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TOP ARTIST BRANDS OF 2018

With 2018 seeing its last few moments on the horizon, it’s time for us to look back on the year we’ve had and its successes (and failures). That also means it’s time for our Top Artists Brands list – a list we like to celebrate the holidays with every year alongside a fire and hot seasonal drink.

The artists we’ve geeked out on this year have conquered big issues by being themselves. These musicians emphasized why branding is so crucial across our current landscape, because with each of their brands, they were able to define what was so special about 2018.

Authenticity, social mastery, innovation, leadership, and strength of personal narrative are traits that define a lasting artist. These artists are those who have hit the nail on the head, bringing their hopelessly devoted fans along for the ride to shift culture as they go.

Happy Holidays!

5. King Princess

King Princess has ascended to her throne as one of 2018’s biggest breakthrough artist. Her debut single “1950” solidified her unique style of alt-pop as something to be sought after. Her mentorship with Mark Ronson was crucial, but it was the co-signs from her contemporaries like Halsey and Harry Styles that saw her music reach far beyond the sphere closest to her. Her brand of celebrating queer love through a passionate, cool indie pop lens would have been niche in music’s decades past, but in its delivery today marked King Princess as an artist who has been able to pave her own way free of labels. Unabashedly herself, she has flipped the expectation of the sexy pop star on its head to own her sexuality, her way.

“1950” wasn’t just a one hit wonder, with King Princess as a Spotify RISE artist and releasing a wildly successful first EP. Authenticity has been her greatest asset, seeing her unafraid to constantly be outside the box – if not ignoring it entirely – as she takes her authentic brand ahead to her forthcoming album release in 2019.

4. Sheck Wes

Sheck Wes has proven that agency still matters. It’s no secret that trends in music move faster and faster each year, and Sheck was able to use his many talents to get ahead of such trends, while also creating some of his own. While his initial move from producer to artist primed an awakening of a young, hyped generation of hip-hop fans, Sheck’s impact didn’t stop there. Through the grassroots success and subsequent movement behind his club track “Mo Bamba,” he became the face of a new generation of rappers coming out of New York City. He paid close attention to every move he made, choosing the right collaborators that would help further his own brand. Declaring his dream of being the first rapper, model, NBA star and Nobel Prize winner in history, he elevated himself to not just a leader for his peers, but as an aspirational figure. His visual approach provided simplicity and consistency, making his recap videos a pillar of his artistry. For Sheck, talent is a piece of the puzzle, completed with a level of taste only equated to himself.

3. Cardi B

It is nearly impossible to miss the day’s news about Cardi B. Hit after hit, a record-breaking album release, and a uniquely in-your-face brand, she defined 2018 as the biggest female performer of the year. For Cardi, nothing is off limits, from the birth of her daughter, to her rants on social media, to her on-and-off relationship with Offset, it’s a “what you see is what you get” package, and she is loved for it. Authenticity through her constant and hilarious day-to-day commentary keeps her fans close and begging for more. And that confidence extends through to her music, where she has been able to be innovative in places where others have failed. Invasion of Privacy saw her turning hip-hop tropes on their heads and getting the Latin meets hip-hop crossover moment perfectly right, and it has translated into her being the first woman to have her entire album RIAA certified.

It’s all unscripted hard work for Cardi, as she continues to unapologetically live and breathe her brand.

2. Ariana Grande

Ariana Grande graced our honorable mentions list last year, but 2018 saw her influence expand exponentially. Of course, many of the reasons she was influential in 2017 still stand true, but this year saw her public persona as well as her music defining the future of culture. After graciously recovering from tragedy last year, Ariana Grande took the power of connection and spotlight into her own hands as she navigated through relationships and devastating loss. She didn’t become overwhelmed by grief, but rather, overcame it and used her emotion and strength to make art. Her art was more powerful in these moments, and she released an album, Sweetener, to reflect that. Her voice – literally and figuratively – was stronger than ever, and with each week, she interacted with fans through her actions and reactions to her life events. After losing Mac Miller and breaking off an engagement with Pete Davidson, she made her reactions topical and released songs – and one of the biggest music videos of the year – to show her independence. This transparency supported Ariana Grande’s path forward as doing her own thing and living her life in a way that’s best for herself.

