One of the hardest things to do when starting something new is picking a name that feels good.
I think for many people, including myself, picking a good name is so uncomfortable and daunting that it prevents people from ever actually starting on the project.
I named my business “Peak Frameworks”, which I derived from two of my favorite things:
- Peak, a book by Anders Ericsson that discusses mastery and skill acquisition, and
- Frameworks, a way to conceptualize information that was so prevalent at Ivey that it eventually become somewhat of a meme in my own life.
For my business, I wanted a name that felt somewhat personal, that was easy to pronounce, and that also had a domain name available. I also didn’t want to pick something that was so blatantly focused on finance in the event I eventually branch out to other categories (like Manhattan Prep or Khan Academy).
But naming a business was not an incredibly hard thing to do. Although the business is still mostly just me, there’s still a tangible element of detachment from it. At the end of the day, it’s still not a strictly a “Matt Ting” course, it’s a “Peak Frameworks” course.
And so, I still found it relatively easy to pick a business name because it wasn’t necessarily supposed to be a reflection of my identity.
On the other hand, coming up with an artist name has been a completely different and much harder challenge.
I’ve been producing music for almost three years and have tried brainstorming artist names for a bit longer than that. Thinking about artist names has even become one of my default “things to think about while I’m trying to fall asleep”.
But everything I’ve brainstormed feels really corny and honestly after a week or so – pretty cringey. Coming up with an artist name constantly feels like this stilted exercise in self-importance, like I’m some larger-than-life character that transcends societal naming conventions.
So, as part of my naming process, I decided to look at the names of successful companies and artists to see if there were any patterns or insights to follow.
We’ll start with companies and then take a look at my favorite artists after.
Naming a Company
First, we’ll take a look at company names to see if there are any interesting trends.
To do this exercise, I looked at the top 150 companies of the Fortune 500 list in 2019. I was planning on doing all 500, but the exercise of repeatedly doing a thankless mind-numbing task started triggering unpleasant banking flashbacks. You can check the spreadsheet here if you want to check my work or something…
I essentially went through each of the top 150 companies, checked their Wikipedia page, Googled their name origin story, and then tried to categorize that story in some useful way. I went through a spreadsheet and each company into a category, using my own judgement whenever it was unclear (e.g. “does Verizon really resemble any common word?… no.”)
Below are the parameters that I ended up using to categorize these companies.
Note that these categories are not mutually exclusive to another, so the total exceeds 100% and several companies fall under more than one category. For example, there are some companies whose name is based on an existing word and is also a portmanteau (e.g. UnitedHealth, Microsoft).
- Name is Based on Existing Words (49%)
- E.g. Amazon, Apple, UnitedHealth
- Name is Based on a Person / Proper Noun (37%)
- E.g. Berkshire Hathaway, McKesson, Ford
- Name is a Portmonteau (20%)
- E.g. Costco, Intel, Citigroup
- Name uses Invented Words (18%)
- E.g. Walmart, Exxon, AmerisourceBergen, Verizon
- Name is an Initialism / Acronym (13%)
- E.g. CVS, AT&T, CIGNA
- Name Doesn’t Resemble any Common Word (3%)
- E.g. Verizon, Centene, PepsiCo
When it comes to companies, it seems that most companies either go with something extremely obvious and self-descriptive (e.g. General Motors, Cardinal Health, United Parcel Service) or go full vanity and name the enterprise after themselves (McKesson, JPMorgan Chase). Many of the technology companies in this list like to embrace the non-obvious (Amazon, Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft).
And in general, most company names have some source of intuitive inspiration. I deemed just five companies (3%) to have completely “invented” names (Exxon, Verizon, Centene, PepsiCo, Exelon). Every other company seemed to have at least a plausible explanation for how they came up with their company name.
Banks and law firms are commonly named after their founder, while this generation of tech companies seem to love simple portmanteaus (Cloudflare, Datadog, Fastly, etc.). And of course, an unnatural and unfunny volume of investment funds are named after nature (Blackstone, Blackrock, Bridgewater, etc.).
Every geography, industry, sub-segment and era will have its own nuanced conventions of what is an appropriate name and what is not.
Creating an Artist Name
Companies are one thing – but I think many company names don’t intend to communicate the same feeling of creativity, weight or emotion that an artist name is supposed to.
To assess artist names, I went through the 100 artists I’ve listened to the most since 2010 and applied the same sorting approach, though the categories ended up being slightly different. I mostly listen to electronic, indie, and pop music, so these findings are certainly most relevant to these genres. Spreadsheet is here.
- Name is Based on Existing Word / Name (52%)
- E.g. Beach House, Flume, Daft Punk, Stars, Arcade Fire
- Name is an Invented Word (16%)
- E.g. KAYTRANADA, ODESZA, Ratatat, Tchami, Galantis
- Based on the Person’s Name (14%)
- E.g. Tiësto, Martin Garrix, Mike Williams, ZHU
- Invented Stage Name (14%)
- E.g. Jerry Folk, Frank Ocean, Anderson .Paak, tim legend
- Just the Person’s Birth Name (13%)
- E.g. Kanye West, SG Lewis, Kendrick Lamar, Tom Misch
- Name is in All Capital Letters (9%)
- E.g. KAYTRANADA, ODESZA, EDX, BROCKHAMPTON, SZA
I definitely noticed a lot more variation among artist names as opposed to company names. Several artists use numbers, use all capital letters, take out vowels, purposely spell things wrong, etc.
