As much of the tech press gathered in New York City in January for yet another major announcement from a mobile company, the mood (at least on Twitter — I wasn’t invited) was both anticipatory and funereal. The host was Research In Motion (RIM), the once dominant but now mostly irrelevant producer of BlackBerry devices, and critics believed there was pretty much nothing the Canadian company could do to catch up to Apple, Google and Samsung. RIM still had a few surprises to share; it had changed its name (to ‘BlackBerry’) and its newly unveiled devices, the Q10 and Z10, looked at least intriguing. However, the biggest announcement of all was the introduction of BlackBerry’s new creative director: Alicia Keys.
It says a lot that the public’s first reaction was not utter shock, but more like mild bemusement. After all, BlackBerry is just one of many companies tapping a musician to help shape its products and public image: think Polaroid and Lady Gaga, Intel and Will.i.am, Bud Light and Justin Timberlake.
On the surface the benefit of these relationships is obvious for both parties: Companies up their hip factor and notoriety among the public, and celebrities get paid. But after the initial buzz dies down, there’s an actual working relationship to consider. Sure, these celebrities have done a good job of managing and expanding their own personal brands, but will they be able to get anything meaningful done within a corporate environment? And can they be trusted to represent the brand in a consistently positive way (see Keys’ recent iPhone tweet blamed on ‘hackers’)?
Fast Company recently asked a few non-celebrity creative directors for their take on the trend, and for tips on what it is a creative director actually does. The publication’s creative director, Florian Bachleda, appropriately described the job in musical terms: “You’re writing the music, and then directing your team of different musicians to perform it, with your focus on the unified and finished sound… a creative director ensures that all of the visuals being produced are speaking with one aesthetic voice.”
Others, when asked to list the characteristics of a good creative director, noted that energy, passion, thick skin and experience with many different mediums – all characteristics that could be applied to popular musicians – would make a difference. Most didn’t dismiss the idea of celebrity creative directors out of hand, but wondered about their ability or desire to execute on a day-to-day basis. After all, it’s hard to imagine JT putting on his suit and tie not to perform on stage but to sit in meetings all day and make incremental progress on a project.
If these companies do figure out how to effectively harness these stars’ talents, we can expect more to follow – particularly in the hyper-competitive tech world, where every player tries to match the others feature for feature. So which musicians deserve a shot at the creative director jobs sure to open up in the near future? You know Kanye West is seething that he hasn’t gotten a call yet – but there are plenty of other visionaries out there who could help to direct a brand’s aesthetic. Here are my top choices:
Beck. He’s not the voice of a generation, and he never wanted to be, as evidenced by a recent Grantland retrospective on the 20th anniversary of “Loser”. But Beck’s many eclectic experiments over the years – from the perplexingly successful Odelay to the futuristic funk of Midnite Vultures, all the way to last year’s Song Reader, an album consisting solely of sheet music – show an artist who truly follows his own muse. Yet he still manages to hold on to a certain “Beck”-ness, a mix of familiarity and unpredictability that many brands crave. For those who would say that Beck’s independent spirit wouldn’t mesh with a brand, I point you to Hello Again, a Lincoln-sponsored project in which he reimagines classic compositions with the help of a collective of musicians, starting with David Bowie’s “Sound and Vision.”
Possible fit: Google. If anyone can make wearing Google Glass cool, it’s Beck.
David Byrne. If “Stop Making Sense” (nearly 30 years old now) didn’t convince you that the former Talking Heads frontman had a serious creative eye, then the all-white costume design for his 2008 tour with Brian Eno clinched it. A prolific writer (check out his journal), artist and sometime curator, Byrne has no shortage of ideas to work with. Plus, a company who works with him might get a package deal with current collaborator St. Vincent, unless she gets a gig of her own.
Possible fit: Apple. The all-white thing, plus “This Must Be the Place” would be a great soundtrack for a re-branding of the troubled Apple Maps.
Amanda Palmer. So it’s passion you want? The rags-to-Kickstarter-riches former street performer has no limits in that department. Fresh off a TED talk in which she demonstrates her strong connection to her audience (she has some of the most dedicated fans of any musician, thanks to a strong social media presence and participatory live shows that may or may not involve nude body painting). Less a conductor than a circus director, Palmer has proven the ability to realize her grand creative visions. And given the meticulous accounting she’s had to do for her controversial fundraising campaign, she could handle the day-to-day business as well as any artist on this list.
Possible fit: Facebook. Can’t wait to see what she’d do with ‘Like’ and ‘Poke’.
Raphael Saadiq. The former ‘90s R&B star (I’m still not sure if he was Tony, Toni or Tone) has managed to remain relevant across multiple decades while staying true to his roots and slowly shifting his sound. Even more than talented contemporaries in the classic R&B genre like Mayer Hawthorne and Aloe Blacc (himself a reformed rapper), Saadiq seems to truly own the aesthetic; The Way I See It and Stone Rollin’, feel instantly familiar, but not derivative. As Chicago Tribune critic Greg Kot put it: “He’s no longer a retro stylist – he’s writing new classics.”
Possible fit: Microsoft. Windows 8, the best-of-both-worlds operating system that attempts to be familiar and futuristic at the same time, is a serious creative challenge – but straddling that divide seems to be where Saadiq thrives.
Jack White. You could argue that White already is a creative director – for Third Man Records, the Nashville label he runs. If you read last year’s New York Times profile of White, you know that he has a very particular creative vision that must be executed at all times. His obsessiveness (some might say creepiness) could help some distracted companies get their heads on straight.
Possible fit: I’d say Yahoo!, but White is a classic remote work candidate given his interpersonal skills (or lack thereof).
There are plenty of other solid candidates out there. Share your nominations in the comments, and together we can help to further corporatize the art and artists we all love.