What is image?
To make everything nice and easy let's dispel some myths. Image is not, at least in a business sense, how good you look. It is not about you're attractiveness. This mistaken belief comes from the fact that image does relate to how you appear. We know people trying to sell records in the pop industry often give deals to pretty females. It's image right? That's why they got hired, because they are pretty, yeah?
Not as such.
Image is far more complex than simply a matter of how attractive someone is. For the rest of this article, consider the word image under the definition of branding. Image is not about how good you look, it is about being branded and every pop star, every rock star, everyone who has ever been successful has been branded not on their attractiveness but on whom they appeal to as based on their own personal beliefs and moral code.
What makes you the person that you are is how you understand the world around you and your beliefs regarding it. Your personal image is how you represent that to the world in how you dress, how you act, how you speak. Everything about you is an image, whether you have consciously thought it or not. Stereotypes are based on groups of people who share similar beliefs and dress in a similar way, and often how you dress is a physical representation of how you believe the world works. Without having thought about it, you make judgments about the world and then believe that this is the way.'
To give an example, I dress in a very simple way. No major layers, very little thought, just simple complimentary colours and no jewelry. If I don't need it, I won't wear it and this is because for a while I used to wear anything I could get my hands on. I experimented and what I found was that I didn't have an eye for being able to match complicated patterns and things. I think they look fine, then I see a picture weeks later and realize I didn't have a clue what I was doing. Simply, I don't have a head for complexity so I dress simply. Because I understand the world in a simple way everything I do turns out to be a physical representation of that. Musically speaking, if I have to start thinking about lot's of pedals and what batteries I will need to power them and what tunings I will need to bring guitars for and what equipment I have to bring to a gig then I start to get a bad head. I can't be bothered with it so what happens is, my understanding of the world as a simple and economical is better becomes my signature. Without me having thought about it consciously, my inability to deal with complexity has led me to develop a utilitarian style.
I am, in action a bit of a punk. I will turn up with whatever works regardless of how it looks as long as it gets the job done. Many people who share this sentiment believe that image is not important, however, the very belief that image is not important is a statement that lends itself to a punk mentality. Image is not all Barbie singers and backing dancers. Image is your physical representation of your beliefs.
So why is there a negativity towards image then?
Many people have only ever understood image as referring to having the right image for a pop career which is to appeal to a large audience of normal every day music listeners. If you think that image means how you look, you're only half right.
The best example I can think of is Britney Spears and Christina Difficult to Spell ast Name.' Launched at a similar time and with a similar image, that of the girl next door with a slightly more sexually suggestive edge for Ms Spears the two were marketed quite similarly and to the same people. However, receiving a lower market share Christina has gone through more phases than Britney such as super whore in Dirrty and blonde pin up in Candy Man.' Britney's image worked first time, but Christina (xtina, Sextina etc) had to change.
This does happen when an artist is competing for a market that's too saturated and the answer is USP's (Unique Selling Points.)
I spent a year living in America and in that time every time I heard someone talk about a Mac, it was always referred to as being a computer for artsy people. Whether or not Macs are better for artistic projects than a windows is irrelevant, the fact is that when I came to need a computer that would be good for recording the first thing I thought was Mac. Why? Because I have very little knowledge about computers. If what I have heard is that Macs are good for creative projects then when I need a computer for a creative project it's going to be the first thing I check out. All other computers lose out because they are competing on other things and their branding hasn't led me to consider them.
So what has this got to do with music then?
Music is about more than simply the sound for most people. Even without realizing it, people align with musicians who have a similar belief system to themself. In the same way that some people are now furiously typing comments to me about how image isn't important and they don't make musical choices based on it, your belief that image isn't important is most probably influencing the bands that you listen to. They will be bands who say that image doesn't matter and that it's all about the music, but that again is a belief. It isn't a universal truth, it is a way that you interpret the world. Music is whatever it is. If it is sold based on image that is no more or less correct a way to pursue a career than if it was based solely on image.
How does this affect music?
Where image becomes both dangerous and important is at the level where suddenly you are expected to perform and live up to the brand you have created. For example, Joaquim Pheonix suggested that he was going to begin a rap career and everyone lambasted him for it and said what a fool he was. Turned out that he was running a social experiment to see how people would react when someone known for a type of lifestyle suddenly switched their image. Long story short they aren't accepted as I'm sure any of you would know if you'd ever radically altered your dress sense and then gone to see some old friends.
While most of you will accept that artists such as Lady Gaga are held by image where it gets more subtle is when it starts to affect rock musicians, and make no mistake it does. I went to see hard rock band Airbourne recently at a venue that held about 2000 maximum and each guitarist had between 4 and 6 full stacks each, the bassist had two. Now everyone here should know that's overkill and that they'd be mic'ed for volume anyway for better sound distribution. Not the guy next to me. As the covers were pulled off the amps, he turned to his friend and he started talking about how loud they were going to be. Even though they weren't going to be using all the amps at the same time, it was worth bringing them because people get excited when they see a rock band with huge amps. It's part of the image of rock n roll and if they turned up with a 2x12 combo, it'd probably be loud enough but it wouldn't have the stage presence expected from a hard rock band.