There definitely is a greater onus on artists to have a cool, evocative name, while companies can just call themselves United Postal Service and be done with it (but I mean, it’s totally cool and ironic when it’s The Postal Service).
I noticed that many of my very favorite artists combined two existing English words in an unorthodox or unexpected way to form their name. Artists like Beach House, Daft Punk, Chrome Sparks, Vampire Weekend, and Unknown Mortal Orchestra have cool sounding names that don’t have an immediately obvious connection or relevant significance to the music. I do actually like this approach to naming because it prevents you from having to invent any new words and the name can be imbued with a subtler sense of meaning.
I also noticed that many, many European DJs seem to go the route of simply Americanizing their name into something more pronounceable (Martin Garrix, Martin Solveig, etc.).
Picking an Artist Name
So, I’ve obviously given this a lot of thought.
And this may be overly calculative, but when I think about what constitutes a good artist name for me, I want it to have the following qualities:
- Intuitive to pronounce / phonetic.
- No other existing artist uses that name.
- Pretty much everything that is even mildly clever or even closely resembles a common human name is already being used by someone as an artist name.
- Social media handles are available.
- Name doesn’t have obvious SEO problems (so no names like The Internet or Moon Boots).
- Ideally it would start with the letter “M” or “MA”… because I like those letters, but that tends to restrict things.
As it stands, I’m leaning towards either a) combining two existing words in an unorthodox / unexpected combination or b) just using my birth name.
I actually think my parents did a great job of naming me and I’ve grown somewhat accustomed to being called Matt Ting.
It just seems a bit uninspired if I end up using Matt Ting as my artist name, because it’s almost like my parents are the creative masterminds behind it all.
Here are some pros and cons I’ve identified of using my own name as an artist name.
Pros of using Matt Ting:
- I theoretically wouldn’t have to manage multiple social media accounts, which seems great. The idea of having to operate a second Instagram for art is extremely unpleasant.
- Would not compromise my sense of self-identity.
- I already own the domain name.
- Builds on whatever modest “Matt Ting” brand I already have.
- Would communicate to potential listeners that I am probably Asian.
Cons of using Matt Ting:
- It’s pretty lazy and uninspired.
- I think it’s a bit goofy to be an electronic / pop producer and use some basic sounding Chinese name, although Pat Lok and ZHU are successful counter examples.
- If my music is terrible, all my friends will know even more quickly.
- I think unless you’re really good, using your own name has a silliness multiplier to how people perceive your music. It’s cool to use your own name if you’re Kanye West or Tom Misch, but before your name means anything, it seems a bit awkward.
- I may not necessarily always be the most prominent Matt Ting. There are other Matt Tings out there who may be plotting, vying for that sweet, sweet SEO. It’s actually only after launching this blog that I’ve solidified my stranglehold of Google search results (my main competitor is a fashion designer in NY…)
- I suppose using my real name marginally decreases my privacy and further increases my chances of getting hacked.
The Significance of a Name Comes After
One takeaway I have from this exercise is that the name of you pick probably doesn’t matter too much. There are successfully artists and companies with virtually every kind of name possible.
Consistent quality and execution is almost always going to trump pure aesthetics in the long run. It goes without saying, but if your company’s product or your music is very good, then people will seek it out regardless of the name.
I do think names can still help on the margins. Things like being easy to find online or appearing higher in an alphabetized list are factors that can improve lead conversion. But those factors seem almost trivial if they’re going to compromise any sense of artistic integrity.
In closing, I’d like to share a couple of cute stories I found about artists picking their names. I think these stories reveal how the initial exercise can be so mindless and random and only something that develops real significance over time.
“We were all hanging out, chilling and drinking and then we were like, ‘Oh, Wu-Tang name generator, let’s put our name in.’ And we’re putting them all in, and they’re all funny and stuff, and then mine came up and I was like, ‘You guys, it’s not funny anymore. This is something big.’ I just really liked it.”Donald Glover on picking “Childish Gambino” from a name generator via Elite Daily
“Previously called Darlin’, after the title of a Beach Boys song, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter changed their name to Daft Punk after a review in Melody Maker in 1993 described their music as ‘a daft punky thrash.’“Daft Punk on switching from “Darlin'” to “Daft Punk” via George Fm
“We’d been writing music, and we had all these songs, and then there was that moment where you say ‘what do we call ourselves?’ We tried to intellectualize it, and it didn’t work. There were different plant-names, Wisteria, that kind of thing. Stupid stuff. But, once we stopped trying, it just came out, it just happened. And it just seemed perfect.“Victoria Legrand on choosing the name “Beach House” via LiveAbout