead’s coarse, hard rock sound. Kilmister was formerly associated with the psychedelic hippie music of the late 1960s and early 1970s, having played with the free-spirited group Hawkwind. Soon after forming Motor-head, Kilmister painted his multicolored amplifiers a flat black and adorned them with silver skulls. Musically, the Motorhead sound was a harsh counterpoint to the peace and love generation. Kilmister summed up this sonic attitude by telling the press, “If we moved in next door, your lawn would die.” Fans agreed. A readers’ poll in Britain’s Sounds magazine named the band as “the best worst band in the world.”
Joe Petagno designed “Snaggletooth,” which made its first appearance on the band’s self-titled album in 1977. He also continues to illustrate album covers for Motorhead. The “Snaggletooth” image is an integral part of the Motorhead brand, he says:
You can’t imagine Motorhead without the logo. The logo is Motor-head, and it will probably outlast the music by decades. Everything before “Snaggletooth” was wishy-washy nonsense left over from the 1960s. When “Snaggletooth” popped up on the scene, the world was astonished at the in-your-face brutal truth that the logo as well as the music and lyrics depicted. Gone forever was the illusion that “all you need is love.” “Snaggle-tooth” signaled the end of peace, love and happiness and the beginning of war, hate, and greed. It was genuinely a scary picture of the era’s state of affairs and was years ahead of it’s time.
The ferocious-looking symbol (a metallic, horned, fanged animal skull with chains dangling from its face accompanied by the Motorhead name in gothic typeface) has been featured prominently and in different forms on 18 of the band’s 24 albums (the typeface, however, appears on all 24 albums). The “Snaggletooth” image also adorns a stage backdrop used during performances and on drummer Mikkey Dee’s drum kit. It is also the primary image on the band’s Web site, www.imotorhead.com, and is featured on the band’s merchandise. “Snaggletooth” items include shirts, jackets, caps, and other accessories. In fact, 19 of the 22 T-shirts sold on www.imotorhead.com feature “Snaggletooth.”
The band’s Web site also features a section titled “Motorhead for Life” that features several photographs of many fans who have had “Snaggletooth” tattooed on their bodies. Some are modest works adorning their arms or legs (sometimes both), but many are intricate illustrations covering fans’ backs, chests, and stomachs. Such measures undoubtedly reflect a lasting loyalty to the Motorhead brand, particularly its logo.
Such loyalty to a brand’s logo is not uncommon, says sociologist and rock music researcher Sonia Vasan. She has examined the subcultural aspects of rock music, particularly the hard rock or heavy metal genres. Through ethnographic studies, she found that the art and logos connected to these genres resonate more with this fan base. Logos, she says, contribute to identity formation for both audiences and artists. For audiences, in particular, logos allow them to vicariously experience the imagery and music of artists. Likewise, logos contribute to the subculture associated with heavy metal by offering audiences labels they can use to distance themselves from the mainstream culture.
Not all audiences accept a brand’s logo as a means for identity formation. In many instances, however, audiences are drawn to rock brands’ logos because they are viewed as fashionable. The Rolling Stones classic “Lips/Tongue” logo has become familiar to audiences of all ages through its increased presence on T-shirts and other merchandise that are available at mainstream outlets such as Kohls, JCPenney, and Target. In addition to this output, merchandise is available through the band’s official Web site, www.rollingstones.com. Jerome D. Smith and Lauren McMullen write that logos can create new business and capture new market shares. For The Rolling Stones, its “Lips/Tongue” logo has generated new business in the form of fashion wear, and it is reaching new markets through the availability of such clothing at mainstream shopping outlets. For many years, the only place to obtain Rolling Stones merchandise was by purchasing it at concerts or ordering it from specialty outlets. Now, anyone can wear a Rolling Stones tour shirt without attending a performance. During The Rolling Stones October 2006 appearance in Austin, Texas, a majority of the 42,000 fans in attendance were clad in T-shirts and baseball caps boasting different variations of the “Lips/Tongue” logo. Fans wearing attire with this logo ranged from adolescents to senior citizens.
