The problem with branding in classical music

The new year is rapidly gaining ground, and it’s a good time to look at the way we market ourselves and build our reputations.  Let’s start with a ubiquitous buzzword:  branding.

A while ago, I was admonished by an opera director to make sure I wasn’t teaching our members about branding. The request surprised me, as branding itself is normally far from taboo. But however he came to hate the word, here’s what he reported seeing with increasing frequency: opera singers, in particular, were coming to him and his colleagues with ultra-specific fachs and other self-administered labels, such as “lyric basso splendore” (yes, I’m making that up), unwittingly annoying those they meet and complicating the casting process. “Why can’t we just hear them and see if they fit our needs?”, he wailed. And he has a point.

There seem to be two common problems with the way the branding concept is sometimes applied by modern classical singers:

  1. They manipulate their fach names to second-guess the roles they might be offered
  2. They similarly attach cute titles or image factors to the persona they wish, whether or not those labels fit their look, personality, skills or other realities.

Branding_iron_from_TexasThese labels emerge in bios, headshot style and wardrobe, résumé wording, and certainly websites and social media pages.  If the labels are genuine, they can be useful.  But however you choose to market yourself, it’s important to figure out what you bring to the table first, and let the branding reveal itself naturally.  Keep these things in mind when you search for your own marketable characteristics:

Rule #1:  Be excellent

This may seem obvious, but it’s a good reminder:  theres no point in building a “brand” for yourself if you can’t deliver the goods. Always, always, keep working on your skills.  Be the best you can possibly be.  Be on time, reliable, and great at your job.  Otherwise, there’s not much to brand in the first place.

Rule #2:  Be yourself

This is not only important to your ability to live up to the reputation you’ve created, but it’s also critical to your own belief in yourself.  If you can’t be genuine, it will show.  If you create something that doesn’t feel organic to who you really are, it will eventually fall apart.  The better you can know yourself and build your career on the truth of what you have to offer, the greater your potential for longevity.

Rule #3:  Embrace your differences

In a noisy and very saturated market, finding the ways you’re different from your colleagues is the best way to set yourself apart.  This is more commonly understood among in the television and film industry, where “character actors” can have a unique look, voice, or other characteristics to create memorable characters, and they are valued for those very differences.  Their acting chops still have to be there, of course — excellence is always important.  But singers are supposedly judged and chosen based more on their voices and their abilities to live up to established conventions, which makes it easy to fall into the mindset that you need to be similar to those who have gone before you.  But try looking at your appeal another way:  if you can be exceptional and different, to sing the same music in a new way and to create a new and memorable experience, you’ll be a rare and precious commodity that people will want to tap into again and again.

However you approach branding and persona cultivation, finding truth is still important.  Don’t let the product get away from your real self.  And more than anything, don’t start buying your own hype.

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