In this interview, Simon Tam discusses the relationship between art and activism.
What stage in your career do you feel you’re currently in?
I believe that The Slants are in a critical stage in our career development. In many ways, we’ve had some unbelievable accomplishments: over two dozen tours, six releases, multiple viral videos, and coverage in over 2,500 media features across 88 countries. In other ways, we’ve had some struggles, like dealing with lineup changes and getting people to move beyond our legal battles and focus primarily on the music. However, since we’re releasing more music with an evolved sound and spending more time touring than ever, there are some incredible opportunities ahead.
Your band has been in the news a great deal over your trademark case that’s reached the US Supreme Court, which came out of [your] being denied after trying to trademark the band’s name. I don’t necessarily want to talk about the case, but I am interested in the concerns of an artist in protecting their image. What efforts do you make [toward] protecting your image, especially when working with promoters?
A trademark registration doesn’t necessarily protect a band’s image—in our case, it protects our trademark, the name of the band. We have trademark protection already (that’s earned through use in the marketplace); what we lack is the extended federal benefits, especially in markets where we have had less commerce. So the next best thing is remaining active and developing more markets in new states across the country—that establishes use in those markets for the name, so we can develop common law protection. Of course, if we’re victorious at the Supreme Court, those efforts won’t be as necessary. If our trademark registration were to be granted, then we’d need to continue use and work on protecting it in ways that are common to trademark registration holders.
Artists who are concerned about protecting their “brand” should realize that a brand is [comprised] of two components: the assets of an artist/organization, and the relationship that people have to that brand. It’s less about logos, colors, and slogans and more about developing content that people connect with. In other words, a brand is the relationship that people have with you, what they think of you. While that can be influenced with brand assets (like a logo), it’s ultimately determined by your market. So the best way to protect that brand is to create work and engage with the market in a way that is consistent with one’s values.
The Slants are highly involved in community efforts for Asians and those of Asian descent. Now it’s certainly not uncommon for artists to use their art as a platform for political or social causes, but would you argue that artists have a responsibility outside of the work they make?
Throughout the last decade, I felt like I was swinging back and forth between two extremes: artist or activist? But then I realized they aren’t opposing things. They’re often the same thing. At its most basic level, art involves intentionality and creativity from the artist. And while motives and mediums may differ, art is a reflection and statement of the artist on the world. So, at the heart, artists aren’t that different than activists. In fact, no genuine movement in art or activism was done in isolation from the other. Rather than seeing the world as it is, artists and activists see the world for what it can be.
Whether it’s the back beat of drums or the marching of protesters, art and activism is what drives change in our world. I don’t believe we should judge people as activists-artists, but rather as human beings and how they deal with injustice. The question shouldn’t be [whether] it is the responsibility of an artist to use their platform for social issues, but rather [whether] we as human beings have a responsibility to address injustices in our communities, in our world. If it is, then we have to find ways to do so that are sincere and consistent with our values. Not everyone is going to approach social change in the same way.
Is the person who gives money to a charity that feeds the hungry doing less than the person giving out food in the streets? I don’t believe so. We effect change in the ways that we can. For some artists, that is using their art directly. For others, it is taking some of the proceeds and finding other ways of giving back or providing a supporting role.
I would dare to guess that this trademark case has taken up a great deal of your time. How have you balanced the needs of the band? Or has the band’s growth suffered at all from your attention being redirected for so many years?
The legal case has taken tremendous time and resources. However, that’s part of our work. I balance the needs of the band based on our ongoing priorities that are consistent with our strategic goals, our personal commitments, and our obligations. I wouldn’t say that the band’s growth has “suffered.” I’d say that the energy and attention was just directed in a different kind of way. While I’d love for there to be more focus on our music, I am also deeply grateful that millions [of] people are having critical discussions about racial identity and empowerment because of our legal case. Now that the latter is coming to a close, we can focus on other aspects of our group.
We started this interview before the Supreme Court's decision, but now you've won you case. What does this ruling means for The Slants in this immediate moment, and as you move forward?
It doesn't mean much in terms of our band’s work right now. We'll eventually get our trademark registration in a few months (at least that's the assumption), but we've been kind of over the case for some time now. Once the dust settles, we'll just continue to work on our music, tour, and do all the things that we have been doing, except now we won't have a major court case hanging over our heads.
As far [as] business relations, why does it matter for a band to own their trademark? What hurdles have you experienced before the results of this case that have now disappeared?
To be clear, we've always had a trademark. Trademarks are earned through use—the more a business or band is active, the more trademark equity that [they] can gain, especially as they tour and gain recognition. What we lacked was a trademark registration. Those are important because often major labels and sync licensing agencies will not sign an artist unless they have one. It's also important for up-and coming acts to gain trademark protection nationally, in markets they haven't toured in yet, by securing registration. For us, the case has been bigger than the band. We've survived just fine without one; we mostly fought on principle, since the law was unfairly targeting the LGBTQ and communities of color.
A great deal of the publicity that The Slants has received over the past few years have been because of this trademark case. Do you feel that the publicity has translated to any traction the band has had over the last few years? Now that the case is over, do you fear that some traction may be lost?
The publicity hasn't really done much for the band. Just because someone has heard about the band being in a legal battle doesn't mean they'll buy merchandise or concert tickets. If anything, the case has been a distraction. Case in point: it's hard to find any interview, review, or article about the band anymore that doesn't mention or ask about the trademark suit. You can find thousands more articles about our case, usually re-framed around a racist football team, than articles that actually talk about the music. And that's damaging.
We've built a steady audience through traditional methods: touring, [maintaining an] active marketing presence, writing music, licensing, and finding other streams of income, as well as less conventional methods such as performing for niche industries like anime conventions. Prior to the legal battle even being a thing, we were already getting radio play on almost 1,000 stations and doing music full time—in fact, the trademark issue detracted from that and became a drain on our resources. Now that the case is over, we can focus on building our core audience and business again...and hopefully regain the momentum lost from it.
And what’s next for you and The Slants?
We’re writing and recording a new full-length that will be completed this summer, then spending most of the rest of the year on the road in support of it.
Simon Tam is the founder and front man of The Slants, a self described "Chinatown Dance Rock" band. Established in Portland, Oregon in 2006, The Slants have made a name for themselves not just from their music- a sound reminiscent of 80s pop band like Depeche Mode- but because of the band's name itself.
In June of this year, The Slants were granted the right to trademark their name. A request initially rejected by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office as a 'disparaging' term against Asians and those of Asian decent. Even though they're an all Asian-descent band and are active in Asian community initiatives.