The Bird Way: Steal the process that made Kanye West, Rihanna, U2, and Elton John’s artwork

A sample of Tom Bird’s album covers
Tom Bird’s end-to-end creative process takes artist through idea to production.

Kick-off

“Trust, openness, and honesty are the key factors to a relationship between artist & creative director”

Before any ideas are discussed, a kick-off meeting happens between artist, label and/or management, and Bird to answer the who, what, where, when, and why of what will be created, i.e.: a music video, a soup-to-nuts art campaign, photoshoot etc.

So, what makes a good partner?

  1. Honesty. When giving feedback don’t be too polite (he’s a straight-shooter himself). Agreeing out of politeness only to later put the kibosh on an idea that has hours in production is a problem.
  2. Be open to ideas. The thing that kills any creative meeting is naysayers. The kick-off meeting is the time to think pie-in-the-sky — “what we do with a gajllion dollars?” It’ll be brought down to an executable level later on.
  3. Leave the meeting with a clear direction and commit.

Big Book

The Big Book process is where creative idea is cracked. This is done collaboratively with the creative director inputting ideas and reviewing with artist. The result is a guiding document that keeps the creative idea on track in production and is unique to the artist.

What goes into the Big Book?

1. Ideas

The initial references from the kick-off forms the basis of a “big book” that grows with new ideas. To ensure the ideas are fresh he looks outside of music for references, “opera and ballet are exceptional sources for set design, make-up and hair references”, “I read fiction and listen to audiobooks to make up images in my head”, “landscapes, cityscapes, fashion, classic art, and film/TV are incredible visual sources”

The Academic ‘Tales of the Backseat’ album artwork (2017) visual stimulus. This page was taken from Tom Bird’s Big Book, which was shown to the band as 1/6 different concepts they worked through to get to the final idea.

3. Artist feedback

Tom regularly checks in with the team refining the book until he and the artist are aligned. This can take several revision rounds.

What comes out of the Big Book?

1. A unique and ownable visual identity

The book needs to represent the artist in a way that is true to what people understand their brand to be, but also push it so it’s new and exciting for consumers.

2. Guiding document for all staff

It sets the box they need to operate and innovate in so when he says “we need something clean” that clean is understood in the context of the project.

Approve budget

This is where those pie-in-the-sky ideas are brought down to a level that is executable. The budget aligns the artist, label, and creative director on what will be made and for how much. Be a good partner by being honest to what you’re comfortable spending and realistic. Also, pay on time.

Staff up

Your mates aren’t always the best qualified for the job despite most artist’s taking that route. Tom’s role is to offer up suggestions on the best specialists to execute the vision including photographers, video directors, the glam squad, animators, designers, and technologists.

Guide the ship

No team is created equally. Photography projects are small and nimble but videos have bigger teams that require more negotiation with more opinions. On the majority of his projects, Bird not only acts as creative director but also executive producer to ensure the production value is high and the budget is managed. He cultivates a sense that the team is working together toward a common goal, “as a creative director, there is great sense of achievement in taking a concept from an initial idea to a completed art campaign, or the words of a video treatment into a fully realized video viewed by millions”.

Bird’s last piece of advice: Always be on time.

“Never be late — sweat running down your face and into your eyes while explaining your own powerful vision to an artist, manager, and label is never a look which instills confidence as a Creative Director!”

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Amber Horsburgh

Amber Horsburgh

Music marketing consultant. Downtown Records & Big Spaceship alumni. Writes about music, strategy and feels at Deep Cuts http://bit.ly/2yphFYx