In my early days as an artist, A & R record industry types always had a lot to say to me about image. I understood its importance in the music business, but I didn’t put nearly the weight on it that the they did. My primary concern was my art, creativity and the execution of my craft. I believed, and still do, that those things matter much more to people than appearance and I believed this because that was always the case when it came to the music I purchased and enjoyed.
When I was a kid, I almost always heard a song before ever seeing the artist behind it. MTV was in its infancy and radio was still the primary outlet for new music. I made up my mind whether I liked a record or not before ever seeing the artist. When I finally would see the video for the record, it would either reinforce my enjoyment of the song, or it wouldn’t. I can’t think of a single artist or record that I liked but then stopped liking it when I saw the video or a picture of the artist.
I remember really liking Prince’s music, but when I saw him for the first time, my pre-teen mind couldn’t appreciate the androgynous image. Simply put, I thought he was a sissy. But that didn’t make me stop liking his music or from buying “Purple Rain” on cassette. It just made me think he was a weirdo. When I heard Big Daddy Kane for the first time, I had no idea what he looked like, but I loved his music. When I saw his album cover and videos, I thought he was a bad ass. This reinforced his music with me but I still had my objectivity. When Kane began making some records I didn’t like, his image was of no consequence to me. I did not buy the records because I did not like music. As Kane’s sales declined, some record executive I’m sure got in his ear and updated his image. Out came Kane in a hoody and bandanna- a complete 180 from his prior dapper approach. He looked pathetic but more importantly, the music was still in decline. Had the album been good, I would have bought it despite what he was wearing. But it wasn’t and his image shift only made him look desperate.
When I was in grade school, my partner DJ Dialtone would get records shipped to him every week. His cousin got him a subscription to a record pool so we were getting access to new music often times months before it would hit the airwaves. One day I remember we pulled out a promo record in a plain jacket. The label simply read, Vanilla Ice, “Ice Ice Baby.” We had never seen the artist before and knew nothing about him. We got two-thirds of the way through “Ice Ice Baby” before Dialtone took it off the turntable and smashed it into pieces. Why? That record sucked. When the video hit MTV a month later, we were both together and we busted out laughing when we saw him. The guy looked like a total tool! Now one might reply, “yes Wise but he sold something like 11 million records.” This is true. But given the path his career would take immediately following the success of the record, I prefer to look at it as he fooled 11 million people.
And that’s really what image in the music business is all about isn’t it? Fooling people. It’s why most music is marketed towards a small demographic of younger people who are more susceptible to being fooled. It is far easier to those with either no musical talent or understanding of it to take mediocre music and trick people into liking it rather than putting together a quality product that sells itself.
Now, as an older music professional and CEO, I still hear the same image spiel from industry insiders and from artists complaining about them. Hell I’ve probably been guilty of it myself ( if I have it has only been due to a quiet contempt for the music buying public that resurfaces every now and again when I see them falling for some bullshit, but I quickly stifle it.) I want to think that most people, especially those a little bit older with more discretionary income, choose their music by how it hits their ears and not their eyes. I loved Amy Winehouse and Adele’s music long before I ever saw what they looked like. It just doesn’t matter what their jeans size is. I liked Aaliyah’s music when I was a kid, but her being beautiful only made me want to have sex with her, not buy her record. I believe most people know the difference between those two desires and I believe when it comes down to artistic merit, those who make the best music will sell regardless of their image. It is only in the vast sea of mediocrity, where the goal of the label is to fool a specific demographic into believing something is really good just long enough to get their money, where image actually means a damn thing.