Branding and the Success of Nirvana (A.K.A. the Nirvana Logo and Beyond)

Posted: April 25, 2013 in Bleach and the Sub Pop Era 1987-1990, Trends - Hip Hop, Grunge and Alternative

Over this past week of holiday the crucial theme has been electricide; I’ve set fire to the toaster twice, I made an attempt to burn out the blender while squeezing oranges (which is how I annihilated my parents last one too), today I yanked the wiring out of an extension cable. As an aside, my mum was bemused that rather than rescuing her toast I simply poured the whole lot out onto the terrace balcony upstairs; she was even more amused when I swept up the crumbs and burnt toast dust and proceeded to dump the entire mound of debris off the top balcony and instead of hitting the flower beds I deluged my parent’s bedroom balcony instead. Brilliant. So, please offer kind thoughts and prayers to my dear (and long-suffering) parents and if this laptop blows part way through this communiqué don’t be surpri

In 1989 a lady called Lisa Orth was engaged by Nirvana’s label, Sub Pop, to do the graphic design work for the cover of the album Bleach. Reasonably enough not wishing to pump excessive work into an unknown band, on a nowhere label that apparently still owed her money for previous work, she paid a typesetter, Grant Alden, the princely sum of $15 U.S. dollars and he, in turn, whacked out the band’s name in a font known as Onyx, a proprietary font installed on his Compugraphic typesetter. I’ve not noted any great commentary on the band’s own feelings about the font but, to be fair, it’s the one they used for Bleach, Nevermind and In Utero; for the Blew EP and the Hormoaning EP; all singles on Geffen plus the Oh the Guilt single. The only exceptions are the Love Buzz/Big Cheese single released prior to Bleach; the split single with The Fluid released on Sub Pop as Nirvana were leaving the label; the Here She Comes Now split single with the Melvins released on another label and the Incesticide compilation. More fool me spending a whole book (Dark Slivers: Seeing Nirvana in the Shards of Incesticide) arguing the unity of Incesticide with Nirvana’s catalogue when the font on the front declares that the compilation is something different!

Anyways, the logo has become part of the band’s identity. A brand is something beyond who someone is or what someone is. My comrades more deeply involved in branding work will be able to supply far more sophisticated definitions of the purpose, function and definition of a brand so in advance I’ll admit I’m just making an argument here not a technical dissertation. Leaving to one side the infinitely irksome ownership of the brand concept by the world of business and it’s vomitorious and nausea-invoking bleed into other areas of human life (“be your own brand!” “Think about your personal brand!” Please hit anyone who ascribes to these views…) there’s something here that seems very simple at root. A brand is a rapid-fire statement of identity that goes beyond a recognised visual symbol to link the mind of the onlooker, in an instant, to a list of associated individuals or products and, in turn to that amorphous but no less real set of values, declared moral allegiances and/or deeper purposes that the company, or object, or band attach themselves. It’s a mental shortcut.

The element that most organisations are seeking to establish, when they speak of their brand, is a positive shortcut. On a daily basis an individual is beset by thousands of barely noted collisions with products, or people, or companies – the brain is sifting data in vast quantities and deciding what to look at, what to choice, what to ignore, or even just filing away the items that would be competing if a decision did have to be made at some point versus those items that wouldn’t even compete hypothetically. Yes, decisions are complex involving personality, quality, price (whether monetary or via some other means such as time and effort), loyalty, group opinion as well as recognition – but the brand is an attempt to cut through those factors and often it succeeds in being associated in a human mind with certain qualities, with a dependable outcome, with a particularly desirable level of result.

Doing precisely what I criticised earlier in this piece (that bit about nausea…) certain reports now state that evolutionary markers used to try and ensure maximum breeding potential (http://www.economist.com/node/4455484) are now, in humans, being transferred to brands. With a vast number of potential mates to choose from individuals use pointers provided by the presence of a brand as a first-sight shorthand way of indicating the qualities, values, class, status and power of a potential partner. Thank God, for most of us, then that it’s an infinitely more complex process with other psychological and physical factors coming into play but still, the adoption, by an individual, of a trusted symbol, can provide a message to an onlooker.

Looking past the well-known logo of Nirvana, past the smiley face symbol that apocryphal tales state was based on the logo of a strip club in Seattle. Nirvana benefitted from a variety of personal indicators of quality. Firstly, it was Jack Endino’s recognition of Dale Crover’s name that led him to accept a studio booking from a young band he’d never heard of until then. Dale Crover, as drummer in the Melvins, had built up credibility that Nirvana benefitted from. Jack Endino’s personal credibility in Seattle music circles meant Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt of Sub Pop were willing to have a look at this band at a time when Nirvana’s recorded music alone was getting tossed in the trash at indie labels across the U.S. In both cases, it wasn’t the music that opened the door. At a later stage, the move to DGC was greased by the way label executives respected the taste and recommendations of Sonic Youth’s power-couple, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore; again, the personal connection brought Nirvana their new home.

The Sub Pop label itself was a hive of brand-orientated thinking:
http://www.fastcocreate.com/1681976/punk-rock-branding-how-bruce-pavitt-built-sub-pop-in-an-anti-corporate-nirvana#1
Everything from the Singles Club idea, the use of Reciprocal Recordings as the ‘house studio’ in the early days, the commissioning of photography from Charles Peterson with a very specific style and look, the Sub Pop Sunday shows, the Lamefest events in U.S. and U.K., the decision to lure journalist Everett True over to create a buzz in the British media – the entire label was built around the idea that they had the music, that their product was good, but what would elevate them above the hundred other indie labels with decent bands was how they staged events and managed appearances.

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