'It's Not a Songwriting Contest': Branding Expert (And New YouTube Star) Finn McKenty on Rock's Big Image Problem

Finn McKenty
Eric Krebs

Finn McKenty

Slipknot and Swiffer. Fall Out Boy and Febreze. AFI and Abercrombie and Fitch.

Finn McKenty, a marketing expert who over the last two decades has worked on product development for the above household and apparel items -- and just so happens to be a massive punk and metal nerd who used to make fanzines in his parents’ basement -- has fused his passion for alternative music and brand expansion into an addictive new YouTube channel called The Punk Rock MBA.

The channel, which posted its kickoff video in July 2018 and now touts millions of views and more than 100,000 subscribers, includes dozens of explainer videos that feature McKenty, currently the Director of Marketing for URM Academy — an online educational platform for aspiring music producers — unpacking all sorts of heavy-music-business topics from the more granular “What Killed Pop-Punk?” and “How did Bring Me The Horizon get so big?” to further-reaching discussions like “Did Piracy Save Music?” and “Your Band is a Business.” It’s a channel that bleeds with nostalgia for recovering skate punk and nu metal kids, but the deep research and endearing DIY production is appealing to even casual fans of genres long forgotten by popular media.

McKenty, a 40-year-old Seattle-area native, weaves a common thread through his videos: rock has faded from pop-culture relevance due in large part to the genre’s refusal to evolve as a business built to entertain its customers. While McKenty has never worked as a full-time musician, he’s studied the industry since he was a teenager frequenting ‘90s hardcore shows and his mantra is clear: If you want to be a rock star, writing good songs are only a small part of the total package.

We caught up with McKenty to discuss what he thinks new bands can learn from some of rock’s greatest branding triumphs, why metal has always been about image, and why teenage emo-rappers are destroying their forefathers in online self-promotion.

You made a video about how Slipknot’s unique branding has earned them such massive and enduring success. What can younger bands take away from Slipknot’s strategy (even if they don’t want to wear the clown masks and jumpsuits)?

To remember if they are in a band, they are in the entertainment business. It is not a songwriting contest. Your job is to entertain an audience and your music is one part of that, but it’s not the only way you do it. There are some people like Ed Sheeran, who is such a talented songwriter … he manages to build his career almost entirely off that. But that’s the exception, not the rule.

A lot of bands, especially rock people, forget that it’s the entertainment business -- and they think that all they need to do is write a song and put it out there and if it’s good enough, it’ll be enough to build their career. That has never been true. So if you look at a band like Slipknot, their stage personas, their live show, their artwork, the way they roll these things out to create a sense of mystery, all the stuff is entertainment… I do think they are exceptionally good songwriters, but there’s plenty of other bands from their cohort that were pretty damn good songwriters, but didn’t make it because they didn’t have the other pieces of the formula.

I think contrary to what a lot of metal fans believe, image is especially important in metal, and always has been. People want to think that metal is the genre where image doesn’t matter — that’s completely untrue. Going back to KISS and Ozzy and then into the ‘80s with Venom and Bathory and Motley Crue, they all had big images. And then in the ‘90s, the nu-metal bands were all about image, too. It’s always been a crucial part of the success of artists -- ignore that at your own peril.

You also made a video about the immense value of product placement in video games for punk and metal bands like Avenged Sevenfold and The Fall Of Troy. Where’s the next out-of-the-box space bands should be looking to get placed and reach new audiences?

I have two answers. The first is, as far as a distribution channel or media placement where mid-level bands have an opportunity to grow their fan base, games are no longer that (place) exactly. But gaming, specifically Twitch, would be a big opportunity. Basically, someone will stream themselves playing a game, and they’ll have live music playing in the background for hours and hours, and it's the same thing as those console games you’d play for 100 hours. Only in this case, it’s the streamer curating the music and I think there’s always been a big crossover between the rock world and gamers -- partly just because it’s young people -- but I think games are for nerds and metal is for nerds, too.

