What’s in a name? Much more than you think
Everybody knows that before you settle on a band or stage name you need to make sure you’re able to use it – right? Mookie Blaylock? The Saboteurs? Rüfüs Du Sol? Flowers? Kyuss Lives!? The Temper Trap? Shihad? and more recently Lady A and The Chicks? Music history is replete with examples of artists and bands pivoting to alternate names for all manner of reasons.
There are those who favour a persona or professional name over their actual names – for instance, Elton John (Reginald Kenneth Dwight), Sting (Gordon Sumner), Lady Gaga (Stefani Germanotta), Jay Z (Shawn Carter), P!nk (Alecia Moore), Lorde (Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor), Snoop Dogg (Calvin Broadus Jr.) or Pitbull (Armando Christian Pérez), those who have simply run with their first names Madonna and Prince (or the Artist formerly known as …), those who mix and match Bob Dylan (Robert Zimmerman) and then there those who just get on with it and keep it real like Bruce Springsteen, allowing their fans to anoint nicknames such as ‘The Boss’ or ‘Bruuuuce’.
From a brand and trade mark perspective, the basic principle that applies whether you’re in the business of making, producing, recording, distributing or promoting music or manufacturing widgets is that before adopting a name, logo or other sign intended to distinguish your goods or services from those of others, it is essential to check whether the use of your proposed name or logo is likely to cut across or infringe someone else’s rights. While the use of one’s own name can be a defence to infringement, as soon as you move to a persona, no matter how close to or derivative of your name, you come out from behind that shield.
Before you spend your hard-earned protecting your name instead of buying that new hollow-body PRS your lead guitarist is after, just like any other business ready to launch in a new market, it is essential to ‘look before you leap’. In terms of trade marks, this means conducting pre-filing clearance searches.
While not compulsory, conducting pre-filing trade mark searches to ensure (as far as possible) that your chosen name does not overlap with someone else’s name or brand, can save an infinite amount of time and resources that could otherwise be spent promoting and creating art. Pre-filing searches can illuminate potential issues and give you the time and space to consider available options and to go in with eyes open and alert to potential obstacles. Equally important, part of this initial assessment should reflect on whether your chosen brand communicates and connotes ideas that you’re comfortable being associated with.
In an age where civil rights and anti-racism movements such as Black Lives Matter are having a profound and long overdue impact on popular culture, it is perhaps not overly surprising to witness the changes currently taking place across the brand landscape. Although significant attention has understandably focussed on consumer brands such Uncle Ben’s or Aunt Jemima or sporting brands such as the Washington American Football team, the entertainment and as a subset of that, the music industry, has not been immune from demands for change.
For instance, Martie Maguire, Natalie Maines and Emily Strayer, formerly known as The Dixie Chicks, have jettisoned the ‘Dixie’ reference inspired by Little Feat’s ‘Dixie Chicken’ in pivoting to The Chicks. Although the minds of New Zealand readers of a certain vintage will no doubt immediately conjure The Chicks, Suzanne and Judy Donaldson, it seems that band behind the hit ‘Not Ready to Make Nice’ actually did their due diligence and sought and obtained the consent of their Kiwi namesakes before their rechristening.
The recent experience of country-band Lady Antebellum in pivoting to Lady A, and finding themselves the target of criticism and embroiled in a dispute with a blues singer who had been performing under the moniker Lady A for a number of years, is perhaps the more common experience in such situations.
While Lady A’s (the band) experience has been particularly acute in the context of anti-racism protests, The Raconteurs for instance made the decision to change their name in Australia to The Saboteurs due to a conflict with a Queensland jazz band of the same name. Seattle grunge rockers Pearl Jam originally went by the moniker Mookie Blaylock (who was also a former professional basketball player). Sydney indie dance trio RÜFÜS DU SOL were originally RÜFÜS before becoming entangled in a trade mark dispute in the United States. Iconic Aussie band Flowers changed their name to Icehouse as they went international in order to avoid conflict with another group. Kyuss Lives! became Vista Chino after a dispute with former band members. The Temper Trap were originally Temper Temper but changed due to the existence of United States band with the same name and Shihad became Pacifier after concerns post 9-11 that Shihad may have been slightly too close to jihad for a US audience.
- Before you become emotionally attached to a name or logo, make sure you ‘look before you leap’, do the necessary research and run the clearance searches to ensure you can use your preferred name or logo.
- Be pragmatic and follow The Raconteurs’ (of course I mean the Saboteurs’) lead. If someone has claimed your preferred name and is not open to changing or coexisting, roll with it and pivot to an alternate name. Either way it makes great fodder for music folklore.
- If you decide on a name that has not been taken, protect it as a trade mark. Make sure you take the basic step of applying for and securing trade mark protection. Not only will a registered trade mark protect your ability to use the name but it will also give others who may wish to adopt the same or a similar name pause for reflection and an opportunity to choose a different name.