Being a Star Before You’re a Star, Pt. I

See also "Being A Star Before You're a Star, Part II: The Rollout"

By L. Michael Gipson

As a decade-long music industry insider who has worn many hats, I find myself asked by newcomers (and some Ol’ Gs) what they can do to elevate their music career…or get it on a level beyond hometown love. Anyone paying attention knows the game has changed several times in these young 2000s and the kind of money one could expect to make has equally changed several times over, often in the wrong direction. Audience expectations of independent artists, including those former major label artists who now are indies, have also changed over those many years. Sadly, not everyone has gotten these crucial memos. Many are still creating branding, marketing, and touring plans like it is 1999, proving once again that denial is more than just a river in the red, black and green Motherland.

Over these years, I’ve been privileged to sit at the knee of several sharper and more innovative minds than my own regarding this business of music. From those eager ear-hustlings, several recurring themes come up again and again without fail, themes that may answer some questions for the independent artist about why they aren’t “bigger” or being recognized as a “star.” I decided to cut down on some of these “tsk tsk” conversations I tend to have with other industry heads and to give a cheat sheet to those bewildered souls scratching their heads trying to figure out why they aren’t further along or worse, back at square one after a long hiatus in-between projects. Even from 2007 to now, the business has dramatically changed, in just five short years. So, what’s an artist to do?

Tip One: Dress Up

There seems to be this misguided theory floating around that just because an artist is independent they don’t have to dress the part of an entertainer for their performances, that the audience has suddenly gone blind. I’m not entirely sure how these episodes of mass spontaneous blindness are expected to work exactly. Many an artist seems to have an inside track on how this phenomenon occurs. They must. Otherwise, why would an artist appear to have rolled out of bed and directly on to the stage, not just sometimes, but as a matter of course? Only ?uestlove can pull off this move and even he dresses it up for ...Fallon.

A rather large group e-mail once floated around the fan-sphere some sisters in NJ and NYC not only taking to task the artists who graced the five borough audiences with their presence in such an odious manner, they went so far as to list the best and worse by name. Since many of the listed continue to appear as if tie-die and wrinkle-wear are a couture statement, one can only assume they literally didn’t get the memo. (Our lawyers have asked us to not name names, but God my fingers literally itch to spill the beans).

Newsflash: audiences still want to feel like they are in the atmosphere of a star whenever an artist hits the door. Just as in any other music era, folks should be able to pick the talent out in the middle of a crowded room. The internet changed music distribution and ownership, not presence and showmanship. One doesn’t have to raid Saks or Needless Mark-up (aka Neiman Marcus) to dress the part, nor does one need to present as if their other four bedazzled brothers are waiting in the wings. Get a signature style quick fast and in a hurry. It needn’t be fancy. Calvin Richardson rocks cowboy hats and wifebeaters for his schtick and he’s instantly recognizable. Of course, the muscles and impossibly good looks help. When bereft of a Bowflex and the genes of a Noxema God, improvise. Richardson’s trademark stylings can be had on a Target budget. Singer/songwriter Zooey Deschanel most famous for the TV show New Girl rocks 50s and 60s mod vintage almost exclusively, turning an innocent brightness via thrift stores and consignment shops into a brand. Yahzarah, Phonte, Marcell Russell (in more recent years), Jesse Boykins III…something immediately lets you know that they are the talent, and it’s not by accident. Some of it is as basic as a bow tie and kicks. If you just don’t have a knack for styling yourself, get a consultation with a professional stylist. Better still; raid the art school fashion design program of its eager young grad students dying to style you on the cheap. They and your audience will thank you.

Once you’ve got your look, follow it up with collaterals that match your unique style, from your logo to the concert and promotional materials you’re attached to. Get a graphics person and a good editorial photographer on your team to make sure the logo, website, blog, social media pages and promotional images reflect your new style in synchronicity. This is the beginning and part of your branding...

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