James Garden, rock author and logo designer, says that contemporary audiences are often drawn to rock brands as a result of their logos and that music is by no means the sole motivator in these audiences’ purchase decisions:
Everybody recognizes The Rolling Stones logo, regardless of whether they are a fan of the band or not. T-shirts with the logo advertise the band while serving as a fashion accessory. Many artists that are currently not on the charts or on tour will still sell merchandise, because they have a logo that looks good on a shirt and it becomes cool. A classic example is AC/DC. They are never in the charts, and haven’t released a new album for several years, but they still sell T-shirts. A friend of mine bought one because he loved the design. He listens to rap and hip-hop and had no idea they were a band.29
There is no exact science when designing a logo that is destined to become a brand’s calling card. Gerard Huerta designed the AC/DC logo for the cover of its 1978 album Let There Be Rock. Using a gothic typeface similar to that found in Gutenberg’s Bible, Huerta created a font to match the album’s semi-Biblical title. Since its introduction, Huerta’s AC/DC logo has been used on 17 album covers in addition to merchandise and marketing materials. The artist had no idea that it would be used over and over again. He attributes its success to the popularity of the brand and its consistent presence:
It is difficult to know why one logo over another has such lasting impact. In this case, there are two reasons: its long-term usage and the popularity of the band. I really am perplexed about this, as it was really just some lettering designed for one album cover. It must have struck a chord with AC/DC as it was picked up for future albums.
Huerta’s experience with logos extends far beyond the realm of designing those used on album covers. A veteran designer, he has designed mastheads for magazines such as People, Time, Architectural Digest, AdWeek, and several others. He’s designed covers for publications such as Newsweek, posters for films such as Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and logos for sporting events such as Super Bowl XXXV. Sharp design and consistent visibility are conducive to a logo’s effectiveness, he says:
It is a combination of design and usage that gives a logo the value for identity. One without the other doesn’t work. Hopefully, uniqueness in the design will help people remember it. I think that long-term usage of any logo can assist in the identity and brand of a group.
Design and consistent usage has paid off for another logo that has become synonymous with a rock brand. The KISS logo, designed by the band’s original guitarist, Ace Frehley, resembles a comic book masthead. In place of the letter “S,” he created a zigzagging character that resembled lightning bolts. The super heroic logo was a perfect match for the KISS image, which consisted of musicians wearing theatrical make-up and outlandish costumes.
The logo has been present on every single KISS album since its self-titled release in 1973. Additionally, it has factored into the group’s live performances, which became an anchor of the KISS brand. KISS concerts have always been filled with special effects including smoke, fireworks, and explosions. An enlarged, illuminated logo has always served as a flashy backdrop to fuel the already frenzied atmosphere of their shows. Additionally, the logo has also adorned the drum kits of the band’s different drummers: Peter Criss, Eric Carr, and Eric Singer. Garden cites the KISS logo as one that is crucial to defining its brand’s identity:
A recurring logo is extremely important for a band’s identity. A logo needs to be recognizable enough for a person to see it and immediately picture the band. One of the best examples is KISS’ logo. It alone on a T-shirt immediately catches the eye, looks good, and gets KISS into people’s minds. When they toured in the 1970s, they played in front of a huge version of the logo, and that immediately became as important to the brand as its make-up.
During the 1980s, the KISS brand endured personnel and image changes (most notably, the removal of the make-up, which would be brought back in 1996). Maintaining its traditional sound and dynamic concert performances would keep the KISS brand alive and thriving. The logo also would continue to factor into KISS branding efforts and remain on all merchandise and as part of the stage effects during performances.
Despite all of the personnel and image changes in the 1980s, the consistent use of the logo helped reinforce the fact that two of the KISS brand’s strongest assets still were in place: music and live concerts. According to Smith and McMullen, logos grow from representing a brand to defining expectations. The consistent use of marketing vehicles such as logos is key in bolstering the expectations of a brand’s goods and services. The recurring use of this logo indicated that the KISS brand remained a reliable source of hard rock and concerts filled with elaborate stages and effects.
