Marketing Mr. Marley

In the music business, people may assume that identifying the target market for your brand (the performer) is a no-brainer. However, there are quite of few examples where a band or a musician developed a following among a surprising demographic. Or maybe it is just surprising to some of us…

When I was growing up in the 80s, my Jamaican father had plenty of Bob Marley & The Wailers LPs. However, none of the other Black American families I knew owned their records, in spite of Bob Marley being recently deceased and really at the top of his game. The Legend greatest hits album was released in 1984; and while it has sold 11.3 million copies here in the United States, it has sold 8.8 million in the United Kingdom; a nation with only 20% of the population that we have.

In fact, when my Dad and I went to a reggae show in the park, and the band covered “Buffalo Soldier”, I distinctly remember seeing several people in the majority White crowd singing along. I was shocked (must have been around 6 or 7 years old at the time) and asked my Dad how it was possible that these people knew the words to Bob Marley’s songs. Even more so, why would they even want to sing them? My Dad explained to me that Bob Marley was a big, worldwide superstar. I had no reason to think that my father was lying to me. But I didn’t understand how this could be possible. Bob sang about subjects of concern to Black people…mated with reggae music, which was music for Jamaicans in my mind. Plus, I never, ever heard Bob’s music being played on the radio. So how did these White people in Pittsburgh even know about him?
In 1972, The Wailers (as they were known then, it wasn’t until 1974 that they became Bob Marley & The Wailers) met Chris Blackwell, the head of Island Records, who had the clear vision to market them towards the [White] rock audience in the UK rather than the Black American R&B music audience in the US. Blackwell said of Bob Marley:

He trusted my instincts, which were that he should go after being a rock star, rather than a star on black American radio. His music was rough and raw and exciting, but all black American music at the time, other than James Brown, was very slick and smooth. Bob trusted me on that, he was as keen as I was.

In hindsight, this was the right decision to make. However, he may have reached his conclusion by looking at previous failed attempts to bring reggae music to the mainstream.  Danny Sims was the manager for The Wailers and signed them to a contract back in 1967. Back then, he (and Johnny Nash) had the specific goal to bring The Wailers to the American mainstream. In spite of what seemed to be perfect timing (with the social changes in the US, including the rise of Black pride and the celebration of African culture), it did not happen.

Chris Blackwell also knew that in order for reggae music to be palatable to the ears of the rock music audience, he had to change the way the music was played. American and British studio musicians, many who had never even heard reggae before, were brought in to add the sounds of slide guitars, synths, and generous use of sustain pedals for guitars. This was in turn blended all together and the result was some of the most polished production of reggae music to date.

After the changes to the music, there came changes to the moniker. “The Wailers” eventually became “Bob Marley & The Wailers”, in order to catapult the rock-icon status of the band’s front man, Bob Marley. Well, and also because both Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh had left the group anyway by 1974…but to the world, it didn’t matter at that point. Bob was the only one prominently featured on the covers of the Island record releases.

The final stage of re-branding came in the form of distancing Bob Marley from his Jamaican revolutionary roots into more of a global, “natural mystic” type character; someone who could be adopted by the hippie counterculture. The songs became more universal in lyrics (compare 1970’s Soul Rebel to 1977’s Three Little Birds) and less specific to the trials and tribulations of a Jamaican Rastafarian. In fact, Bob Marley’s popularity as a favored musician in Jamaica waned while other reggae artists, such as Dennis Brown, Yellowman and Beres Hammond rose to prominence on the island.

Today, Bob Marley’s “brand” generates almost $1 billion annually around the world, making him one of the most profitable deceased celebrities. This success would not have been possible if Bob Marley’s music was branded as being “Black” or “Rastafarian” or even “Jamaican”. Interestingly, the effects of this branding were fully realized after Bob Marley’s death in 1981 at the age of 36; a man who was quoted as saying “Money can’t buy you life.”