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Naming Today

Like a Lead Balloon

As anyone who’s struggled to start a band, get shows, record music, and become a certified rock star knows, coming up with a name is half the challenge. A linguistic take on how we name bands today.

Nicola Verlato, Teeth, 2010. Courtesy the artist and Jonathan LeVine Gallery.

For nine years during the 2000s, Bruce Willen, a Baltimore musician and self-described typography nerd, played bass for a hardcore punk trio called Double Dagger, named after a typographic symbol: the ‡. A name for the new band wasn’t so immediately visible, though. For eight months they had called themselves the Believers, which seemed generic enough, before finding out about a touring rock band with the same name. So the band-formerly-known-as-the-Believers went on a four-month journey into band name limbo.

“There’s a million really good band names, and finding the one that’s reflective of what you’re doing and that you feel comfortable with—that’s hard,” Willen said. It had been 10 years since he’d named a band, and he was surprised by how much the naming landscape had changed. Every time they found a name they liked, they’d search it on Google and inevitably turn up the Myspace or Bandcamp page of somebody who’d found it before them.

“We went through hundreds,” Willen said. “Well, maybe not hundreds, but there were five to 10 we really liked. We wanted something that’s more abstract, and a lot of the words with a more abstract quality to them have been taken.” Somehow the word “peals” wasn’t taken, so Peals they became.

I’ve been listening to band name origin stories like Willen’s recently, which give me (someone who’s never been in a band) a taste of the creative joy musicians feel when they’re making music. Yet one thing has stuck out to me: According to many of the musicians I talked to—and let’s be clear, these are rock musicians, not folks playing country, zydeco, contra, jazz, hip-hop—the number of available band names is dwindling. It’s harder and harder to name a band. This belief tends to come along with the notion that bands in the past had cooler names, and that it’s harder to name a band now than it used to be because all the cool names have been taken.

Are we running out of band names?

The ideal rock band name has a lot of work to do. It has to have the taste of lore from the first time it’s uttered. It has to be memorable and it has to be easy to say, because you’re going to be saying it a lot, and so are a lot of other people, including reviewers, who like to comment how much somebody’s band name evokes their music. It’s instructive to listen to the origin stories of names for bands like Double Dagger or Peals. Everybody knows how the Beatles used to be the Silver Beatles, and before that the Silver Beetles, as a tribute to Buddy Holly and the Crickets, and how John Lennon changed the spelling as a play on “the beat,” or maybe in homage to Beat poets. But when the music isn’t familiar to you, you can pay more attention to the name.

“You would be amazed at how hard it is to find a band name that is not already in use,” Evan Parker, a guitarist from Portland, Maine, told me. He solved his naming problem by drawing from a Dr. Seuss book, Hop on Pop, which he used to read to his daughter. There’s a page, his favorite one, that goes:

That one is my other brother.
My brothers read a little bit.
Little words like If and it.
My father can read big words, too.
Like CONSTANTINOPLE and TIMBUKTU.

The “if and it” phrase stuck in his mind, and it became the band’s name. What proved so great about two conjunctions and a pronoun was that nobody could judge the music from the name; they had to hear the music. “We personally like that our name alludes to very little, and it’s probably true that many people have not listened to our music because of it. But we are OK with that,” Parker said.

“I like the fact that [the name] can be interpreted on lots of different levels. A blogger years ago once wrote that it suggested an image of Mother Theresa in a jetpack.”

What’s also interesting is how band members can disagree about a band name that, on the surface, works. The name for the indie trio Future Bible Heroes came via a friend of band member Christopher Ewen. “I like the fact that it can be interpreted on lots of different levels,” Ewen said. “A blogger years ago once wrote that it suggested an image of Mother Theresa in a jetpack.”

Ewen suggested it to band leader Stephin Merritt, who says that Future Bible Heroes “is a terrible band name. It’s such a terrible name I don’t even know what it means.” And as Ewen wrote in an email to me, the third member of the band, Claudia Gonson, “doesn’t seem to have many emotional attachments to it either way, and sees it as something that may not make a lot of sense but is poetically evocative, like Throwing Muses or the Psychedelic Furs.”

