How do you brand an original musical project that defies branding?  

I have perfect pitch, or at least I used to before I wrecked my hearing by playing too many loud, obnoxious rock shows after transitioning out of classical music.  For those of you who are wondering what I mean by that, having perfect pitch means that you can identify the pitch of a note you hear without being told what note is being played, and conversely you can hear pitches accurately in your head without them having to be played on an instrument first, and thence sing them without having to refer to an instrument.  For that reason I can compose in my head and write down what I’ve composed, while most other people compose using instruments.  This stupid pet trick is also exceptionally useful when you get thrown up on stage for a sit-in with music that you’re not familiar with.  That plus decent improvisation chops makes for at least a passable performance under such circumstances.  But let me tell you, five straight hours of that is seriously fatiguing!

In the context of the Chapter 2 of “Music Success in Nine Weeks”, having a perfect pitch means that you have crafted a perfect way of briefly describing what your band is in a manner that other people can readily grasp and find interesting enough to want to see you perform and buy your album.  This is challenging even when you’re playing in a defined musical genre full of iconic artists to compare yourself to, which we are not.

We did not plan to sound like we do.  Chi, being the old school rock star that he is, composed his music with the intention of it being performed by a rock band with the melodies sung by a vocalist (makes sense, doesn’t it?), so when he began working with me – I do have rock chops to a certain extent, but am principally a classical violinist, or at least I was when we met by a freak accident in a landmark sushi bar in Tokyo over 10 years ago – he had to completely re-think his music and rearrange it for the ensemble he had available to work with, and this is what we ended up sounding like:  TPO music samples

I’ll digress a little bit here and say that this was a primary driving force behind the recording of the “10 Strings” album.  Because it was next to impossible to describe what we sound like in a way that anyone could readily relate to, and we didn’t have any recorded music to put up on a website so people could listen to it and know what we sound like as an acoustic violin/guitar duo, and this was posing a major impediment to getting booked, we needed to get something recorded that sounded exactly like we do in a live performance of our music in our current format, and while we were at it, we decided to make an “anthology”-type album of it.  Needless to say, that has created a marketing nightmare of epic proportions, so Ariel making us concoct a perfect pitch was just what the doctor ordered.  The exercise outlined in the second chapter of the book to help us arrive at a perfect pitch is as follows:

List up the various genres we play in, other artists people say we sound like (none so far – really!); and feelings and vibes we want our music to convey; select the best ones and then mish and mash them together until we come up with something reasonably coherent.  After that, we refine it by bouncing it off other people, and are encouraged to post it to a web community of artists working through Music Success in Nine Weeks for their feedback.  That community has been a treasure trove of helpful info and new friends!

Let’s start with the genres.  We are absolutely not a “genre band”, and this was expressed so well in a review of a show we played back in August that I will plagiarize it here:

“…Each of their instrumental pieces was like a virtual musical tour of a new sonic landscape and musical genre.  Rather than simply trying to express or duplicate a genre (jazz, blues, Latin, and more) they artfully used the elements of that genre as a departure point….”

So we’re starting off by being a “cross-genre” band.  That brought up all sorts of issues, starting with how difficult that makes it to communicate what we are to people who relate to music as a collection of clearly defined genres (such as music supervisors and festival promoters!).  It also raised the issue of what we want to be known as, which in our case is a particularly curly problem given that Chi and I hail from opposite ends of the musical spectrum (as well as the planet), making it exceptionally challenging to define ourselves in a way that gives each of us fair treatment.

For example, I can authentically be pegged as a “crossover classical” player, but that description is wildly inaccurate when applied to Chi, who has no classical training or background at all, apart from having listened to a lot of high quality, traditional classical music.  (For the benefit of readers who are not professional musicians, being classed in a genre you are not proficient in and thence judged by the standards specific to that genre is more than mortifying!)  By the same token, calling me a “blues rock player” is equally off the mark, however much it describes one of Chi’s primary musical influences (which is far from readily apparent when you listen to his work with The Panache Orchestra!).  This, by the way, has made it extraordinarily difficult to pitch him as a side/session player since we can’t legally post sound clips of work he’s done for other artists that demonstrate his “musical native language” more clearly than the TPO material does.).

