Whatever happened to band logos?
February 5, 2011 6:44 AM   Subscribe

While some bands still have logos|symbols, they do not seem to be as essential a part of the band identity as they were in the seventies. What was it about the seventies music culture that encouraged the extensive use of band logos and symbols?

I was looking at some of my older music, and noticed how some bands - Journey, Blue Oyster Cult, Aerosmith, Chicago - would have their band logo on every single album cover. Those symbols were inextricably linked with the band identity. Why doesn't anyone do that anymore? You'd think the rise of "branding" as a verb would have brought this phenomenon back, but I'm not seeing it.

I found this collection (and this one) of band logos, and while there are some newer bands on it, the majority are from the seventies, and I would say I associate the symbols for the older groups more strongly than I do the symbols for the newer groups. I mean, Weezer's logo is nice and all, but I wouldn't call it part of their identity the way I would the Stones or the Grateful Dead.

I'm just curious why this symbol="band identity" thing went out of fashion, and why it was in fashion to begin with. If anyone has any insights.
posted by timepiece to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Punk rock and the DIY independent scene happened, and they tried to aggressively chase that sort of thing from music. Logos became uncool by the 90s.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 6:53 AM on February 5, 2011

Your question is intriguing, but some bands still do use symbols and branding looks.
I can think of many semi-obscure punk/ska bands that use symbols on many if not most of their records. Other genres also still do their own design that appears regularly. One reason I think you perceive it differently with the loss of symbols is that the industry has changed. The music industry is much more independent and trends do not play as much of a roll as they previously did during the age of large, monolithic bands. Another point to consider is the advent of mp3's. Lost is the album art, and consider that the main purchasing audience of music is teens, for many whom may not of ever purchased a cd or even understand the concept of vinyl.
I've always loved album art as well as the linar notes, and that is another bonus of records and CDs. A jpeg image on ones computer is no where near the same thing.
posted by handbanana at 7:02 AM on February 5, 2011

The difference is albums. People bought albums, customers were less likely to see the cover in advance in a world pre-internet, and you needed yours to be instantly identifiable as the new record by that band whose previous record never left your electronophonographamatron or whatever they were called.

Nowadays, people buy songs, not albums, they search iTunes by artist name, not scan a vinyl store for distinctive typography, and even if you do decide to go to a record store, grandpa, you already know what the album cover looks like in advance.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 7:11 AM on February 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

A lot of branding in music now is based on the person, not the group.

Why did it become fashionable? My impression of (successful) bands with logos has always been that they imply that "the group" is A Thing, and no matter who the members are at any time or another, The Group will continue to be an unstoppable power of rock and roll. I think Spinal Tap sort of hit on this. The Group is a force of nature that some unsuspecting, but predestined for success, youths from a London suburb stumbled upon while walking near an abandoned railway station.

(Sort of like incorporating the group- ignoring the negative connotations of "corporate", and focusing just on the idea that it is a way to maintain continuity of an organization beyond the scope of its founder(s). Roy Disney is dead and frozen, but The Disney Honky-Tonk Animation Roadside Show and Revival keeps churning out the hits. It allows fans to "invest" in the idea of the group, rather than the people of the group.)

Why did it fall out of fashion? Because you don't model your musical group after your dad's or your grandpa's Beatles and Jefferson Starship posters. And greed: invented by Gene Simmons, it is the opposite idea that in order to profit from entertainment, you need to own the brand. He did it by inventing KISS, others do it by simply making their name the brand.

For groups, not having a logo allows them to ride the waves of popular culture more easily. If Green Day had a logo, it would forever connote the early to mid 1990s. They would likely not have maintained their popularity they way they have. They can have cross-generational popularity- mom and dad can be fans, and their kids can also be fans. It avoids typecasting.
posted by gjc at 7:11 AM on February 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Here's a cool little slideshow from the Detroit Free Press that traces the history of the rock band logo.

The jist is basically that there is a parallel between the decline of metal hair bands in the early 90's with all of their over-the-top music (and logos) and the rise of grunge (nirvana, soundgarden) who went for the stripped down look.
posted by jeremias at 7:20 AM on February 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: That slideshow really did explain it nicely. And the point about the lack of album covers limiting the places you could put a logo in the first place is something I hadn't really considered, but makes sense. Thanks to all of you.

