The Image of Music

by Mark Cridland about a year ago in pop culture

Why is the image of a musician so important?

The Image of Music

When I was researching my article on What Is Metal? a number of people mentioned 'the look' of musicians and how important it is:

"To be honest, so much of what is 'metal' now has little to do with musical style as much what clothes you wear, how many tattoos you have and, super importantly, which demographic you are being marketed at."

I have to agree with this person's comment in that how a musician looks does seem to be a very important issue for the majority of people. I am one of those who would disagree and say that the music is the most important thing. But let's delve deeper into this issue.

The music industry and record labels, in particular, are having to be very picky about which artists and bands they take on as there are so many great musicians working the local scenes at the moment. This means that they have to decide who would be the most marketable and therefore, profitable. Now, this used to be determined just on musical ability and creativity but over time this focus has moved to the image of a person and how they fit the music and demographic they are being marketed to.

I love rock and metal, but let's take a look at some other genres of music and how the artists are expected and, in many instances, made to look.

Pop music artists are expected to be role models for the younger generation. They are usually good looking and have bright white teeth, perfect skin, and nicely styled hair. Most of this is achieved with makeup, professional hairdressers and teeth whitening procedures. They are also expected to behave the right way, to be the 'perfect person' that all kids want to be like. A lot of people I spoke to said that this gives a false image to the younger generation and the general consensus was:

"I bet all of these pop stars are horrible people and look like crap when they aren't in the spotlight!"

This speaks volumes to me and maybe the younger generation should be looking for other idols in the life.

The 'darker' side of the musical image are the rock, punk, metal & grunge scenes. These musicians have, historically, never really cared what people think and could almost get away with wearing whatever they wanted. But more recently they have been pushed by either the record labels who want a certain image or by the common idea of what these musicians should look like.

Rock, grunge, and metal band members are expected to wear black/dark clothing and have lots of visible tattoos and piercings. Sometimes even outrageous hairstyles and makeup. This pressure has mounted ever since the late 1960s.

The popularity of tattoos and piercings has grown exponentially over the last few decades and it seems to be down to the fashion of music. A woman would not have been allowed to have a lot of visible tattoos twenty years ago unless she was one of those "rebellious punk chicks." Nowadays it is a very common thing for a lot of people to have a large number of tattoos and piercings regardless of the gender they identify as. Even employers are having to change the way they view potential employees. Having tattoos in the past would have meant you had no chance in a job interview but with the way that the image of musicians has changed, so has the public opinion.

Mentioning punks there reminds me of the punk scene in the eighties and nineties with musicians wearing cut off denim jackets and high Mohicans (both sides of the head are shaven, leaving a strip of noticeably longer hair in the centre, gelled and spiked up) which was very commonly copied, even by women (I know, how outrageous was that!). Then came the grunge scene of the nineties with the fans following the musicians' influence by wearing black clothing, dark makeup including eyeliner (guyliner, for the men), more tattoos and often dying their hair black (mine was blue and scruffy).

As I have mentioned in another article, there are so many different musical genres around nowadays and the musicians are having to look right for that type of music. For instance, you would not get a musician in a rockabilly style band wearing all black and being covered in tattoos and piercings. They have to have the right image.

Classical and opera musicians have to be suited and booted. All dressed in formal wear both when on stage and at any time they are in the public eye.

The other end of the spectrum are rap artists, who usually look scruffy. The image of these musicians is of the baggy clothing (think trousers/pants hanging very low), big chains and rings, as well as rather unique hairstyles; some even have gold teeth!

Exploring the background and public opinion of the image of music really does show that these musicians are expected to wear the right clothes and styles of the type of music they perform.

Most of the pressure is put on from the public but there is a fair amount of pressure being laid on by record companies and the artists' managers. Generally nowadays, if you want to play your own music, sell records & downloads as well as building up your fan base, you simply have to abide by the rules of The Image of Music.

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Mark Cridland

Music Industry Journalist & Radio Presenter

See all posts by Mark Cridland