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Common Visual Branding Mistakes

When you've got your music ready, you want to send it out into the world for everyone to listen to it, but the worst thing you could do is to send it out in shoddy clothing. It's important that you get your branding right. You only get one shot. Here are some common mistakes that I see over and over again. And how to avoid them.

1. No Visual Branding or Bad Visual Branding

In the previous article I go into details on why branding is of vital importance. But the thing I see over and over again, are small or unsigned acts putting their music out without any thoughts to branding. It's the music that counts, right? Wrong. People judge a book by it's cover.

What potential listeners see is part of the complete story that you're telling them. You can escape the psychological framing effect the branding will have.

In short, if someone sees crappy branding they already are thinking crappy music before they've heard a note, and your music will literally sound worse.

2. Homemade Branding

There is a tendency for creative people to think the the skills they have are transferable. And just because you're great at music, then you're great at graphics. But remember when you were in your first few months of learning to produce, play guitar or sing; that's exactly the level of your design skills if you haven't yet put in the hours. It may look good to you, with your confirmation bias, because you created it, but to the outside world it doesn't hold up.

Get the professionals in, there are plenty of cheap and good artists out there. You might even have a friend that's spent a lifetime learning their craft you can rely on. Know your own limitations.

3. Stolen Images

How would you feel if someone was stealing your music for their film and not paying you your dues or crediting you? You'd be rightly angry. The same goes for photographers. Creative people across the board should be supporting each other, making connections. Not stealing from one another. So go look on stock image websites for something that works for you. Pay for that image. It's not that expensive. Get the photographer paid. If you find something elsewhere, then always contact the artist, start a conversation with them.

As well as showing that respect to your fellow artists, not doing so can lead to more trouble down the line. Firstly, you'll run into problems when trying to load the image to services such as CDBaby or Distrokid because they have rules on images sizes, pixelated, blurry and unlicenced images. And secondly, it could lead you into serious legal hot-water.

4. Over-complex Images

Welcome to the 2020s! Everyone is sat looking at things on their phones and as such, gone are the days of the big vinyl record, it's all about the small thumbnails that come up on a screen. So it's a good idea for your branding to work well at this size. Having overly-detailed images quickly get lost at small sizes, and become a blur of information. Good branding at this size is simple, strong and with one focal point. If you can't see what it is then you've lost the chances to capture the potential listeners imagination.

5. Avoid Simplification If You Don't Know What You're Doing

As Picasso got to the end of his artistic life his work got simpler and simpler until it was just a few brush strokes to make something amazing. It takes genius to simplify well ... ask Einstein. So don't think because you've put a blue circle on a yellow background your branding is genius because it could be anything! Thinking that something simple badly done is the brand is one sure-fire way for people to think of your branding as terribly amateurish. The perfect circle on the perfect background might have taken a skilled design hours and hours to come up with the right combination.

6. Not Understanding Colour

Every good designer will tell you that one of the first things they really struggled with is colour. This is mostly to do with understanding a cohesive palette. Colours are like musical notes, so much so that they have triads, their tonal harmonies. In fact, these colour harmonies have exactly the same ratios as a triad chords (there's a great video here about it if you want to learn more). If that's too complex, think of it as some colours just look right together like some notes just sound right together. A palette can also break conventions too, as Jazz music does. But you need to be a good musician, or designer, to make this work. So to with what works well together.

There many mistakes I see all the time:

