**EXCLUSIVE: An interview with branding expert, Simon Pont

         
By Sam Milkman, Executive Vice President, Music Forecasting
 
 
At Music Forecasting, we read a lot of business and marketing books to sharpen our thinking about brands and music. Recently, one of them struck us as extra insightful—The Better Mousetrap: Brand Invention in a Media Democracy by Simon Pont.
 
Since this book had some great advice on branding in general, we were curious to see what the author might have to say specifically about brands and music. We had the opportunity to spend some time with Simon recently and ask him about his book's relevance to music, and here are some highlights of our conversation:
1. Do the concepts you outline in your book apply to music artists?
 
Without hesitation, music artists should think of themselves as brands. Of course, I appreciate that many do.
 
A brand is only as successful as its ability to entice, excite and thrill audiences. A brand aspires to fame, and needs to both retain its existing followers and draw new fans into its fold. The principles of how a brand does this, particularly in our digital age, are hugely informing and relevant to music artists.
 
Brands and music artists are in the same game, one of fame, fans and following.
      
Simon Pont, author

2. What advice would give to a music artist on how to define their brand?

Think very clearly about how you’d describe yourself as an artist. Could you describe yourself in a headline sentence? What about if you had just 30 seconds to define who you are, what you do and why you’re different? And what might your strap line be; say, your own version of “Just Do It” or “Think Different”?

This would just be my start-point, but it’s a crucial start-point, because effective communication is about concision and punch. “Who are you and what do you want to mean to the world?” You have 30 seconds.

3. In your book, you state that brands must work harder today than ever before. Does that hold true for music artists?

Brands, music artists, quite honestly, everybody - everybody has to work harder, if they want to truly succeed and stand-out. The simple, and maybe slightly brutal truth, is that success is the consequence of being utterly determined and unrelenting.

The brands that succeed are the brands that never sleep. They continue to consider new ways of doing things, talking “with” rather than “to” audiences. They look to build two-way conversations. They look to re-enforce how audiences perceive them, and they look to subvert audience expectations of them.

Brands and music artists alike need to keep fans on their toes, have different kinds of conversations, build different kinds of rapports, stand-out by not fitting in, by not adhering to category conventions. Certainly, aspiring to be “original” and authentic is hard work – but it can only and always be worth the effort.

4. If a music artist’s brand belongs to the consumer, and in many ways the consumer is in charge—what advice do you have for artists to maximize their success in this new environment?

A brand's "health" will be tracked and trended against metrics like, "A brand for me". The language, the implication, is important. It's possessive. "Mine." "My brand." That sense of ownership rests with the consumer, not the marketing folks sitting around a big table at Abercrombie or American Apparel. And "brand for me" is no different to a “band for me," or "my team."

Sports fans talk about how their team performed in the first-person collective sense of "we," as if they too were in the locker room or on the field. Being a fan is mostly about the emotion, about feeling on the inside, of feeling and therefore being part of it all.

So you bet, the music we listen to, the bands and artists we follow, this reflects our taste and helps define who we are as human beings. Therefore, first and foremost, an artist’s brand being “in consumers hands” is the ideal place for it to be.

And then once you’re in that place, then it’s a lot about learning to let go, because you can’t control those Consumer-to-Consumer (C2C) conversations. But here’s the thing - you don’t even want to control those conversation.

The biggest brands and music artists in the world are the ones that are talked about – where consumers, fans, talk to each other. As the line from Oscar Wilde goes, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that’s not being talked about.”

My first piece of advice to any artist would be to feel very good about being talked about.

To then maximize all that noise, all that chatter, music artists should consider how they give their audiences a role. Consider reality talent shows like ‘American Idol’ and ‘X-Factor’. Audiences have a clear role in the process. They bear witness to performances, they pass judgment with their voting, and ultimately, they go on that “emotional” journey with the contestants. Long-short: they’re part of it all. Even if it’s just in some small way.

An alternative, and much more retro, example...

The track, “Cum on Feel the Noize” was a huge hit for Slade, with subsequent and hugely successful covers, by Quiet Riot, Epic and Oasis. Now, I love this track, but for me, what I perhaps like best of all, is what inspired Slade to write it in the first place. It was an attempt, lyrically, to write the crowd into a song. Slade wanted to write a song about the experience of playing to an audience, to acknowledge that the audience defined the experience and their music. If they were just a bunch of guys up on stage, singing to themselves in an empty room, then none of it mattered.

The fans and the artist, like consumers and brands; this is a symbiotic relationship, a relationship between soul mates.