An old Austin friend of mine, Grant Barger, who has played in numerous bands, says that as he’s gotten older, he’s gotten less feisty about defending his choices. He suggested Slave Labor for his current band, but everyone else wanted Nation States, so he let them. An earlier band went with Get Lost over Heart of Feather. That doesn’t keep him from collecting potential names, which is something that “those of us who play in bands never stop thinking about.” He keeps a running list, which he builds by reading old books to find phrases or words that aren’t used any more. In the late 1990s he had a band, the Stylites, whose name came from a book on early Christian sects. (The stylites, a group of Christian ascetics during the Byzantine Empire, stood for long stretches of time on poles.) He also scours phonebooks for good last names. But, he says, like most band names, the ones he collects are almost all bad.

The main driver of the sense that band names are scarcer than they used to be is the central ritual of the naming process itself: typing a name candidate into Google and waiting breathlessly for 100 milliseconds for the verdict. Doing this is less to avoid legal liability than about securing one’s place in the wide world; given that you’re googling yourself and hoping not to find anything at all, it’s more than a little poignant.

Evan Parker searched “If and It” to confirm it was free and clear (apparently a UK design firm is the only other user), and Grant Barger uses Google, as well. I asked him if using Google had changed any aspect of naming for him, to which he replied, “The only thing Google has changed for me is that you can easily search purposed names and find that numerous lame bands have already taken your lame idea.” In 2005, my TMN colleague Erik Bryan collected potential band names—about 75 of them—in a notebook. One day he put them all into Google, crossed off the ones that showed up, then went to band practice and read all that remained. (Interestingly, in his case, a Google match wasn’t enough to keep him from using the name he liked too much, the Finelines, despite the existence of Thee Fine Lines. The Google search not only helped him find the other band but judge how much of a potential threat it might pose.)

Says Christopher Johnson, a linguist and naming expert, “The problem with Google is that it makes us painfully aware of how unoriginal we are. Before web search, two bands could use the same name in happy ignorance as long as they were serving different geographical and stylistic markets. Now if anyone anywhere is using the name you want to use, you’ll find out. So there’s a pressure to be completely unique that just didn’t exist before.”

A name has to be more than a simple identifier—it also has to pay homage to its music style. Names do this with several kinds of “genre cues”—formal patterns of words, like hip-hop names that start with “DJ” or indie rock names about animals.

In a study of naming conventions in hip-hop, techno, metal and punk, German linguist Jannis Androutsoupoulos wrote that a name has to be more than a simple identifier—it also has to pay homage to its music style and, indirectly, to the people who listen to that music. Names do this with several kinds of “genre cues.” There can be formal patterns of words, like hip-hop names that start with “DJ” or indie rock names about animals; there’s also substituting numbers for letters or spelling things an unusual way; there are also cultural references and allusions. Meeting these “local traditions” (as in “local” to a certain type of music) is something a good band name has to do, but Google’s reach seems to surprise musicians by how big their “local” tradition really is.

Musicians also point to the rise of Bandcamp, ReverbNation, SoundCloud, and the online music community for exhausting the stock of names. “Every time we had a name idea we liked, it seemed like there were at least one or two groups with the same name,” Bruce Willen said. “Thanks to the internet any college kid who does home recordings on his or her laptop can start their “band” on Bandcamp or Myspace.” In a way, this makes sense. One can imagine that 20 years ago, any garage band could have any name it wanted—or no name at all. The only reason a band really needed a name was if they were going to gig or record or tour. Let’s say 10 percent of those bands ever left the garage. Today all those bands are on Bandcamp, and they can’t be on Bandcamp without a name. These sites, including Myspace, which has 14 million acts, have inflated the demand for band names.

So while the internet aids the perception that band names are harder to come by (they’re also changing, says Chris Johnson, who’s noted fewer one-word band names than multi-word ones), it’s not because English is running out of words. There are still vast numbers of words that can be stuck together, as well as a number of patterns or templates, some of which haven’t been become institutionalized as genre cues yet, that can be used to expand the permutational choices. Surely your one-word choice (Blue) will be taken, so modify it (Big Blue, Super Blue, Pink Blue, Really Blue, the Blue) or build a phrase (Big Blue Fly, Big Blue Road, Big Blue Popsicle, Big Blue Big). From a little bit of recursion, you could name a million bands and still bequeath a list of a million more to your rock-and-roll grandchildren (though those names will probably be longer).

