Alexander Hellene

Beware of Brand

Everybody loves money to some extent. In the absence of a robust barter economy or small tribes that hunt and gather together for the benefit of all members, we need some sort of medium to exchange for goods and services. Even though our money is literally worthless and backed by nothing saved for the (don’t laugh) faith and trust in the United States government, the fact is we need it.

Luckily, if you like money and you’re American, you live in the land that worships the stuff.

One of America’s greatest innovations is commodifying everything. Whether it’s our political leaders, our real estate, our natural resources, or our art, everything is for sale.

There are people who earn a living playing video games on camera. That’s actually relatively harmless compared to some of the stuff people use the Internet to make money for. I’m not going to link to any of that, or even mention it, because even I have some standards.

If you’re a writer or other creative type of person living today, what does this mean for you? It means that there is a lot of opportunity to see a need and fill it—the goal of any entrepreneur. But instead of noticing a dearth of competent plumbers or electricians or general practice physicians, you’re noticing a distinct lack of culture and entertainment that doesn’t parrot the standard Hollywood/elitist values and religion.

There is plenty of good stuff out there; always has been. In fact, we have no single, unified culture anymore and haven’t for a while. The Top 40 Billboard charts might as well be music from another planet if you’re anywhere north of the 80 IQ mark. But never fear, because in music, movies, TV shows, fiction, video games, and nearly everything else in between, parallel economies exist. Whether this is good for a nation is one story; after all, it’s hard to have a civilization without any commonalities holding it together save for geography and the fact that the same entity forces us to pay taxes on pain of imprisonment or death.

And yet . . . for the creator, these are boon times. Creatively. Not monetarily. Herein lies an opportunity, but also a danger.

*     *     *

Brand (noun): an identifying mark burned on livestock or (formerly) criminals or slaves with a branding iron.

*     *     *

I received the book Art of Rush: Serving a Life Sentence by Stephen Humphries. It’s all about Hugh Syme, the Canadian artist and musician who did the album artwork and imagery for every Rush album and project save for their first two albums (Rush and Fly by Night).

Reading this book, looking at Syme’s gorgeous, iconic artwork, and reading about his artistic process and the thought behind each album’s concept made me appreciate once again the importance and power of aesthetics. Syme worked closely with the band’s drummer and lyricist Neil Peart on the conceptual aspects of each album, while bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee was in charge of designing Rush’s stage show and guitarist Alex Lifeson was the band’s musical guru. The end result is a body of work that so complements the music in each album that it’s impossible to hear a Rush song without visualizing the artwork at the same time.

Many bands had this synergy between album art and music—Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd come to mind—but the amazing thing about Syme’s oeuvre is the sheer array of artistic styles and media used. One reason for this is that Syme and Peart rejected the idea of a band logo—think Aerosmith, say—that would be reproduced the same way on each album like a stamp or a trademark. Both Syme and Peart say this was to both free up Syme to create unique and new albums covers form scratch, unencumbered by any artistic or aesthetic expectations (save for it to be good), and so that Rush would remain a band, not a brand.

A band and not a brand . . .

Art as expression

Not as market campaigns

Will still capture our imaginations

Given the same state of integrity

It will surely help us along

Rush, “Natural Science”

I love this. Whether or not you enjoy Rush’s music, there’s no denying their artistic integrity and overall ethos is what helped them carve out a space in the music world given the inherent weirdness of their music and Geddy Lee’s voice.

*     *     *

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with recognizable iconography or branding, but I don’t think it’s the best thing for the artistic realm. I suppose music is a different beast than writing, but I think about an author having a “logo” slapped on every book, and I can’t help but laugh at the task of creating a logo that would fit on any genre. What if you’re like Dan Simmons, who writes sci-fi, horror, and historical fiction? How bland and generic would your branding have to be?

But this is just the actual, physical aspect of branding. Writers, especially self-published or independent authors, often pick a lane and stick to it. That’s fine, but there’s a belief that writing in multiple genres or styles is going to confuse readers, screw with the all-holy algorithm, and make it difficult to market your work.

And I suppose that’s the rub. Your brand should be “quality.” It should be a type of story you’re known for, or your writing style. I think of Nick Cole as a writer with a clearly identifiable voice that works in whatever milieu he writes in.

Nick has his own big franchise–Galaxy’s Edge–that is doing quite well. However, I do hope he has some sort of plan for what happens to it after he and his writing partner Jason Anspach are gone.

I fully admit to being a reactionary here, and I’m reacting to the commodification of everything, including art. Yes, art is also craft, and yes, money has been involved with the arts for a long time, dating back to the concept of patronage; a concept I think we should return to, by the way. But all the same, those artists composing symphonies for this or that lord, or creating paintings and sculptures, weren’t a “franchise” or an “IP.” They were just good.

This book about Syme launched a lot of these thoughts. While Rush is clearly a hard rock band of a progressive bent, they experimented with different musical styles, techniques, and instrumentation nearly from day one. This helped create the expectation in listeners that while they’ll be getting what’s familiar—that “Rush” sound—they should also be ready for the unexpected (the rap in “Roll the Bones,” anyone?).

I like this attitude. I think more writers, and creators in general, should stop worrying about creating some new franchise or brand or exploitable IP and worry about making something of a high quality first. If it’s worthy of becoming something bigger—merchandise, merchandise!—it’ll happen organically. Audiences can sniff a manufactured non-entity becoming a thing from a mile away. The wave of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles imitators comes to mind.