Sustaining a Brand with New Artistic Personnel
As with corporate entities, employees come and go. This also happens in the world of rock groups. So, what happens when a popular guitarist or bassist departs an established brand? For some brands, replacing members is only a minor obstacle in maintaining a brand. Take KISS for example. The group has had five different lead guitarists and three different drummers in its 35-year history; yet, its brand continues to thrive.
With its members in face make-up and costumes, KISS originally built its brand on four distinct fantasy-based personalities: the rock star, the demon, the spaceman, and the catman. The original spaceman, Ace Frehley, and the original catman, Peter Criss, left the band separately in the early 1980s and again in 2002 following a reunion of original KISS members. Currently, replacements Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer now respectively portray the spaceman and catman alongside KISS founders Paul Stanley (rock star) and Gene Simmons (demon).
Some fans have resisted the notion of having replacements in KISS. On the Web site, KISSin’ UK (www.KISSinuk.com ), a message board contains fan dialogue regarding Thayer’s role in the band. One fan admitted that he did not accept Thayer as a member of KISS, indicating that his presence made the current incarnation seem like a tribute act. Another fan’s response argued that having KISS with replacement musicians is better than not having the brand around at all. “KISS is KISS, and, I’ll not be complaining when they tour,” says the fan.
KISS is only one of many veteran rock brands that faced changes in its artistic personnel. Journey and Styx, among others, are sustaining brand belief with new faces on stage. Both brands remain popular touring attractions. Journey’s recent tour, in fact, was ranked in the top 20 of 2006 tours by the concert trade publication Pollstar. The Journey brand continues although its members’ names and faces have changed, including the temporary addition of new vocalist Jeff Scott Soto, who was recruited shortly after the 2006 tour began. Former Journey drummer Steve Smith says that when a rock brand is well-established, the music is what matters most. As long as the Journey brand delivers the music that made it successful, audiences will be satisfied:
The new group carries on the sound that was created during the years of the original Journey’s creative peak. At this point, it is keeping the music alive by touring and is continuing to develop new fans. This is good for the catalogue and the longevity of the music. The fans don’t seem to be interested in new material. They want to hear the hits.
Kotarba agrees. He says that brands consisting of ensembles rather than individuals, such as Van Morrison or Paul McCartney, are often remembered for their music rather than for their artistic personnel. “People know the songs but they don’t know the players,” he says. “Fans want more of a jukebox experience. They want the hits.” KISS’s fourth guitarist Bruce Kulick acknowledges that his status as a nonoriginal member of the group was overshadowed by the music he performed on stage. Kulick joined KISS following the dismissal of two previous guitarists within two years. “I’m not sure fans even knew who I was,” he says. “They may not even know who’s in the band now.”37
Still, while a rock brand must deliver its classic material during performances to appease audiences, key dominant artistic personnel must be present, says Jeb Wright, rock historian and editor of online magazine Classic Rock Revisited. Without a few of a brand’s principal artists on stage, credibility will be lost:
Now, one must ask if Tommy Shaw left Styx or Gene Simmons left KISS or Neal Schon left Journey would they be able to sell live shows at the capacity they are currently selling them at? The answer is no. While Journey’s original vocalist Steve Perry is absent and Styx does not have its original vocalist Dennis DeYoung a large majority of the fans will stick around as half a team is better than none, but if all key members are gone then you will not see anyone flocking to the show.
Personnel transitions are commonplace among veteran rock brands, but for younger brands, such changes can present more extreme challenges. In 1981, the Motorhead brand had just begun to enjoy commercial success when its guitarist Eddie Clarke departed. Although the brand was focused on its founder, bassist, and vocalist Lemmy Kilmister, Clarke’s replacement, Brian Robertson, became a disruption in Motorhead, and audiences’ expectations were not met.
