It comes before picking a single, shooting a video or plugging in for your first show. Unless you’re using a real one like Beyoncé or Justin Bieber, it’s the most important first decision any artist can make: picking the perfect name.
After more than half a century of rock and pop acts grabbing all the good ones (and plenty of really bad ones), it’s also increasingly harder to find something that has the right stickiness without being too similar to draw legal attention. Especially one that will work (and be available) as a Twitter, Facebook and Instagram handle, but which also stands out in a Spotify playlist (or if you’re old school, on a CD label).
That might help explain the suddenly scarce vowel. The absence of A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y’s is increasingly noticeable these days. Check out this list of bands who’ve gone spelling rogue over the past few years: LNDN DRGS, MNEK, BTS, KSHMR, TTS, HXLT, JMSN, DVSN, SWMRS and the truly inscrutable RKCB.
“I look at the younger generation that have been ‘electronic’ for the majority of their formative years and this is how they speak — emoticons, leaving out vowels, shortened words — there’s this new language where when you’re thinking of a name it’s about being really distinctive,” explained Brannon Cashion, global president at the brand strategy consultancy Addison Whitney, which helps clients such as Nike, Microsoft and Sony with verbal and visual branding.
From brands that shorten their names or use letters that don’t go together to make names more easily trademarked, Cashion said the trend has spread across the business world and into pop culture. “In the short term, the challenge I tell clients is that the name might be less intuitive from a pronunciation point and in the short term it might be harder to find, but in the long term the ownability of it is higher.”
There’s actually a name for it — disemvoweling — and a few years ago Wired wrote an obituary for the letter “e,” in light of how many technology companies had decided to drop the most frequently used letter in the English alphabet.
“I wish it was more thought out than it was, but we wrote together at my place and after we wrote the first song I named the session file on my computer and I did it using my initials and his initials,” explained Casey Barth, 24, of RKCB, the duo he formed in 2014 with Riley Knapp, 23, whose name has no logical pronunciation.
After that co-writing session for the song “Comatose,” the pair put it on Soundcloud with the four-initial word soup, and after the Hillydilly blog picked it up they just stuck with it. “We would meet with labels and they would ask, ‘are you set on your name?’,” Knapp said. “And now it’s so oversaturated with everyone doing this same thing where it’s just initials or letters… My roommate even has a jokey side project called VWLS. It’s unbelievable.”
Just like web-based businesses that grab your eye with cleverly misspelled monikers (Flickr, Srsly, Pixlr, Timr), bands from Joe Jonas’ high-profile DNCE and the Weeknd to up-and-coming acts like Canadian electronic duo DVBBS, Mexican rapper MLKMN, Florida’s lo-fi XXYYXX, Canadian garage pop band JPNSGRLS and Norwegian producer CLMD get attention by forcing you to figure out what their all-cap handles (always with the all-cap) mean.
And sometimes, as we’ve just learned, they don’t mean anything. Just ask SHXCXCHCXSH, who’ve just released a new album called (we’re not joking): SsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSs.
“It’s happening for two main reasons,” said Jesse Kirshbaum of the Nue Agency, which connects brands and tech companies through music. Kirshbaum — who used to be a booking agent for everyone from Big Sean to Capital Cities — said part of it started with tech companies that couldn’t get the traditional spellings of their names for their websites and chose to abbreviate to avoid a legal hassle. “It became a thing for companies not to spell out their full names,” he said of such now well-known businesses as Tumblr.
“But for musicians a lot of the culture started to find that an interesting play – it looked cool, but it’s also a logistical thing. If you’re a band trying to buy that website name and it’s common, it’s very hard. So it’s a lot easier to buy a website with no vowels than to buy the straight up word.”
Barth said RKCB didn’t explain themselves at first and slowly some blogs began to figure out the initial-only play, even as early on they faced regular competition for eyeballs from a technical computer language and a card move in bridge with the same four-letter combo. “So, for the first six months we were fending off a lot of tech blogs,” he said. “At a certain point you have to wonder if people are just looking in the Scrabble dictionary [for band names].”
He’s also noticed an upside in the fact that sometimes the band is able to create intrigue with just its name, at which point “you’ve gotten over the first hurdle” of getting someone’s attention. A simpler answer, according to Knapp, though, is that it’s just damn hard to find an original name anymore. “You can create anything and put it online, but getting the domain name is just one thing,” he said. “Everyone is a Soundcloud artist now and you have more than one artist on there with very similar names, sometimes three or four.”
Luckily for Jordan Kurland, owner and founder of Zeitgeist Management, the majority of his somewhat more traditionally named bands (Best Coast, New Pornographers, Bob Mould, Death Cab For Cutie) have opted out of the trend. “I don’t know why they hate vowels so much these days but I feel like there are certain periods of time where… like there were a bunch of bands with ‘wolf’ in there name recently,” he said of the wolf gang that has included everyone from Wulf, Yelawolf, Wolf Spider and Wolf Parade to Wolfmother and Reignwolf, among others.
He cited MSTRKRFT (which is actually pronounced “Mystery Craft,” not, as you might have thought, “Master Craft”), BLK JKS and MGMT as a few of the bands that helped kick off the avalanche of vowel-less names in the early 2000s. He joked that if a band named THNDR came to him looking for representation he wouldn’t turn them down if he loved the music just because of daft spelling. “But THNDR is a terrible name. This is a phase and it won’t go on forever, but we’re in a world where it’s more visual and Twitter and Instagram handles are a bigger consideration than how it will look on a t-shirt or album cover.”
When working with new bands hoping to make an impact, Mute America Project Manager/VP of Marketing Nicole Blonder counsels simplicity over the cleverness of text-speak. “One of the main drawbacks it is creates confusion over how to pronounce your name and if you can’t pronounce it or it’s not short for anything it comes off as gimmicky,” said Blonder, whose roster includes such inscrutably named acts as Fever Ray, M83 (a tribute to the “pinwheel” galaxy of the same name) and Moderat.
“Causing confusion over what your band is called is never a good idea,” she said. “As a band developing your brand and profile you want to make it easy.”