Preproduction: Clarifying creative direction

Creative direction can be a real ‘gotcha’ when working as a producer with an artist. First of all, it’s absolutely critical to be clear who is the creative director for the project. As a producer, my projects roughly fall into two categories:

  1. The artist is the creative director. For these projects, the artist has a clear idea of how s/he wants to express the songs. The artist will choose the genre and approach to instrumentation for the project. The artist is the visionary. For these projects, the artist is hiring me to make those dreams into reality. I leave my own personal taste at the door, and I must adopt the taste of the artist. Working on these projects, it is essential to understand the difference between effective composition/production and personal  taste. When I make a suggestion to improve the music, it must be a suggestion that is consistent with the artist’s own tastes and goals for the project. That sometimes means accepting (or even making suggestions for) musical choices that are not to my taste. Where the artist disagrees with me, it is my role to educate the artist and help them understand why my suggestion will help them sound more like how they want to sound. Obviously, this requires a high degree of sensitivity, understanding and mutual trust.
  2. I (the producer) am the creative director. For these projects, I am in charge. I call the shots. I get to make music that excites and challenges me. Where I use other collaborators – artists and musicians – they are coming along for the ride. Where the previous scenario is of the artist hiring me for their project, this scenario is more like me hiring the artist for my project.

Once it’s clear who is driving the creative direction for the project, it’s then important to establish what the creative direction is – for the whole project, and for each song. This is a discussion that need to be had in terms of colours, textures, feelings, instruments, etc. Sometimes this is quite clear and direct, other times the artist is less clear – either s/he doesn’t know, or has difficulty expressing it.

When establishing the creative direction for a project or song, it’s important to share common ground – common reference points so that you both know that you’re understanding each other. Often an easy way to start this process is to present some musical references – I often ask the artist to bring in some favourite CDs that capture some of the essence of what s/he wants to achieve.

Another good resource for establishing common vocabulary is the AMG mood list: I like to choose a selection of words from this list that captures the creative direction of the project. This selection of words is also a useful resource when working with other contributors – such as session musicians and graphic designers.

Once the creative direction is established and agreed upon, the artist and myself can intelligently and constructively discuss various aspects of the instrumentation and other musical aspects of each song. I can make suggestions that the artist hadn’t thought of – but still support the creative direction of the song. The artist can more easily explain the intent of the song. It gives us a framework to decide whether ideas are appropriate or not. It helps give us the courage to discard good ideas that don’t fit.

Without establishing the creative direction for the song or the project, confusion and miscommunication is inevitable. It makes it difficult to tell the difference between effective composition/production and personal taste.

After all, how can you take the artist’s music to the next level if you can’t agree on what the next level is?


    • Joey Maestro
    • December 3rd, 2010

    Incredible post.

  1. Thanks Joey!


  2. As an additional note – sometimes creative direction can be defined in terms of instruments. A project may be about expressive ideas using only some particular instruments. Obviously, the same can be extended to tools and techniques.


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