Like it or not, people have a tendency to judge a book by its cover, doubly so when it's a performer on stage. For this reason, it is essential that artists, in addition to making sure their performance abilities are top-notch, take time to perfect their visual style and overall aesthetic.
Guest post by Evan Zwisler of Soundfly's Flypaper
Before your audience hears a single one of your notes, they’ll make a series of judgements about you based on your optics. From album covers to the typeface used in your tracklist, and from your band photos to what you wear on stage, people can’t help making certain assumptions about your band when they first discover you (and likely continue discovering you).
It’s like how they say “we eat with our eyes first” when we go to restaurants — presentation matters. Some bands and musicians feel that this can cheapen their music, or they don’t like “playing those games.” I call those people naïve.
Like it or not, your visual presentation is an incredibly powerful tool in how your music comes across. If you play your cards right, you can use visual aids and style to develop from a random Tuesday night bar band into a national weekend headliner that people are excited to see. You can choose to subvert your audience’s expectations and keep them guessing, or play into them to create a well-established and expected result — either direction can suit your band as a tool to entertain. It’s up to you to decide and execute.
Let’s talk about some of the basic aspects of a band’s visual aesthetic and hopefully this will inspire and motivate you to take a closer look at the image your band is giving off, and hone it into a style that will get people excited to check you out.
Jack White has always understood the importance of a strong color scheme. When The White Stripes were just starting out, Bobcat Records wanted to put out their first record but Jack White turned them down because they insisted on putting a neon green logo on the spine of their record. The White Stripes only used red, black, and white. This reflected their simple, but always effective, approach to rock music.
The White Stripes was chaos organized. Their songs may not all sound the same, but they are all rooted in blues-influenced rock ‘n’ roll. The consistency of their color scheme told both their core audience as well as new fans: “We may go crazy and be a little off the rails, but we’re rooted in something familiar to all of us.”
When Jack white began his solo career, he began to use blues and blacks to signify his softer approach to music — perhaps even a bit of a “cold” effect that would play into his new character — and most of all, that a new chapter in his career had begun.
When you establish a color scheme strongly, it becomes even easier to then subvert it and supplant a freshness into your look. White’s video for his solo song “Freedom at 21” exemplifies this perfectly. Here, he puts a ton of emphasis on the neon green of his sports car and the bright pink of the policewoman’s lipstick; the colors feel as though they’re going to jump off the screen at any moment.
Simple color schemes, when used with consistency and intent, can have a huge effect on your ability to transmit clear emotion and messaging across social media, your live shows, your videos, and your release artwork.
The relationship between typography and music isn’t always talked about, but if a band makes use of some identifiably unique typography or linguistic symbols, you’d know right away who the artist was if you saw a piece of unnamed promotional material. The best examples of typography can even go so far as to tell an audience what genre of music a band plays, without you even having to listen to them.
All in all, your use of fonts and type design should reflect your music.
We see this all the time in genres like heavy metal for instance, which is often characterized by lots of jagged edges, sharp corners, and bold, aggressive lettering to reflect that shock element, and the loud, distorted, screeching aspects of the music. In the punk tradition as well, there’s a long history of using found lettering such as newspaper headings, stencil style design, and typewriter font, to convey the DIY ethos of the music; rough, fast, borrowed, or stolen. This has been the case since The Sex Pistols and Rancid and continues through to this day.
But whether you’ve got an entire history behind your genre or you want to establish your artistic image with a unique brand and identity unto yourself, typography should be one of the first elements you consider as you execute your album and poster artwork.
Clothing and Costumes
Here’s an obvious one. The clothes you wear when you’re on stage are a costume and you should think of them as such. Even just wearing your everyday street clothes is going to communicate something to the audience. It sounds annoying and unfortunate, but I guarantee that you do it too when you see a concert: judge a band based on their rags.
Again this element can be taken as lightly or seriously as you want — from t-shirts and jeans to tuxedos to fully customized outfits, masks, wigs, props, etc. — but it’s always something you need to be aware of. A small bit of effort, like for example, synchronizing your dress code with the rest of the band, can go a long way.
We all love going to see a concert that features giant stage dressings and full costumes à la Empire of the Sun, The Knife, Erykah Badu, and GWAR, but these are all performers who are trying to make “larger than life” music, and push the limits of the performance experience with mountains of finance behind them. Don’t get discouraged! You can still incorporate some big ideas even if you’re making music with less funding.
In fact, any one item can be a costume: a funky, customized necklace, a big, bold hat, or even some sort of prop that helps you get into character on stage and channel a new identity. The one important thing to keep in mind is how everyone on stage interacts together visually; it’s essential to be unified somehow. If you have one person showing up in a suit, another dressed like a punk, and another wearing a neon bodysuit all you’ll be saying is that you don’t know what to say.
If you’re getting on stage, you’re asking the audience to pay attention to you, so make sure you look like someone they’d want to listen to.
My final point is to think about your instrument or gear setup, and anything else you’d want to dress the stage with. This one may take some years to fully conceptualize and realize, and it may be something that changes constantly. That’s all okay, but just know that it too matters.
For example, if you are a solo performer singing along to tracks and all you bring on stage is your phone or iPod, you’re focusing all the attention on yourself as a performer. If you choreograph dance moves, or play into this isolated, “artist in the spotlight” vibe, perfect. But if you’re only doing this because you haven’t yet figured out how to play this music live, it’s a mistake to get up there in the first place. People look at that stuff, believe me.
Alternatively if you’re an act like LCD Soundsystem or Emerson, Lake, and Palmer and you’ve brought giant synths and racks on stage that are exploding with wires and patch cables, you’re telling your audience that these instruments are so important to your sound that you’re willing to lug hundreds of pounds of equipment around with you wherever you go. Think about how your instruments, electronics, and gear is organized on stage and make sure you don’t take that aspect of your performance for granted, it helps in the very least to contextualize your stage presence.
But, your live setup may also have to do with convenience, especially if you tour consistently and frequently. Famed guitarist and composer Kaki King found that the specificities of a new live set featuring projections mapped to her body and music that heavily relied on electronic processing called for her to simplify her pedalboard setup. She switched to a digital pedalboard and explained to us how and why you can too. And we made a free online course about it! Check that out here if you’re interested.
Lastly, simple stage dressings can be very effective. I’ve seen an indie band bring an old TV on stage and play vintage VHS tapes in the background to crowd-pleasing effect. It was basic, but the extra effort and the miscolored TV playing My Cousin Vinny elevated the whole experience.
The same goes for creative lighting, like old lamps or customized Arduino-triggered LED lights. It looks cool, and it’s also handy in case one of the venues on your tour doesn’t have very interesting lighting options. Most venues will also let you hang a banner behind you while you play, which can really help people remember who you are without you reminding them after every song.
When it comes to visuals, nothing is unimportant, and everything helps. Don’t be afraid to try a bunch of different things until you find something that fits.
Evan Zwisler is a NYC-based musician who is most notably known for his work with The Values as a songwriter and guitarist. He is an active member of the Brooklyn music scene, throwing fundraisers and organizing compilations for Planned Parenthood and the Anti-Violence Project. He started playing music in the underground punk scene of Shanghai with various local bands when he was in high school before going to California for college and finally moving to New York in 2012.