“Musicians no doubt have trouble coming up with unique names because they’re trying to follow certain naming conventions or fads,” Johnson said. “For example, there was a recent rash of bands named after animals—Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses, Wolf Parade, etc. If you really wanted to fit into that trend, you might have had trouble coming up with something unique.”

But the English language and the structure of language itself can come to the rescue, Johnson added. “The space or possibilities provided by the English language far exceed the limitations of any particular naming convention.”

“The set of functional names is not finite; as with any operation of language, the possibility of stringing together terms in a novel way, or inventing new terms, is limitless.”

I have no proof, but I suspect it’s hardest to name a metal band, because those conventions are very restrictive. You can only refer to a scant few domains—the sacred, the profane, death, disease, war, violence, destruction—that aren’t making many new words. On the other hand, it seems easiest to name an indie rock band, where strings of random words are themselves a cue to the genre. The 1990s swing revival band, Squirrel Nut Zippers, is sometimes cited as evidence these don’t make very good band names. But as ex-vocalist Tom Maxwell explained, the name actually came from a peanut-caramel candy produced by the Squirrel Brand Company. Though the band secured permission from Squirrel Brand, Maxwell said the band was later asked to sign an expensive, restrictive licensing agreement. He told me the whole tale about legal duplicity and the true fruits of success, and when I asked him what the lesson was, he thought for a moment, then replied: “Don’t assume good will, I suppose. It’s best in a litigious society to not name yourself after something even if, you know, a high-minded lawyer assures you that it’s OK or even if you secure permission. It’s better to make something up and make it be your own.”

I also wrote to Bandcamp and ended up swapping emails with Ryan Moran, who handles intellectual property management, tech support, and analysis for the team. I proposed the notion that the perceived band name shortage was due in part to sites like Bandcamp, and he replied, “The DIY ethos enabled through channels like Bandcamp might complicate the process (by virtue of the quantity of artists now publicly present), but anecdotally that is not as great an impediment as it may seem.”

Then he echoed Johnson: “The set of functional names is not finite; as with any operation of language, the possibility of stringing together terms in a novel way, or inventing new terms, is limitless.”

All this suggests musicians need more naming conventions and have to think beyond the current ones. The problem is that musicians are bathing in the same culture—call it the zeitgeist effect. If you put a phrase into Google and find it’s being used by someone across the world, it’s not a sign you’re doing something wrong, it’s a sign that you’re plugged into the moment in the right way. The trick is to think outside the Zeit.

Which leads me to wonder if the angst over band names might be a manifestation of a deeper set of frustrations about creativity and music. No matter what you play, it’s hard to distinguish yourself and it’s hard to get people to listen. Doing new things with the same old notes is hard, too—they’re not making any more of those, either.

So what is a band name? It’s not the cool word, or the words that no one else has. It’s the joining of two sensibilities, that of a group of musicians and a group of listeners who have been found by the music—an audience for whom a string of words, which mean next to nothing, can suddenly mean everything once it’s attached to music they love.

Alex Lewis, a radio producer and musician in Philadelphia, said that when he was in high school, his friends used to say “early” to mean “cool”; they used it a lot, so when the promoters of the high school’s battle of the bands bugged their band for a name, someone suggested the Early because they said it all the time.

At first, the band members argued, Lewis said, then they shrugged. “It was good enough for the occasion and we could reevaluate afterward. But we never renegotiated. It never came up again.” They’re a couple of guys down 10 years later, but they’re still the Early.

That’s how band names come about, Lewis said.

“Band names just happen. At least I think that’s the ideal situation. You can get caught up in the vanity, the how does that sound. But in the end, you just decide on something and even if your name kinda sucks to some people (or even sucks in some objective sense), if you stick with it, it will stick.”

A production assistant on NPR’s World Cafe music show, Lewis says he hears the same thing from bands that come through the studio. “You and everyone else will get used to [the name]. It’ll just become part of who you are.”

TMN Contributing Writer Michael Erard lives in Portland, Maine, with his wife and son. His book about the science of polyglots, Babel No More, is now out in stores. More by Michael Erard