I had this idea of doing a marketing analysis of Daft Punk ever since I've been doubling down on radical differentiation.
I love the way they've been zagging when other electronic music artists were zigging.
Until recently, I had no idea they were a French duo (Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo). This speaks to their secrecy (or my lack of knowledge?).
When they announced their retirement after 28 years of collaboration, I felt it was time to celebrate their marketing genius with 5 lessons.
They've produced 4 albums, 2 live albums, and 23 singles. Their second album, Discovery, is ranked number 236 in the Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, which is quite a feat for an electronic music band.
They won 5 Grammy Awards, collaborated with the greatest: Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, Giorgio Moroder... Their lead single, Get Lucky, became Daft Punk’s first number-one single and the most streamed song in the history of Spotify.
That same song was played by a French military band during the 2017 Paris Bastille Day parade in front of the French president, Emmanuel Macron as well as many guests, including US President Donald Trump.
They've influenced an entire generation of electronic music bands. The American DJ Skrillex, for example, commented that seeing Daft Punk live “left an instant and indelible mark on [his] psyche.”
Oh, and they’ve accomplished all of this while keeping their personal life hidden from the public.
Thomas and Guy-Manuel met in high-school in 1987 and formed a rock band called Darlin’. They produced 4 songs, sold 1000 copies of their CDs, and lasted only 6 months before calling it quits.
This was enough time for the British music magazine Melody Maker to call their creation “daft punky thrash,” which they used as the name of their next project…
One year later, inspiration struck again when attending a rave party in Paris. They loved the energy so much that they started to experiment with this new genre of music.
It took them another year to publish their first song, Da Funk, which was mostly ignored and sold 2,000 copies.
They could have abandoned music at this stage... but they kept going.
They played their music in a few rave parties and got noticed by a Scottish label that specialized in electro music (there were no labels of that sort in France in the late 90s).
The Chemical Brothers (a British electronic music duo) remixed their song which helped to gather momentum.
Finally, in 1997, 5 years after the “daft punky thrash” debacle, the duo signed with Virgin Records and released their debut studio album Homework (which sold 30,000 records that year).
Things accelerated from here:
Their resilience brought them to that point.
It’s easy to brush over years of hardship when looking at the history of any famous bands, artists, or brands.
It’s easy to think that they’ve always been big and famous.
Start small. Obsess over a minimum viable market. Expand once you’ve found some success.
It helps you to gather your energy to go after a specific objective and to mobilize people around you.
What was Daft Punk’s?
The star system; glamorizing young artists and creating personas for them, often inventing new names and even new backgrounds.
Bangalter explains how it impacts the electronic music industry:
“There’s an identity crisis, you hear a song: Whose track is it? There’s no signature. Everyone making electronic music has the same tool kits and templates. You listen, and you feel like it can be done on an iPad. If everybody knows all the tricks, it’s no more magic.”
“Electronic music right now is in its comfort zone, and it’s not moving one inch,” Bangalter says. “That’s not what artists are supposed to do.”
“Today, electronic music is like an audio energy drink, artists are overcompensating with this aggressive, energetic, hyperstimulating music – it’s like someone shaking you. But it can’t move people on an emotional level.”
From the very start, Daft Punk chose to actively fight against it and use it as a compass:
They kept total creative freedom from their record label. Traditionally, artists who sign record deals also forfeit control over their art so that experienced executives can lead to eternal fame. Not Daft Punk, even if it was the start of their career.
They chose to remain anonymous. They almost never showed up to interviews, and, when they did, they would hide their faces with whatever they could find nearby: bin bags, ski masks, Halloween masks... Their famous $65,000-a-pop helmets came later on.
They merged multiple music genres together so they couldn’t be copied. This was to remain 3 steps ahead of other artists in their space. With Tron: Legacy, they collaborated with classical music orchestras. With their last album Random Access Memories, they went “all in” by recruiting session musicians to perform live, limiting the use of electronic instruments, and collaborating with artists from different universes such as Giorgio Moroder, DJ Falcon, or Pharell Williams.
Using the terms used by Youngme Moon in her book Different, you could call Daft Punk a “reverse brand” because they didn't do what was expected of a typical electro music group.
You could also call them a “breakaway brand” because they got inspiration from different art forms and industries.
Finally, you could call them a “hostile brand” because their attitude has always been, “Take it or leave it!”
They zagged when others were zigging by challenging category conventions.
Let’s set the scene (and the category)…
In the late 1990s to early 2000s, the electronic music scene (their category) was:
The artists producing such music were:
Another notable fact: “ravers” were known to turn their back on the DJ booth to signify that their music was more important than the artist themselves.
Daft Punk had another idea.
They wanted to become famous to touch as many lives as possible.
From the start, they produced radio singles, albums, and video clips.
They worked with a Japanese mangaka to create anime-style video clips of their second album Discovery:
In short, they played inside their category.
They doubled down on what they liked, removed what they didn't, and added elements from other worlds.
According to the music magazine Spin, Daft Punk introduced electronic music to a new generation of rock kids and helped to popularize the genre in North America.
You can't be radically different without obsessing over the product you sell or what your customers experience.
It took the duo 4 years (!!!) to create their last album, Random Access Memories. And nothing illustrates better their obsession with their music more than the following anecdote...
They sat him on a chair in front of 3 different microphones (one from the 1940s, one from the 1970s, and a “modern” one) and asked him to talk about his life.
Their plan was to use the sound recorded from a specific microphone when he was talking about that era (for example, the 1940s microphone when he was talking about the 1970s).
That’s some commitment right there.
But here’s the interesting thing…
No one, not even seasoned musicians, could possibly perceive the difference between those three microphones.
So why did they do it?
Because they could hear it, and that’s what mattered to them.
What can you focus on to arrive at that level?
“Our output is rare and that means people pay attention more,” said Bangalter.
Their anti-celebrity celebrity status wasn’t a fluke.
It was engineered from the very start of their career.
They focused their attention on the core of their fan base: early adopters who seek the new and shiny, who want to be first, and tell their friends about it.
How did they do it?
By using secrecy, building anticipation, and doubling down on the element of surprise:
Should you start wearing helmets, too?
That’s not the lesson.
Instead, ask yourself these questions, “What are we going to do that most are NOT doing? What are we NOT going to do that most are currently doing?”
Daft Punk knew that their enemy, the star system, was creating artists active on every social media platform, producing songs after songs after songs, blending personal with professional life.
So they zagged.
They drastically limited their output and chose the anti-celebrity celebrity route.
It's the antidote to marketing bullshit.
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