Almost Famous: Brand Building in the Music Industry

InterviewMedia BrandingPersonal Branding

Building a musical empire from scratch is a tall order. For every Lady Gaga, there are millions of other stories of talented yet incredibly eclectic artists who ended up – well – just incredibly eclectic.  So what is the differentiator? What steps need to be taken to bring someone from talent to fame?

To find out, I recently caught up with members of “The Gate City Squad,” an up-and-coming college-age rap group that has developed a strong following through online music communities. Their new album, entitled, “Suit Up,” drops today, and they’re hoping will take them to the next level. We discussed their rise from anonymity, the ways that they manage to continuously cultivate their dream through busy schedules and distractions, and tools they have used to gain fans and become more professional artists.

Starting out

For some, creating a musical group is done through audition. For others, it’s done through a chance meeting of aspiring stars. For the Gate City Squad (GCS), they were simply born into it; the group consists of two brothers, their cousin, and a friend. As Matt Feehan (Who created GCS) also points out, music was a family thing right from the beginning. “Our uncle was a rapper growing up, so he would always freestyle around us when we were 11 or 12 and make us join in. Our parents are also in a band, my dad is the drummer and my mom is the singer, so music has been a major influence our whole lives.” Matt recalls learning how to play the guitar and creating basic beats when he was just 12 years old.

My cousin Josh (Ramos) and I decided to put something together for fun, and made his first ‘unreleased’ album. Eventually we brought in my younger brother Dan to sing on a few of the songs, unaware he was so talented. As time passed and he grew up a little bit, we realized that we had something special in Dan’s voice. Last year John (Bourgeois) started coming around and creating some of the melodies for our songs, and we really worked well together so we brought him on board.

Over that last year, the group has solidified itself and is now working on building a stronger brand presence and fan base.

Applying technology

One common problem with people who are ‘aspiring’ at anything is that they often need to ‘have a day job’ while they are trying to make it. Along the way, there is endless opportunity to fall off track and lose your dream in favor of a more stable lifestyle. But as Will Smith stipulates, “Don’t have a Plan ‘B’ because it distracts from Plan ‘A’.” It’s important to become obsessed with your goal, and not fall victim to a routine.  In the case of the GCS, all 4 members attend 4 different colleges, making it difficult to be together to create music (Matt just graduated from Plymouth State University, Dan attends UCONN, John attends SNHU, and Josh attends Wake Forest). Despite this inconvenience, they use technology to continue to produce music even when they aren’t together. “With all of us in school it’s important that everyone has access to a small recording studio even in a dorm so they can cut tracks and send them to me,” said Matt, who produces all of the group’s music. This use of technology is something that perhaps wasn’t as prevalent even 10 years ago, but today’s artists can send audio files over the internet in just a couple of minutes to someone anywhere in the world. In the case of the GCS, it has helped them to remain productive and relevant all year. However, it is also a useful tool for collaboration with other artists, which is something that can take a ‘local’ group and make them mainstream. By cross-contaminating fan bases, the GCS and other successful up-and-comers are gaining exposure with fans of different artists, with the hope of obtaining new fans in different markets. This is one quality that differentiates talented groups from viable celebrity groups.

Starting from scratch

Another differentiator for viable groups is the level of involvement they have with the creative process. In some cases, a single song may be attributed to 3 or 4 different artists (One to write the lyrics, one to write the music, one to perform, etc.) Having complete control over your music allows you to create more efficiently and effectively, and it demonstrates that you can operate in a self-sustaining manner. Certainly, there is a distinct difference between having a lack of creative control and a strategic collaborative effort with other artists. In the case of the GCS, they see their ability to ‘start from scratch’ as a huge advantage over other artists in the marketplace. “One of the things that separate us from other groups is that we do everything 100% in house,” Josh told me. “From the songwriting to the beat making to the production, we do it all.”

