Turning Artists into Icons

How creative direction transforms and prolongs music careers

Amber Horsburgh
5 min readNov 12, 2019

I write about music marketing via my weekly newsletter, Deep Cuts [Subscribe]. Get daily tips on Instagram @deepcuts.co.

Creative directors take the audible message of the song and create imagery that conveys the emotion and message of the song. In music, where budgets are generally strapped but ambition runs high, they are the ones that deal with these constraints to bring the artist’s vision to life. At the very base level, they should be able to define the artist and music’s look and feel — which contextualizes the songs and draws listeners to the music. When done right, consistently (Rihanna-Ciarra Pardo; Tyler, the Creator-Tara Razavi/Phil Toselli; Billie Eilish-Cour Design), great creative direction can turn an artist into an icon.

Why is creative direction important?

The Creative Director’s job is, arguably, more critical today than it ever has been. Why? Because the predominant methods of music discovery online are visual: Instagram + YouTube. If you hear a song on a playlist, radio or on TV, the first places you go (at least in the US) are Instagram and YouTube. Without visuals, you’re stripping the listener of clues as to why they should take a chance on your music.

Your visuals enhance the listening experience, both by guiding the listener to what they should expect from the artist and facilitating memory recall because visual memory is stronger than audible — making sure the journey doesn’t start and stop on a playlist.

Phil Toselli is responsible for the art direction behind GOLF WANG, Tyler’s fashion line, as well as Camp Flog Gnaw — Tyler’s annual music festival. Going back to the Odd Future days, you can see the cohesion across album rollouts and merch drops.

What the H does a creative director do?

At a high level, this is what a creative director is responsible for (for record campaigns):

  1. Develop the brand bible that aligns all parties on the visual representation of the artist’s brand
  2. Create mood boards that guide various aspects of the campaign — album artwork, press photoshoots, advertising assets, visualizers, social content
  3. Manage the creation of those assets
  4. Be the point person for all creative partners — stylists, glam, photographers, videographers, set designers, merch production, graphic designers, production companies
  5. Manage the creative budget and deadlines to ensure videos and artwork remain in budget and on time
  6. Work closely with the artist, management and label to translate vague ideas and language into executable ideas
  7. Champion the areas of culture and art to find relevance for the artist’s project

In my job, as a marketing consultant, I’ll hire creative directors or advise on suitable partners if I feel there’s a need.

If you’re managing an artist or gearing up to release a record and thinking you might need outside help, I’ve shared my Scope of Work here that outlines the exact role and deliverables for a creative director. You can copy and paste for however your artist needs.

Where does a creative director come from?

In record marketing, creative direction comes from a label; however, I’m seeing more and more artists hire creative directors on the management side that sit above all aspects of what the artist creates — and it makes total sense that way. A long term creative director-artist relationship ensures complete cohesion — from the way the record is rolled out to the fan experience at the tour to how merchandise looks and feels.

Even if management or the artist is hiring a creative director, often the label foots the bill or creative direction fees are stuffed in individual line items for creative. For example, album artwork or music videos will have a bigger creative push than, say, a tour admat. So, there’s more wiggle room in those budgets for creative direction.

Billie Eilish and Finneas on tour — designed by creative and production team Cour Design. Read more about their work with the duo here.

Things to consider when hiring a creative director

Do you need one?

If your visual and creative aspirations are larger than your current’ team’s capacity then, yes. This often feels like “we put out great music, we build a pretty good story at (insert whatever area of your business — streaming, press, touring) but we never nailed video or never got the photos right”

If you haven’t done an audit of your current team then start there — who at your management, label, distributor, and/or friendship circle has a keen eye and visual skills?

Questions to ask when hiring

1 . Walk me through your portfolio

More often than not, you’re buying a particular aesthetic developed by the creative director. As artists themselves they have a point of view — which comes out in their visuals. So, even if your ideas are really clear, there will be a negotiation to make sure their existing work gels with your vision.

Getting a CD to walk through their portfolio gives you time to understand their point of view.

2 . What sized budgets do you typically work with?

They’ll say “depends”, but push here. The creative director not only comes with ideas but a network of people to make stuff happen; you need to set up your partner for success. If you’re talking to “Tyler the Creator’s person” but have a budget 50x smaller than theirs, Tyler’s director is going to have a really difficult time bringing your vision to life as their people may be priced out. There’s so much truth to “you get what you pay for”, so make sure your creative director can work with your budgets. I’ve seen so many videos look epic in treatment form, but lukewarm in execution, and it’s usually because the teams are put in a position where they can’t execute.

3. What are some recent campaigns you love?

This shows you if they have their ear to the ground and what areas of culture they are most interested in. Again, making sure your project aligns with their interest will allow them to carve out a niche for you based on real insight and originality.

4. What happens if we don’t gel?

Get terms up front and make sure they’re crystal clear. You want to have kill fees and deliverables all squared away before you start working together. You also want to have adequate time to test out the relationship in the instance the creative isn’t what you’re after.

Done right, a creative director can help elevate your career to one that sells out arenas, sells out merch and spans multiple years.

For more, check out my in-depth process piece detailing how creative director of Elton John, Rihanna and U2 gets to great record campaign visuals.

Also, here are two interviews with Tara Razavi and Phil Toselli — Tyler, the Creator’s creative producer and creative director. They talk about what it’s like working with the artist on creative direction, executing visions and job responsibilities.



Amber Horsburgh

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