  • Classy Black and White Visually I always like to think of black and white as how loud or quite a picture is. It contains no notes. There is no emotion in there because there is no colour. Go to Bandcamp and go look at how many people decide to use black and white, it's truly astounding. They think it's classy and arty. It's not. The mistake they're making is that they think it's like one of those classy photography exhibitions. They're confusing subject matter with the medium. You're not going to get away with Spinderland by Slint again, it's not the nineties. If you have a great black and white image, add at least a bit of colour in terms of text or some abstract shapes.
  • Wrong Emotion. Likewise, you always see covers with a palette that stirs up the wrong emotion. So get this right. And bright colours can be used to show anger and darkness as well as dark colours (think Sex Pistols). Likewise, dark colours can also show joy when tempered with some colour, like the light at the end of the tunnel. A good way to test this is to completely blur your image until it's just colours and see how those colours make you feel. Is it right?
  • They Don't Catch the Eye. As well as black and white, you can use the same old cliched colours: pastel palettes for ambient, red and black for metal covers, gold for hip hop. Why not try something that will make you stand out in the crowd.
  • Inconsistent Palettes. If you've come up with a good palette for your branding stick to it. If you look at that Stanley Donwood created for Radiohead, over a good chunk of their discography he was drawn to very simply colour. Blue, red, Black and White. Job done. They all marry up nicely. There is brand consistency.
  • Slavishly Following Trends. Just because your favourite genre of music is always using fluorescent colour doesn't mean you have to. The thing that everyone is wearing this year will quickly go out of fashion. Better to come up with your own style.

My solution is simple, if you're just starting out then use two or three colours maximum that work well together (with obviously black and white for making those colours darker or lighter). Don't try and be clever, go look up the triads of colour and keep it simple.

7. Big Names / Logos

Unless you're ELO and you have a nice jukebox spacecraft to put on all your branding using a massive logo is a bad idea. You're wasting valuable real-estate that can be better served having your artwork tell an emotive story. You say branding is a logo. What are you, a nineties software company? That's not how branding works with music. You're telling the story of your music with artwork but also tying all your work together with the branding. So when someone sees any of your work they know it you, it's your style. Think bigger and more conceptually about the whole story.

8. Wrong Emotions or No Emotion

It doesn't matter if your artwork has nothing to do with the music but it does matter if it has the same emotional resonance. If your music is happy you can literally have any great happy image on there and the listener will instantly make the connection. Likewise, something moody needs something moody. Write down the list of emotional adjectives your music is speaking to you, and then write down a list of emotions that your artwork / branding idea is telling you. Do they match? Extra points if the emotions are subtler ones, such a wistful, melancholy, struggle, pity etc.

Here's a list of emotions to help you out.

9. Not Properly Testing Your Artwork Out

So how do you know if your branding is right? Simple. Go ask people. Once you've come up with three or four ideas that you really like place them in front of your friends, family or social media following and simply ask them one question: what sort of music do you think is artwork is for? And do not tell them that it's for your music otherwise it will contaminate the results. You want honest answers.

If they correctly match it to your music then you're on the right track. If all of them are right for you style of music, you can always follow up with: which do you like the best? There's nothing wrong with crowdsourcing opinion.

10. Cocking-up Your Branding Timing

There's a great line from the recently deceased Andy Weatherall I like, from an old interview:

"If you're in a hurry to show somebody your art, you should throw it in the trash because it's bound to be rubbish. Be patient. Very pertinent to today. Digital culture sells you this theory that if you don't get involved immediately, you're going to be left behind ... if you're making music or any art, just wait, wait six months, see if you still like it. If you release something immediately, you're not going to be happy with it and it's just going to be part of the digital noise."

And the same goes for your branding. If you're not yet at a level where your music is good and you have amazing branding then people are going to associate your branding forever with substandard music. Conversely, if you have fantastic music and the first releases don't have great branding then people might just pass it by.

The two should go hand in hand. A great release with great branding.

Be patient. Get everything right before your releases.

11. Not Thinking About It in a Complete Way

It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that branding just covers your release artwork and you're done. Branding covers so much more. It's all the association that potential listeners have with you and your music.

I'll be writing further articles about this subject. But here is a list of non-graphical things that all add up to your brand identity:

  • Your Artist Name.
  • Your Values and Your Personalities.
  • What You Look Like.
  • Your Backstory.
  • Any Text You Add to Releases.
  • How You Present Yourself to Fans.
  • How Much Fan Distance You Have.
  • General Social media Presence.
  • The Sort of Release Schedule You Have.
  • Which Other Musicians You Associate with.

All these things will either make you memorable instantly forgettable. A cohesive story and presentation all add up to a winning brand idea.