Published: December 5, 2013
By: Ben Weiss
Mystery is a powerful motivator—the spark that ignites curiosity. And when that power is carefully harnessed as a tool within the architecture of an artist’s brand narrative, impressive results can occur. Let’s take a closer look at how.
Using Mystery to Fuel the Hype Machine
There are a lot of different strategies to build hype for an artist or a release in the music business and one tried-and-true method is affiliating with a like-minded record label that provides both credibility and exposure.
So say you’re a fan of Canadian superstar producer Datsik and consider him a tastemaker. You look into his label Firepower Records to see the cats he affiliates with and start scrolling through the artist roster on the label’s website.
Starting off, things look pretty standard for Datsik’s dubstep niche; lots of sharp, colorful press shots of mean muggin’ producers branded with the label’s fiery imagery when all the sudden you come across the icon for ‘Bear Grillz,’ a cartoon bear with a duck for a sidekick who is wearing a fat chain and giving you the finger while rippin’ a j.
Clearly you have to learn more and discover this mysterious artist is being presented as a ‘28 year-old grizzly bear’ hailing from Yosemite National Park who ate a mountain climber, jacked his Macbook and somehow figured out how to build fat beats.
This you gotta hear.
So you head over to the Mr. Grillz’ Soundcloud with your curiosity primed. You can’t just be any average bear and make it onto Firepower so who could be pulling the strings? Which artists are 28 and big enough to release this alias or this side project through a label like this? Or is the whole thing just a big joke?
In any case, you’re compelled to feed your curiosity with a listen to Bear Grillz’ The High Grade EP and perhaps get drawn into the SoundCloud banter, discussing the music and the questions behind it.
And whether you dig the aggressive drops on the 4-track EP, the point is that the uncertainty behind the narrative piqued your interest and engaged you with the music, as it has and will many others. From the vantage point of a new project in which awareness is the primary goal, mission accomplished.
A similar strategy was used by producer Paper Diamond (Alex Botwin) in the transition from his hip-hop project Alex B when he created the smart Who is Paper Diamond? marketing campaign. Using subtle hints like “Who is Paper Diamond?” t-shirts adorned by some of his homies (many of whom were affiliated with the Elm & Oak brand) to build anticipation that something big was about to pop, Botwin then used the momentum to explode from behind the veil. Considering his notable ascent through the industry ranks, it seems the strategy was a most effective way to get started.
Separating the Music from the Person
While the Bear Grillz and Who is Paper Diamond? examples both rely on the allure of anonymity to build awareness, a mask can still be a key branding tool even when the person behind it is revealed.
Take SBTRKT for example. While it’s no secret the producer behind the tribal mask is Aaron Jerome, he’s made it clear hiding his face is a way to put as much attention as possible onto the music, not the person making it.
“I’d rather not talk about myself as a person, and let the music speak for itself,” says Jerome in an interview with ClashMusic.com. “The name SBTRKT is me taking myself away from that whole process … [i]t’s … about giving them a record as an anonymous person and seeing whether they like it or not. People pick up on it after a while and judge you because they think you’re trying to create hype by being anonymous, but that’s not what I’m doing. It’s more the fact that I can just get on with writing music and not spend my life talking about it.”
Regardless of whether you agree or not with his intentions, again from a branding perspective it motivates interested listeners to dig into what this masked guy’s tracks are all about and if the music is all that matters, then that’s a big win.
Mystery in a Transportive Narrative
Since mystery sparks our imagination, using it within an artist’s story can help draw the listener into something larger than any individual song, album or performance. That’s part of the reason why Gwar - the satirical heavy metal band who act as banished intergalactic chaos warriors - is so interesting; because even though anyone who reads their Wikipedia page can find out the human identities behind the ‘Scumdogs of the Universe,’ the transportive qualities of the costumes and mythology bring engagement to the next level. If you go with it, you’re not just listening to music … you’re experiencing an elaborate horror show and for the right people that can be a cathartic experience that hooks them as a loyal fans.
It’s the same principle that helps Daft Punk bring fans closer to the music. While the project is really architected by two French dudes, the ornate costumes the duo wears combined with elaborate stage theatrics and the futuristic themes woven into their musical lexicon facilitate the illusion that the listener is a part of a robotic symphony rather than a participant at the average discotheque.
Bottom Line: With a little taste, harnessing the power of mystery within an artist’s tool belt is a compelling way to build awareness, hype and most importantly engagement around the brand. Now we just have to figure out who the f*ck is Bear Grillz.