Written by Tarun J B Shah - as part of Commission Mission.
I can remember like it was yesterday, the moment in the studio when, at age fifteen, a producer told me to “sing less Indian”. I’d just signed an artist development deal that I’d hoped would take me to labels, get me signed and turn ‘Tarun’ into the next big thing. But alas, this wasn’t to be. Two generic Ed Sheeran-esque sounding songs later and the brand the team and I had created together was, in my opinion, as interesting as soggy white bread. In hindsight, it’s easy to pinpoint the problem – they had advised me to stamp out any ounce of what made me, me.
In the years that followed, I took my time to discover and develop a sound as a songwriter and producer that was intrinsically based on who I was as a person, creating the ‘Seeva’ artist name and brand - but this only really clicked in the past year. I feel like I received two very different approaches when receiving advice from those in the industry - either to “stand out from the crowd” as an artist, or to look and act like the ‘‘cookie-cutter’’ pop star that I had always been made aware of. Here I will be talking to an artist, a manager and a producer about how to stand out from the crowd in the constantly changing music industry.
As a stereotypically gay kid, I grew up listening to the likes of Britney, Rihanna, Beyoncé and any other strong and powerful female artists I could idolise. At the time, all three seemed to be churned through the enigmatic pop machine, glossed up in a way that made them stand out enough to be identifiable, but with music that was safe for radio and aimed at the masses. As time has passed, however, the latter two have become known for their more creative and political pieces of work. Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ tackled issues such as police brutality towards black people in America, grief, unfaithfulness in her relationship and a whole Rolodex of extremely personal and topical subjects that are a far cry from the more surface-level lyrics of her earlier works. Coming midway through the 2010s, was this the changing of the guard? Was it now not only acceptable but encouraged, by fans and the industry to speak up about difficult subjects and to use your identity to connect with people more personally in a social media age? With some of the breakout stars of recent years being so unique in their brand, demographic and message such as Lizzo, Lil Nas X and Billie Eilish, is now the time for the D-I-Y artist to be unapologetically themselves?
To understand the different approaches in the music industry surrounding artist identity and branding, I first called Lorna Blackwood, a vocal coach and vocal producer to some of the biggest pop vocalists in the world, and my dear friend and mentor of seven years. Here is what she had to say when asked if an artists’ identity was important in the modern music age:
“Exceptionally. I think the pressure on singers and their identity is being geared in a certain direction by label and management. With every single artist that I work with, there’s one song that everyone goes crazy about, and suddenly they want another three like that. I think being assured in the diverse aspects of your character and showing your own personality and identity in your music is really, really hard – and you’ve got to have strong convictions. Full credit to the likes of Tom Walker, Dua Lipa, and Mabel. Ellie Goulding just released another song, when I spoke to her this morning it’s clear she’s so proud of it, and I’m so glad she’s doing what she wants to do. Sometimes it takes a lot of guts as an artist to say, ‘I want to do what I feel’, as opposed to what might feel safe in the market. You have a business team promoting the product, and the product is the music, and to some degree – the artist. I just love to hear people doing what they do best.”
So, there is still push back from the upper echelons of the business to fit a mould and tick boxes, especially when there is a proven track record of it working. Even the most successful artists still have to fight for their creative freedom. But how about the DIY scene? The independent music scene is thriving, with streaming and social media making it easier than ever to leapfrog previous gatekeepers and directly interact with fans and music consumers. There seems to be a disconnect in this sense – talking to Faye Dickinson, a model and influencer in her own right and manager to up-and-coming artist Jess Young, reaching fans directly and honestly seems to provoke the most reaction. As an independent rising star, Jess has worked with award-winning producers to cultivate her sound, and with Faye by her side, has a team of creatives to work with without the confines of a record contract. The private and the professional seems to be getting closer and more inseparable. I asked Faye some questions on the approach they are taking as a team.
Is it important to you that your artist’s brand is representative of them in their private life?
Of course, you get what you see basically. We want to share ‘unfiltered Jess’ with her fans. Femininity, self-love and being true to yourself is the core focus of our brand.
As a manager, how have you been able to use parts of Jess’s identity to create the ‘Jess Young’ brand?
I have managed to bring all aspects of Jess’s life into one; that's including her moral values, friendships, sexuality, feminism, mental health and vulnerability. Being able to have a creative or innovative idea that sparks excitement and passion, and then to see it through music and our story, is the most enjoyable and rewarding part of my job.
Have there been times where you’ve encouraged Jess to dull down or play up certain parts of her identity, especially based on the environment or context of a situation?
