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“What’s in a name? That which we call a roseSomewhere in Deepest, Darkest New Jersey...
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

“Words have meaning and names have power.”

Author Unknown

Performance names are a touchy subject, whether a band name or an individual stage name, and often the most overlooked aspect of building a successful career. At once a characterization, declaration and a marketing tool as well as the herald of an adapted persona, a name can evoke a plethora of emotions, including amusement, outrage, adoration or indifference, sometimes several at once. As the Unknown Author quotes above (there’s a lesson in naming all in itself…), your name carries the power to attract or repel, so take your time and choose wisely. All ego and the love of your mother aside, if you’re beginning this musical journey, you must assume that the vast majority of people out there know nothing about you at all, what material you do or how well you play. Your name is that all-important first impression and an extension of your art. A carefully chosen name can promote a career, garnering attention and helping to secure a following. A badly chosen moniker can just as surely drive audience share away, despite the talent you may have, unless you have some strange desire to repel people (hey, it takes all kinds but that’s not where I’d want to be). Should you be one of the anointed few with towering talent and charisma, at the very least, a badly chosen appellation can place inconvenient obstacles in your career path that can haunt you for years if you’re just starting out. Performing artists have enough obstructions placed in front of them on the road to success; there’s no need to make it more difficult on yourself than it already is.

Whether in it for the money or not, your chosen name is a brand with all the baggage that word entails. Brand recognition and brand loyalty in a product or product line equals sales. Performance name recognition and loyalty equals audience share and audience share hopefully equals sales, allowing you to eat something more nutritious than Ramen noodles every night. Basic psychology is in play here and marketing rules apply. You need a name with enough snap and unique identification of what you do to make you stand out from the rest of the performers out there. For somebody who knows nothing about you, your name is the initial hook (beyond the usual word-of-mouth and social networking) which will pique an audience’s interest and get them to listen to you. Once they’ve heard you and like what you do, you’re going to want people to remember you (also known in marketing circles as “brand recall”) so if they see your name on a marquee/flyer/ad/web banner, they’ll come back to your gigs —  and hopefully tell all their friends to come, too (harking back to an old shampoo ad from the ’70’s…”and they’ll tell two friends, and so on, and so on, and so on” — there’s ad awareness at work for you). Unless you enjoy playing to an empty room and crave abuse from the entertainment director, you better take the time to select an appropriate name as part of an overall awareness campaign (more on this in later postings).

What are the hallmarks of a good performance name? At a minimum, the name should be snappy, i.e. memorable, for a band, no more than two or three words long (there are noted exceptions but obviously shorter names are easier to remember), appropriate to the type of music you’re performing or enigmatic enough to avoid typecasting you into a particular genre or age bracket, and lastly and probably most importantly, a name that isn’t being used by anybody else. Think about some of the most enduring and easily recognizable band names. They tend to be memorably short and often evocative of the band’s sound or philosophy. The Rolling Stones. The Clash. Heart. The Who. Train. U2.  What message are you trying to communicate with your music?

Typically band names fall into one or more of several general categories (paraphrased from an excellent naming guide at Mr P’s Name Pistol). Note that these fall within the guidelines outlined above:

