I took my 18-year-old daughter to a Kate Nash concert earlier this week. My daughter arrived ahead of me. Her text: “Only middle age people.” We stood in the line debating the meaning of “middle age.” Neither side won, but I learned two things about her perspective: a) anyone out of college, like most of the people at the concert, can be categorized as “middle age” and b) “middle age” is based on productive life expectancy—so in my early 50s, I am well past middle age.
The concert was fantastic and also provocative because it got me thinking about artist branding. I promise I’ll get back to the inimitable Kate Nash in a minute.
Can you name five women artists?
We recently launched a brand advertising campaign for the National Museum of Women in the Arts. It poses the question “Can you name five women artists?”
I think the campaign exposes significant issues in the arts as they relate to artist branding. To set some context for this, please note that all brands accrue power through differentiated simplicity. They must be at once distinctive and easily grasped. In general, the further these two factors can be optimized, the better, provided that the brand is satisfying a need of a particular set of customers.
When we ask the question “Can you name five women artists?” most people have trouble, then they sort of freak out at the realization that they can’t do it. It seems to simultaneously expose the gender inequality of the art world and also our complicity in that inequality. “Why don’t I know five women artists? What’s wrong? Something is wrong.”
The following metaphor might be an overstatement but only a slight one: We are all fish swimming in water. “Water” is the male domination of nearly every field of human endeavor. “But I’m a fish. Water just is. I am a fish. What is swimming?” Then it hits you: “I’m swimming.” For women or for any feminist, it’s like that. “Oh, I’m a willing, unwitting participant and collaborator, aren’t I? I can name Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh, Warhol, Mondrian, Rembrandt, and many more. But I get stuck after Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe. WTF?”
Remember: simplicity is power in any brand.
There is another dimension to this. You will notice that in the list I gave, all these well-known male artists are recognized by a single name. Pablo is not needed for the Picasso brand to form in your mind. Remember: simplicity is power for any brand. Men get special privilege even here on the level of brand—they (many of them) get to be known by just one name (sorry Chuck Close). Do any female artists get this same privilege? They do not. Mary Cassatt? Judy Chicago? Yoko Ono? Barbara Kruger? Chakaia Booker? Yayoi Kusama (maybe just Kusama because the whole thing is plain difficult for Americans)? Women face an uphill battle in establishing themselves as artists (and also brands—more on that below) if the answers to “Can you name five women artists?” are any indication.
Think of this crossword puzzle that we ran as part of the campaign for the National Museum of Women in the Arts. If the puzzle were for all artists, not just the women, then the men would be so much easier to guess. Their names would be half as long, twice as simple.
Artists don’t usually think of themselves as brands. I’m sure the idea chafes. “I am an artist” is an assertion against branding and its requisite responsiveness to customer demand. The idea that an artist is free from commercial considerations when it comes to their creative work is important and, I’m sure, deeply held by most artists. One could say this is a romantic or naive belief, but I think it is essential for many artists. The distinction between art and commerce is meaningful and worthy of preservation, but that does not impede the inexorable operation of brands or their propensity for simplification. It is key to any brand’s power. So despite all protestations to the contrary, artists are brands. At least the successful ones all are. Tell me Picasso is not a brand, intended or not. The Beatles? Roll over Beethoven, Mozart, Verdi!
The artists we know are brands because we make them so in our minds. That’s how we organize and remember them. Each holds a differentiated position that we value and each has an associated brand name. They all operate as brands because they effectively conjure up some particular and consistent thing in our minds, something triggered by a visual or musical style, a set of notes or a type of brush stroke, or simply by the mention of their name. This is powerful stuff and artists should not ignore it out of pride. The pain in the ass of it is real though.
Artists don’t usually think of themselves as brands. I’m sure the idea chafes. “I am an artist” is an assertion against branding and its requisite responsiveness to customer demand.
Who would want their life’s work reduced in this way? We are all complicated, we all contain multitudes, and yet what we are talking about is the equivalent of typecasting. Once you become known for something, that becomes “who you are.” Of course, it is not nearly all of who you are, and yet the stronger that thing is, the more likely it is to come up in people’s minds; this is what builds and reinforces a brand. On the inside, I’m sure it feels like a trap or a cage, but the unfortunate reality is that in the grand scheme of things, anonymity is the only other option.
I have often thought that it would be tiresome for a musician to always be asked to perform their greatest hits. “Beethoven, can you play the Moonlight Sonata again?” The pressure to do this is derived from the intense desire to have an artist reinforce the brand that is the basis of our affinity for them. It is why we identify with or support that brand rather than this other one. We want reassurance from the brand that it still loves us. We are needy.
It’s sad, but so it is.
Enter Kate Nash. I immediately loved her authentic, funny, in-your-face feminist attitude, but as a passive fan, I just listened and enjoyed her music as it came up on my Kate Nash Pandora channel.
Here is a good illustration of the Kate Nash brand I had in my head. It’s her at 20 singing her chart-topping hit “Foundations.” She’s a spunky, snarky variant of the singer-songwriter, accompanied by an unassuming bandmate.
She held this special brand position in my mind and I left her there over the intervening years. Why would I change the space she occupies? Because it would require mental effort to do so? In Kate’s own words from a recent LA Times profile, “People don’t know anything unless you shove it down their throats.” We are all lazy this way. A brand gets positioned on a particular shelf and we leave it.
On Wednesday, I was brought up to speed. Seeing her in concert pulled the Kate Nash brand off that shelf and put it on another, higher one. I encountered, with my daughter, the full girl-power, feminist, “let’s-change-the-world” force of the Kate Nash brand. This got me excited because the whole room was excited about that too. And she was now a full-on rocker with a self-proclaimed all-girl band (clearly she does not regard herself as middle-aged quite yet). This new (for me) Kate Nash is the perfect combination of passion in performance backed up by talent and yet, still without artifice (an essential component of her original brand).
To quote from Sad Girl Jams on Instagram: “Seeing Kate Nash was one of the most joyful experiences I’ve had in a very long time. There’s something indescribably energizing about how it feels to watch a bunch of super talented women on stage being unapologetically themselves, and I’m SO happy to have gotten to share in the last night of this tour!”
I was witnessing positive magic and this time, performing that same song, she was crowd surfing a packed and enthusiastic New York City concert hall. (My iPhone footage captures a bit of the feeling.) She’s pushing through a brand transformation that I find exciting. In doing so, she certainly made her core customer—loyal fans in New York among them—very happy.
So there is nothing we can do about the reductive quality of brands and the branding that we all do in our minds. As an artist, as a business, as a nonprofit, you have to acknowledge and respect that reality, but you can rebrand. You can evolve your brand to be a bigger, better, more impactful version of what you stand for in the world. You can have an impact, and your brand must be your ally and friend in this endeavor.