5. As a branding guy, what would you like to do with a musical artist that’s never been done before?

I’d love to stage something with a musical artist that plays on multi-sensory experiences. And weave that into some kind of experiential narrative, where the audience experiences a very deep, immersive, visceral, emotional experience… BUT where there’s a defined story architecture sitting behind it all.

Imagine: the feeling of being inside a Hollywood movie, with the kind of added stimulus experiences of being at a gig and an art exhibition. Sound, vision, scent, and story, all working together, aligning. The scientists call it “cross-modal” perception.

Of course, I haven’t quite worked out the details or the small print! But I conceptually love the idea, and I’d imagine the whole thing being linked by our personal tech devices, like our smartphones, where there’d be some kind of augmented reality graft on the “real time” elements, and our social networks would link and drop crumbs in the build-up to the event. It would be very cool.

6. Do you have advice for the music business in general on how to increase their business in the new digital age?

In terms of advice, it’s a positive message. The music business needs to keep doing what it is doing. Which is to say, it needs to keep adapting and trying to work it all out.

Music, and a love of music, is eternal. I love Nietzsche’s quote, “Without music, life would be a mistake.” No one’s proposing making a mistake anytime soon. Quite the opposite, the social media feeds show that “music” is in bionic shape. Fans sent over 14 million tweets during the 2013 Grammys. Grammy-related content generated 43 million likes and comments on Facebook. Soundcloud recently announced that they’re seeing 10 hours of audio being uploaded every minute, with 180 million people accessing their platform every month.

I think by being one of the first industries to stare into the digital void, the music industry is amongst the first to start seeing silver linings. The music industry has now been wrestling ‘The Big Digital Dilemma’ for the last 14 years - and in that wrestling, in being compelled to innovate, there are so many examples of artists demonstrating brilliant adaption.

Simply, I think we’re seeing music artists being more open-minded and opportunistic. We’re seeing the power of celebrity meet “brand stretch”, and the various ways that can consequently manifest...

Consider a recently-turned-40 Liam Gallagher and his very successful “Pretty Green” clothing range. Consider the “Official Justin Bieber Fragrances Channel” you can watch on YouTube. Consider Alicia Keys unveiling her 21 Pinterest boards, named after the tracks from her album ‘Girl on Fire’, the boards a visual expression of the themes within the album. Consider almost everything about One Direction. Those guys only finished third in 2010’s ‘The X Factor’ (UK), but they’ve now sold over 14 million singles and 8 million albums, contributing to a business empire worth over $50M. Morgan Spurlock is currently directing them in a 3-D movie.

Across the music business, there are many examples of “go-your-own way” behavior. My Bloody Valentine chose to sell their most recent album, ‘mbv’, directly to fans. And they were simply following in the footsteps of Radiohead. The launch of 2007’s ‘In Rainbows’, a digital download where consumers could pay what they wanted to, made self-releasing albums an act of innovation rather than desperation.

Forging new associations and partnerships with brands, extending into clothing lines, making 3-D movies: I’d firmly argue that none of this is “selling out”, where once upon a time it might have been seen as such. Today, there’s less sense of formal pigeon-holing, about how a band or an artist “must” or “should” or “ought to” behave.

British Luxury brand Burberry has recently taken 18 year old Jake Bugg under its wing, hosting live events for the singer to perform at their flagship store in London. I’d suggest it’s a union based on enlightened self-interest. Both parties benefit, with no apparent down-side. Adele saying “Yes” to Bond has just earned the movie franchise its first Oscar in 47 years, while the track topped the iTunes chart inside 10 hours of its release (5 October 2012).

Amanda Palmer’s “record, art book and tour” appeal through Kickstarter generated nearly 25,000 backers and $1.19M in pledged funding. True, there was also a backlash, suggesting that Palmer was being exploitative, but $1.19M speaks volumes.

Ours is now a world where artists need to become entrepreneurs, and where collaborators (and cold, hard cash) can be crowd-sourced. Approached in the right way, the opportunities might just be limitless.
 
 
As you can see, branding artists in this digital age is both challenging and exciting. But one thing stays the same throughout our view: We think the starting point is always a firm understanding of what the consumer is thinking. As Simon says in Better Mousetrap: “Always consider the mouse’s view.” In all that we do at Music Forecasting, we strive to bring you closer to the mouse, or consumer, so you can better understand your artists and steer them in the most successful direction. We’d like to give Simon Pont special thanks for sharing his views one-on-one with us, and we look forward to sharing the views of music consumers with you this year!
 
 

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