It is important for Airbourne to have large amps at their gigs because it is part of the image they put forward. The suggestion of volume is as big a deal as the actual volume. On the opposite end of the spectrum, someone going to a Pink Floyd show would probably expect superb sound quality, an excellent light show and probably some deep, well thought out stage props, be they 40ft high hammers or a massive wall. Either way it's important to the music, because it's what people expect. It won't necessarily be any different in terms of volume and they probably have the same amount of amps, but they'll be out of the way because they aren't important to the image.
As a further example of this, Pink Floyd released (and you can get it on YouTube) live in Pompeii, a very old DVD/ video where they were playing to a crowd of 0 in an abandoned amphitheatre in Pompeii and had lots of speakers around. The difference is, that in this stage of their career, Floyd were still the unwashed hippy band who played loud. The image was different at this stage in their career. They were against the normal rules and regulations of society so they wore their hair long, played concerts in the middle of nowhere and didn't invite everyone and they played loud. It was the image they had at the time.
Because we as music fans put a lot of our time and effort into music we only invest in people we like. This means people who make music we like, and share the same attitudes. You may say you don't like Lady Gaga because her music is not your type of thing, but her music, like her clothing is a representation of what she stands for. Her music is aimed at people like her, not you and so you were never meant to get it. Her image was always going to pick up those who believed that pop is about costumes and grandiose settings. I.e. a bit of theater.
How does it apply to me?
I hope by this point you are with me on the fact that image is important, and if you are then excellent. Have a cookie. If you are then you may be wondering how it affects you and your band or your music. I know that some people will be reading this thinking that they don't want to make a conscious effort to change their image even if they believe that it is important and the good thing is you don't have to.
Your image and your music are interlinked and if you believe that you can play a massive gig with a Line 6 Spider 2x12 because it makes the sound that you want it to, then you can. That's part of your image, you use whatever gets the job done.
If you are going to craft an image for yourself or your band, and you should then your first step is to understand how to brand yourself. Here are some questions for you to consider.
What do you see guitar as? Is it some experimental instrument that should change people's opinion on things? Is it a backing instrument? Why do you play? Do you play to have a good time personally? Do you play to enable other people to have a good time? Do you play to meet people socially? Do you play for the attention it get's you? What type of rig do you want? Do you have dreams of huge amounts of gear for every situation? Are you happy with what you have now? What do you find yourself working towards? Do you buy things, in case your band gets bigger? Do you live in the moment? What genre of music are you in? Do you want to be associated with it closely, or would you rather just do your own thing and list that genre as an influence? Do you want to be seen as a band that creates it's own style? Do you want to play stadiums or stick to the underground scene?
All these questions are just little bits and pieces that can help you to understand why you play and what you want out of your playing when you consider them. The first step of branding is to decide on what the image you want to project will be, but this doesn't necessarily mean changing yourself, it means understanding yourself and then being consistent in pushing that image forward.
I have previously listed one of my pet hates as bands that come up with a name before they have ever played much together and the reason is this. You don't know what style you are or what you represent as a band till you play together. Your name will not represent your band well if you don't know what needs representing.
Some thoughts on branding yourself
You have to understand yourself and why you do what you do. You have to understand what you are representing when you play. For example, if you play guitar for utilitarian reasons, you like to play but you don't really want the attention then you don't need a flashy guitar. You don't need flashy clothes, you don't need lot's of stage presence because that's not what you're about. You must sell yourself on what you are. Brian May doesn't play insane solo's on his knees with his tongue hanging out, but he has a fan base who appreciate that he crafts beautifully phrased solo's and melodies. Jimi Hendrix writhed about everywhere you could writhe and people loved him for being the mentalist he was.
Your aim in creating a brand isn't to make yourself acceptable to everyone, it is to know who you are and then appeal to your most likely fan base by allowing them to find you. I you were Brian May you'd probably play somewhere that people were more open to more orchestral music whereas Hendrix now would play somewhere that people went for a visual and aural treat.
Every now and again a band will come along and they will have a set image, they will play music that conforms to that image and they will do it well. They will do this, not because they have thought about what image they want, but because all 4/5/6+ members of the band fully embody what that music stands for. Guns and roses did this better than any band I can think of.
They all looked the part of the classic rocker, with denim and leather everywhere and plenty of hair. They all drank Jack Daniels and nursed a certain illicit habit. It goes further than that though. Guns and roses were punks, they lived on whatever they could, they were ragged, and rough, they named their album Appetite for Destruction which is exactly what they had. They wanted to see the traditional world burn because they had no respect for it. If you can't see that then just look at any video of Axl Rose when he dives into the crowd and tries to take someone down. He wanted what he wanted at any cost. Watch any interview and you'll see what they were about.
Unlike bands like Motley Crue who were all about a good time (nothing but a good time, girls girls girls, dr feelgood) Guns and Roses were far more aggressive in both sound and attitude. Even the fact that they were a Les Paul band in a superstrat era reflected the fact that they were different in every important way from the rest of their scene. They didn't change their image to be marketable, but who they were as people, laid back drinking punks who were playing music for drugs, beer and sex the rest of the world be damned attracted a fan base of like minded people.
The best band image you can have is one that perfectly personifies who you are, whoever that may be because you are selling your music based on the ideas behind it. You sell your music based on you.
PS. The first person to argue about a Mac get's their cookie taken away because you've missed the point completely.