How Important is Your Image When Trying to Make It in The Music Industry?

Person playing a guitar
Natalie Howarth

Is how you look and present yourself more significant than the music you play when it comes to getting attention and a following? Natalie Howarth discusses.

A sad reality of the music industry is that image is everything. It is essential for an artist to cultivate an image for themselves therefore it is argued that an artist or band’s image can often be more important than their actual music. If you think of the Canadian musician Grimes, one of ‘The Top 25 Most Stylish Musicians of 2022’, and her distinctive style that she has curated, it is unfaltering and parallels her futuristic, cyberpunk, synth-pop essence. The nature of her very much non-monolithic style contributes to her overall fame, from the air of intrigue surrounding her in the music industry enabling her millions of monthly listeners across streaming platform (definitely not Elon Musk and her child’s name)! However, this poses the question of if it is unfair to disregard artist’s talent with the bias that they lack a distinctive or different style from the mainstream? Is an ‘all-out’ look necessary to strike gold in one of the most competitive industries?

When there is questions of a band’s authenticity, then you know that music isn’t made for enjoyment but merely for the prospect of money. When money takes precedent over the creative process of music, then the phrase ‘industry plants’ can be brought to the conversation: the term ‘industry plant’ is a musical term derived colloquially from hip-hop which is understood to mean, “an artist who has a major/indie label backing their movement but presents themselves as a ‘homegrown start-up’ to create the illusion of an organic following”. By creating this façade people may fall for it without question. This is in line with artists or record labels that chase fame and commercial success—backhanding the artist’s own individuality and creative freedom.

this is an industry that can be consumed by capitalist greed

In my opinion, this shouldn’t be the premise of music production however, this is an industry that can be consumed by capitalist greed and making music that is marketable. Billie Eilish is often referred to as an industry plant for her quick rise to fame as a young artist whose image is viewed as iconic: sticking with a distinctive colour palette, exclusively black and green, her easy to recognise image enables her to be a household name.

Another example of an industry plant is the alternative, pop punk singer, Yungblud, who has built a false façade of being a working-class punk that attempts to appeal to the alt community. Despite his private education and attendance at a prestigious arts college in London, he has a lot of audacity to claim his status as a working-class musician earning millions of pounds: stop romanticising the working-class! Despite the unpopular opinions of Yungblud, the attention he has got has ultimately boosted his career; this is an example of how an artist can make themselves spoken about and even negative publicity is still publicity.

it was a ridiculous outfit, yet it created conversation about them and their work

A recent example of how image can help an artist to make it in the industry, even if there is negative publicity, is Sam Smith’s over the top outfit that they wore to the BRIT Awards; you know the one I’m talking about! Their custom-made latex outfit stimulated a lot of discussion and received a lot of scrutiny from mainstream press. It was a ridiculous outfit, yet it created conversation about them and their work.

On a more positive side, artists who have a distinctive image can gain more recognition and prosperity within the industry. One of my favourite artists, Jeff Buckley, a singer-songwriter from the 90s gained success posthumously for his versatile voice and nostalgic style. His non-monolithic genre of soft rock fused with folk and elements of blues reflects in his grungy and folky fashion sense. With a rising popularity in mellow, 90s singer-songwriters like Elliot Smith, Fiona Apple, PJ Harvey, Hope Sandoval, Slint, these artists are often grouped together, known for their grungy style and similar sounding songs.

All it takes is for an artist to have a distinctive trait and for it to become their brand. The best example of this is MF DOOM, your favourite rapper’s favourite rapper, and his signature mask. In an interview, he says that he wears the mask to “just add another character”: he is an artist with many alters and wearing a mask “would add to the mystique of the character”. The mask itself is a replica from the film Gladiator, an interesting insight into the time that his music career took off. Commercially, his mask is iconic, even posthumously as his merchandise with the mask branded on it has more sales than ever before! His mask is an easily identifiable feature to any fan of hip hop music, and he remains a legend.

Sometimes if an artist is more of an enigma than a prominent presence in popular music magazines, there can be more of an appeal to listen to their music. An artist who springs to mind when thinking about lack of social presence is the innovative, idiosyncratic electronic artist, Aphex Twin, also known as Richard D James. I have been a huge fan of his work for years as his style is so complex and experimental, as a pioneer of the first wave of acid house in the 90s he mixes a range of genres like intelligent dance music, jungle, techno and ambient.

this lack of presence can be more exciting than the grand outfits and gestures made by artists to create attention and conversation

With a large discography that brought dance music into the periphery of the mainstream, there isn’t a lot online about him in comparison to popular names from Fatboy Slim to Solange as he is known to shy away from discussion about his music. James told Mixmag in 1995: “When you do so many [tracks] as I do, ” he declares, “like four a day or something then after a few months it’s hard to remember or distinguish what was going on when you made them. Sometimes you remember certain tracks for certain reasons, like you were p****d out of your head and fell through a window.” It is interesting that no matter how much an influence James has had on many music genres, he maintains an air of mysticism in his image. Personally, I think this lack of presence can be more exciting than the grand outfits and gestures made by artists to create attention and conversation, but they are more impactful. Some artists can’t rely on their talent alone to make it in the industry and that is quite a harsh reality, however Aphex Twin can! 

Objectively, I think it goes without saying that the more outrageous an artist with their style and mode of experimentation in the music industry, the further they can make it!

Natalie Howarth

Featured image courtesy of Marcus Neto via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

In-article image 1 courtesy of @grimes via Instagram.com. No changes were made to this image.

In-article images 2 courtesy of @billieeilish  via Instagram.com. No changes were made to these images.

In-article images 3 courtesy of @samsmith via Instagram.com. No changes were made to these images.

In-article images 4 courtesy of @mfdoom via Instagram.com. No changes were made to these images.

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