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It seemed like someone else's life
Why personal branding is wrong, limiting and can even make you sick
Yesterday, on one of the first mild spring afternoons, I was riding my bike through our old Berlin neighborhood, listening to my favorite hip-hop album of last year, billy woods’ and Messiah Musik’s »Church«.
The second track »Artichoke« came on, and woods rapped:
»I used to use a toothbrush to keep my kicks white /
It mattered that much /
In hindsight, it seemed like someone else’s life«
I’d listened to that album countless times, but yesterday afternoon, that line hit me differently. I realized that I knew that feeling all too well.
To me, it’s not about clean sneakers. It’s about prioritizing a constructed image over who you really are, so when you look back on a certain period, it does feel »like someone else’s life«. You created a public persona and over time, performing that persona became increasingly stressful and tiring, until that image eventually started crumbling and disintegrating.
When I started working in music and media in my mid 20’s, I unknowingly created this one-dimensional, superficial image of myself to present to the world. Which is not an unusual thing to do – according to sociologist Erving Goffman, »we all play theatre«, referring to our perfectly human desire to control the impressions other people form about us.
Still, I became accustomed to the performance, and eventually I felt that many people mainly liked me because of who I pretended to be, not of who I really was. But who was I to blame them? Had I ever shown them who I really was? Hell, did I even know who I really was?
Let me explain.
For the first decade of my so-called career, I worked as a freelance and staff writer for music magazines. Every other week, I flew somewhere to interview someone, usually a rapper or a r&b singer with a current hit record. I would fly to Miami for a studio listening session with Pharrell Williams. I might go to Paris for a day because Kevin Liles celebrated a video game launch there, or to London to see Dizzee Rascal headline a festival. One time, I flew 15 hours to L.A. for a 20-minute interview with two thirds of Cypress Hill and a gallery opening on Fairfax. Those were the last days of that type of music journalism, but I didn’t know it at that time.
Obviously, as a writer, I didn’t make much money myself, so I still lived in a tiny apartment and mostly had pasta with canned tomatoes for dinner. The little cash I made I spent on Japanese designer streetwear (those were the Noughties, so we’re talking Evisu raw denims and A Bathing Ape hoodies). I ran to every club and industry party in the city and spent days chasing invitations and backstage passes. I got a BlackBerry and stayed constantly on it. I jumped on Facebook and Twitter and grew my »audience«.
I didn’t realize it back then, but I was building a personal brand. The thing with brands is: They’re never as multi-faceted as real life personalities.
In hindsight, I have to say, the life I led does seem »like someone else’s life«. It might sound glamorous, but it was fake. Record companies paid for my flights and hotel suites. Sometimes I didn’t have enough money on me to pay for a cab ride to the airport or a 15 dollar soft drink in some five-star lobby. I was a member of a precarious class – empty fridge, but on every guestlist in town. I used to go to boutique openings just for the hors d’oeuvres.
What’s even more important is that I hung around music industry people constantly, chatting and smiling and drinking, even though I really am a total introvert at heart. I would have much rather been alone in my hotel room or wandering the city streets, browsing thrift stores for used books. So when I came home from these trips, I regularly didn’t leave my tiny apartment for days, as I was broke and depressed and didn’t want to speak to anyone.
That constant masking lifestyle took its toll. Trying to portray the image of a successful, sociable music journalist for many years led me into a burn-out. At my lowest point, I weighed 240 pounds, smoked and drank and ate take-out almost every day. My blood pressure went through the roof, and one day I found myself in the emergency room. I was done, physically and mentally.
One person that really inspired me during that time was the artist manager Christian Clancy. In his 20’s, Clancy worked at a major label, marketing records by rap superstars like Eminem and 50 Cent. In an interview for the »Rap Radar« podcast from a few years ago, he spoke about that period in his life.
»Look, I was an idiot too. I had a Cadillac Escalade grill drilled to the front of my desk at Interscope. I spent all my money on shoes. Guy, was I stupid. […] I had created a caricature of myself – which is part of my burn-out. I created this guy, but you walk by the mirror one too many times, like, ‘Who are you, dude?’ That image hold-up, 24/7, is exhausting. I had a really good introspective life lesson going through that and shook off the cobwebs, like, ‘I don’t need to be this’.«
I could relate to his story. Clancy, like billy woods, eventually found that other things mattered more in his life than clean white sneakers. He resigned, took a sabbatical and read spiritual books by Eckhart Tolle and Jon Kabat-Zinn. He stopped pretending being someone he wasn’t and became more successful than ever as the manager of a non-conformist hip-hop collective called Odd Future and a shape-shifting young artist named Tyler, The Creator.
After I had left the hospital, I tried to replicate what Clancy did. I focused on shedding that image I had created of myself, and I tried to find out what was really important to me instead. Mindfulness and minimalism, the ideas and values I would focus on moving forward, led me on a path that transformed me into the healthy and (mostly) positive person that I am today.
Ten years later, I shared my experiences in my book »Zen Style« (German only). When it came to promoting the book last year, I felt that some writers and podcasters confined me in another box though – that one didn’t say ‘music industry dude’ anymore, now it said ‘mindfulness guru’ instead. They wanted to portray me as this weird monkish man whose apartment looks like the Instagram feed of a Yoga studio, or as this self-improvement freak who starts his daily morning routine at 4.30 am. But I declined to be photographed in staged home stories, and I went out of my way to explain that I am not a hermit living phone-less on a mountain.
The problem was – media doesn’t work that way. The story of a regular middle-aged city dweller going through a deep identity crisis seemingly wasn’t interesting enough for some. The resulting stories painted an extremely distorted picture of myself. (I eventually learned to deal with that as well.)
One big newspaper, more of a tabloid actually, sent a writer and a photographer I spent half a day with, only to demand afterwards that I send them old pictures showing me with famous rappers or pop stars. The article never got published.
I guess my point is: Don’t confuse an image of yourself with your actual self. Also, don’t get stuck inside a box, either one that you created or one that other people created for you. It’s okay to like one thing, and then another thing that seems to be the total opposite. These are contrasts, not contradictions. They make life and people interesting.
Look, I happen to love experimental electronic music and French art movies, but I also still love hip-hop and pseudo-woke romantic comedies on Netflix. I wrote a book on mindfulness, but I am just as prone as the next man to succumb to compulsive doom-scrolling, unhealthy working hours, overeating and other types of addictive behaviour. I really want nothing more than to lead a calm life in the countryside, but occasionally, I come back to the city to sit in a loud bar and scream at a friend over alcohol-free craft beer, served in a wine glass.
Accept that you are a multi-faceted human being, not a brand. In general, people shouldn’t aspire to become brands. I think it’s just plain wrong. Having to live up to other people’s expectations can never be sustainable in the long run, and streamlining your personality might leave you as »edgeless as an egg«, as Cintra Wilson recently described the influencer generation.
I know that you’ve signed up to this newsletter for recommendations in experimental music, not for rambling life advice. But reducing myself to ‘the experimental expert’ feels just as limiting as ‘the music industry dude’, the ‘mindfulness guru’ or whatever. And I’m just not in for that type of personal branding anymore.
© 2023 Stephan Kunze