Here’s the deeper point: if you create a brand, a franchise, an IP, or whatever else you want to call it, at some point it will be out of your hands. You will die, and there is no guarantee that those in charge of your creation will do good things with it. Witness the defecation all over J.R.R. Tolkien’s work and ideals ever since his son Christopher died.

If you’re going to go the brand route, take care. Yes, a successful brand is one of the most reliable ways to make money with your creative works. But it will soon become about your creation divorced from you, the creator. It’s pagan, in a way, worshipping that which was made instead of the maker of it. Maybe this is fine. Maybe you don’t have an ego and as long as people enjoy your characters and settings you’re happy about it.

That’s great. But upshot is that once you license your work to someone else, it is no longer yours.

Maybe NIck and Jason will never license their Galaxy’s Edge to any third-party. Maybe they already have. I do not know. As an attorney, I know that these licensing agreements can be structured in myriad ways, but I also know enough to understand that creators rarely get the big bucks unless they pony up the rights.

Seller beware.

* * *

If I haven’t convinced you of some perils of branding, I’ll leave you with this:

American comic books have stagnated for decades because nobody creates new characters. Look at Marvel and DC It’s still the same old things: Spider-Man and Batman and Superman and Iron Man and Captain America and Wonder Woman and . . .

Some of these characters are almost one hundred years old.

This is partly a testament to their resonance with audience, but also to the fact that nobody has cared to make anything new because they’re such a cash cow. So instead of a vibrant mainstream comics scene with new characters coming and old characters retiring with storylines that actually matter, we have creators who make what is essentially fan fiction, retreading the same old ground year after year to a dwindling audience. In fact, if it wasn’t for the movies, nobody would care about American superhero comic books.

They’re just another brand, and a dying one if you look at the sales numbers.

Marvel and DC have no incentive to make new heroes. Their idea of a fresh new approach is to take one of their big brands and make them black, female, gay, or black and female and gay. One might ask, “Why not just create a gay, black, female character?” One might answer then “Because brand.”

Moo . . .

Brand.

It’s everywhere. It’s unavoidable. And in my opinion, it leads to stagnation.

Has J.K. Rowling done anything besides Harry Potter? No. Because brand.

A part of this is audience’s fault. But audiences react to the stories they are presented with, and have been conditioned to love brand. Turn brands into religions and all of that. Amazing what marketing can do once you’ve taken actual religion out of people’s daily affairs.

Beware of brand.  

– Alexander

P.S. I’m fully aware that the two surviving members of Rush have recently participated in the launch of Rush-branded beers and wines. However, other than the standard rock n’ roll merchandising (t-shirts, coffee mugs, calendars, and signature musical instruments), Rush has been relatively stingy with their brands. In this case, though, the beer and wine make sense given that Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson have been oenophiles and beer connoisseurs for decades. And from what I understand, the breweries and vineyards in question were comprised of huge Rush fans and approached them with the idea. Most importantly, this sort of thing has only happened since the band retired after forty-one years of making excellent music. So although I fully admit my pro-Rush bias, I give them a pass.  

6 thoughts on “Beware of Brand”

  1. Spot on, Alex. Brands are for the dead. Let the dead bury their dead.

    #BrandZero for the win, until the Brands are all dead!

    <a href=”https://ibb.co/8YhDd6c”><img src=”https://i.ibb.co/8YhDd6c/Brand-Zero.jpg” alt=”Brand-Zero” border=”0″></a>

    1. Raymond,

      Agreed. Brands become obstacles to new ideas, innovation and so on.
      But they serve a purpose and I guess it’s a question of balance. Not everything’s to be a brand but not everything is zero brand either.

      So there’s no easy solution. Razorfist disdains public domain but Disney has done a lousy job maintaining its various intellectual properties.
      So balance.

      xavier

      1. Public Domain has been critical to cultural transmission, so I’m not on Razor’s page on that. But I’m also not keen on taking from the PD whole cloth either. It’s best used to inform and inspire new works in my view.

        One of the dirty secrets that Microsoft would like to fully memory hole was that Bill Gates used a public domain BASIC compiler as the template to build GW-BASIC which became Microsoft BASIC. Microsoft wouldn’t exist if not for the Public Domain.

        1. One of the dirty secrets that Microsoft would like to fully memory hole was that Bill Gates used a public domain BASIC compiler as the template to build GW-BASIC which became Microsoft BASIC. Microsoft wouldn’t exist if not for the Public Domain.

          I did not know this! Fascinating.

          There’s a reason that patent protection is relatively short, and that is to foster innovation that piggybacks on prior works. Software code, however, is protected by copyright.

      2. I kind of like the idea of having things go into the public domain upon a creator’s death. Disney has been responsible for the never-ending life of copyright protection. Now, we can’t just blame awful corporate brands and franchises on intellectual property law, but now that the crazies who hate the stories they’re in charge of have power, they never want to relinquish it while there’s money and cultural power to maintain. This is why I’d love to see Mickey Mouse, Spider-Man, and all of those other franchises go into the public domain.

        We can blame our systems for the problem–and they are a problem–but we also have to blame the people running those systems. Much like American politics–and I’m assuming those of most Western nations–being awful people in an awful system designed to produce awful outcomes–so too are our corporations.

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