By Grant Genske
I am definitely not the first musician who has thought about changing his or her name, nor will I be the last. I spent a long time debating whether or not “Grant Genske” had any ~*star quality*~ and if there was something totally different I wanted to convey with my name. I considered a number of monikers, none of which were very good, when I eventually decided that what I wanted to stick with my original name to retain the alliteration and to remain tied to my family and my suburban roots.
Even so, I was surprised at how much power I ascribed to my name, and how basic questions of identity factored into my musical brand. I became fascinated with artists who wholly or completely obscured their past (and their face) in order to develop their brand. I studied some of my favorites, and came up with some major lessons I learned from each of them.
1. Anonymity protects your privacy in a world which craves intimacy. If intimacy is not a part of your brand, then this works to create intrigue.
Sia (Sia Furler) is probably the most successful contemporary pop artist who refuses to show her face, and the biggest reason that she cites is the protection of her privacy. In a recent interview, Sia claimed that she was able to go to Target to pick up supplies while her music was being played over the radio and no one noticed her.
In a culture where Justin Bieber and Amy Schumer are banning public photos because fans have become so unruly, privacy is a luxury that artists have to protect for the sake of their sanity. Unfortunately for Schumer and Bieber, their choice will inevitably lead to fans becoming frustrated and feeling slighted.
In Sia’s case, though, fans were set up with consistent brand narrative - the intimate details of Sia’s life have never been up for grabs. Instead, fans feel rewarded with small details about the singer's life that she discloses in interviews and performances; any small piece of her past is worth its weight in gold for her admirers.
2. Intrigue creates a desire to know more (which you can parlay into media coverage).
Marshmello has taken the DJ world by storm partly because he creates tight, inventive, distinctive trap music, and partly because people are endlessly interested in who is underneath the marshmallo mask. The DJ/producer’s decision to remain totally anonymous has given him plenty of room to play around with this. Most recently, the producer played a prank on his EDC audience by staging a fake “reveal” in which he took off his mask to reveal… Tiesto. Sigh.
Using your anonymity to play with your fans is an excellent tactic - it displays a level of humanity that is essential for retaining a connection. Using Tiesto's status and success to boost your own profile doesn't hurt either...
Sia has done the same thing by incorporating celebrities like Kristen Wiig, Shia LaBeouf and frequent collaborator Maddie Ziegler into her music videos and making them the center of the narrative.
3. Anonymity allows you to posture yourself as a “pure” musician - someone who is less interested in appearance, politics or publicity and more focused on craft.
Distinguished producer Zhu (Henry Zhu) has claimed that he decided to obscure his identity partly to emphasize the artistry of his music over personality:
"This project is all about art, and we try to make it all about the songs and the response," (Zhu) said. "Being able to have everyone focus back on music is the first step.”
Many members of the dance and electronic communities complain about how the world, at times, feels like a cult of personality. Zhu's decision to obscure his identity gained him respect in a notoriously noisy field that often feels crowded with marketers and not musicians. He inspired a number of other creators to posture themselves as musicians and not comedians, models or entertainers.
Clearly, his nomination for a Grammy speaks to how the community respects his ability to produce, and his steadfast dedication to his music has led to collaborations with some of the biggest names in the business as well as rising stars of the scene.
4. Symbology sells.
The underlying thread that connects Marshmello, Sia and Zhu is that they have used a single symbol as a stand-in for their identity. In Sia’s case, the blonde bob wig IS Sia, and it carries a whole number of implications for how artists see her.
Marshmello’s helmet is so tied to his identity that he can put it on someone else (Tiesto) and they are transformed into the DJ/producer for the evening.
The most important part of this point is that symbols are easily replicable from a branding perspective. Zhu’s entire marketing strategy for his first live sets revolved around posters with his logo (the closest visual stand-in for Zhu himself) and the set date and time.
Sia was able to recruit superstars from other fields (Kristen Wiig, Maddie Ziegler) and to absorb their celebrity by placing them in the blonde bob wig in live performances and videos. Marshmello’s mask has led to fans replicating the look for their festival costumes and to a cohesive branding strategy for T-shirts, hats, Soundcloud marketing and a wide range of other applications.
Overall, anonymity can be an effective tool for both protecting your privacy and developing a relationship with fans. Artists who wish to remain anonymous should use their anonymity to create intrigue, harvest intrigue to create buzz, and develop a visual symbol to be used as a stand-in for their identity.
Grant Genske is a marketing associate with BEGIN and a singer and songwriter living in Los Angeles, California.
The BEGIN Blog features posts about branding, social media, entrepreneurship, and other topics relevant to young professionals.