When I first downloaded a copy of FL Studio five years ago and started aimlessly pressing buttons to see what made noise, producing music seemed like such a simple game. I mean, I had no idea what I was doing, but I thought I could see the progression of it. You know what music you like -> you learn how to make that music -> people start listening -> you are a rich and famous DJ. Woo!
Well, obviously I was a little naïve back then, and maybe I still am but no one is arguing the fact that EDM superstars are very real. Avicii has been all over the radio this year, Steve Aoki made $4.5 million in a year playing 88 gigs, and Tiesto presumably has a yacht somewhere made of cash and girls’ panties. This is big for the scene as a whole, but for every Steve Aoki there seems to be a hundred thousand new guys making great music with a few thousand fans and a few thousand dollars to show for it. And you won't see their names on the flyers of the next big dance festival (well, maybe in the tiny ass writing at the bottom).
Many would be proud to be one of the asswipes. But it doesn’t pay well.
It's safe to say that the majority of these relatively unknown producers have aspirations to one day be known so they can raise a middle finger to the whole 9-5 world for good. At least, I know that's where my head is. The question is: what separates the guys who make great music from the guys who are known for making great music? Experience, marketing, and mass appeal come to mind. But I think one of the simplest factors is also something many producers overlook or under think: creating an image.
Any great pop star has a team of people—from graphic designers to stylists to publicists to the very producers that make their music—all working to keep the public's view of their star consistent. Now I don't think Afrojack or Calvin Harris has quite as sizeable a team, but they still take their image very seriously, and so should any producer that wants to reach that level.
That consistency is so vastly important that when it comes to getting famous, it's arguably as important as the music itself. When people hear your name, it needs to evoke a single, deeply recognizable and unique feeling. That is your image, and it reminds your audience what they are missing by not listening to your music or seeing you live. It is abstract, and has equally important audio and visual components that cooperate to push one message, one theme.
The key to finding those components is first finding that theme.
I thought about how to word this for a while before realizing that I really can't put it more clearly than Armin Van Buuren did in his recent (and extremely inspiring) interview over at DJ Tech Tools:
"Why should people come out of their homes... their comfortable homes where they have pizza and a nice DVD to watch, and they are sitting next to their girlfriend on the couch... why would they come out to see you? I think if you can explain that reason to me in two sentences, then I think you can make it."
It's really as simple as that. If someone asks you what your music is about and you say "Oh I produce electro but I do some dubstep too"—well gee, that's great. Let me file you in the "random producers I know" section of my brain, and maybe I'll get around to checking your SoundCloud someday. On the other hand, if you were to respond with something along the lines of "listening to my music is like chasing an ice cream truck through a jungle"—now that sounds like a uniquely intriguing experience.
You want to really dig deep for this message and let your personality come through in it, because personality is a huge part of the image of most huge artists. Deadmau5, for instance, is an artist first and foremost, and he doesn't give a shit what anyone thinks about his art or what they want him to do with it. Porter Robinson is an intellectual kid who respects the music scene and aspires to advance it. LMFAO simply eat, sleep, and breathe partying. I wouldn't advise trying to be a fake person, but more colorful producers naturally draw more people to their music.
Deadmau5 does not give a shit what you think, but even he updated his image.
So once you have decided on a clear theme, I would suggest sleeping on it a few nights too see if it grows on you. Then you can begin to build your audio and visual image around it.
The audio component of image is commonly called a DJ's “sound,” and you will find DJs with better-defined sounds closer to the top of the DJ Mag top 100. For some producers this sound thing comes naturally through their workflow, their inspiration, or their environment. Many new producers, however, just make a bunch of tracks and say, "hey as long as each of these tracks sounds good, then I'm good.” This is true to an extent, but if you don't develop a distinct sound, then people aren't going to hear something in their head when they hear your name. When I tell someone to play something like Mord Fustang, they hear those clean melodic saw synths and thick complextro basslines in their head, and they know just what to pull up.
Developing your sound can be as simple and concrete as picking a few synths that you have come up with, or even a unique combination of ones others have created. It could also define your music more abstractly with terms like “jungle electro” or “polka-step.” Hell, Zedd recently described his sound as “emotional shaving.” It really barely has to make sense as long as you and your audience can hear it in your music. Basically you are pioneering your own micro-genre. And that micro-genre can span multiple conventional genres if you make it abstract enough. Consequently, whenever you finish a track you should ask yourself “is this consistent with my image?” before you set it free.
