Behind The Scene: Building a visual brand for your band through photography with Julia Lieby, Emily Burtner and Rachel Del Sordo - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

Behind The Scene is a series which attempts to bring focus to the overlooked aspects of the Philadelphia music community. This is a collection of features on subjects whose stories are seldom told but whose contributions allow the Philadelphia music scene to thrive. 

Picture it’s 1992. You just started a new band with a few friends you met at a show in West Philly. Through fits and starts, you’ve finally written a handful of songs, enough to play shows, maybe even put out an EP, if things go right. You lobby the local house show venue to let you guys play a Thursday night house show in their basement. Sure, he says, just make sure people show up. So now you get your friend who just got a new point and shoot camera to snap a few pictures of you and your band in front of a brick wall. You wear your tattered denim jacket, your drummer tries out that new impossibly high hairstyle, the bassist looks away from the camera, staring into the middle distance. The pictures come out fine, the low resolution and blurred edges almost charming. You print out 200 fliers in black and white with your band name plastered above your scowling faces. One Saturday afternoon, a few weeks before the show, you stick two dozen fliers to telephone poles and bathroom stalls around the city. You’ve now done more self-promotion than 80 percent of the bands you know.

Now say you’re in 2022. Same sort of band, same part of your career, same goals. You’ve got a show coming up at PhilaMOCA. You need to start promoting beyond your friends, but a flier won’t nearly be enough. You need to flood the Facebook timeline, tweet once a week, scale the mountain that is the Instagram algorithm. One photo shot with your friend’s phone won’t do, not when you need to keep the feed humming, not when you need to break through the noise. Now you need dozens of photos, different sizes, all high-resolution, unified and professional. You need to become not only a band but a brand, something people look at and recognize.

While a certain amount of salesmanship has been a part of musicians’ reality for as long as the very idea of popular music has existed, never before has the industry demanded such comprehensive self-promotion. No matter how DIY and independent, the need for constant self-promotion is a reality all musicians must face if they hope to expand their band beyond their circle of friends and family. An essential piece of this puzzle are promotional photos, which try their best to capture — and yes, sell — the very thing that makes your band unique.

Philly-based musician Sophie Coran recognized this necessity early on, and strived to take a hands-on approach to building her career. Though she’d take a few music business classes while living in London, Coran said the most effective lessons were learned by observing. What she saw were bands that took their art seriously and so too the promotional package surrounding that art. “If I am going to put out a professional product, I need all the visuals and assets to go along with it,” she says of her mindset at the time. “You figure out your brand and your identity as you get deeper into what you’re building and what you’re making.”

Brand can feel like a bit of an icky word, but the reality is what it is. We see it every day on our individual feeds. The line between the personal post and the advertisement are forever blurring. If an artist is going to get their art to the most people possible, they don’t have much of a choice but to engage in the branding of their art. According to a study by the Lee Business School at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, it is essential for an artist to understand and develop their own personal brand, create something fans can bond with emotionally, and foster a loyalty that will develop beyond a single post. To do that, artists must consider the cohesion and consistency of the things they are posting and the best way to do that is to work with someone who both understands and develops your artistic identity.

Rachel Del Sordo first found photography while studying at Temple University, where an entry-level photojournalism class introduced her to the medium. It wasn’t until a few years later, when she interned at WXPN, that she truly fell in love with the symbiotic relationship of music and photography. What started as a skill for primarily shooting live performance soon blossomed into a career as an accomplished photographer, a career that has seen her work on promotional material for some of Philly’s most accomplished indie artists. Her mindset in regards to band and musician photography can be boiled down to the combination of her skills as both a photojournalist and her time shooting more feature-based photography — her work has appeared in places from the late JUMP Magazine to Stereogum and more — blending both posed, predetermined shots with an attempt to capture artists in their natural element.

Which brings us back to Sophie Coran. If you take a minute to look through her various social media profiles, from Instagram to Facebook to Twitter, you’ll see an artist with a clear vision of how they want to present themselves to the world. Nothing on these pages is haphazard, each profile picture showing Coran in the same pink suit against a lush green background. That’s not to say they are exactly the same either, they’re not, but each photo certainly reflects a cohesive and intentional theme, making for something recognizable from page to page.

