Music Industry Creative Case Study: Survival Mode Part 2

Survival Mode - Part 2

Welcome back to our deep dive into the creative direction work we did for The Hara’s debut album, Survival Mode. This blog is part two of a two part series so if you haven’t read the first part yet…where have you been?! Head over there right now and get caught up!

Just in case you need a refresher, about a year ago today, we found out that The Hara’s debut album, Survival Mode had landed at #3 in the UK Rock and Metal chart, as well as attaining a bunch of other chart positions across the UK alternative music scene. As long time friends of the band, it was amazing to see the years of hard work paying off in the form of record sales and chart success. But, we also had our own sense of pride for the achievement, as for the first time in our career, and for the first time since we started working with The Hara, we had handled the entire creative direction and production of the album and its release.

3 men holding survival mode albums with information about where the album reached in the charts
The Hara reached top 20 in more than one alternative music chart in the UK and it was pretty exciting to see!

We’re using this one year anniversary as a time to revisit the creative process behind the visual content of the album, and to have a look in a little more detail at how an all purpose production company, like Cosmic Joke, can deliver added value in a music industry that is more dependent on visuals and marketing than ever before.

Last week, we had a look at the requirements from both the band and the record label and how we devised a creative concept to meet those needs. We also delved into how that concept and the narrative were delivered to fans through social media marketing and music video production. This week, we’re going to spend some time looking at the wider applications of the creative, narrative concept across other areas of the band’s output, such as their live music and touring and the album artwork itself. But first…

The Devil Went Down To Manchester: Low Budget SFX, Makeup and Prosthetics

You can’t do a deep dive into Survival Mode without spending a little time examining the central antagonist of the narrative, The Devil himself, or the ‘inner demon’ at the centre of the campaign. The very fact that we can’t ignore this character is testament to how synonymous they became with the Survival Mode album campaign, which was a very deliberate and successful part of our plan.

lead singer of the hara sat across a desk from the devil
Using your lead singer as the main antagonist was both great for not having to cast an additional actor and tricky from a SFX perspective...

In the saturated visual market of social media marketing and, in particular, music industry creative work, there is a consistent need to stand out. That’s why whenever we’re approaching visual content within the music industry, we always look for ways to be different and to create something that people aren’t seeing elsewhere. It was this thinking that led us to creating the devil character.

The Survival Mode narrative concept called for an antagonist - the band had to be working against ‘someone’ to maintain that 80s, arcade, video game feel. We could have gone down the visual effects route to try and create a digital menace, but from looking around the market, we figured we’d have more of an impact with actually creating an otherworldly bad guy in the ‘flesh’. As well as having more of a visual impact, it would also solve a number of practical production considerations and problems and offer some significant advantages along the way.

The plan we decided upon was to have the lead singer, Josh, play The Devil, thanks to the use of prosthetics and make up. From a narrative perspective, this was absolutely perfect, as it visually encapsulated the concept of the band fighting their own inner demons (in addition to the other external factors like music industry pressure.) By mirroring the lead singer of the band, the villain was able to become the visual manifestation of self doubt and feelings of inferiority in a brutal industry. It also allowed Josh to bring the character to life and bring his own artistry to the narrative of the music videos. Overall, this provided a significant creative and artistic advantage to alternative methods.

On a more practical level, this approach helped us to expand our limited cast of three band members to four ‘characters’, without the need for any additional casting, hiring or expense. We were able to have a main character in a narrative music video series that didn’t come along with extra expenses and logistical considerations - a massive benefit to delivering such an involved and sprawling concept on a limited budget. On a very practical level, it also put the ‘actor’ at our disposal whenever we needed them as it was their band. This particular aspect would prove to be invaluable as the campaign progressed and the amount of content required from The Devil increased due to positive fan and label feedback.

By having the lead singer of the band portray the villain, it allowed us to expand the role of The Devil beyond the remit of a character within a narrative music video series. We were now able to explore The Devil as a mouthpiece for the band - someone who could ‘visually’ promote the band and the record across social media and other channels. As the campaign progressed, the character took on a life of its own and, thanks to positive fan feedback, we were able to create more assets than just music videos that would feature The Devil. This was a huge bonus when you think about the amount of content required to fill an entire album campaign - you need to be providing fans with visual content on a regular basis and that content needs to offer visual and narrative variety. If you can create an adaptable, visual character like The Devil, then you can increase the amount of content you create and increase your fan offering.