1. Billie Eilish

The growth of Billie Eilish defined pop music in 2018. She tapped into the most important tenant we use to best service our artists to gain a steadfast fanbase: be authentic in your brand and in your music. For her, this was about her incredible songwriting and creating an articulated, well-crafted visual branding unique to herself. But this wasn’t accidental. Billie Eilish participated in every opportunity she was given, working with the platforms that supported her like Spotify, Facebook, and Apple to connect closely with fans. In these interactions, she was the same artist we see in her moody videos and through her prolific writing.

Nothing demonstrates Eilish’s growth more than her growth on social media. Now at nearly 2 million fans on Facebook alone, she consistently built a fanbase that she still stays connected with. We even got to see a year over year study of her growth, provided by Vanity Fair’s team. With this reflection, she’s been able to acknowledge and project a level of self-awareness unique to her rise to stardom.

Going into the new year, we can safely say “Oh, that’s a Billie Eilish song,” from a quick listen and identify her look from afar. She has reminded us that there is still room in pop music to take hold of a piece of the market for your own and to define something new and make it recognizably your own. All this without releasing an album.

Honorable Mentions:

Travis Scott

Travis Scott had the best year of his career so far. He did this through bettering himself with the collaboration of others, showing that working with the right people can take a career to totally new places. Sure, he had a baby with a Kardashian. But he made sure to use the new spotlight he was in from the public eye to further his music and personal brand. He used his new connections to solidify himself as a part of the G.O.O.D Music crew, opening up room for impressive collaborations and pushing his music forward into a new creative place that was accessible to both the new fans he acquired by proxy and his die hard listeners. He took his new music on a tour that went viral for its groundbreaking set up and his own virility on stage. All of this kept his name in the news for his own accolades as much as the new family he is a part of, culminating arguably the biggest track of the year and a Super Bowl performance in 2019. While this formula might sound familiar, it was a calculated formula unique to Travis Scott’s own career. It was this leveraging that allowed him to propel his career forward and to connect to new audiences.

Lady Gaga

Time and time again, Lady Gaga has proven herself the queen of reinvention. While in years past, we’ve seen her approach art for the sake of art and for shock value, she consistently strives to outdo herself creatively, musically and visually. But 2018 saw her do away with the art deco and the costume. She stripped down to her most authentic self, showed it to the world in an impressive Netflix documentary Five Foot Two, bearing her creative heart to the world. But as usual Gaga doesn’t stop when we think she’s done, as she secured a groundbreaking Las Vegas residency and conquered Hollywood and the world with her music and acting in the multi-nominated A Star is Born. Lady Gaga has tested the boundaries of reinvention and in 2018 won at every attempt.

Robyn

vIf we gave out an award for endurance, Robyn would win with ease. While she has been out of the spotlight for nearly eight years she maintained her status as pop idol for many of her fans, who in their constant wait for new material from the Swedish artist established fan-backed events and parties in her honor. It was nearly a decade wait for Robyn to return to pop, but her music and brand never truly went away thanks to her fans and her groundbreaking work as an artist. She recorded this in a documentary that she sent as a sort of “thank you” to her fans, ahead of her long-awaited return to pop music and the stage. On the release of that critically-acclaimed album, she picked up where she last left off in 2010, filling a void that didn’t show itself until her return. In one of the biggest comebacks of this generation, Robyn proved that no one makes music that is so simultaneously heart wrenching and danceable like she does. She is the example of why engaging fans is so essential to being an artist: it keeps you relevant even without chart-topping hits.

Juice WRLD

2018 has seen Juice WRLD help change the landscape of music. While SoundCloud has turned into a treasure trove for label A&Rs, Juice WRLD affirmed the vitality of the SoundCloud rapper. Earning the streaming platform’s top artist and song for the year with “Lucid Dreams,” he also hit #1 on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. For Juice WRLD, this year saw him working beyond genre constraints or names like “emo rap.” He proved there’s more to the seemingly fleeting trends and moods in the hip-hop of the internet by showing his own layers through performances and freestyles. With songwriting that still hits the mark but follows no guidelines, 2018 was the year that Juice WRLD made sure you were taking him seriously.

BTS

This year has been one of global expansion of the K-pop machine, with BTS writing the guide to how to get it done. They’ve broken into US charts by making the right collaborative calls, including with Steve Aoki. They’ve been everywhere – late night talk shows, stadium tours across the US, in the press – but nowhere more important than social media. BTS has demonstrated the incredible and meticulous approach to social media and fan engagement that groups like theirs take, and the payoff is just as impressive.

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