Berklee Today

From Jazz Band to Jazz Brand

Fifteen tips for creating success in the age of celebrity


"Once you have high-quality products pretty much throughout an industry," says Bernard H. Schmitt, founder and director of Columbia University's Center on Global Brand Leadership, "you have to find another way to appeal to the public."

How do you break out of the box? The answer is image. Image can be central in transforming a small local business into a powerful international brand. Like all entertainers, musicians are in the business of sales. We sell tickets, recordings, and ourselves. Our success depends upon the careful management of relationships with customers (CD and ticket buyers), clients (concert presenters), the media, and the general public.

The jazz culture, however, has had an uneasy relationship with this commercial reality. Jazz musicians use different yardsticks than those used in pop music. We don't measure only popularity, sales, and entertainment value, jazz musicians also include integrity, innovation, authenticity, and originality.

Ironically, jazz is employed to sell everything from luxury cars to perfume, yet jazz musicians find it difficult to effectively package and sell the music itself. A jazz "renaissance" has positioned our recordings squarely in the mainstream of advertising and film soundtracks, yet cultural chauvinism continues to relegate our performances to small clubs and festivals. Unlike other musical genres, there is very little jazz on television or on major concert stages. Many jazz artists who do successfully cross over to a larger audience do so by changing their product (the music) rather than the packaging (their image).

Perhaps because jazz was created as an expression of the African-American experience (it has even been at times a form of protest music), an "underdog" mentality persists. Commercial hype and the outward trappings of success are looked upon with suspicion. One wonders whether musicians who care about image can possibly have the necessary substance to master an art as demanding as jazz.

Yet many serious jazz artists have been concerned with personal style. Herbie Hancock set new trends in fashion eyewear, and Chet Baker inspired the Hollywood image of James Dean. This tradition continues today. Note saxophonist Dave Ellis's TAG Heuer watch, Cecil Brooks, III's custom cigars, or Carl Allen's Mont Blanc pen. Grammy-winning vocalist/pianist Diana Krall and trumpeter/ composer Wynton Marsalis both have become minor celebrities, partly because of what could be called strong "brand management." Each of these artists obviously cultivate an appealing personal image, and who could question the level of their commitment to the craft of music making?

The fact is that you, the artist, are in sales, and image affects sales. You do have an image and you are a brand whether you like it or not. Your only choice is whether you will manage your brand. As an artist, you will be perceived as making some kind of statement. Why not give that statement some thought?

Today's jazz musician faces a choice between the prevailing anti-commerce stance and embracing the winning notion of music as a product and the musician as a brand. Even organizations must choose one of these two paths. In my hometown of San Francisco, for example, our jazz festival can barely keep up with its own commercial success, while our jazz radio station stoically endeavors to "keep jazz alive." The choice is simple: by carefully managing perceptions and cultivating a strong winning image, we not only survive, we thrive.

What follows are 15 tips to get you thinking about creating your own brand identity.

1. Work with pros

You wouldn't hire an amateur musician to perform at your wedding, so why try to design your own concert posters or have your sister take your headshot? When producing your marketing material, work with professional graphic designers, writers, and photographers. An investment in quality printed matter pays for itself by elevating your profile and increasing your income.

2. Keep it simple

The most successful advertising campaigns use solid colors, clean lines, white space, and strong copy points with only one or two typefaces. Think of the simplicity of campaigns for the iMac, the Volkswagen Bug, the Gap, and Clinique makeup. Simplicity for the eye translates into a strong, bold statement in the mind.

Acknowledge and give consideration to the power of your wardrobe, hairstyle, eyewear, and jewelry. For the performing artist, one's "look" functions much like the hook of a song does: it becomes anticipated by your audience. I was given a beret at a 1998 jazz festival in Aspen, Colorado. I liked it so much that I wore it all summer in my performances—I even wore it when having my picture taken. When I returned to many of the same venues the following year, strangers would stop me on the street and say, "Dmitri Matheny! Where's your hat?"

4. Do what you can

We live in a visual culture, so be almost as serious about your look as your sound. Remember that people who listened to the famous Kennedy-Nixon debate on the radio thought that Nixon won, but the larger television audience considered it a Kennedy victory. If you don't believe that looks matter for professional serious musicians, look at the phenomenal success of violinist Anne Sophie Mutter or vocalists Jane Monheit and Norah Jones.

When asked by Entertainment Weekly about becoming a sex symbol, Diana Krall said, "Look, I'm not Claudia Schiffer, I just do what I can." Not everyone is blessed with beauty, but do what you can to stay healthy and fit. Get serious. You're onstage and people sometimes spend hours looking at you. Give them a break and be easy on their eyes. If you need input, consult with fitness, nutrition, and fashion experts.

5. Be consistent

Give careful thought to the visual image you wish to project, and then consistently project that image in everything; your stagewear, advertisements, stationery, even record packaging. This concept in branding is known as "trade dress." Consider developing a logo and wearing consistent colors that are featured in all your printed matter. Consistency wins in building a brand. Like the Gap, which creates all of their advertisements in-house, insist on a consistent visual look.

6. Speak their language, on their turf

When Sprite was repositioned for the youth market with the slogan "Obey Your Thirst" (a message conveying attitude and individuality), sales volume tripled to more than a billion cases each year. To define your target market, develop depth profiles of your audience members. Then design a campaign that these consumers will be see and appreciate.

