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Building Your Dream Team: The Creative Director


Creative directors help convert audible messages and emotions into stimuli for the eyes, and they do it while adhering to many variables and constraints. The best can help turn artists into icons, magnetizing and contextualizing songs by defining music’s look and feel. Let’s dig in.

Building Your Dream Team breaks down the fundamental members of an artist’s operation through the 5Ws lens: Who, What, When, Where, Why. Find previous entries below.

It’s easy to forget in 2019.

As we scroll, swipe, scroll, swipe, words and pictures and videos fight for limited brain space, memes usurping each other to no end. Some scientists think it’s a problem. In music, where memory serves as fandom’s foundation, it just might be.

Odds of recollection increase when something activates multiple senses, one reason why standout visuals often play a part in a promising artist becoming an artist with an audience. Creative directors help convert audible messages and emotions into stimuli for the eyes, and they do it while adhering to many variables and constraints. The best can help turn artists into icons, magnetizing and contextualizing songs by defining music’s look and feel. Let’s dig in.

Special thanks to Kristian Kruz (The Element Agency), Jordan Pories (Apple/GoodJobJordan), and Lean Quatifah for lending their experiences and insights to this piece.

1W: Who They Are

Whether they’re conceptualizing big ideas or knee-deep in the weeds, creative directors…

  • Value clear communication
  • Obsess over how things look and why they strike a chord (or don’t)
  • Translate vague ideas and references into tangible, actionable vision
  • Understand the area of art / culture / design you want to explore.
  • Absorb and discuss feedback without hurting feelings or feeling hurt
  • Spend many hours every day trying to improve themselves and learn new skills
  • Proactively trouble shoot and solve problems with clever solutions

Many creative directors (develop ideas) often start off as art directors (oversee ideas) who often start off as graphic designers (create actual assets) for recording artists. Lots of folks do all three jobs. There’s no formulaic path, though. Ricardo Tisci worked with Jay Z and Kanye West for Watch The Throne packaging while at Givenchy. Renowned filmmakers Paul Thomas Anderson and Spike Jonze have alternated between movies and music videos for years. Design duo hardhardhardhardhardhard work with big artists and big brands.

2W: What A Creative Director Does

Different projects call for different strengths. Budgets, timelines, taste, and relationships affect what creative directors have to handle. An illustrator in a high school art class might do the trick. So might drone operators in Norway. They all tend to cover some mix of these responsibilities…

  • Build treatments for (or alongside) artists that wrap sounds in visual elements
  • Develop mood boards for projects to ensure a clear, specific direction for each asset
  • Create or manage the creation of those assets and associated deadlines
  • Liaise with other creatives (graphic designers, videographers, photographers, etc.)
  • Control and allocate budget to ensure the right costs lead to the right creative result

Music budgets are often quite tight, and deadlines shift frequently. Emerging creative directors bring savviness and passion, stretching budgets, calling in favors, adapting to changing rollout plans, and creating a safe space for feedback. Magic can happen when a hungry designer and a hungry artist align and win together in the long run.

That said, it’s never a good idea to assume people are down to work for scraps and endure unwelcome surprises. Great creative directors like Samuel Burgess-Johnson or David Rudnick have lots of options and bigger budgets on the table. For folks still building their foundation, try to compensate people as fairly as you can, iron out differences in opinion before the creative process kicks off, structure feedback with scheduled check-ins, and give credit always.

3W: When You Need One

Whenever you envision something you can’t produce yourself. Many young designers initially tasked with one-off artwork evolve into creative directors. Bryan Rivera & Travis Brothers handled design for Post Malone from day one and are now sought-after artists in their own right. Henock Sileshi worked with Brockhampton before they even called themselves Brockhampton.

creative director music | bryan

Newer acts with limited funding sometimes give creative directors song splits and refer them to other teams who can afford regular rates. Emerging artists working with emerging designers might expect to pay between $150 and $500 for artwork. Costs stack up as ideas get more grandiose and the teams needed to execute them expand. Star artists might spend $50,000 on an album cover, $100,000 on a video, and $250,000 on stadium stage design.

Or they might take an old, shot-on-iPhone Instagram post and fulfill their vision that way. Traditionally, creative directors are either kept on retainer for an album cycle and paid monthly, or provided a one-time producer agreement where 50% of the project fee is paid upfront and 50% is paid upon final asset delivery. Rev shares for merch sales are also fair game.

Managers frequently help pull creative pieces together too, especially if there’s not enough bread yet for a dedicated person. Plenty of recording artists also heavily contribute — look no further than J’Von’s self-made, hand-drawn anime illustrations. That said, even the most involved, multitalented artists eventually offload at least a chunk of creative to someone else. Collaboration breeds evolution, a vital ingredient in fruitful careers, and music — making it, performing it, promoting it — requires full attention for long stretches of time. So long as the artist retains final sign-off and everyone’s on the same page, campaigns can move forward.

4W: Where to Find a Creative Director

Creative directors and designers often reach out to artists making music they love. Sincere fandom fuels some of the best work around, whoever hits up who first. At every career level, Instagram continues to help level access. The right DM (respectful, calling out why you love their work, specifically explaining what you hope to work on) at the right time still moves mountains. It never hurts to reach out and see what happens. Just know what you want (or know what you don’t know) beforehand, and, emergencies aside, try not to ask for assets with unreasonable turnaround times. Make contact, share your work alongside some references, and try to schedule a call to discuss interest / timelines / budgets.

It helps to look at designers other designers follow to create a mental map of who’s doing what. Sites like Behance can lead you to 1000s of portfolios with email addresses attached. There are more designers and videographers than ever before who want to develop their skills and find music they believe in. Some artists have even turned internet friendships in subreddits and rap forums into career-long partnerships. IMVDB is another great resource to catch the minds behind your favorite videos. Keep your eyes open.

5W: Why A Creative Director Matters

The streaming economy has created endless opportunity for artists. It’s also stripped away many of the contextual clues that once encouraged listeners to take a chance on a song. This has placed even more pressure on the little pieces that orbit music to establish richer connections with potential fans.

Clever, inventive, thoughtful creative direction adds layers of context to the sounds people hear and lets fans new and old invest in an artist’s world. For this reason, distinguished design choices help power growth directly (merch sales) and indirectly (a bigger artist reaching out as a fan because your video made its way to their timeline). Invest in yourself by investing in what people see.

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