The visual aspect of image is something that some DJs take to heart more than others. Some, like Amon Tobin and recently Skrillex, have their own custom visual effects stage to project their message. Now, I seriously doubt you are reading this if you have your own visual effects crew, but there are other ways. How about clothes? I don't think anyone is going to have any trouble recognizing Daft Punk in their robot gear or Deadmau5 in his mousehead, and people love that aspect of their persona. Now some producers are going to consider that rather gimmicky and not their style, and that's fine, but if you are looking for a new edge in your image, buying some new threads has to be among the easiest ways to go about it.
You don’t need douchey hair to be memorable, but this guy is a millionaire.
Other important and obvious visual cues are the logo and the press images. This isn't an article about how to make a memorable DJ logo or take striking press shots, but it is a good idea to have a signature style and possibly a couple colors that are consistent with your image among all your print work.
Now let's talk about some people who have completely conquered this whole image thing. I'd say the best example I found when I was creating my own image was Dada Life. Two crazy Swedes that live to rage. That right there conjures up a pretty attractive picture, but that's the tip of the iceberg.
First of all, their personality is that of two crazy headbanging brothers who are constantly partying and pulling pranks and speak with charismatic off-key accents. It's as evident and entertaining onstage as it is in their many humorous YouTube videos.
As for the visual cues, well, there are plenty. If you have ever been to a Dada Life show, no doubt you have seen a lot of two things: champagne and bananas. Bottles of champagne being sprayed over the crowd, bananas being handled promiscuously by female fans, inflatable bananas and champagne bottles being tossed overhead, and even people dressed up in banana costumes make the scene. It's all quite a sight, and it takes the novelty of the whole experience to another level.
This guy owes Dada Life for the best five seconds of his life and it has little to do with music.
And as if that wasn't enough, their sound is completely unmistakable. The thickness of their bass (or the "fattness" of their "sausage" as they put it) is really remarkable, and most people who have heard Dada Life before will instantly recognize a new track of theirs when a DJ drops it.
So they covered all their bases. But Dada Life couldn't just leave it at that. They thought "How can we take this image to the next level?"…and then they made it a religion. In their own words:
“We are Dada Life. Destroy dance music and have fun. Don’t look back in the past. Always go forward. Don’t think too much. Always follow the money. Do the Dada. The result? Big tunes, no frills.”
That philosophy—that theme—is truly a thing of beauty in my opinion. It captures the spirit of this whole EDM scene for a huge majority of people, and yet they made it their own. Hell, I could read it to my mom and she would understand why I want to be a part of that. It’s something bigger to connect with.
Amazing stuff, and yet that simply wasn’t enough. For anyone who is still unclear on how to live a “Dada Life,” they compiled a convenient list outlining some interesting and specific ways to follow their philosophy for ravers and producers alike.
Never bring your brain to a rave.
Doing the "airpiano" on stage while looking up in the air? Never. The "heart sign" with both your hands? F**K NO.
Tickle-punch-tickle-combo. Happy Violence!
Cheating is winning.
If you're stuck, there's only one solution: go harder.
If you only need one word to describe a song in the studio...then it's done!
No bananas on the rider? Then we do our two-hour deep/tech house set. Everything under 118 BPM.
PLUR = Potassium Lust Unity Rage
Arriving beautiful - leaving ugly.
Beautiful music = boring music. At least today.
Never BBQ before a gig.
If you don't want to get wet, you don't want to have fun.
Bass don't cry.
Changing underwear at the club is cheating. Even for the members of Dada Life.
Never bring your brain into the club.
Art should be loud as fuck.
Always kick out the epic motherfucker. Always.
As you can see, Dada Life created something more than just music. They made a way of life, and now they live it and encourage others to live it with every breath they take. After reading this article you probably have a solid idea of what it is like to hang out with them. If you can do even a fraction of what they have done when creating your image, you are headed in the right direction.
We have gone over some great ways to tackle this image issue and I’m sure there are a hundred more I haven’t covered—but the important thing to take away from this is that if you want your audience to really identify with you and your music, then you really have to think about crafting that identity and about how you are pushing it out there on a day-to-day basis.
Oh, and don't forget to make good music.