In terms of the actual creation of The Devil, the makeup and prosthetics were designed and created by the super talented, Alice Flesher. A full face cast of Josh was made at the start of the campaign, which allowed for the creation of bespoke prosthetic pieces. Each time we wanted to bring The Devil to life, Josh would go through a four hour makeup process, and this needed to happen every day of production. A huge advantage of this process was that it also created the opportunity for visual content like behind the scenes/making of content for example.

the lead singer sat with a mask on his face with two hands sculpting shape into it
A short four hour session to transform from human to devil...

The creation and use of The Devil allowed us to create a visual centrepiece for the album campaign that people became attached to. It was almost a mascot for the band - a character who allowed for the creation of a wide variety of content as well as being a recognisable and visual motif that could be utilised well beyond the core narrative music video series that was created. It was an ‘out there’ idea when we first conceived it, but it paid dividends when it came to practical applications. It’s also a great example of the power of thinking outside of the box when it comes to traditional music video production and associated assets.

Album Cover Design

The Devil was a central part of the Survival Mode album campaign, so it’s only fitting that he made up a key part of the album artwork too. When it comes to creating album artwork, there are two main considerations to keep in mind - the artistic direction of the visual material and the practical deliverables that are required in order to get the music into the hands of fans.

To cover off the practicals first, it’s important to get a handle on what’s required at the very start of the process. We knew early on that we would need to be creating album artwork for a variety of formats, including CDs, cassettes, DSPs and multiple different vinyls, from single sleeves to gatefolds. We knew that whatever artwork was created, it would need to be applied to all of these formats and would need to be really effective in all of these formats. We didn’t want to create artwork that looked amazing on a vinyl sleeve and rubbish on a cassette. So the first thing we did was to get a handle on the limitations of all of these formats: the sizes, the requirements from the printers etc. We made sure before we began thinking creatively that we had templates in place to match every deliverable needed.

digital mock up of the survival mode album with a red vinyl coming out of the sleeve
The artwork needed to be produced across multiple formats, from CDs to vinyl

This is why it’s a good idea to involve a production company, or creative director, in the album artwork process, even if you’re a band or an artist with a very clear, visual grasp on what you’d like the artwork to be. A company that has experience in delivering to multiple industry-standard physical formats will be able to ensure that any artwork is as effective as it can be across all platforms. The last thing that you want as an artist is to have artwork that looks incredible, but is rejected by the printers because it doesn’t match their requirements. And you certainly don’t want any delays in the production of the record that might result in you missing delivery deadlines and chart opportunities.

So, with all of the practical considerations taken care of ahead of time, we were able to think creatively about what the album artwork actually needed to be. Because of the narrative music video campaign, and the storyline behind the album, we felt like the whole thing was creatively very close to a video game or movie, so we decided that the album artwork should reflect this and it should act as the movie poster or box cover for the story. We turned to quintessential movie posters as inspiration - the big hitters from the 80s that did a great job of condensing the entire movie plot and characters into a single, iconic image. That style of poster was usually a hand painted, character-led poster (think Star Wars or Stranger Things), so we wanted to emulate this style for the album artwork.

the final artwork of the hara's album survival mode with three painted heads and the devil behind them
The final design, paying homage to some of the coolest movie posters of the 70s and 80s

We decided the core elements of the Survival Mode story were the band and The Devil. We knew we needed those four ‘characters’ to be featured on the album cover and we knew that we needed any typography to match the video game text and aesthetic that had already featured throughout the music video production. From there, we knew there needed to be a focus on the central colour of the creative campaign - red - and that everything needed to have a vague sci-fi/fantasy feel to match the narrative scope of the album.

