The Business of Bands


Musicians, like business owners, don’t always think about branding when they form a band or start working on an album. Despite that lack of intention, however, the choices both musicians and businesses make early on have a major impact on the way people perceive them and whether or not they will be successful. The business community and the music industry have a lot of similarities between them, and business owners would be wise to look to the challenges musicians face as inspiration for solutions to their own problems.

Starting strong is key.

Amanda von Trapp knows a thing or two about brand.

She is one of the great-grandchildren of the real-life Captain and Maria von Trapp, of The Sound of Music fame. Along with her siblings - Sofia, Melanie, and August - Amanda has toured the world singing at sold-out venues in Australia, Korea, China, the US, and elsewhere. Her childhood was shaped by the brand she inherited (think lederhosen and schnitzel), and as she and her siblings matured, they struggled with respecting their family legacy and finding their own unique voice.

“As The von Trapp Children [the group's original name], it was really interesting to try to control what we wanted to present onstage and what people were coming to the show expecting,” Amanda says. “There were elements that really didn’t work and elements that did work, and I think that the audience could see when we didn’t have a strong handle on our brand. You have to present a brand really confidently and not give too much room for doubt or interpretation.”

Setting the right expectations with audiences is important for both musicians and business owners. People are not going to be too terribly happy if your brand makes a promise and you deliver a completely different experience.

The von Trapps' official music video for their 2015 single "Dancing in Gold".

“The end goal of the brand should be to really represent you in a way that when audiences are coming to see a show they know what they’re gonna see,” Amanda says.

This approach to brand may seem like it doesn’t allow for a lot of creative wiggle room, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Having a strong brand doesn’t mean sticking to one idea at the expense of all others, just that the brand identity you’ve developed should play well with any new direction you’re headed. When the von Trapps collaborated with Portland-based Pink Martini on their 2014 album Dream a Little Dream, Amanda says they were able to respect their heritage and explore new interpretations of their brand.

“That was what was so unique working with Pink Martini; we saw in them the same struggle with branding,” Amanda says. “ They are extremely unique, very classical but also very chic. When we teamed up with them it helped us understand that you didn’t have to find the perfect genre to fit into. You didn’t have to say ‘We are definitely this’. It allowed us to confidently say that we do a lot of different things, we have an eclectic sound that isn’t easily defined.”

"You have to present a brand really confidently and not give too much room for doubt or interpretation."

- Amanda von Trapp, The von Trapps

There’s strength in authenticity.

Peter Hughes formed Sons of Huns with Ryan Northrup and Shoki Tanabe in 2009. They’ve since put out three full albums and two 7" and have performed a number of coast-to-coast US tours as well as all over the northwest. Their brand is based as much on their music as it is on the visuals they choose for their merchandise and their “sci-fi, psychedelic rock party” live shows. But for as strong as it is, Sons of Huns didn’t start out thinking about their brand much at all.

“[Brand] isn’t something I considered when I first started playing music, but the longer I played the more I realized it has a really important place,” Peter says. “The way your merch looks can convey the message of the music. Album art needs to grab people’s attention. You can’t hear the music when you’re just holding the record.”

The Sons of Huns' official music video for their 2012 single "Leaving Your Body".

But a brand doesn’t stop at just the visuals. For Peter, a brand is as much about identity as it is about looks.

“The music I write is really about self-discovery, knowing your true self, and being honest with yourself and others,” he says. “If you’re writing music about what’s really happening in your life, then that authenticity will come across.”

But sometimes that authenticity needs to be manufactured - and that’s okay.

“If you’re a shy person that creates this huge, flamboyant persona so that you can explode on stage, let loose, and be able to share something with people you wouldn’t otherwise, then I think that’s beautiful,” Peter says. “Creating identity has always been a part of music. Live music is performance, so anybody that gets up on a stage is putting on at least a little bit of a front.”

We often see this play out in commercial brands when people are tasked with representing a company. When a business owner is mingling at a networking event or meeting with a potential client, she’s not acting the same way she might at home with her family or while grabbing a drink with friends. She’s putting on a front, but one that is rooted in truth. And that’s the nature of good brands; they’re purposefully manufactured, but they come from a place of sincerity.