But this wasn’t always the case. As Coran will tell you, her collaboration wil Del Sordo, which began around the time she moved to Philly in 2017, was instrumental in creating this unified vision. “We have worked together for the past several years on pretty much everything I have released,” says Coran, who identifies their latest shoot as particularly important, given the fact they will be used as primary artwork for her upcoming album. “To me, it’s the closest thing I’ve gotten to tying everything together; the songs, the content of the music, the inspiration.” In Del Sordo and Coran, you find a pair of collaborators who appear lock-step in their vision of the best way to foster an artist’s growth through a type of visual cohesion. Take a moment to look again at their latest set photos, and then compare them to one of Coran’s single, “S P A C E”, and you see how the pair captured the sensuous bravura of Coran’s self-styled “Noir&B” within their photos.

This is, after all, the challenge presented by trying to capture music through a visual medium. Emily Burtner is a Philly-based photographer who fondly remembers the way things like SPIN Magazine photo shoots were able to put a face on musicians, the way you could give literal representation to something as ethereal as music. Burtner picked up photography early on but says that through all her artistic endeavors, music has always served as a foundational inspiration. This led her to shoot live photography as well as work with local indie-rock heavyweights like Spirit Of The Beehive on some of their promotional material. For Burtner, her goal as a photographer has to start with interpreting the music. “I like to be able to spend time with a band’s music and get a sense for what visuals come to mind,” says Burtner. This can mean both leaning into and playing with the more established visual cues we have come to associate with certain kinds of music. Burtner cites things like the washed-out, filtered color linked with shoegaze and the harsh, black and white griminess within the punk canon as tropes to both acknowledge and spin in your own specific way.

Spirit of the Beehive | photo by Emily Burtner

When August Greenberg, lead singer and songwriter for Riverby, decided it was time to update the band’s promo photos, capturing the mood of their new record Absolution was at the forefront. To do this, they reached out to Julia Leiby, a prolific photographer within the Philly music scene, whose recent work with Bartees Strange particularly impressed them. Together, they set out to take a set of photos accurately representing Absolution, a visceral record of both pointed anger and vulnerability that leans heavily into religious imagery. “The entire record is kind of about coming to terms with mortality and life, as well as being an incredibly loose religious concept album,” says Greenberg of Absolution, whose cover features ornate stained-glass imagery.

Greenberg says they didn’t give Leiby much in the way of guidance, instead trusting them to get to the heart of the record through their work. I was super lucky with Julia because they understood exactly what I wanted to accomplish without needing to over explain myself,” says Greenberg. As it turned out, this kind of unstructured exploration would lead to some truly stunning photos. What started as a free-wheeling stroll around Manayunk ended in a nearby church in what can only be described as a particularly fortuitous bit of trespassing, the mid-afternoon lighting shot through the church’s stained-glass windows becoming a perfect representation of the record’s many themes.

This is just one example of how necessity and artist exploration can work in tandem to create something quite beautiful. That said, promotional photos are, by nature, utilitarian. Del Sordo talks about several instances in which she was hired by clients at the eleventh hour, bands and artists whose label needed something professional to attach to a tour announcement at the last moment. This is where Del Sordo, and other photographers I talked to, stress the importance of a more journalistic approach, one that involves less planning and more spur of the moment documentation. There are, too, logistical realities these photographers must consider. Not only are these photos used in tour announcements, blog posts, and Instagram stories but are now featured as the header for Spotify pages and other streaming services. Burtner tells me she likes to have a basic understanding of where and how the photos she is taking will be used, if only for formatting purposes.

It’s in balancing these two forces, the artistic and the practical, that promotional photos thrive. To accomplish this, photographers must create an atmosphere that helps musicians feel comfortable expressing themselves in a way they are unfamiliar with. Greenberg says, yes, the overall goal is to take some awesome photos, but collaborating with someone in an enriching, fulfilling way is just as important. “Julia is someone who seriously knows what they’re doing so it wasn’t hard at all to let myself be directed by them,” Greenberg says of her experience. “I don’t like looking at myself in photos or videos very often, but I didn’t mind at all with the photos they took.”

Coran expresses similar sentiments about her ongoing creative relationship with Del Sordo, who she credits with creating a space where they could evolve their artistic identity. Becoming a brand might not be the end goal of most musicians but finding a way to express yourself and share your art is linked more than ever with self-promotion and the right photographs can be essential in finding your audience.

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