Making a Creative Brief for a New Album

One of the challenges that comes with every new album is wrapping a complete creative package around the music. You need photos, you need album art, you need posters and shirts and little promo graphics for emails and websites and GODDAMMIT CAN’T I JUST MAKE MUSIC?!?

Making a creative brief isn’t my strong suit. Some artists, like Amanda Palmer, clearly think in visual terms… I do not. I think in words and literals, not pictures and figuratives. It’s difficult enough making the music when you’re left-brained, but visualizing the necessary art package is torture.

Fortunately, my good friends Jess and Brad are very visual people. Professionally so. They were kind enough to take a couple hours squeezing the reluctant visuals out of my head, leaving me with enough clarity to begin a true and honest Creative Brief.

What IS a creative brief?

As Karen DeFelice said, the creative brief is “a definite blueprint for the project, with a clear set of expectations and goals.” The kind of thing that gives an illustrator or photographer a much easier time making you happy. Perfect! That’s the kind of unambiguous direction I need in my life… and exactly the kind of thing I’m not good at. Karen’s article, however, walks a noob like myself through the process. (Thanks, Jess, for pointing this one out!)

For Cognitive Dissonance, all I knew at the beginning was that I wanted something mostly monochromatic and more abstract than literal. Not a lot to go on. So grabbing the steps from Karen’s article, let’s work through this process together.

1: Who am I, and what is the album about?

This is akin to writing my own bio, which no artist I know enjoys doing. With respect to the album itself, though, I can at least describe the mood and dynamic of the music itself. Themes like broken dreams, perseverance, disenfranchisement, uncertainty, and hope permeate the lyrics. Even the album title suggests a theme of conflict and duality.

The production is harder-edged than most of my previous works, but isn’t what new listeners would call “hardcore.” Brad described it as somewhere between Elton John and the Foo Fighters, a space I’m very comfortable with.

As I suggested in my first album announcement, you could say Cognitive Dissonance is about learning to live with the conflicts within us all.

2: What do I need made, and when do I need it?

An “art package” is a nebulous term. What specifically do I need art and photos for?

  • CD and LP Album cover/inserts
  • Promotional head shots for reviewers/press
  • Graphics for shirts
  • Graphics for posters
  • Graphics for other merch (could be anything from wristbands to pint glasses… I’ll need to get more specific)
  • Web-ready graphics for each of the album’s singles

The list may grow or shrink depending on fundraising, but at least it’s a start. My artist and/or photographer will know what the end products will be.

The schedule is a little easier: I need at least the cover art before fundraising in February, the promotional head shots before starting the PR blitz in March, and the rest by April so we can have all the merch ready to ship with the album in May. Why is the schedule important? For the artist it signals whether or not they’ll have time to complete the task. For my sanity, it tells me that I don’t have to hire a photographer until after we’ve done the fundraising.

Remember: Structure and deadlines are your friend when you’re working with other people.

3: Who’s my target audience?

Ah, marketing. The bane of my existence.

From the album title alone, you can tell I’m not shooting for the Andrew W. K. or Blink 182 crowds. I’m going for mid-20’s to mid-40’s intellectuals, presumably liberal, politically active (or at least aware), all genders. They eat locally-sourced sustainable food whenever possible, verify their news, and question their own biases. The kinds of people who probably have kids by now, but bring them to Comic Cons in costumes that match their own. The album’s not for the kids, though, it’s for the grown-ups who have had time to develop insecurities and addenda to their lifelong dreams.

4: Competition

I believe that, in music, you don’t have competition. Nobody listens exclusively to one artist. So where a business would describe their competitors and how they need to differentiate themselves, I need to describe the opposite: Whom do I sound like? Whose images and videos would I most like to emulate?

I’ll get back to you on that one. This question has always stymied me. For now, at least I know I’ve got elements of Elton John and Foo Fighters.

5: The Mood Board

Thanks to Pinterest, it’s easy to create a Mood Board and share it with the artists you hire. It’s simply a collection of things that represent what you’ve got in mind:

  • Color palette
  • Fonts
  • Artistic styles
  • Costumes
  • Textures
  • Locations

This is the easiest part for my non-visual brain to grasp— I don’t have to know WHY something works with the album, I just have to say “yes, that’s what I want” and pin it. Pin enough items and you’ll start to see patterns emerge. Beware, though: your artist/photographer may ask you why you added something, and you’ll probably have to give them a good reason.

It’s okay. That’s a healthy part of expanding your right brain. It’ll make this process easier next time.

6: Money

The budget is an obvious necessity, but how and when it will be paid must be addressed up front. Are you offering a deposit? Multiple payments upon delivery of multiple items? Make sure your artist knows you’ll be using their work in a commercial venture (I am hoping to actually make money from this album, after all). Do they want a check? Paypal? What about transaction fees?

Another thing to consider is the approval process. Are you the only one giving the green light, or do you have to decide as a band? What about your manager? Are approvals only valid in writing/email, or do you need a Skype call? Telegram chat? Unless you’re hiring a professional design firm, chances are good even your artist won’t have a clearly defined preference for all this, so work it out in writing before you’re neck-deep in Kickstarter mayhem.

7: Pre-existing art and formatting

I’m lucky in that I’ve had the same logo and type treatment for years. Take a look at my website’s masthead and you’ll see it: The circular logo with the big block font in all caps. If I’m asking the artist for a complete album cover design, they’re going to need those elements. To make things easiest, I keep them in a Google Drive folder as JPEG, EPS, and PNG, along with the actual font files.

I also need to spell out what formats I’ll need from the artist. Bitmaps like JPEG or PNG are fine for web graphics, but silk-screened goods like shirts and coffee mugs usually require vector images like EPS or AI. I’d also like the layered files, if the artist works in layers, so I can use various elements with adjustments. Like taking that fireball in my hand and replacing it with a “20% off” sticker for a Christmas special (or some other corny alteration). Getting the layered files gives me flexibility for the life of the album.

The more specific, the better

I don’t like telling my drummer exactly how to play his instrument, nor do I like telling an artist how to draw. Self-expression is why most of us became artists in the first place. But every project needs specific direction to stay coherent. If someone asked me to just write them a song, I’d be lost. If they asked me for an up-tempo ska piece about spring break, that would make my job a LOT easier.

The more details I can articulate, the more likely my art package will compliment the music I’ve written. Time to start writing that creative brief so Cognitive Dissonance can come to life.