  • Performer’s Name (no mention of the rest of the band)
    • Paul McCartney
    • Neil Diamond (yes, that’s his real name)
  • Pseudonym (whether a single/lead performer or the group as a whole)
    • Bruno Mars (Peter Gene Hernandez)
    • Sting (Gordon Sumner)
    • Elton John (Reginald Kenneth Dwight)
    • Lady Gaga (Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta — she uses a pseudonym? Really?)
    • Pink Floyd (“…by the way, which one’s ‘Pink?’)
    • Pink (0r P!nk, Alecia Beth Moore)
    • Jethro Tull
  • An Artist and A Group Of Musicians
    • Huey Lewis and the News
    • Florence + The Machine
    • Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band
    • Duke Ellington and His Kentucky Club Orchestra (long, but memorable enough)
  • Definite Article and Name
    • The Clash
    • The White Stripes
    • The Beastie Boys
    • A Flock of Seagulls
  • Just a Name (no “The”)
    • Neon Trees
    • Nirvana
    • Led Zeppelin
    • Dread Zeppelin
  • Name and Number (becoming less fashionable)
    • Blink 182
    • Maroon 5
    • Sum 41
  • Fused words
    • Coldplay
    • Badfinger
    • Audioslave
  • Song title or lyric tribute
    • All Time Low (from a lyric in the New Found Glory song, “Head On Collision”)
    • Radiohead (from the Talking Heads song, “Radio Head”)
    • The Rolling Stones (from a lyric in the Muddy Waters song, “Mannish Boy”)
  • Enigmatic Names of Objects
    • The B-52’s (another name for the beehive hairstyle, itself named from the iconic B-52 Stratofortress strategic bomber of the Cold War)
    • U2 (high-altitude U.S. spy plane also used in the Cold War…hmm…I sense a pattern developing here…)
    • UB40 (from a designation on a British unemployment form — these guys were likely Ramen eaters for a long time with a name like that)
  • Acronym or Vanity Licence Plate-like
    • ABBA (after the first initials of the four principals)
    • INXS
    • NOFX (is it an unwritten requirement that acronym-type band names be four letters?)
Perhaps you have no imagination or a terminal case of writer’s block (admittedly n0t a good condition for a composer/song writer) and can’t come up with a name on your own or just need a little jump-start. Never fear, there are lots of resources available online for naming fodder. Try Band Name Maker,, Communications From Elsewhere,  Blogthings (interestingly, this one asks for your name or a word as a random seed to generate the band name), Chill Wave//Witch House, Online-Generator,  Cheezus, Name Nerds, Generator Land (search “band name” for lots of different types of band name styles), or the aforementioned Name Pistol.
Once you choose a name, it’s a good idea to have a story of why you chose it, especially if it’s an enigmatic one. Remember, this is marketing — if you don’t have a good story it’s perfectly OK to make one up; the big boys do it all the time. A weird story can add to the mystique and helps build your reputation. For instance, there are a couple of stories around the pseudonym “Alice Cooper.” Originally it was the name of entire band (ala “Jethro Tull”) before it was assumed by Vincent Damon Furnier as his sole, legal stage name in 1975. One story behind the selection of the pseudonym is that while several band members were toying with a Ouija board, a spirit came through and identified herself as Alice Cooper. Then again, Mr. Furnier himself refutes the story and simply says the pseudonym was chosen because it was a wholesome-sounding name (“like somebody’s grandmother”), in stark contrast to the band’s sound and stage presence. The first story contains enough weirdness for people to take notice, the second being more probable and both add to the band’s mystique. An interesting side note, since Alice Cooper was the original name of the band and trademarked as such, Alice Cooper (the person) pays yearly royalties to the original band members in order to continue using the name commercially.
Another bit of trivia, speaking of “Jethro Tull,”  when starting out on the London club circuit, the band had difficulty getting repeat gigs booked, likely due to their then-odd fusion of folk and rock and Ian Anderson’s weird stage presence. In order to get around the bias, their booking agency took to changing the band’s name frequently. As luck would have it, a club owner liked their sound while the band was gigging under the name “Jethro Tull” (created by a history buff at the booking agency after an 18th century agriculturist) and wanted to book additional shows. And the rest is history, still standing on one leg.
OK, you’ve got a killer name that fits your style, is short, memorable and has a back story. Ready to roll, right? Hold your horses, bucakroo. In my experience, if the name is tight, it could very well be used by somebody already, so it’s good to have a list of half a dozen or more names available in case your favorite is already in use. According to US trademark law, a band name constitutes a service mark because it’s used to deliver products and services. Google each name on your list. Check YouTube. Search (a registry service for band names) and (the US patent and trademark office). It’s also a good idea to check with ASCAP and BMI for bands with similar names. Better still, sleep on the list for a while and check on it again in the morning. What sounded great after six Red Bulls the night before might not be so magnificent by the dawn’s early light.
It may very well be that you will find multiple bands with the same name in your searches. That’s OK, providing you’re not competing in the same markets. If you are, then it becomes a matter of who used the name first. Unless you’ve secured Federal trademark registration through the USPTO which grants nation-wide use and its legal protection, the only rights you have to the name are based on when you first used it, the local territory in which it was employed in an actual performance (you can’t exercise legal control by just saying you made up the name without using it in front of an audience or selling recordings). Let’s say 10 years ago you started performing exclusively in the Boston area with a wholesome, easy-listening jazz group called Marshmallow Rabbit (it’s available and you can give me full credit for it if you want to license it — I’ll gratefully accept donations via money order, PayPal, Mastercard or Visa) but the band stopped touring in 2009. Then in 2012, a studded black leather speed-death-metal-grunge band called Marshmallow Rabbit is formed in Seattle and begins touring up and down the West Coast, shrieking the paeans of a life serving Beelzebub. As long as they stay on the West Coast, there’s little you can do about it. If they decide to tour in Boston though, you can legally stop them from using the name in the local area and tainting your band’s image. If the Seattle Rabbits decide to trademark the name, the Boston members of the original Marshmallow Rabbit could block the trademark citing prior use.
Once you’ve researched and chosen a name, it’s a good idea to have an internal agreement between band members regarding use and ownership, whether or not you want to go through the expense of a formal trademark. Should the band break up or a key member leave, having this agreement in place will save a lot of headaches later on, especially if the band is marketing original music. Do this early, rather than later, because it’s much easier to reach an agreement while everyone still likes each other.
As this industry often plays fast and loose and bands can’t be bothered with the expense and hassle of internal agreements and trademark filing, sometimes you’ll find yourself in the same market with an identically named band, as I did with a locally touring New England classic rock group. We hadn’t realized there was another band with the same name in the area until an agent had tried to get us booked in several clubs and been told, “We’re not hiring those guys, they’re a bunch of ***holes.” It turns out the other band with the same name had previously played these clubs and had been abusive of the staff and patrons. It took us a lot of time and hassle to convince them we weren’t the same band. Since we were the group to use the name first, we could have legally forced the other band to change their name, or we could have just changed our own name to avoid the stigma created by the other group. We sort of ended up doing both. The other band eventually relented without legal intervention and just used initials from the name and we shortened our appellation to something more enigmatic. Compromise does work from time to time.
I wish you luck in your musical career and hope you find fame and success wrapped up in your new band name. I’ll be looking for Marshmallow Rabbit up there in lights someday.


“The music industry is a strange combination of having real and intangible assets: pop bands are brand names in themselves, and at a given stage in their careers their name alone can practically guarantee hit records.”

Richard Branson