Creative directors are most often associated with advertising and marketing agencies and help bring big brands, like Nike, to life, But are an essential part of the music industry as well.
But their roles and responsibilities are different compared to creative directors working at conventional ad agencies.
Caleb Gauge is one of the leading creative directors in the music industry, working with acts such as Slander, RY X, and most notably NGHTMRE.
We had a chance to sit down with Caleb to talk what it takes to be a great creative director. Throughout this interview, Caleb talks about breaking into the industry as a creative director, qualities of a great creative director, and we even dive DEEP into the daily life of a creative director as he brings the world and vision of an icon like NGHTMRE to life.
All quotes throughout this article are taken from a recent interview with Caleb Gauge, co-founder of Aethyr Creative.
Creative Directors Vs. Music Industry Creative Directors
The sheer number of personalities, ideas, and possibilities in the music industry makes it a completely different monster than almost any other industry. As such, the creative directors who thrive in this industry must be able to adapt and play a different game.
"I feel like working for an agency is much more democratic with a lot of people involved. Working for an artist means you need to look at the individual and think about how to bring their story to life."
Creative directors in the music industry must be able to synthesize complex ideas and characters, controlling the chaos of the many moving parts and turning it into a unified vision for the artist(s).
There is no short supply of highly creative people across the music industry, which isn't always the case in standard agency work.
Again, being an effective communicator is a surefire way to find success.
'Knowing how to fit with each personality is one aspect of a great creative director. I have some clients that say 'Oh, I hear you work with so-and-so, are they difficult?' And I always say 'You need to find the things about why they work. Some of the things things that are difficult to work with on are there because they're also the things that are good about them.'
At the end of the day, creative directors across all industries want to elevate the brands that they are working with. The only difference is that creative directors in the music industry see brands through products; they see brands in sonics, personalities, and individuality and use that to create icons.
Responsibilities Of A Creative Director In The Music Industry
Because the music industry and the individual artists that comprise it are so dynamic, the daily responsibilities of a creative director in music change from project to project or campaign to campaign.
"A creative director reverse engineers the artist's vision, giving a holistic vision to what the artist's vision is. Their music is sonic messaging and I'm here to give it their vision."
But what goes into that exactly?
Caleb admits that just to bring the vision of NGHTMRE to life, as he will discuss later on in this article, he had to take on at least a dozen different roles.
He was a narrator who wrote the story that connected the music videos together, he was a curator who pulled inspiration from a hundred films, he was a designer who created multiple lines of merchandizing behind NGHTMRE's project, he was a people person who connected with NGHTMRE and materialized the vision Tyler had in his head, and he was a delegator who was able to pass off roles and responsibilities to the right partners and colleagues.
And yes, this was done simultaneously on one single project!
On a more granular level, Caleb would spend hours, days even, at his client's house watching videos and forming a vision for the line of music videos in which to present to the next team member who would take over from there:
"It's my job to bring all of this to the director and make sure the full aesthetic and the story is communicated to the executive director and producer of the music video."
Qualities Of An Amazing Creative Director
Discovering, materializing, and executing on an artistic vision for a client isn't easy, and it takes a certain type of individual to be an amazing creative director in the music industry.
In the past few years alone, new technology and methods of communication between artist and fan has made this more true than ever, and finding success within this new generation of creative directors will require you to think about your skillsets, experience, and self in a different light.
"For me, I don't consider myself the best designer ever. But what I am good at is being a great communicator and being able to effectively communicate the things that I am inspired by...Your value as a creative director comes down to how much you are aware of what's happening around you.""
Caleb is at the top of his game and he and his team are pushing the boundaries of creative direction. And while we will dive into the career path and steps that he took to get where he is a bit later on in this article, it's important to note that his soft skills played a far more monumental role in his success than his hard skills.
Skills such as being able to juggle various roles, deal with the needs and visions of varying personalities, people management, communication and the constant moving of the needle forward have garnered the opportunities for his company to work with NGHTMRE, Slander, RY X and more.
"Sure, we work with Slander and RY X but we also work with hospitality brands. How we take off one hat and slide into another, at the end of the day, none of that would happen without a really good project management system , really good partners that can help fit other parts of the brand that you don't, and a whole lot of caffeine...like, a LOT."