The second part of my answer is that it’s very frustrating to me that bands don’t even take advantage of the opportunities that they already have -- Instagram, YouTube, whatever other social media is out there. They’re terrible at it compared to rappers. Don’t worry about what the next big thing is before you’ve capitalized on the thing that’s right in your fucking lap. Are you making great content for Instagram? No? Well, why not start there? A huge part of the failure of rock is that it sucks at social media, and doesn’t seem to want to get better. Bands are still doing the “us in our practice space, us in a grimy warehouse” -- I don’t know where these tropes came from or why they won’t die.

What are the most common branding and marketing mistakes that new bands make when trying to get people to listen to their music?

The biggest mistake bands make when trying to get noticed is they never ask themselves, “Why would anyone care about this?” You’re a pop-punk band and you put out a video of your band in your practice space looking like every other pop-punk band and sounding like every other pop-punk band. There’s nothing about this video that is interesting or special, there’s nothing that would make me pay attention to it when I have basically an infinite number of other options to allocate my attention to. It doesn’t need to be especially complicated or require a huge budget or even a great idea. It’s as simple as the video of Kanye West and Lil Pump in those big, blocky suits, that’s it -- it’s as simple as, “Haha, that looks stupid.”

To me, the most exciting or relevant example of people doing a really good job of this are all the emo rappers. It’s all these 16-year-old kids filming something on an iPhone in the parking lot of their school, but they always find a way to make it interesting, engaging or entertaining in some way, or add some unique twist to it whether it’s the way they’re dressed or the way they animate it. And those artists would probably be happy for the video to get 100,000 views. It doesn’t have to be the next “Old Town Road,” it just has to be different enough that someone will stop for two seconds in their feed and say, “Oh, what’s this?” That’s a win.

Pop and hip-hop acts are shirking the traditional album cycle in favor of using surprise releases as their own form of marketing. Is it a viable strategy for rock-based acts to embrace this idea, too, to release music at will and keep their fans on their toes?

I think it’s bizarre how fixated rock artists are on this. I can see the black smoke coming out of their ears because they’re thinking so hard about it. It’s not that complicated -- put something out and do something to make people care about it. If people don’t care about one song, then putting 12 songs out sure isn’t going to help you. Whether you release them as singles or an album or an EP, to me, is secondary. Nobody in the world other than the people in your band gives a shit whether your band is putting music out as singles or an album. If your audience doesn’t care, why would you care?

How should artists approach physical merchandise in an era where everything is digital is virtually nothing is owned by the fans?

When it comes to physical goods, I think it’s important to be very clear, deliberate and intentional about exactly why you are producing them. Is your goal with producing this to create a profit opportunity that adds to your bottom line or are these things basically a marketing vehicle where the goal is to build engagement with the audience? Be clear about that.

For example, for most bands, if you just want to move a lot of merch, the band logo in white on a black shirt is probably going to sell really well. But if you wanted to use merch as a way to get attention, then you can make some ridiculous design with some stupid slogan or cartoon -- and it might not sell as well, but people will talk about it.

Or maybe you offer some sort of unique experience. Let’s say you put out a limited edition vinyl version of your album -- how much are you really making on each one of those, a couple dollars? — so even if you sell all of them you’re only going to make $2,000 or something. It’s not a huge profit opportunity, however, the 500 people that buy it are going to be really excited. You can create a campaign around that, talking about the process of making it, maybe do some sort of contest. If your goal is to optimize engagement and build a community, you do some things differently than if you goal was to simply generate the maximum amount of profit.

What’s the one piece of branding/marketing advice you’d give the high school kid who wants to make music his career but has no idea how?

Not to sound like a broken record, but remember, you are in the entertainment business. It is not a songwriting contest. Ask yourself what can you do that will entertain your audience in one way or another, which could be making them laugh, inspiring them, helping them get better at their craft -- there’s a lot of ways that can happen. But how are you going to entertain them beyond simply being the guy that plays guitar?