Something different

Every up and coming artist will tell you that they are different. That they are the doing things never before seen and their talent needs to be shared with the world. Most of the time that proves completely false, for as long as this world has been around, there’s been far too many people for any of us to be truly unique. But that’s OK – you don’t need a unique talent to become a star. What makes the biggest stars so big is that they are able to use their talent in unique ways. GCS considers their difference to be in delivering rap in a non-traditional way. “We aren’t rapping about typical stuff that you hear, were rapping about real life experiences,” they emphasized. “We don’t rap about drugs, girls or money, stuff like that. We keep everything as clean cut as possible so we can appeal to a wide demographic and audience.” By choosing to appeal to the masses, they have created an opportunity for themselves to gain fans in all demographics. However, they also run the risk of alienating the type of fan who does enjoy listening to that style of rap. As a group, it doesn’t actually matter what style you choose, as long as you make a choice. Fans tend to respect artists who are true to themselves and who stick to their personality, whatever that may be. It goes back to branding, and building a brand that is consistent with all of your actions.

Moving beyond Facebook

In today’s social networking craze, companies (and individuals) are turning to Facebook as the new standard of promotion. Unfortunately, using Facebook in a silo doesn’t work. Other social networks need to be put to use, and believe it or not, traditional means of communication is actually still very important in getting your name out there. About a year ago, GCS learned that in order to achieve the results they were looking for they needed to change up their approach. As Dan said:

A while ago we only would post our music on Facebook, because we thought that was the only way to connect with fans. But then we started to see all of these artists on music blogs like “Good Music All Day,” “Fresh New Tracks,” and “This Song is Sick.” We knew that we could definitely do this, and that our music was strong enough to be featured on these kinds of sites. So we started reaching out and building relationships with the people who ran these blogs. Fortunately, they heard our music and liked it, so they started posting our songs on their sites.

Their realization was dead on, but unfortunately many artists don’t realize that there is life outside of Facebook. The combination of social networking with traditional relationship building is what allowed GCS to build such a strong online presence.

Keep it professional

I’ve discussed in other posts the importance of creating professional quality assets as an artist. As I’ve learned, social networks such as YouTube and MySpace have now become legitimate sources of media, meaning that artists need to post high quality material if they want to be recognized.  For GCS, they noticed that artists who featured music videos seemed to be getting a lot more air time. As John said:

“We never had a solid video of ourselves, and we realized that songs that had videos were getting a lot more play than songs that didn’t have them. So we reached out to this guy in New York City named Jon Kilmer who does high quality videos at affordable rates. We went down to NYC a couple of times, and now we have 2 professional music videos out and are working on a third. We’ve also released some behind the scenes videos because we want to connect with fans, we want them to see that we aren’t an auto-tuned group; we are talented singers and songwriters.”

Lean on your friends

The last characteristic of an up-and-coming group that makes it big is a strong network. As GCS demonstrated by promoting their content through music blogs, knowing the right people can make an enormous impact in your success. But it goes beyond that. Starting out, artists usually won’t have a ton of resources or money to be able to manage their group, promote, and create new music. If they are able to use friends as resources, and draw on various skill sets to maintain a professional brand, it will ultimately prove invaluable to their growth. To that end, GCS got together with a friend of theirs, Ben Young, who has taken over the role of ‘Manager.’ “I’ve stepped in to take on the non-musical stuff because they are spending all of their time in the studio,” Ben said. “There will come a time when we make money but for now we are just hustling trying to keep the movement going.”

And that’s it. These are the techniques and the qualities that this particular group has used to gain some notoriety and to build their media brand. But it doesn’t mean they are the only ones. The important takeaway is that successful groups have a plan. They try new methods until they get it right. Most importantly, they never give up.

Many thanks to the Gate City Squad – Dan Feehan (Vocals), Matt Feehan (Rapper, Producer), John Bourgeois (Music), Josh Ramos (Rapper), and their manager Ben Young for this interview. If you have not heard of them yet, you certainly will soon. Their album, Suit Up, was released this week, and is available for download on their Facebook fan page. Here is the Official Music Video for one of the songs on the album, entitled, “So Fly.”