Because at the end of the day, there is no perfect client or project in the music industry. Everyone and everything has their own pros and cons to it, and being able to capitalize on the hardest elements to handle is what is most important.
As my father always says, it's how you play your bad hands that show you how good you are at poker; and the same is true with creative directors in the music industry.
How To Become a Creative Director In The Music Industry
Like many roles and opportunities within the music industry, there is no set, tried and t rue way of becoming a creative director.
Caleb's early years were in the party promotion side of the industry, and while he didn't know it at the time, this tangential work experience was paramount to his later success.
"I was throwing parties in Atlanta during the Myspace era and fell into a world of online promoters where I fell in love with electronic music and naturally linked up with other highly creative people doing the same thing that I was - people like Roxy Cottontail and Flosstradomus. If you look at the paths of each of us, we've all become creative directors in our own way."
These are the types of people, connections, and inner circles he later relied upon to form his early clients and lists of contacts to start his official move into creative direction.
but upon reflection, he admits that he was a creative director long before obtaining his first official title as one. Because for each party he threw and every activation event he coorindate, he relied upon his collegiate education in design to create the visual aesthetics of them all.
"My foundation of creative direction was design. So all of my early partnerships from day one in event promotion, I was the creative director there. I did this for almost 15 years."
But all of this changed when some major events took place in Caleb's life and forced him to revaluate what he was going in his life.
"After I recovered from Leukemia, I knew I didn't want to be throwing these stressful parties anymore so I decided to put both feet into it and made sure to surround myself with other creative partners. That lead my into being a creative director, where I could begin to leverage a lot of my music industry connections"
This is valuable advice for anyone hesitant about making the jump into the music industry. As this article has stated frequently, there are countless opportunities in the music industry for those who can think outside the box in regards to offering their skillsets to those who need them.
What is most important to finding your initial success as a creative director is to simply trust your gut and surround yourself with people who are more creative than you are.
"If you're wanting to be in this field, I would assume that it's because you're very inspired by things that are happening now and I assume you surround yourself with very inspirational stuff."
Creative Director Case Study: Bringing To Life NGHTMRE's 'The One'
Caleb's latest project was working on NGHTRE's latest project, centered around the release of his latest single 'The One.'
The project as a whole consists of a single track that will be released alongside his upcoming artist album, a music video, a new line of merch, and a new live show that culminated at a recent performance at Red Rocks Amphitheater (and they say this is only the beginning of what they have in store for this creative direction specifically).
And to accomplish such a feat, Caleb and his team had to think outside of the box.
"For the track 'The One' I had to approach it from a different angle than a typical song. We wanted to focus on the storytelling and the world behind the music. So in some ways I was the visual director but I see myself more as the writer behind the story... It all started when [NGHTMRE] comes to me with this project and told me the songs, feelings, and even the colors he's inspired by that he has attached to the music."
But before Caleb and his team could effectively create a visual aesthetic, world, and story behind the music, they had to fill up their creative cups by finding a TON of things that inspired them.
Sometimes I'd go over to ]NGHTMRE's] house for 8-12 hours a day to really start ramping up the ideas. We would watch movies together, list out our inspirations from books, and more. I would bet 30% of all of my inspiration comes from weird movies... Anime films or Blade Runner have the fundamental aesthetics of it. But Beyond The Black Rainbow was our biggest inspiration to dive into the cerebral part of it.'
Once the idea was solidified and both the creative director and the artist were happy with the result, it was time to start communicating that vision to the next member of the team; in this case, James Winterholter, the music video's director.
It's easy to assume from a consumer perspective that the art simply took on a life of it's own and came to be through the grace of the muse or simple raw talent of the contributors, but this case study and following music video that was recently released show that this is simply not the case.
Every move is deliberate. Each dialogue between artist and director is intentional made in order to evoke the greatest possible emotion and cerebral reaction within the fans (in the best possible way of course).
So let's dive into the end result...
NGHTMRE 'The One' Music Video
While we can't say much about the project just yet, we recently beta tested a lot of cool stuff from the stage visuals. we are happy with how cinematic with the direction we are going is. it's taken a really big team to start working on a lot of these videos we are. the red rocks show is the perfect example of bringing it all to life, as the stage production really felt as if you were watching the music videos IRL.'