Branding 101 for Musicians, with Designer Chiao Chen Lu

Posted by Mike Schuck

When you're cruising through Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, or wherever you get your music, it can be super easy to look at some established artist with their slick album covers and killer artist headshots and think, 'that doesn't seem so hard.'

But have you ever heard the phrase 'so good he makes it look easy'? That's what's happening when you come across great branding. 

On a practical level, we all know what branding is. Branding condenses complex ideas into an easily digestible public image. 

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Branding often includes logos, website, and mobile app designs, and it can set the standards for a brand's future advertisements, sponsorships, and marketing efforts in general. 

For musicians, as well as a lot of other people working in the public eye, branding is huge. 

Good branding takes skill and a whole lot of careful thought, which is exactly why there are professional designers who specialize in branding.  

When branding goes well, especially for musicians, you get the kind of scenario where it looks easy to accomplish.

To the average person, it seems effortless, and to some, it might even feel like a musician's branding is simply who they are. 

High-quality branding is memorable, concise, and in a best-case scenario, it comes off as completely natural. 

If you're a recording artist, you can achieve all of this, but first, you're going to need to learn about some of the fundamentals of branding. 

Fortunately for you, we have a pro here to fill you in on the most important parts. 

Chiao Chen Lu

Chiao Chen Lu is a highly successful professional designer whose services continue to be in great demand. 

To be completely accurate, Lu doesn't work exclusively in brand identity design, though he has provided that service to a number of high-profile brands like Lobsterboys and Bridgette Hill. 

Lu covers a lot of design ground with UI and UX design, art direction, creative direction, and digital design, completing work for Covergirl, Albion Cosmetics, La Roche-Posay, and African Pride, among many others. 

He's clearly an expert in design work, and his knowledge of branding and how it can work well in the crazy-competitive online attention economy is impressive. 

So if you're ready to get the lowdown on the basics of branding, let's go through Lu's explanations and advice on the topic. 

Chiao Chen Lu design

A sample of Lu's advertising design work.

100% DIY: yay or nay? 

Ok, so if you're an independent musician, you probably don't have the budget to hire a top-tier brand identity designer like Lu. 

If you find yourself in this tough spot, is it technically possible to create some stunning branding materials all on your own, album cover art and all? 

The short answer is yes, but we'll let Lu elaborate. 

"It might be challenging but it's not impossible. Many elements are fundamental to achieving successful branding, including cover art and logos. Without professional design knowledge and experience, those elements could easily be overlooked, resulting in an inefficient and problematic brand identity." 

To put this another way, when you're doing your own branding work, you need to be careful. 

If you have really bad luck, you might create a brand that sends the wrong message to viewers. More likely than that, you'll create a confusing and boring brand that won't be memorable to your desired audience. 

That's why we want to introduce you to some simple branding concepts that you can keep in mind. 

Every branding decision needs to have a strong reason behind it. Otherwise, you'll end up with a dog's dinner of ideas and visual elements. 

But hold on, you might say, what about the DIY movement in early punk? 

One of the reasons DIY worked back in the 70s and 80s was that it resulted in visuals and musical personas that were starkly different from the mainstream music of the time. 

But the DIY punk aesthetic eventually congealed and normalized itself, making it hard to tell one punk album cover or gig flyer from the next. 

A decent modern example is vaporwave, an aesthetic movement notable for using cultural and consumerist icons from the 1980s and 1990s. 


The first few vaporwave covers were definitely distinct, but at this point, after thousands of relatively similar versions of the same look, they start to blend together. 

This isn't to say that you need to invent a whole new visual style for your branding, but it does highlight the dangers of looking at someone else's brand and trying to copy it without understanding the reasoning behind all those choices. 

Colorful ideas 

Color is hugely important in the visual arts, as you've probably noticed by now. Like good branding, it's very easy to appreciate a tasteful color palette, but it's much harder to choose a fitting palette of your own if you don't have experience. 

Whether you like it or not, the colors you pick, both alone and in combination with each other, have certain meanings. 

Actually, color theory is pretty complicated, and as Lu points out, they can have a powerful impact on your brand. They might even drive your brand identity. 

"Colors are always the key to evoking emotions and are extremely essential when it comes to branding. Having color constancy in your branding not only helps create your own signature as a musician or band, but also helps deliver and visualize the abstract concepts, images, ideas, and even attitudes that shape your brand."

Don't just go picking colors willy nilly. But at the same time, you don't necessarily need an art degree to find a color palette that works for your brand. 

Color meanings and relationships 

So what should you be thinking of when you're picking the colors that are going to shape your brand? 

Lu recommends spending more time considering the effects of specific colors and the associations they've built with certain concepts. 

"Definitely be mindful about the connotations behind colors, as well as the emotions that the colors could trigger. Colors could have completely different connotations in different cultures and contexts. Also, look into chromatics and learn more about the relationships between colors. In short, think about your colors beyond just the way they look." 

We even came up with a fun exercise to illustrate this point. 

Isolated colors can have their own cultural meanings, but in American music specifically, releases from major artists over the course of decades have built fairly strong relationships between certain colors and broad musical genres. 

Search around online for album cover art for specific genres. For example, we tried out "metal album art," "country album art," and "pop music album art." 

What we found is that metal album covers tend to use a lot of red, green, gray, and black, with various shades of each across multiple covers. 

Country album art seems to use quite a bit of brown and orange.

For the pop music search, we found a ton of bright, saturated colors. One possible reason for this connection is the pop music tendency to try to capture attention as quickly as possible, and bright colors can do that really well. 

So even this short exercise communicates how, even though you're free to choose any colors you want for your own logo or album art, you'll always have to contend with the pre-existing associations the general public already have of certain colors and color combinations. 

Time for a music video? 

Music videos from major label recording artists can be enormous productions, sometimes attracting the involvement of Hollywood-caliber directors and visual effects artists. 

From that perspective, the idea of making a music video of your own could seem pretty daunting, especially if you don't have a big budget ready to throw at your video. 

But Lu comments that if you have a strong vision for your video, it could go a long way toward establishing or solidifying your musical brand. 

"Animated materials are always a huge plus and crucial to reinforcing brand identity and image. Music videos allow musicians to communicate their messages in the most creative ways possible, giving them opportunities to explore diverse channels beyond just visuals." 

We won't go so far as to tell you exactly how to create a low-budget video-- you'll have to dip into some filmmaking how-tos for that. But rest assured that it can be done. 

Just remember that, for a lot of people, your music video could be their introduction to your music and your brand. Don't waste the opportunity! 

The role of trends 

Rounding things out, Lu had some words of warning for any independent artists out there excited to get their own brand going. 

"Be very careful when trying to follow trends. Looking at what's popular is good, but I think when it comes to brand identity, you should focus on staying classic and timeless instead of blindly following trends."  

Let's put that into an example. 

Maybe your brand is classy, invoking artsy jazz album art from the 60s and generally giving off a vibe of quality and skill, with maybe a dash of playfulness thrown in. 

If that's your brand, it probably wouldn't make sense to jump into every TikTok dance challenge you come across. 

Can viral marketing like this bring a lot of attention to an artist? Yeah, definitely. But it's more about knowing which opportunities are right for you

Find your own style

If your music already has a strong style, then it'll be that much easier to follow along with that style when you're creating your brand. 

But in the meantime, keep this page bookmarked and come back to these tips to get some guidance along the way.

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