Monday, February 25, 2008

John Darnielle connects with your inner creep

First, let me promise that after this post I will not write about the Mountain Goats again. I know it’s annoying when someone goes on and on about one band and I shudder to think I’m guilty. However, this post, arguably, isn’t really about the Mountain Goats but things related to them. So there.


I was struck by the packed house at Saturday night’s sold out show at Neumos. Amidst the crowd eagerly awaiting the band’s appearance I wondered: How can a guy with a nasally voice, a narrow vocal range (or two ranges: low and high) and little display of virtuosity on his instrument win over this many fans?

The answer might be Bob Dylan. But I think that’s not so much an answer as an extension of the same question.

(Side comment about the voice: Darnielle wouldn’t survive 20 seconds on American Idol, which I guess just illuminates the difference between the Idol path to a music career and his.)

While watching the show I decided Darnielle’s (moderate but impressive) success is the result of two things we in the branding and advertising business promote to our clients: authenticity and differentiation.

Authenticity requires constant reinforcement. It’s proven over the long term, and any misstep calls it into question—along with the customer relationship. Authenticity in music can be especially difficult to maintain. Success in the business world may come from the replication of a product or service again and again. But fans of a music artist don’t really want to buy the exact same album again and again. And artists want and need to evolve over time. The question lies in how to evolve while remaining true to the thing that brought you success in the first place.

I might argue a big reason why celebrities who die prematurely grow in popularity afterward is that they never have the chance to muck up their authenticity. Jeff Buckley will never make a silly pop album like Liz Phair did with her 2003 self-titled release. John Belushi will never make a trite family comedy like Eddie Murphy’s “Norbit.” Think what the collective perception of Murphy would be if he’d died shortly after making “Raw” (not that I wish he had, or course).

In a recent post on the band’s myspace page, Darnielle wrote, “The world needs a few creeps just for texture.” Darnielle’s work has dealt plenty with the dark side of the human experience, with creeps of one sort or another. His unflinchingly dark character portrayals reflect both his troubled youth and reveal to his listeners their own inner demons. This convergence is Darnielle’s authenticity.

Authenticity plays a role in differentiation too, of course. Due to the wide range of human experience, something that’s truly authentic is likely, as a result, to be different than other things in the market. By focusing on that which makes it authentic, a brand can reinforce its differentiated position. These things should work together. Brands that don’t focus on what makes them different and authentic eventually struggle for relevance.

And the Mountain Goats are certainly differentiated from other artists, most immediately due to Darnielle’s odd voice.

Would the Mountain Goats be as successful if fronted by Ben Gibbard, who joined the band onstage during the encore? I don’t think so.

They’d be “better” but as a result, worse.

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