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Off The Record: Battle Of The Brands

Music & Recording Industry News By Dan Daley
Published May 2017

What’s in a name? A lot — if you play your cards right.

If Kanye West is as much a brand as an artist (if not more so), why can’t the people who work with him in the studio — or even the studio itself — also leverage their brands? The answer is that they should.

Off The Record pen on paper image.A sizeable number of engineers, producers and studios have lent their names to professional audio products, a very good way to leverage whatever Q score they have built up through credits on recordings and interviews in trade publications. (A ‘Q score’ in marketing is a measurement of the familiarity and appeal of a brand, celebrity, company or entertainment product among consumers.) But few have managed the ultimate breakthrough: to become known beyond the bounds of the trade, where attaching one’s name to a product or service translates into pop culture’s more ephemeral but also much more lucrative notice.

The most notable of this small cohort are Dr Dre and Jimmy Iovine, both with enough engineering and/or production credits to warrant endorsement deals with any pro audio brand. But through Dre’s stature as an artist and Iovine’s as a deal maker they were arguably as well known for the product they brought to market together: Beats headphones. A few other names that were as well known for their productions as the artists they produced come to mind: Les Paul (Mary Ford, Chet Atkins) and Simon Cowell (his warm and fuzzy personality often causes us to forget records by Westlife, Susan Boyle and One Direction). Phil Ramone, had he lived, would likely have had sufficient wattage to power a consumer product or two, had he been so inclined.

On The Studio Side

There are a few recording studios that have achieved enough broad acknowledgement to establish a value in the larger marketplace. Electric Lady Studios in New York has its connection to Jimi Hendrix, and Abbey Road Studios in London has its heritage as the Beatles’ sandbox, which give those facilities some consumer market power. The latter has perhaps been more aggressive with marketing its brand, notably recently with a partnership with Panasonic for car audio, as well as a rather robust online shop that sells just about whatever they can get a logo onto, including tote bags, watches and, of course, T-shirts. Electric Lady Studios has some of those, as well as some badgespins and stickers. Both are somewhat limited in the extent to which they can leverage the fame of their most well-known occupants — the Beatles and the Hendrix estate are understandably protective of their respective brands. But both studios have had enough of the artistic associations documented in various media to make their names alone valuable in consumer circles.

Both of those studios have much more substantially lent their names to professional products, mostly in the way of plug-ins, from Waves, Native Instruments and Chandler, that purport to put the studios’ signature sonics in virtual form. Other studios with legacy monikers have also been aggressive in that department. Ultimate Ears’ reference in-ear monitors were developed with input from engineers at Capitol Records Studios, whose brand adorns the $1000 earbuds as well as Allen Side’s Ocean Way Audio monitoring speakers.

In Nashville, The Producer’s Chair, a long-running live Q&A session conducted by James Rea, a local publishing and management entrepreneur, with name producers like Tony Brown, Paul Worley and Dann Huff, has moved from its monthly perch at a local music venue to Sound Stage Studios. It might send a mixed message about the availability of studio time in the city, but it also provides a much better context for these events, one in which the producer and the studio can symbiotically burnish their respective brands in front of an audience that can experience them in situ, so to speak.

Engineers and producers are finding other ways to integrate their brands and their value propositions with more broadly commercial ventures. A great example is Giles Martin, son of the Beatles’ producer and an accomplished professional in his own right. He acted as the technical Sherpa for high-end consumer speaker makers Sonos in the development of their latest creation, the wireless Playbase transducer, meant to be an audio source for television. Martin, working as Sonos’ ‘sound experience leader’, was tasked with interfacing with record producers like Rick Rubin (who sits on Sonos’ board) and a variety of film-sound professionals, such as Hans Zimmer. Martin wasn’t brought on board Sonos as window dressing but rather as “sort of a translation layer between creative and engineering” and “a new voice on the team officially advocating for the people who made the music in the first place”, as a nicely in-depth article in Fast Company about Martin’s work expressed it.

Ramone pioneered that concept on the professional side a dozen years ago, with colleagues like Al Schmitt and Ed Cherney, under the rubric of the METAlliance, which provides input and imprimatur to audio equipment makers, for a fee. But the template is the same: a creative engineer who can talk easily with other creatives and other engineers. I can’t think of a better way to describe the kind of flag any number of engineers and producers could be flying in that regard.

Why This Matters

We may not like to think of studios and careers as brands, but that’s what the culture demands we do because, like it or not, what’s what they’ve become. It’s why the notion of ‘selling out’ has been transformed from a derogative to an accolade over the last 20-odd years. It doesn’t mean you stop doing what you’re doing, but it does mean looking for alliances with other brands, such as through endorsements or collaborations, and collecting materials that project who you are: photos, videos, audio, etc, in accessible portals like a web site. If you’re doing well enough, you might even consider retaining professional help: a growing number of enterprising small PR firms that specialise in music promotion have added affordable brand-burnishment services that can act as a way to jump-start the process.

However you approach it, the age of just resting on one’s laurels is past; now it’s time to put them to work. Welcome to the battle of the brands.