As you’ve no doubt realized by now, image is pretty important to your success as an artist. It affects your live show, it affects your online presence, it affects your marketing opportunities and strategy.
But in the countless hours you’re obviously devoting to exploring and experimenting with your image, are you thinking about what kind of image you’re going to use?
The superb Riff City published a tremendously insightful post last week entitled Docs of Perception: Visual Records and How We Hear Music. In it, author Julianne Escobedo Shephard explores the relationship between camera technology and our perception of artists.
“Can you imagine watching, say, Joy Division in HD?” Escobedo Shepherd asks. It’s one of many poignant questions, designed to underscore how crucial a period’s technological standards (and the visual characteristics that mark them) are to how we understand and process its musical artists.
Today, of course, we can make an image look any which way. Whether you’re looking for a sepia-toned fantasy or a low-rent betamax thrill, there’s an app (or piece of the Adobe suite) for that, and bands everywhere have taken notice. This explosion of creative possibility has enabled both the revitalization and subtle modernization of several visual styles, a bittersweet development in a time when album art has become marginalized.
That every graphic designer is vested with this chameleonic power has made look slightly less important. As “Docs of Perception” also points out, the means of accessing images has changed our understanding and attachment to artists, and is therefore much more important. An infinite sea of tumblrs and YouTube channels and Flickr accounts demands a constant stream of new content, with quantity far more important than quantity. The members of Daft Punk saw so many camera phones trained at their hulking, awe-inspiring pyramid during the Alive 2007 Tour that they decided there would be no official tour DVD; it already existed, on YouTube, in the form of thousands of fan-uploaded segments. “The thousands of clips on the Internet are better to us than any DVD that could have been released,” Thomas Bangalter told Pitchfork.
So when you set out to create your band’s image, here are some tips for taking advantage of our time’s technological standards:
Make It Easy to Share
One of the most common mistakes made by major label web designers has to do with the Photo section of their artists’ websites. They are filled with beautiful, carefully chosen pictures taken by extremely capable photographers, and they are almost invariably displayed in Flash slideshows, making easy sharing impossible: you have to take an image capture, crop it, name it, save it, head to your preferred social network or open your e-mail, then paste or upload said file. And while you’re waiting for the upload to finish, you can think about how you’re in the process of violating somebody’s copyright, which is the only reason the labels have gone to this trouble in the first place.
It is a pain in the ass to do this even when the picture is of an artist you love. If someone’s just wound up on your website by chance, and they have to go through all that? Especially if it’s just to share that ridiculous picture of you balancing three winter squash on your forehead through Twitter? They’re not going to do it.
Make It Scaleable
Most blogs, especially blogs with free themes or templates, have restrictions on the dimensions of the images they will host. In most cases, it’s under 500 pixels in width, and in almost all cases it’s under 200 kilobytes in size. As free and open as communication has become, these are very real limitations that must be respected. If you pay a photographer $2,000 to take aerial photos of your band playing at the end of Richard Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, you have wasted your money. That photo is going to look terrible when it’s shrunk to 500 x 300, and it’s going to lose its communicative power if someone crops it. The only reason you should shell out that kind of dough for an image of your band is if you can spread it around, and that means making it easily manipulated and resized.
Make Your Fans Help
One of the most interesting and exciting aspects of Jono Bacon’s Severed Fifth project is its reliance on outside help. The band’s logos were designed by one of their fans, and their Creative Commons license enables anybody to do whatever they want with them.
It’s usually not a good idea to give your fans carte blanche, but even the most minimal guidelines can create a tremendously fun experience. If you want to expand your presence on Flickr, say, demand that everybody take a picture of you at your next show. Before people can look at one another awkwardly and wait for someone to make the first move, announce that the person who takes the picture you like the most will get a free ticket to your next show, or a free shot at the bar. Tell them they can use Photoshop, or Illustrator, or MS Paint, or magic markers, or Alvin Lucier-esque digital degradation, or whatever they want.
Whatever they come up with will not only be more fun to browse through the next day. It will also be the result of your fans thinking intently about you, about what they like about you, and about how they see you. They may see something that excites you, or insults you, or charms you, or something you’d never even thought of that could potentially change you as an artist.
And if that happens, you’ll have something to share with everybody: an image of our times.