The Looks That Kill: God Forbid’s Doc Coyle on the Role of Image in Music
I am going to assume that a decent portion of the followers of this site are themselves musicians with bands of their own. That is generally how it goes with metal. There are seamless lines blurred between the “fans” and the “bands” because, like myself, many metal patrons represent both categories. Without this large sector of musician fans, technically proficient bands that cater directly to this base (like Dream Theater, Meshuggah, and Necrophagiast) would be much less successful. So to those musicians, I would like to use this blog to shine a light on one of the harsh truths in all music and entertainment that many musicians choose to ignore –
Image matters a lot in this industry. In fact, it’s probably just as important as the music.
I’m sure some of you are thinking, ”Well… duh!” I know this seems pretty damn obvious, but you don’t know how many times (pretty much everyday) we’re on tour, and the local opening band is on stage and look like they just got off work at Target, and didn’t change their clothes before they got on stage. I’d like to say that this is uncommon, but for many musicians, it doesn’t compute. They reason, “We’re a good band. We play well. We write good songs. People should like us.” In a fair world, they would be correct. This isn’t fair, but if you want to play in this game, than you have to understand that image is an integral ingredient to your band’s success.
Unfortunately, your band represents a product. Most of your efforts go to meet the end of selling a CD, a digital download, a T-shirt, or a concert ticket. In essence, this is Marketing 101. Who is your target audience? Are you going after 15 year old Hot Topic kids that like The Devil Wears Prada and A Day To Remember? Or 25-30 year old metal dudes that dig Scandinavian stuff like Children of Bodom and Ensifernum? Everything from what you wear on-stage to your album art to your MySpace layout to your press photos goes towards creating some sort of brand that establishes an image that pops into people’s heads when they think about your band. Or, a lack thereof, depending on how well defined that brand is.
This may sound anti-artistic, and in many ways it is, but I know there are musicians out there who only create only for artistic purposes. This article isn’t for you. This is for people who hope to make a living as a working musician in an original band with aspirations that lie beyond the underground. Also, my assessment isn’t directly related to practices used with God Forbid, especially at the beginning. We started out as a bunch of goofy oddballs, and would probably be five times as big if we looked like Bullet For My Valentine. I came to these conclusions from years of studying and analyzing patterns of success as well as failures in music.
Keep in mind, when I refer to bands with an “image,” I am not just referring to the obvious examples like Kiss, Slipknot, or Motley Crue, who have a definitive, almost theatrical visual component that is conjoined at the hip to the band’s success. I’m referring to even the supposed “pure” or “tr00” bands. I remember vividly when grunge came to prominence as the antithesis to the image obsessed, vapid glam rock era. But that idea about the “regular guy” getting on stage with flannel shirts, scruffy faces, and cut-up cargo pants and combat boots became an image. The non-image itself is an image.
The thrash movement was a rebellion against glam as well, and came with its rough exterior (long hair, black clothes, no smiles ever), which exists to this day with the prototypical tough metal look. This is probably best exemplified by Pantera or Lamb of God. Lamb of God completely embodies the idea of congruence between look and sound. By congruence, I mean that generally, it helps if you to look like what you sound like. For example, if I was listening to Cannibal Corpse, and went to the show and they looked and dressed like Weezer, it would be just plain weird. It wouldn’t make sense. For most successful bands, there is a direct congruent relationship between their image and sound. DragonForce look like they sound. So does Opeth. So does Hatebreed. So does Slayer. So does Iron Maiden. And so on, and so forth. There are also exceptions where not looking like the stereotype can help. Brutally heavy, discordant bands like Suicide Silence and Bring Me The Horizon regularly do tours like Warped Tour with pop punk bands generally because they feature skinny, good looking, young guys covered in tattoos. Teenage girls like that. It’s not a knock on those bands, but their look allows them a certain crossover that bands just as heavy, but with 35 year old dudes with beer belly’s just don’t have an opportunity to reach.
I’m not telling anyone’s band to go out and hire a fashion stylist or image consultant. You don’t have to dress up like Marilyn Manson or Mystery from The Pickup Artist. My advice is to play to your strengths and above all, just try to convey a professional image. If anything, just try to be uniform and look like a band, a unit, a team that belongs together. Be honest with yourself. If you need to drop twenty pounds to look better and be more active on stage, hit the gym. There is a vicarious nature to viewer/performer relationship. Subconciously, your audience prefers that their favorite bands present something to look up to, to strive for. Trust me, I’d kill to look like Sting, Joe Perry, or Billy Idol when I’m in my mid-fifties. My main goal here is to shut up overweight, jealous, aging rockers who complain and call Avenged Sevenfold “gay” because they can attract an audience that doesn’t resemble a circle jerk. This is the game. I can understand if you don’t want to participate, but don’t bitch about the reality of things if you’re really serious about making it.
P.S. I know there are always exceptions to every rule. There are bands who have done very well without putting a heavy emphasis on their image, such as Radiohead, Between the Buried and Me, Clutch, and Porcupine Tree.. Keep in mind that is these are the exceptions, and I’m not telling anyone to sell themselves out, or to be something they are not. Just try to not look like an accountant on stage (unless you all look like accountants, but that’s already been done by a cover band in NJ called The Nerds), and remember that you should dress for the job you want, not the one you have.
Check out God Forbid on their current tour with Kittie. Check out God Forbid’s MySpace page for dates!