No, I like Jess the way she is because I genuinely believe that being yourself is good enough. I wouldn't encourage her to do something out of character, or something she doesn't feel comfortable with. We do think alike which is a bonus.
In the music you like and listen to, are there artists you connect to more due to their branding through their music and visuals?
I love listening to Jess Glynne, Jessie J, Rita Ora, Fletcher, Julia Michaels and Dua Lipa (a female powerhouse). I love everything about their branding, visuals to music etc. I love an independent, strong, fierce woman in music. Working with Jess is an honour not just because she shares the same core values as me, but she is a good friend too. She has a big heart.
Talking to Faye about the transparency of her artist’s brand and how close herself and Jess are on their levels of understanding, juxtaposes with the difficulties Lorna had described with the management of some artists regarding their brand. Having a strong personal understanding in the people you incorporate within your team as an artist - whether it be your manager, vocal coach or writing partners - seems vital. All the successful artists I know have strong brands and the ones who have stalled in their success often haven’t developed in a way that keeps them fresh, exciting and just altogether human.
As much as I’d want to thrive off of a consistent image, after a while there comes time for reinvention, and balancing the line between rebranding and alienating fans must be a difficult road to cross. As someone who has plenty of labels placed on me by society as a whole, I wanted to end this article with someone that I have looked up to as a pillar of how to navigate the boxes that people might try to put us in – using our identities, but also our personalities and life experiences to create music. As a gay South Asian man, identity means so much more to me than just ‘what meets the eye’. The experiences of love, heartache, self-discovery and nostalgia in my music are subjects that could be understood by people of all backgrounds, regardless of their resonance to my identity. I caught up with Andrea di Giovanni, an incredible artist, songwriter and musician who is also part of the queer community. We both listened to the same music growing up as Gen-Z queers, and the mix of pop, soul & R&B music they were exposed to as a kid has influenced them greatly. Having created a huge buzz over their music in the past few years, they’ve just released their new single, ‘Stand Up’, and at the time of us talking, has a debut album on the way. We discussed labels – not the record kind, but the identity kind and our relationship with the terms placed upon us.
“I think it was a journey for me with labels as well. I guess at the beginning it was to connect me with other people, especially abroad. But as I grow older now, I kind of repel that. I don’t necessarily love the idea of calling artists who are queer, ‘queer artists’ – the issue for me is that automatically, the mainstream narrows your audience to a niche and it’s not something we even decide. Sadly how it works is that there are a bunch of tastemakers who put certain people in more ears than others – and that’s just a fact. By niching our music to ‘queer music’, it’s decimating our audience. Our music has such a mainstream, global appeal – there are people like MNEK and Years & Years and others too who have broken through in a big way to the mainstream. You can release music and do advocacy, the two don’t go in opposite directions, but I always say – do you see a ‘straight pop’ artist playlist? It would be ridiculous. We are artists and make music, and however we love or identify can be a part of your musical expression, but it shouldn’t be the sole reason why people look at you because then we are boxed into categories.”
Upon being asked whether they’d been told to ‘rein it in’ by people in the music industry in terms of their image, they replied with a big ‘ooooh girl’.
“The worst part about this is that it’s subtle. You’ll never have someone sit in front of you and tell you “rein it in ‘cause we ain’t earning money”, what they will do is a much more subtle way of othering. We’ve been in contact with three major labels who’ve loved the music, but when they’ve landed on my Instagram page – have disappeared. My manager was told by another management he works with to let me go, because I’m a ‘difficult’ project, two years ago – and look at the position we’re in today.”
Indeed. Look at the position they’re in today. The consistent message I’ve received across the board is that being authentic and being truthful in your brand and identity is crucial to cultivating a following that will champion you. The middlemen of record executives are no longer crucial to maintaining a successful career in music. You can see this with the number of independent artists making a living from streaming, sync, live and merch all because they have cultivated a brand that connects directly to consumers. Music fans are just people at the end of the day – they can tell when you’re not being honest with them, or at the very least they might not engage in the same way if you present yourself in a highly edited universe. It’s 2020 – people can see you from across a screen in real-time. Branding as an artist has never been more personal.
Commission Mission was created by Young Guns Network and London In Stereo to commission 20 new and experienced freelance writers to create articles to inspire, inform and entertain young people in the music industry who are struggling during Covid-19.
The supporters who made this project possible were Association of Independent Music, London In Stereo, Musicians Union, Motive Unknown, PPL, Remi Harris Consulting, Small Green Shoots, Young Guns Network, Youth Music.