In his autobiography White Line Fever, Kilmister discusses the challenges of maintaining the Motorhead brand with Robertson as the group’s guitarist. Kilmister recollects Motorhead’s album Another Perfect Day, the first recording with Robertson. The album was a departure from the signature Motorhead sound and offered a more refined, somewhat commercialized sound. Kilmister himself speaks highly of Robertson’s abilities and Another Perfect Day but admits that both seemed to be detrimental to the brand, as fans disliked the record, criticizing its commercial leanings.
In addition to presenting fans with a Motorhead album that diverted from the group’s traditional formula, the brand wasn’t delivering its previous hits (including its signature hit “Ace of Spades”) while on tour. This, writes Kilmister, was a result of Robertson’s influence. Compounding the problems of new musical direction and not playing the band’s older material was Robertson’s stage presence, which deviated from Motorhead’s black leather and denim image. In his book, Kilmister discusses Robertson’s increasingly distracting stage attire:
Brian’s fashion sense continued to shock and horrify fans throughout our tour of Europe at the end of the year. Let’s face it, ballet shoes and Motor-head do not mix! He stood out like a sore thumb, and I guess that’s what he wanted. On our last tour with him, he was wearing what looked like sweat pants, only they were made out of gabardine, and he had them tied up at the bottom with two strips of old, white towel. He was just being awkward for the sake of it.
Robertson would eventually be fired from Motorhead. Although other eccentric musicians would enter and exit the ranks of Motorhead, there would be no further deviation from the brand’s musical formula, image, or stage presence. The current line-up includes Kilmister, guitarist Phil Campbell, and drummer Mikkey Dee. It is the longest lasting version of the 35-year old Motorhead brand to date. Still, Motorhead ultimately revolves around Kilmister. Janiss Garza, rock critic and Kilmister’s co-author on White Line Fever, explains why, without Kilmister, there is no Motorhead. She also points out that multiple changes in personnel have factored into the brand:
Lemmy is the one who has sparked the loyalty. A lot of people from the very old days still do miss Eddie Clarke, but the bottom line is that Lemmy is the one who does most of the press and spouts off all the opinions. Because the line-up changes have involved getting new members who are quirky characters in the Motorhead mold, it’s stayed consistent with what Motorhead is about. But Lemmy is the main songwriter in the band. It’s clearly one voice that has carried on from album to album. Yes, the other guys have contributed musically, and I know Phil Campbell is a strong writer in his own right, but it all boils down to the Motorhead vibe, which boils down to Lemmy.
Consistency Is Key
Meeting audience expectations is key in maintaining a successful and visible rock brand. This has indeed been the case for the classic rock brands discussed in this chapter and will very well be the case for newer, younger artists as well. Audiences do not want to be surprised by a brand. The Rolling Stones could very well conduct a tour in which they played stripped-down blues standards and none of their hits. Still, one must ask if ticket sales would be as strong as they are during a standard, hit-filled Stones tour?
The examples posed by Springsteen and Bowie indicate that established brands must invest time and energy in performing the music that made them household names if they are to sell concert tickets. The true artist will no doubt be horrified by this fact. Being held hostage to one’s past glory is frustrating for artists as evidenced by Kilmister’s disdain for his band’s signature hit “Ace of Spades.” Still, a brand must put its audience well above artistic integrity if it is to survive.
Because brands such as the Stones, Motorhead, Bowie, and Springsteen have become institutions (at varying levels of commercial success) in the rock world, many audiences do not see their catalogs growing beyond the hits of yesteryear. In fact, most general audiences are likely to purchase a greatest hits package rather than a new product. Again, this is no doubt frustrating for artists who seek to create new works and not rest on the laurels of past glories. Still, the goal is to make the fans happy. The hits define the brand. New material appeases the loyalists while the general audience might head to the concession stand when it’s performed live.
