After searching high and low, you’ve finally fallen in with the right bunch of fellows (or women) and you believe that your new band has a shot. But before you can get any gigs, you need to find a name.
This is where it gets ugly.
In the past, things were relatively straightforward. Your new band name needed to adhere to the following criteria:
- It has to exemplify your band’s music, attitude, and image.
- No one can have used it before.
- It has to lend itself to good graphic design for logos and all manner of merchandise.
- Everyone in the group has to be at least okay with the final choice.
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The whole process of naming a band has fascinated me for decades. I have on my shelf a number of books that go into great details of how musical groups came up with their names. But this fascination grew to the point that in fact, about 15 years ago, I felt things needed to be taken a step further.
I engaged some linguists and branding experts and challenged them to come up with a word to describe the origins of band names, something that had not existed to that point. Etymology, the study of word origins, was too broad. Toponymy, the study of the names of places, missed the mark. And while onomastics, the study of proper names was close, it wasn’t specific enough. But this group of boffins returned with a fine word: bandomynology.
Although I’ve been encouraging the use of this new term through radio broadcasts, writing, and speaking engagements, it still gets underlined in red whenever I type it. And sadly, it has yet to be accepted by the Oxford English Dictionary. It has, however, made the Urban Dictionary with all the appropriate credit given. So that’s something.
Since the birth of bandomynology (the word, I mean), I’ve continued to study how groups come up with their names and the various trends band-naming has taken over the years.
There have also been periods when “the” bands were in vogue. Names like The Drifters, The Rolling Stones, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, The Who, and, eventually, The Band, were the rage through the late 1950s and ’60s before going out of style for a few years in the ’70s. Then came punk and New Wave, which resulted in sometimes cool, sometimes odd “the” choices: The Ramones, The Damned, The Clash, The Cars, The Smiths, and so on. This arms race came to a definitive end in 1979 when England’s Matt Johnson named his new band The The.
Along the way, we’ve seen some brilliant names (try to beat Black Sabbath) and some silly ones (Led Zeppelin was never the same for me after I learned it was derived from a Keith Moon prediction that this new band would go over worse than a lead balloon). Meanwhile, as new groups kept coming together, some new problems started popping up.
First of all, it became harder to find a name that hadn’t already been taken. The British ska band The Beat had to go by The English Beat in North America because someone else already had dibs on that name. There are plenty of groups with the suffix “UK” to designate them separately from North American groups (Charlatans UK, Chameleons UK, etc.). The band Bush had to go by Bush-X in Canada for a number of years until an arrangement could be worked out with an early ’70s band from Toronto called Bush. Suede was London Suede because a Colorado singer got their first.
Nirvana — the Smells Like Teen Spirit people — had to pay off a British band from the ’60s to the tune of $25,000 to avoid any unpleasantness. Blink-182 was called just Blink until an Irish band spoke up. More recently, Toronto’s Death from Above had to add “1979” to their name to avoid legal action with NYC’s Death from Above records, run by James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem.
Such duplication problems continue today, although, with the internet, a quick search will uncover whether your chosen name is still available.
Speaking of the internet, if you’re going to have a musical career, you need a website. Can you come up with an available name where the .com domain is still available? Sure, you could use another domain, but everyone still wants the .com.
For example, churches.com will lead to a landing page with a series of links dealing with proper churches. This created a problem for a group from Scotland who thought they might get around the problem by spelling their name Chvrches. But even substituting a “v” for a “u” in the old Roman sort of why didn’t work because chvrches.com leads you to something in German. Instead, they registered with the upper-level domain in Spain and now use it in a clever way: chvrch.es. Geddit?
This has also spurred some musicians into creating names with alternate spellings. Hence MGMT, MSTRKRFT, and so on. These strange spellings may cause confusion when it comes to pronunciation, but along with being able to acquire .com websites, such names are also much easier to trademark. There’s even a word for creating a band name that doesn’t use an a, e, i, o, or u: disemvoweling.
However, disemvoweling can create issues when it comes to search. Although Google has improved, it used to be impossible to search for bands like The The, The National, and some of these alternate spelling groups. But we still have a problem when it comes to names like !!!, an American rock band from Sacramento. Enter those three exclamation marks and Google turns up nothing. But if you know that the name is pronounced Chk-Chk-Chk and spell it out that way in the search bar, you’re golden.
On a related note, there’s the matter of metadata. This is the information embedded in a digital music file that identifies everything about the song. If you want to get paid for a stream, you need clean metadata. If someone in charge enters the wrong information in the required metadata fields — say, they misspell your deliberate misspelling — then you run the risk of your song not being properly identified. That could mean you won’t get paid.
Here’s an example. Twenty One Pilots deliberately omits the “-” in their name, something that can mess with everything from metadata to simple alphabetizing. Panic! At the Disco moved that odd exclamation mark around in their name over the years before dropping it entirely in 2008 and then later re-adding it. However, Montreal’s Godspeed You! Black Emperor, don’t seem to care about any of this. Keep in mind, though, that this is a band that released an album entitled F♯ A♯ ∞.
Another consideration when picking a name is its potential longevity. As young musicians, you might think it funny to give your band a jokey name in the beginning. But what if you actually end up with a career and have to live with that name for the rest of your lives? The Arctic Monkeys hate their name. The same goes for Jimmy Eat World, and even Foo Fighters. At least Rainbow Butt Monkeys had the sense to change their name to Finger Eleven. Then again, The Barenaked Ladies and The Butthole Surfers seem to be holding their own.
Even names that seemed perfectly fine back in the day can cause trouble. We’ve seen several groups’ monickers fall victim to political correctness and cancel culture. No one batted an eye about The Dixie Chicks’ name when they first appeared out of the U.S. South in 1989. However, woke culture forced them to re-evaluate “Dixie” and its connections to slavery. They became just The Chicks in 2020. I’m sure that did not impress some feminists who find that word offensive.
Lady Antebellum ran into the same issue, abbreviating their name to Lady A only to find that someone else already had that name. Legal action ensued. Vancouver’s JPNSGRLS, a disemvoweled band, became Hotel Mira after concerns about racial insensitivity. And earlier this year, the British indie band British Sea Power shorted their name to just Sea Power because they were worried the old name smacked of imperialism and colonialism.
So what’s a person to do? Once again, the internet has come to the rescue with a number of band name generators. One of my favourites is a British site that asks for various attributes and characteristics of your band and returns something it feels could work.
I tested it out with my fake fantasy band, describing us as “indie” and “rock” with me as the lead singer, and that we’re from Toronto. Filling in the rest of the fields (a colour, an animal, a part of the body, and a bunch of others), it suggested that my group should be called Alan’s Midnight Doctors, King Orange, and Skankin’ at the Disco.
Nope. I need to keep trying, I guess.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.