How Do I Look? Image in the Digital Era

Forget Twitter’s 140 character limit and just post a photo, or 15 second video – and you’ve got the new digital craze, Instagram (16 million active users per day). It’s responsible for the widespread ‘selfie’ (taking a picture of yourself and posting it) and along with Facebook, YouTube and camera/video devices within our smartphones, tablets and consoles has blown the importance of our own image into a monstrous size. This is impacting society and culture, and that includes jazz.

“You can take a stand and decide what emphasis you will apply to your image”  Elina Duni

Elina1(1)There is resounding evidence that Dr Catherine Hakim was bang on the money when she wrote a book asserting that those who use beauty, physical fitness, charm and sexiness will find success (Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital) and it’s especially true in the music industry. “I am so sad about what I see today, what are the role models for young girls? Mostly women stars who don’t represent the feminist way of thinking, but represent the sexual object,” says vocalist Elina Duni when I ask her about women’s image in music, “but you can take a stand and decide what emphasis you will apply to your image, if any, or what it says about you.”

Duni instinctively realized the importance of engaging visuals from the start of her career, but it was when she found a kindred spirit in the Albanian photographer Blerta Kambo that she could realize her ideas. “Some things can be sensual or sublime without being cheap or sexual,” comments Duni, “she represents me very well.” Trombonist Samuel Blaser didn’t have the same issues to face but admitted he’d changed his thoughts on his image, “Now I’ve hired a fashion consultant. We went shopping for a day together. I spent way too much money, but I think it’s important to present yourself well.

“In some parts of Europe music is more connected to hipness than to good music”  Florian Arbenz

In my own career I witnessed how having a strong visual identity helps people remember you (I had dreadlocks for many years), but as pianist Rusconi notes, it has to be genuine, “If it comes from you and who you are as a band then great, but there’s no need to force it.” Some people have a natural visual intelligence, such as Tobias Preisig. He plays violin and in a subtle way, plays upon the look of a free and fiery but very modern gypsy. He forges a clear identity, very useful tobias1when establishing a ‘brand’. If any artists out there are flinching as I use the word ‘brand’, consider the creative accomplishments of Björk, one of the most magical musicians of my generation whilst being one of the strongest brands. Brands enable people to get who you are and, if it’s strong or unique, remember it. You may not say Eric Vloeimans’ indulgence in colourful clothes and ‘funky’ shoes launched his career, but you could see how his image, along with his playing has set him apart.

Florian Arbenz of Vein commented that not everywhere was infected by “fashion”, “In some parts of Europe music is more connected to hipness than to good music. In Eastern parts [of Europe] you are still judged very hard when you play and I like that.” He found that his band’s classical training and passion for vintage jazz, not their choice of clothes, had given Vein a strong profile in those regions.

Image in music isn’t just about personal appearance

Bebop and modernist jazz was helped by the daring graphics of Reid Miles at Blue Note in the 50s and 60s, whilst Manfred Eicher’s audio vision for ECM was perfectly interpreted by designers Barbara Wojirsch in the ’70s and Dieter Rehm who nurtured the photographic style of windswept trees and monochrome landscapes. On the other hand you could argue that GRP Records sold a lot of albums despite some of the ugliest record sleeves ever (though they were operating in the ‘style-free’ era of the 1980s). As digital downloads and streams find their feet there’s less attention paid to album covers, but a few of the Swiss artists I interviewed confirmed their audiences were still buying CDs. In the wider picture of music, however, the music video, once the marketing tool of pop alone, has taken on increasing weight. Use of YouTube as a device for discovering music is mostly responsible.

“We did it like a piece of art”, Samuel Blaser

samuel1(1)Samuel Blaser has found himself experimenting more with visuals such as photos and videos and, like Duni, recognizes their importance as publicity. They also have both relished these added dimensions to their creativity. Blaser met Polish video maker, Ewa Kozanecka in New York and asked her to shoot something for a shorter version of Pieces of Old Sky. “I don’t know if it was totally useful because we did it like a piece of art.” From a listener’s point of view that video held the music more firmly in my memory. And that’s where videos and photos can really assist musicians – by etching their sound into the consciousness of the public. Rusconi are a band that have also naturally partnered with video to explore ways to extend their expression.

“The video thing opened up our music to a totally different crowd” Stefan Rusconi

They have forged a successful pairing with the film collective,  Zweihund, producing engaging and professional work for comparably small budgets. Stefan Rusconi told me, “The video thing opened up our music to a totally different crowd. What we’re interested in as an audience is people that are interested in different fields of culture. Doing the video got people interested that would never have come to a Rusconi jazz gig,” and it enabled them to crossover to contemporary music festivals outside of the ‘jazz’ genre.

“You need good clothes…” Marc Perrenoud

This has proved useful as a piano trio, because as Marc Perrenoud, the leader of another piano trio, noted, “You have to find something different form other trios, find another visual identity.” Some of the artists I interviewed were also filming their gigs, tours and recording sessions as ‘documentaries’ in order to extend their ‘visual presence’. The digital world is forcing the hands of musicians, “You have to be very connected on the web, you have to have very good presentation and have very good pictures [and] you need good clothes,” noted Marc Perrenoud.

A few months ago I went to a jazz festival. One of the bands I came away very firmly etched in my mind were Snarky Puppy – they had great stage presence (helped by the fact there were so many of them) but also their fans were wearing well-branded T-shirts, with a print of a dog’s head wearing headphones. Jazz musicians may not feel the pressure to look like George Clooney, yet, but the world is changing rapidly and visual intelligence or ‘erotic capital’ if you like, won’t be diminishing their influence in the near future.

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