A vocalist whose target is upper-income, middle-aged men reaches her target by airplay on MOR radio, advertising in lifestyle publications such as the Wine Spectator, and distribution of her recordings through the Internet. Another vocalist who performs edgy, innovative reworkings of classic Beatles songs, reaches more-targeted audiences by performing in alternative rock clubs instead of jazz venues.

7. Be disciplined

Building brand recognition requires the same scientific rigor that underlies any other financial decision. Formulate a thesis, experiment with tactics, analyze your results with hard data, and revise the original premise when data doesn't support it the original premise.

Coke, for example, won awards for its "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" advertising campaign, but when product sales didn't increase, the ads were pulled. I discovered that my CD sales at concerts declined when I began to offer additional products such as T-shirts and commemorative merchandise (in the field of brand management, this is known as "line extension"). Because my mission is to sell my music, I dropped the other products, and noticed that my CD sales began to increase immediately.

8. Own a word in the mind

The strongest brands own and plant a single word in the consumer's mind. Federal Express, for example, owns the word "overnight," and Volvo owns "safety." Come up with a word that best describes your product and build your brand strategy around that word. Your word might highlight a new category or style of music, it might be your instrument, or a particular attribute, mood, or feeling that your music suggests. Once you settle on your word, use it consistently in your slogans, headlines, advertising copy, and biography.

9. Selling the image

Nokia became the world's bestselling mobile-phone manufacturer not because of better components or service, but because of chic design. One of the most oft-cited examples of successful industrial design is the iMac, Apple's candy-colored computers, designed by Jonathan Ives. When Apple launched the iMac line of computers, they sold flavors and colors rather than actual computer features. Function is as important as form only after the sale is made and the consumer begins to use the product at home. There is a lesson here for musicians. Don't sell attributes of your music, sell your look. Develop your own unique design aesthetic, and sell your image, but maintain consumer loyalty through quality music.

10. Differentiate

The first of four steps to building brand strength is differentiation. How is the brand unique? What separates it from its competitors? The second is relevance. How is this brand significant on a personal level to the target customer? Third, once established, the brand must build esteem and a positive reputation so that the target customer hears good things about it, and fourth, first-hand knowledge or personal experience with the product. Only at this point does the brand possess both strength and stature.

Terence Blanchard and Mark Isham are film composers, jazz trumpeters, and Sony/Columbia recording artists, yet each artist's brand identity is as distinct as Coke's ("The Real Thing") is from Pepsi's (the choice of a new generation). Blanchard and Isham have successfully differentiated their brands. Similarly, vocalist Cassandra Wilson's mysterious image differentiates her from Diana Krall's glam positioning.

11. Be a mirror

Concern yourself not only with your image, but also with your target audience's image. The psychology of branding requires that you market yourself not only to your target consumer's "true image" (income, social class, buying habits), as well as their self-image. Apple Computer, for example, targets young executives who consider themselves to be creative iconoclasts and who "think different." If your target aspires to be young and hip, create a youthful, trendy image. If your audience aspires to be wealthy and stylish, cultivate a look that reinforces that self-image.

12. Stay fresh

While consistency is key to building a brand, change is a powerful tool in sustaining it. Madonna is virtually unique as a cross-generational pop artist. Mothers and their daughters alike consider Madonna to be theirs. Madonna achieved this broad appeal by reinventing herself, effectively repackaging and relaunching the brand several times over the course of her career. Similarly, jazzman Wynton Marsalis quietly transitioned from outspoken, controversial young lion in the 1980s to a respected elder and mentor for young musicians during the 1990s.

Marsalis's various accomplishments have heightened his profile and shaped the public's perception of him. His aggressive media presence, association with Lincoln Center, commissions of new works for the ballet, Pulitzer Prize win, chess-move strategies for releasing his recordings, books and educational videos, and his domination of the Ken Burns documentary series have enabled him to become, for better or worse, widely regarded as the spokesperson for jazz music.

13. Drama is your friend

Don't be afraid to incorporate theatrical elements, such as stage sets, costumes, lighting, choreography, and sound design into your performances. Audiences enjoy pageantry in musical performances when it is done well. In the 1980s, the Kronos Quartet brought a new audience to chamber music by imitating the performance look of new-wave rock bands. Trumpeter Lester Bowie's group Brass Fantasy received a standing ovation at the North Sea Jazz Festival when they returned for an encore wearing gold zoot suits.

14. Walk with kings

Carry yourself with confidence, and surround yourself with greatness. In their newsletters and other printed materials, film composer Mark Isham and former NARAS President Michael Greene routinely publish photos of themselves with pop culture celebrities. Smooth jazz trumpeters Rick Braun and Chris Botti gain credibility by using images of Miles Davis and Chet Baker on their albums and press materials. The rule of association is, "When with winners, you are perceived as a winner." Don't worry that some folks, particularly other musicians, might view this practice as pretentious. It's a business strategy, and it works.

15. Never lose that common touch

Even as you cultivate an image of success and celebrity through your marketing, remain friendly and accessible in your personal relationships. Don't allow yourself to get a big head. Sherry Lansing, chair of Paramount Motion Picture Group, has a reputation for personally returning all her phone calls, no matter how many she receives. If she can do it, a musician certainly can. Remain humble, and no matter how successful you become, always remember that the music comes first.


Dmitri Matheny is a flugelhornist, composer, educator, and recording artist. He has been named Best New Artist in the Jazziz Readers Poll and Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition in the Down Beat International Critics Poll. Matheny tours extensively throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. He and his wife, Larissa, also dedicate themselves to a wide variety of nonprofit music-education organizations. Visit his website at