"Creating identity has always been a part of music."

- Peter Hughes, Sons of Huns

Rebrands are inevitable.

Staying true to your brand means accepting that it will eventually need to change. Like musicians, business owners learn and grow in their roles, and with that growth comes new ideas and new direction. Ignoring this growth because it threatens the status quo is dangerous.

“That’s a really good example [of how our music was] a brand,” Amanda says. “Because we called ourselves The von Trapp Children, people had it in their mind right away, ‘Oh, I’m going to go see seven kids on stage in tracht.’ Though it was selling, and we were getting a lot of symphony offers under that name because it was an easy sell, it wasn’t setting the right expectations.”

Once the group decided to drop “Children” from their name they were free to explore new musical directions without such a strong brand association. The transformation wasn’t immediate (they sang The Sound of Music classic “The Lonely Goatherd” on Dream a Little Dream), but that was kind of the point.

“It’s something we talked a lot about as a band: ‘Do we want to bring our old audience with us?’” she says. “If we had gone in a wildly different direction it would have pushed away the people that really appreciated our music and were more likely to support our transition from children in lederhosen to full grown artists.”

This idea of gradual transformation is less common in business than it is in music. Many business owners view a rebrand as a big, one-time event. And yes, sometimes it’s necessary to toss everything out the window and starting over from scratch, but there’s also something to be said for introducing new elements into your brand over time. A slower brand roll-out allows your existing customer base to get used to the new direction in which you're headed without feeling left behind.

Peter agrees. For musicians, at least, rebrands often occur organically and unintentionally.

“My music has changed for sure, but I think that’s just because I’ve changed as a person,” he says. “There’s no reason to be stagnant.”

If you want to sell, you need to brand.

Roni Darko has booked shows all over Oregon, including McMenamin’s White Eagle and EastBurn. From a venue point of view, a band needs an attention-grabbing brand in order to set themselves apart from all the other bands that are vying for the same spot on stage.

“When I’m searching for bands to contact, I look at two things initially: their band name, and their band photo,” Roni says. “With this, I can have an idea as to what style of music that they might play and then I’ll give them a 20 second listen and go from there.”

“Do you want to play open mics and small shows around town, or do you want to make a name for yourselves and grow into something bigger?”

- Roni Darko, Portland-based Venue Booking Professional

For Roni, the goals of any particular band are very clear from how much effort they’ve put into their brand. Strong brands, whether they came about organically like Sons of Huns or were more intentionally created like The von Trapps, are products of a lot of hard work. Bands that put a lot of effort into their look or message are often more likely to appeal to a specific audience, which makes them easier for the venue to sell.

“Do you want to play open mics and small shows around town, or do you want to make a name for yourselves and grow into something bigger?” she asks of bands with weak or unclear brands. “It takes work, it takes convincing other people to listen to your music, to come to your shows. It takes marketing.”

A lot of artists scoff at the idea of marketing and branding, but Roni doesn’t see a contradiction in being true to your artistic vision and creating a clear brand for yourself.

“I believe [branding] starts with the music, but you then have to consider and think about the rest, making intentional choices,” she says. “It’s authentic if that’s what your goal was in the first place.”

And as for selling out? She’s got some strong opinions on that notion as well.

“Commercialization? Well, I’ll tell ya, I’d love to make art and make money.”

At the end of the day, all good brands share one thing in common: they stand for something. The values a business owner or band hold show up in the work they produce, and that forms the basis of their brand. When audiences connect with a particular musician or company, they’re not connecting with a logo or an album cover. They’re connecting with the message they’re hearing and the values they perceive that brand holds.

“Attached with brands are certain principles, and I think that’s what the von Trapps mean to me,” Amanda says. “They represent something that is bold and courageous. It’s a very eager and sincere brand, and I think it’s amazing that those principles have stayed true through the fifty plus years that brand has been out.

“That’s why we tried to respect the brand with our music, because it stood for so many good things. It stood for happiness. It brought people hope.”

The von Trapps play their final show on May 3 at Star Theater in Portland. Get your tickets here.
To check out Sons of Huns music and merchandise, visit

Written by Digital Director Benjamin Parisot

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