Let’s examine a few genres that various facets of TPO could plausibly fit into:

Folk:  Folk is one of the closer near-misses, at least in our current format, since Chi’s compositional style and musical approach on the guitar authentically captures folk sensibilities to a large extent, and the violin, or “fiddle”, is a traditional folk instrument, although I have never really studied any of the techniques or repertoire of the folk genre.  The problem is that the folk idiom is primarily singer/songwriter-driven, and although there are a few notable folk fusion instrumental artists, most of our repertoire is just too far removed from the heart of that genre to meet people’s expectations if we called ourselves a folk act.  Also, I can think of at least three occasions right offhand where we have been excluded from consideration for various showcases and concerts because we’re a strictly instrumental act with no vocals.  My marketing strategy for 2010 is to not bother too much with near misses and instead focus on finding stuff that will be the best fit for us.

New Age: New Age is a non-starter since although we have several pieces that would not be out of place on a new age radio program or compilation album, it’s just too remote of a tangent off of our artistic core for us to go in that direction.  Another source of considerable annoyance I have with the New Age genre is how often I get told that we should add fake plastic junk to our music (i.e., loops and samples) – a practice we eschew!  (Along those lines, I similarly take umbrage at being told ad nauseum by industry types that I should jump on the gimmick bandwagon currently in favor of trying to make my violin sound like an electric guitar!  Why in the hell would I want to do a thing like that?!  I absolutely hate that shriek-y, mono-dimensional sound! [Not the electric guitar – the violin trying to sound like one.]  That said, we do have a couple pieces on the workbench in which that element would not be out of place.)

World Music:  The world music genre is very polarized (hey, much like us!), in that it seems to be clogged full of solo artists playing nondescript mish-mash on synthesizers punctuated with samples of exotic instruments, and at the other extreme are “ethnic” ensembles that give a literal treatment of traditional musical genres of various countries.  The former category is so prevalent and widely promoted that when we happen to hear something touted as “world”, we almost always ask, “Exactly what part of that is ‘world’?”  We are neither, although we do have a few pieces that clearly are inspired by Chi’s Japanese roots, along with several others that express elements of various regional genres, such as Latin, European chanson, Celtic, Flamenco, and others.

Gypsy Jazz:  The gypsy jazz genre is apparently experiencing a current revival, which is a good thing because that is another near-miss for us.  First, our format: we are an acoustic guitar-violin duo like Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli and/or Ed Lang and Joe Venuti.  Django himself was an out-of-genre instrumentalist who went on to become one of the most absolutely pervasive influences of modern-day guitarists across a wide array of musical genres, so we are not bound by clearly defined expectations of what a gypsy jazz act is supposed to sound like.  We hesitate to compare ourselves to Django and Stephane first out of humility and deference to their untouchable iconic status, and secondly because neither of us have any proper jazz background at all, however much we may fill the gypsy bill (see above), so it’s with great trepidation that we venture down this route, although we would say that we are inarguably an offshoot of this rootstock.

Rock and its variants: That will be a good fit once we can fund it, but again, it only applies to some of our repertoire.  We are currently excluded from throwing our hat in the rock ring due to the economics of it.  We have to get into a position where we can afford to hire additional players, and they can’t be just any players.  Since our music for the most part is rather complex and through-composed (as opposed to 12 bar blues-based hit song format), it requires considerable skill and sophistication to play properly, and as far as we’re concerned, no execution is better than poor execution, so we’ll just sit it out until we can afford players of the caliber we want.  We have been advised (and I believe this is good advice from a credible source) to stick to what we can accurately reproduce in a live performance until we get more established.

Of course there are a lot more genres and splinter-genres, but you get the idea.  So where does this leave us?  The short answer is nowhere.  That’s right – we’re in a no-man’s land genre-wise with no known sound-alikes to anchor us to.  We’re too street for the sacred cows of high and mighty classical and jazz, and too esoteric for the folk milieu.  We’re sure not making things any easier for ourselves.  The conventional wisdom is, “Pick one”, full stop.  But why?!  That would be a classic case of putting the proverbial well-rounded peg in a square hole.  How can we turn this marketing lemon into marketable lemonade?

All I had to work with was overarching sensibilities and vibe, so what I came up with (which has won popular support so far) is:

“Bringing classical sensibilities out of the ivory tower and down into the street”

An important concluding step once we had something close to a final draft in hand is to consider it carefully to make sure it’s something we can at least live with and won’t end up hating after seeing it over and over again on all of our on- and offline promo stuff.

Thoughts welcome!