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You Name It: Rebranding In The Music Industry

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Following the recent overhauling of Twitter, The Music Void ponders over similarly strange rebranding examples in the music industry. While some cases reflect the megalomaniac stance of the owners, others mirror the geopolitical changes, the power of social media and public opinion. The latter often contradicts the principles of artistic freedom.

 

While X, the new name and logo of Twitter, brings up associations with a strip club, some label rebrandings might evoke odd imagery that has nothing to do with music (see the Thorn EMI logo below). The new incarnation of EMI in 1979 was Earth, compared to the metaphorical heaven that the company had been some months before. Some bands witnessed this shift. Signed by the label shortly before EMI merged with Thorn Electrical Industries, up-and-coming new wave band The Monks discovered the copies of their debut album Bad Habits packed in boxes in the empty office at 20 Manchester Square, London (famously depicted on the Beatles’ Please Please Me record). In the liner notes to the collective’s complete reissue, frontman Terry Cassidy recalls the moment of dismay: “We turned up on a Monday morning in EMI’s offices in Manchester Square, all ready to do the promotions and to get instructions about all the radio interviews and how the whole thing was going to be put together. To our surprise and dismay, there was one girl sitting alone behind a desk on the whole of the second floor and there were hundreds of copies of Bad Habits lined up in boxes and pre-addressed envelopes ready to go out”. Perhaps, at that point, the band was reminded of the lines from The Sex Pistols’s song “EMI” mocking the music industry: Don’t judge a book just by the cover / Unless you cover just another / And blind acceptance is a sign / Of stupid fools who stand in line. Among other collectives scrapped by EMI due to the overhauling were Plaza, a disco-funk project produced by Mike Thorn of Soft Machine.

After the label merged with Thorn Electrical Industries, a new brand Thorn EMI was launched. The logo alluded to the visual aesthetics of the parental electrical engineering company. It depicted a spiky object possibly referring to the plant-inspired name but looking more like a drawing pin. That said, despite the seemingly dull partnership, the label achieved some good results by buying Chrysalis Records in 1991 and taking over Richard Branson’s Virgin Records in 1992.

While the story of EMI is part of the big corporate games, smaller units show their willingness to change the brand to reach an agreement with the public. One Little Independent, formerly One Little Indian, is such an example. Founded in 1985 by members of anarcho-punk bands and managed by Derek Birkett of Flux of Pink Indians, the label was given a name, inspired by the “philosophies of the Indigenous People of the Americas”. In 2020, Birkett announced his company would be renamed One Little Independent. This decision was made shortly after a wave of protests against racism and violence triggered by the murder of George Floyd. In his official statement, Birkett explained how a letter from an outraged Crass fan convinced him to change the label’s name:

“Following the receipt of an eye-opening letter from a Crass fan that detailed precisely why the logo and label name are offensive, as well as the violent history of the terminology, I felt equally appalled and grateful to them for making me understand what must be changed”.

The gesture of One Little Indian (sorry, Independent) caused a wave of odd rebrandings. Chart-topping US group Lady Antebellum became Lady A, concerned that the former name sounded offensive to their Afro-American fans. Although the term Antebellum is associated with the American South before the Civil War in the US, people forget that it simply translates as “before the war” and thus can be interpreted differently.

In 2021, indie-rockers British Sea Power converted into Sea Power to show their discontent with Brexit. On their official website, the band explained that the rebranding was due to “a rise in a certain kind of nationalism in this world – an isolationist, antagonistic nationalism that [they] don’t want to run any risk of being confused with.”

Regardless of the underlying reason, most rebrandings are triggered by fear to lose control or contradict the opinion of a target group as well as the desire to match the expectations of the public. Irrespective of their motives, it is clear that there is no artistic freedom in the world where bigger or smaller communities define a band’s trajectory. With the rise of cancel culture, public opinion became the king and many music industry professionals obey the rules.

Some bands from the past would certainly have a hard time if they started their career now. Considering the origin of their name referring to the sexual slavery unit at a Nazi concentration camp, Joy Division would have to stick to the Warsaw brand forever. Perhaps, the reason why they have had a spike in popularity over the last decade or so is the freedom transmitted through their music, looks and angst. The real freedom we are all lacking.

Author

  • Irina Shtreis

    Irina Shtreis is a music writer, researcher and musician. Her byline has appeared in British publications such as MOJO magazine, The Quietus and Louder Than War. Irina has been a news editor of the latter since 2020.

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