So I was talking with my friend A&R legend Rayshele Teige today and I was picking her brain for an idea for this article. She suggested I talk about the notion of your band having a concept, a clear distinctive “thing” that makes them interesting and differentiates them. She stated that “the concept has to feed the purpose” and without a clear concept you aren’t going to get anywhere. Then I looked up at the KISS poster in my living room with Gene, Paul, Ace, and Peter staring down at me and I realized she was completely right. So many bands just want to play music but don’t have a clear idea of what the basic concept behind the band is. I’m not talking about your concept in terms of “Oh we play black metal fused with folk” that’s cool and all but it’s not enough to differentiate. The entire focus of marketing band should be around your concept, be that lyrical, visual or whatever. You want people to say, “Oh that’s the band who do X” and X can’t be a genre because that isn’t memorable for people most of the time.
A lot of people get confused about this. They claim that their heroes didn’t have a concept beyond the musical style. In the example of a folky black metal band from earlier one might cite Agalloch. After all Agalloch’s musical concept was essentially “Black metal but like, with neofolk parts too” The thing is that genre as a concept works because they were among the first to do it well. They were progenitors of the genre. It’s different. You are probably not kicking off your own genre. And if you think you are, you should probably check yourself. I have met the people who kicked off a lot of your favorite genres and in the vast majority of cases, they didn’t think they were doing anything too different from their predecessors. They just lucked into their bands entire sound being the concept. The odds are though, you won’t be so lucky and your sound won’t be the concept that people will immediately connect you with. I’m sorry.
On top of that – most of your heroes DID, in fact, have a concept, you just haven’t been paying attention. For instance, again to use Agalloch there was the whole influence of the Pacific Northwest and the way nature inspired sounds from the record made their way into the packaging. Similar tack was taken with Wolves in the Throne Room. Which goes to show, a concept doesn’t always need to be super original, it just needs to be good and you need to have your own clear take on it. Not only was there something to dig into, but there was a clear way to explain Agalloch to people beyond what the music was. Every band who have ever made it to any level of success had some sort of clear concept beyond it, be it folks who pack clubs like Gatecreeper (focus on hardcore roots, OSDM, art aesthetic) to the bands who pack arenas.
So how does your band develop a concept? Well just figure out what you are interested in and how it can relate to the music. Or just figure out an angle you want to market your music from. This can be very intentional like KISS with the Kabuki-style makeup or it can be purely coincidental, like how YOB were able to include a whole bunch of mental health stuff and Buddhist concepts into their imagery and branding simply because that’s what Mike is into. This is so important if you are trying to push in the underground. So many bands just view themselves as guys who set up and play, they don’t have any further thought beyond that. They don’t have anything to rally around, anything to push, consequently, they don’t go anywhere because the brand is nebulous and no one can do anything with a nebulous brand.
This all being said, even if you have a concept it doesn’t mean that concept is good. If your concept is playing Nu-Metal and wearing stupid masks you probably will just be viewed as derivative. However, a bad concept can be made good if you double down and figure out a way to do it well. You need to make sure whatever your concept is it isn’t cringy or too weird, it’s just a question of sitting down and figuring out what actually makes sense. It’s not going to be easy, and anyone who says it is pushing a stupid concept. It’s very tricky to find a way to make it work, but if it was easy then everyone would do it! A good concept can be explained in just a few sentences, is different, or at least executed differently than any significant peers and it is put together in a way that feels pro. That is to say, you invested more than fifty bucks in it. Once you have that you are really getting somewhere and starting to push towards real success.
It’s important to remember that we are all being bombarded with bands constantly, especially journalists and label people. As someone who is both, imagine the wave I am constantly under! In this world of seemingly infinite bands you need to find differentiating factors. To find your differentiating factors you need to have your concept. It’s the basis of how you make people turn around and take notice and what keeps you separate from waves of pretenders and frustrating imitators. I know it sucks, but this is the struggle you need to come to terms with and which will push you over the top if you get it right.
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Matt Bacon is a consultant, A&R man, and journalist specializing in the world of heavy metal. Having worked with everyone from Glam Rock icon Phil Collen of Def Leppard, to post Black Metal titans Alcest, by way of legendary thrashers Exhorder as well as labels including Prophecy Productions and Ripple Music, he has dedicated his life to helping young bands develop. Having started his own blog at the age of 14 he views his career in artist development as ‘a hobby that got out of hand’. In 2015 he formed Dropout Media in order to better support the artists he loves. We sit here now, years later with countless tours booked, records released and deals signed, and loving every minute of it.
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