Thursday, June 1, 2023

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    Boy Brands: How Male Musicians Are Rewriting the Rules of Merch, One Bottle of Nail Polish at a Time

    Where we once raved about how young people wanted experiences instead of products, perhaps marketing executives and branding experts have figured out how to make products into experiences. Take Machine Gun Kelly’s nail polish, Sherbert says, which parallels his own evolution into dark emo revivalist. “It’s a more natural extension with the type of music he’s making. And it’s a really easy way to tell the world who you’re trying to be and communicate the values you want to be associated with—your personal brand, beyond your music.”

    In fact, what seems like a mere expansion of influencer culture actually heralds a new era of the tastemaker. If Instagram turned celebrities and influencers into the same thing, TikTok is now pushing, or at least reflecting, a new cultural relationship with taste and authority. Gen Z has an obsession with “really specific and almost like, advanced taste,” she says, which is displayed in part by TikTok users who are constantly competing to declare, “Oh, this isn’t cool anymore.” She adds, “I do think people miss having this somewhat authoritative relationship with tastemakers, because now there’s, like, five billion tastemakers.”

    Ultimately, the successful Boy Brands are the ones that come from musicians who are as savvy at communicating with their fans about things and taste as they are about making resonant music. “These businesses are not for everyone,” says Beckman, “and that’s why the community—the tribe—that these artists bring along with them is really critical.” If an artist can cultivate a fandom in that way—which is increasingly the way traditional luxury brands are trying to operate—“then it could become a sustainable, real business.” 

    As a result, the strongest Boy Brands are characterized by a surprisingly gentle approach to their consumers. When Tyler released his perfume in December, he acknowledged on Twitter that it might be his fans’ first time trying or wearing a scent and guided them through its notes. Ocean’s Homer also has a didactically aesthetic element, sharing the work of Lebon with those who might not otherwise page through avant-garde fashion photography. And his brand has a subtly activist bent: all of his pieces use lab-grown diamonds, rather than controversial mined stones. (Seemingly by pure coincidence, his project launched at the same time as the fracas unfolded around the alleged “blood diamond” worn in Beyonce and Jay Z’s Tiffany’s ad, though Ocean’s messaging is so whisper quiet that no one seems to have made the connection.)

    For Criales, the success of these brands comes down to a question of authenticity—something many fashion brands, or mainstream style icons, increasingly seem to lack. He calls Tyler’s approach to creating perfumes, Globe Trotter suitcases, and preppy attire for his knowledge-hungry fans “endearing,” comparing it to Rihanna’s synonymy with scent and Kim Kardashian’s with shape. At the same time Tyler was rapping about Switzerland, yachts, and skincare on his latest album, Call Me If You Get Lost, he was creating things that would allow his fans to ride the same wave. “I don’t like the word ‘honest,’” Criales says, “but it feels like, ‘I’m going to provide you with this so you can join me.’”

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