Rock brands must maintain a certain visual appeal as well as maintain its audio integrity. Not every successful rock brand has a logo, but many do. From the most popular examples (Stones, KISS) to lesser-known but consistently used designs (Motorhead), logos are key identifiers for rock brands. Additionally, they form associations between the brand and its persona. KISS’s logo complements its garish, cartoon-like stage presence, and its jagged “S” design helps define its brand of heavy metal. Likewise, the Stones’ Lips/Tongue design reflects the brand’s raunchy, sexy appeal.
The power of logos extends beyond its definition of the artists and their music. Timeless rock logos can become fashionable whether they are on apparel or other merchandise. Stones and AC/DC T-shirts are worn by audiences of all ages. Often times, the person wearing the logo has no idea that it’s even connected with a brand.
Through strategic placement of their logos, many brands, particularly KISS, have extended the use of these identifiers into live performances. The logo—as used on stage, in special effects, or on drum kits—contributes not only to an audience’s expectations, but to its experience when seeing the brand perform live.
Sometimes, a logo’s design is strategic, as the case with Motorhead. The artist created an image to complement the caustic sound and image that the band favored. In other instances, such as the AC/DC logo, the design may be rendered as a one-time marketing piece then adopted for future use. Artists designing these logos are both professional designers—such as Gerard Huerta, designer of AC/DC’s logo—or simply an artistic band member such as KISS guitarist Ace Frehley. In both cases, there was no marketing science employed in the design of these successful logos. Repetition bred familiarity among the fans, which led to widespread recognition by general audiences.
Ironically, logos are more permanent aspects of brands than some artists are. In many rock groups, members come and go, which can impact a brand. When a popular member leaves, his/her replacement might not be received as warmly by audiences. As shown in the Motorhead case study from the early 1980s, a new personality in a relatively young brand can impact audiences’ beliefs and expectations. Additionally, the new face in the group also might have an impact on the group’s creative output as Robertson did on Motorhead’s. As Kilmister explained, the group’s previously stripped-down sound became polished, which alienated devotees. Likewise, his stage presence did not jive with the Motorhead image. After one album and one tour, he was sacked.
As recently seen in contemporary veteran brands such as KISS and Journey, however, audiences can accept replacement personnel for the sake of keeping the brand intact. Of course, it helps when the brand’s primary creative team or charismatic members still remain. KISS can still be KISS as long as vocalists Stanley and Simmons are present. Accordingly, the Stones continue to tour (for now), and KISS continues to release new merchandise (predominately archival DVD footage, clothing). What can new artists learn from these veterans that continue to thrive when so many others have retired from the music industry? In a word, consistency. These brands and many others have remained fairly unswerving in terms of music, performances, logo usage, and in retaining key personnel. The saying “change is good” does not always apply to successful brands. Simply, revisit the NEW Coke fiasco of the 1980s as a perfect example.
Consistency is certainly key for contemporary rock brands because they must now contend with audiences who have little patience for disappointment and more options for instant entertainment. Now more than ever, it’s crucial that new rock brands meet audiences’ expectations. Thanks to digital technology, buying music is a little like purchasing fast food. In fact, it’s almost priced like fast food at 99 cents a song. Regardless of the cost, music is often purchased for use on mobile devices (iPods, phones, MP3 players) and used on-the-go.
Think about what happens when you cruise through your preferred hamburger chain’s drive-thru line, place an order, then discover when you’re home that an unfavorable recipe change has been made on your favorite sandwich. Your expectations of this chain are dampened. The same scenario holds true for the fan of a contemporary rock brand, who buys several new tracks, then discovers during an hour-long commute that the group sounds nothing like it did on its previous record. Of course, he could have previewed them, but because he’s a fan, why should he? He knows what his favorite artist sounds like. Or, at least he thought he did.
Just as there are other fast-food chains to choose from, there are plenty of rock brands (both new and classic) to explore as well. Locking in with audience’s needs will keep them coming back for more. As evidenced by The Rolling Stones’ 2006 ticket sales, people stick with a proven commodity. New rock brands, however, are challenged with proving themselves again and again before truly connecting with a long-term audience.