Back in 2003 when Virgil Abloh was just a grad student finishing up his masters degree in Chicago, he connected with Kanye West, impressed him with his aesthetic prowess and landed himself a spot in the rapper’s entourage. In the 14 years since, Abloh has climbed the ranks to become creative director, advising the hip-hop mogul on everything from tour merchandise design and album covers to music video concepts and identifying underground artists on Tumblr who eventually worked their way into West’s work. He has played a key role in helping West connect with youth culture — in helping West remain culturally relevant.
He’s also made his “creative director” title something of a buzzword in the music industry. Andra Day and Wiz Khalifa each have one; The Weeknd works with La Mar Taylor, while Travis Scott has Corey Damon Black. “Most artists today have built their own tribes around themselves,” says Mazdack Rassi who is creative director of Milk Studios, a media and events company and agency. “Many [artists] run their teams like a creative agency and what’s great about this format is that they get to own their own brands.”
Part of this trend, though, can be attributed to changes in record labels, whose A&R departments once exerted far more control over artists’ on-and-off-stage aesthetic. “Labels aren’t what they used to be and artists are realizing that they know best when it comes to exploring their inner creative,” Rassi adds. James W. Mataitis Baile (aka Yimmy Yayo), who has worked with full-fledged pop stars like Rihanna and Bruno Mars, artists Vic Mensa and Vince Staples, as well as indie darlings like Wet, echoes similar sentiments. “People are coming to labels with their creative already established,” he tells Billboard.
“There was a time when the major label was king—the Britney [Spears] or Justin [Timberlake] era, for example—but everyone was kind of looking the same, everything became kind of mechanical. I know from working with a few artists on major [labels] now, that they don’t want internal creative, and the management doesn’t want it either because it feels constrictive a lot of the time. When you have marketing dinosaurs from a label saying ‘oh you should wear this jacket’—you’re just like ‘no, this is bad.’”
The demand for creative directors is also a reaction to the volume of content people are ingesting across digital platforms. A 2015 study by Deloitte reported that Americans collectively checked their phones 8 billion times per day, with each person averaging 46 individual check-ins. According to Robert J. Thompson, a professor of pop culture at Syracuse University, the surge in imagery they are accessing will only continue. “The rate of acceleration that we are in will be a forever thing, but there is a finite number of visual ways you can represent stuff on two dimensions,” he says. “Humans by nature love looking at things, they have an appetite for consuming images that are interesting and make us see things differently. And that appetite will never fully be satiated.” The one thing that does reach a saturation point? “How many images an individual can make a commitment to.”
Essentially, that means the images people cling onto have to truly stand apart from the rest, and that’s where creative directors come in. “The whole world of possibilities that the internet has opened up is strengthening people’s tastes, causing people to demand more of artists, which in turn is pushing us to work harder to create something meaningful,” says Black Atlass, the 22 year-old Canadian R&B artist who enlisted in Yayo to help with all of the art when releasing his debut album, Haunted Paradise (Fools Gold), last August. Atlass and Milk’s Rassi also make the case that the decision of artists to team up with creative directors early on in their careers can have a paramount effect: “It’s more important to start with a great creative direction around your music and what you stand for. Much more difficult to recreate an image later,” says Rassi.
Casey McGrath, the Chief Creative Officer of New York-based agency Phear Creative, offers a different perspective. “I think new bands inherently have strong points of view. They are what they are; their brand is ‘young hungry band’ and there aren’t preconceptions. Album number seven, though, is a different challenge,” he explains. With Kings Of Leon, whom he has known since 2008, he says, “You ask yourself why an album like Come Around Sundown didn’t perform as well as it should have? It was a great record. What could have happened? What could have been done better?” The answer lies somewhere in the notion that “fans are like consumers: they aren’t just going to eat something because it tastes good. If you don’t have a strong sense of who you are or what you’re making—people don’t care. You have to reinvent: if you’re not changing you’re dying.”
So when the Nashville-based group began writing WALLS (RCA), their seventh LP that debuted in October at Number 1 on the Billboard 200, McGrath and his team sought to create what they call an “active listening experience”—to create visual accompaniments that would convey to fans and non-fans that the new music was going to sound completely different because it looked completely different.
McGrath and his team drew from their 10 year relationship with the band — what they knew about them personally (the way that lead singer Caleb Followill shapes songs, the art that hangs in Matthew Followill’s home), and from things the band would unknowingly say throughout the recording process — when dreaming up imagery. The overarching feel, says McGrath, was rooted in nature (“the band is rootsy”) but pressed through an absurdist lens (“they also clean up nice and can be slick”). “But instead of going to some incredible talented photographer that has their own look, that you end up leaving with two band-approved photos — I wanted to have 100 images, multiple wardrobe changes.” Enlisting in Jimmy Marble, a relatively unknown photographer Phear discovered through Instagram, the band ended up with a “tremendous output” of work that landed in their live show, on merchandise, and across social media channels so the album experience was a visually cohesive one.
But while creative directors seek to avoid trends, to never rest on one look or idea — what about the trend of “creative directors” themselves? As Professor Thompson points out, “The minute something becomes a pattern its own demise is built into that. Pattern destroys innovation. Pattern suggests predictability, and predictability is anathema to what artists want.” So does a cultural cognizance of creative directors point to their extinction or a next iteration?
Yayo, who landed his big break doing the lighting design for West and Jay Z’s Throne Tour in 2012, has responded by simply not using the title for himself. “It’s become a catchphrase, buzz-term, trending topic,” he acknowledges. “Whenever anyone asks me, I don’t do it. I dislike what the term means today,” he says without the slightest pretension. Because the fact is, the creative director title requires time and specific knowledge, but it can be defended with no real substance. “To call yourself a ‘Photographer’—well, were you first assistant? Second assistant? Second Shooter? And then a photographer? Or did you just grab a camera? A lot of people use the phrase haphazardly,” says Yayo. “A kid who has an Instagram account is a ‘Creative Director’ these days but you can’t say you’re a lawyer without having taken the bar exam.”