"The term creative director -- about five years ago, people were like, 'Oh no, only very rich artists can afford that.'"
Los Angeles-based record label IAMSOUND has been best known over the past decade as the indie launching pad for acts like Florence + the Machine, Charli XCX and Lord Huron. But lately it's been increasingly making a name for itself in the branding and marketing world, and its latest signings haven't been musicians, but rather visual artists.
"Most 'indie labels' either move into management or move into publishing," says founder and CEO Niki Roberton. "I feel like having a full creative agency... There aren't many companies that have that. So we're kind of in a unique position."
While Roberton calls the record label IAMSOUND's "foundation" -- and earlier this year signed a deal with Interscope -- over the past five years the company has been running campaigns for brands like Top Shop, Soylent, Pitchfork, Adult Swim, Spotify, Vans and others. And in both music and marketing, Roberton -- along with her partners Paul Tao and Anh Do -- came to a realization that there was a constant need for their work. Whether for album artwork, press photos, experiential activations, graphic design, social postings, live production or nearly anything else across the spaces of music and branding, visual artists were consistently in demand.
"We were always on the hunt on the label side or through the agency to find these people," says Roberton. "So we started to reach out and realized that they weren't represented." From there, the IAMSOUND visual art studio was born. And, since, the collective has provided creative direction, stage design, videos and more for some of music's top acts.
The IAMSOUND visual art studio roster now includes seven artists, with more collaborators that Roberton and her team will seek out on a project-by-project basis. Among the group are Clare Gillen, who has worked with Tinashe, King Princess, Haim, Noah Cyrus and others, providing a mix of album packaging, creative direction and set design for live performances; Nick Harwood, who has worked with SOPHIE, Kim Petras, Porches, and more; Imogen Snell, who provided creative direction for The xx's recent I See You LP campaign; Michael Brown, who has managed production design and creative direction for Bon Iver, The National and the Eaux Claires festival; and the duo All Valley Yacht Club, which has handled art direction and set design for Spotify events with Miley Cyrus, St. Vincent, Lana del Rey, Halsey, Kesha and others, and led the recreation of Jack Antonoff's childhood bedroom for a traveling installation on Bleachers' Gone Now Tour last summer.
The collaborations vary project-by-project, from an artist taking the creative reins entirely to working more closely with musicians to best implement their vision, but the key is cohesiveness, says Roberton, a former music video director herself. "When you see a rollout of a campaign that's really cohesive, we really get interested and locked in," she continues. "It's the sort of discombobulated, disjointed projects... we really notice that that's the flaw with marketing campaigns. But it should be something that feels super on point and super-future and current."
Roberton notes that as an agency, IAMSOUND is also interested in more than just connecting its artists with musicians or brands for behind-the-scenes work, but also building their profiles and empowering them to create projects of their own, through partnerships that put their talent at the forefront. "We very much see them as artists in their own right and brands within their own right," she says. The company touts full production capabilities in-house as well, which Roberton says means their artists have developed relationships and trust their team to execute to their liking. And with former Paradigm creative-partnerships staffer Jack Pitney joining the eight-person staff next month, Roberton says she expects to further enhance IAMSOUND's reach in that realm.
Along with seeking out new opportunities for the IAMSOUND visual-artist roster, Roberton says it's been a learning experience working tangentially with such a wide array of musicians and their teams, observing how others go about running a marketing campaign. Likewise, their clients are learning, too.
"The term creative director -- about five years ago, people were like, 'Oh no, only very rich artists can afford that,'" says Roberton. "But I think now there is this understanding of how much they can do for a project and how useful they are. And we're also starting to really educate people on this word 'experiential' and how with most campaigns -- whether you're a huge artist or a small artist -- that sort of intimate experience with fans is really becoming more and more important."
The best advice I've received was to always trust my instincts. Within the music industry it is very easy to get swayed by other people's opinions and what's happening in the moment -- in those instances I do my best to take a step back and be sure I'm following my intuition first and foremost and not chasing a trend.
The unique part of IAMSOUND -- and the thing I am most proud of -- is the ecosystem we have created for our artists. Our musicians have the opportunity to work with our creative directors and vice versa. We can utilize our agency to bring opportunities to our artists and pitch our artists for agency projects with confidence. Everything flows naturally between spaces and it's really exciting when the projects link up. They don't always and certainly don't need to. It reflects an environment I always wanted to create and be a part of.
I've never had a problem with taking risks and working hard. I love our team at IAMSOUND and feel like we all share this hustle. It's extremely rewarding for me to see how we push ourselves towards a goal and for it to come to fruition.
I've learned that teamwork is really such an important part of any project. Whether it's with an album release, creative campaign, or a brand launch, it really does take everyone working in harmony to create success.
It's good to have a break from work and enjoy life with family and friends. When you work for yourself, it's difficult to put that into perspective and not feel guilty if you aren't working 24/7. I've learned that taking a weekend or evening off isn't a sign of laziness, but is healthy for your creativity and something that can help reset you.