What is creative direction?

The term ‘Creative direction’ might sound obtuse, but it’s really quite simple. Creative direction is the vision for the song. It is the idea (or set of ideas) that set the direction for all the creative decisions in the production process. Decisions based on the creative direction of a song have a wide range – as broad as choosing the instrumentation and as detailed as the type of distortion pedal used on a background guitar part. Anything that has an impact on the musical expression should be based on the creative direction.

Creative direction can be articulated in a variety of ways. The two most common ways are as adjectives (written/verbal language) and as references to existing recordings (‘sounds like’).

Adjectives are useful because they can be applied across many different kinds of decisions. For example, ‘rough and raw’ can be used to guide anything from lyrics and vocal performance through to compression and reverb choices. They can also be adapted to suit different contexts. For example, ‘smooth and clean’ means different things in a pop-rock song versus a downtempo electronic song.

The downside to using adjectives is that they can sometimes be vague and subjective. For example, different guitarists may interpret ‘spacious and expansive’ differently. Skilled and artistic interpretation is a large part of the value that dedicated instrumentalists bring to a session, but difficulties can emerge when everyone on a session has their own individual interpretation of what initially appeared to be common language.

References to existing recordings are useful because they are much more specific. For example, a particular drum tone might be difficult to describe in a specific and non-ambiguous way, but playing a recording of something similar will very quickly bring everyone onto the same page. Regardless of the different terminology and reference points, the artist, producer, drummer, engineer, etc will understand the reference because it is a concrete expression of a sound. There’s much less interpretation required.

The downside to referencing existing recordings is that they allow much less interpretation. If you approach music as a process of creation – rather than recreation – you will probably find such references to be inadequate in describing your creative direction. Also, if you draw your influences from a wide variety of styles and sounds, you might find concrete references to be misleading. For example, a rap/electronica hybrid isn’t necessarily a Tupac / Chemical Brothers mashup. Some adaptation of each element will be required to make it work with the other elements.

Clearly, a lot of situations will require a combination of adjectives and reference recordings. The important thing is that you have a creative direction – no matter how it’s expressed. Without creative direction, all you’ve got governing your decisions is the question ‘does it sound good’? You might like the sound of an instrument or song element, but that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for the song. If you’re just going by what you like the sound of, the end result is likely to be unfocussed or haphazard.


  1. May 20th, 2011
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