Although I was kind of disappointed that the slideshow focused more on logotypes (typefaces used on band names) rather than actual symbols - like Blue Oyster Cult's Kronos symbol or Journey's scarab-with-wings. But I guess logotypes are much more common.
posted by timepiece at 7:57 AM on February 5, 2011

Because, as handbanana said, a lot of punk/ska bands still use the logo, I have a feeling it has nothing to do with the "Punk Ethos" or whatever.

I think John Kenneth Fisher and gjc hit the nail on the head talking about the different ways music is marketed and purchased. Also, I think the world is just a much more complex place, graphically, than it was even 10-20 years ago (let alone 40-50 years ago if you want to talk about the Beatles and the Stones). Nowadays there are logos for EVERYTHING, and tons of other blatant marketing noise out there as well. Things are also a lot more subtle and finely tuned - I will recognize it's a Decemberists record because of the style of illustration on the cover or the sort of title they choose. And because they will go on a promotional tour of all the variety/talk shows in the run-up to the album release, which I will recognize as such because people are also more media/marketing savvy nowadays.

If I had to tie it to any musical movement, though, I'd tie it to Indie rather than Punk, though. There's a lot more emphasis on beautiful design, craftiness, collaboration, and about creating your band's identity through a sort of anti-branding.
posted by Sara C. at 9:24 AM on February 5, 2011

Certainly this was lower in prominence, but it didn't die entirely - lots of 90's electronic acts had/have pretty strong logos (though a some of these are typographical):

Fatboy Slim, Chemical Brothers, Portishead, Plastikman, The Prodigy, The Aphex Twin, Autechre, Jamiroquai, Daft Punk, Nine Inch Nails.
posted by aubilenon at 10:41 AM on February 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Justice, Deadmau5,
posted by empath at 11:15 AM on February 5, 2011

Best answer: I am +1 for marketing. Specifically, what else happened in the Eighties besides diy/punk rock?

Videos! Before, the way you'd connect with your band is through an album, the logo, a song on the radio, maybe a concert or a concert movie if you were super gung-ho.

With the advent of cable and mtv (when mtv played that fantastic new thing, the music video) now you were conncecting with the radio hit and the visuals of the musicians themselves (and whatever hey-look-i'm-hip! incidentals the director thought to throw in rick astley i'm looking at you in your raybans with your bighair video chick doin' the eighties white-guy dance). It (along with that other eighties innovation - aerobic exercise!!) also raised the bar for the physical qualifications for pop musicians (sigh ... i miss the days when the attractiveness of a b-ugly musician was a given).

I am -1 for it being the punker's doing. While I am delighted with the idea of scruffy upstarts kicking down the monolith of arena rock, I can easily think of a few old-school examples — the Ramones, Black Flag, Dead Kennedies — that show a logo is very valuable still to band identity, especially ones without alot of corporate lucre to fling around.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 11:16 AM on February 5, 2011

Some of the greatest band logos ever belonged to hardcore bands: Black Flag's is absolutely iconic, just to pick the obvious example. Or, on preview, yeah, the Dead Kennedys' DK sign.

And even during the grunge/alternative era.... well, I don't know. Does the Pearl Jam I'm Still Alive stick figure count as a logo? Does Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger symbol count as a logo? Or, yeah, there's the NIN logo and Sublime's sun and Sonic Youth's damn washing machine and....

A lot of those were originally album covers; I can't imagine Sonic Youth ever said "Yes, the washing machine is our official logo." And I think at a certain point it got less cool for the band itself to plaster its own logo all over the place. (Alternative bands tended to wear other alternative bands' t-shirts at shows; wearing your own would have been egotistical.) But they functioned like logos. They were instantly associated with the band, fans used them as an in-group symbol, they showed up on fanzines and in graffiti and people got them as tattoos and all the same shit that Deadheads did with the skull-and-roses.

I think the other thing that changed in the 80s and 90s was the visual style of band logos. Mysticism was out, aside from goth and some corners of electronica; stuff like the skull-and-lightning-bolt, the Journey scarab or Led Zeppelin's quasi-alchemical signs wouldn't have worked. And logo designs got sloppier and quirkier and less imposing. The Sonic Youth washing machine t-shirt was so popular precisely because it was such a comically low-key symbol to put on a band shirt.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:32 AM on February 5, 2011

Sidenote: they still survive in a lot of metal sub-genres, even for contemporary acts.
posted by wheat at 7:27 PM on February 5, 2011

gjc: "Roy Disney is dead and frozen"

I'm pretty sure you're thinking of Walt, there.
posted by Chrysostom at 12:31 AM on February 7, 2011

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