To achieve the artwork style we were looking for (hand-painted portraits), we took the most cost effective approach of taking actual photos of the characters on the set of one of the music videos and then digitally ‘painting’ over them in Photoshop to create the right look. This was a considerably more versatile and flexible approach - it allowed us to mock up the poster using the photos and get sign off from the band on the images that would be used. We then had the opportunity to fine tune the painting process, knowing that the imagery was correct.

jack the drummer stood on a black background next to the same image on the album cover with heavy painted effects
Instead of facing the prospect (and cost) of individually hand drawing each aspect of the album, we used Photoshop to create the same desired effect

For the inner sleeve, we stuck with the same art style but leaned even more into the video game artwork concept and created a ‘level select’ screen that would match the music videos for the inner gatefold and a ‘character select’ screen for the vinyl sleeve that would capture the thoughts and feelings of each band member. Alongside these fixed assets, we were able to create a handful of digital assets from the same creative process to further increase the output of the project - imagery such as individual profile pictures of the band members in the same art style that they could use across their individual social channels. This furthered the reach of the creative concept, whilst also maximising the amount of assets that could be created and used.

the inner sleeve of the hara's survival mode vinyl album, featuring the words level select and images taken from each of the music videos
We used the inner sleeve of the vinyl album to create a video game 'map' that showed all of the different levels (music videos)

Looking back a year later, for us, the artwork really does feel like the perfect, visual representation of the album. It’s a singular image that truly encapsulates the aesthetic and feel of the entire album campaign and we’re extremely pleased with how it turned out.

Live Music Filming, Tour Promo, Stage Visuals and Merchandise

A key part of any album campaign is the band getting out on the road and performing it live for fans. For the Survival Mode headline tour, we knew we wanted it to be slightly different because of how visual and narrative-driven the record and music video production had become. From the start, we had all wanted Survival Mode to be a narrative, lived-in world and we wanted to extend that to the fans so they could experience it first-hand.

The first task was to figure out how to bring the Survival Mode world of the music videos and artwork into the live space. We decided to use a variety of TV screens on stage to showcase elements from the Survival Mode visuals that would be synced to the live performance. This TV setup was itself inspired by the wall of TVs featured in the Died In My Twenties music video, whilst all of the actual content was taken from other music videos or graphics and animation that matched the artwork and narrative.

a stage with zack the guitarist and josh the lead singer, behind them is a big screen with the devil holding a telephone and some tv screens also with the devil holding a telephone. They are all facing a crowd of people
The TV screens from 'Talk to the Manager' repurposed for onstage use, complete with bespoke tour visuals

We created everything, from a video game style loading bar in the 5 minutes before stage time to ‘interruptions’ from The Devil antagonising the audience like they were playing his game. We even had Josh on stage, using the actual red phone from the Rockstar music video. All of this helped to make these live shows really feel like they belonged to the Survival Mode experience.

josh the lead singer holding a red telephone to his ear
Extending the campaign beyond the screen - Josh used the very same red telephone from 'Rockstar' onstage throughout the tour

Through these visual additions, we were able to help to shape the live performance into something that felt more theatrical and interactive than the usual live gig. Our next task was to create bespoke artwork for the tour that would follow the visual motifs of a video game. We had a photoshoot with the band in a retro arcade and used this 80s arcade aesthetic to build them into tour date posters. The final look was reminiscent of old arcade game cabinets and looked very cool and different (even if we do say so ourselves!)

the survival mode tour poster with the band stood in a video arcade - surrounded by a video game arcade screen and tour dates
The tour poster using the video game aesthetics and retro feel

We captured video content at each gig to produce recap videos and we were able to make these match the visuals from the rest of the album campaign, thanks to utilising the same video game font and motion graphic assets such as lightning strikes and pixelation. This look and feel also extended into merchandise, which we helped to create in line with the visual guidelines of the Survival Mode campaign and creative.


It’s difficult to quantify the artistic success of a creative campaign. For the album itself, we can look at the chart position and unit sales that were achieved and agree that #3 in the rock and metal chart is absolutely a huge success. But for the creative campaign, the achievements are less tangible. We’d like to think that with Survival Mode, we were able to deliver a cohesive, creative vision that defined an era for the band. An all encompassing, visual framework that permeated through every part of the band’s output and helped to make a world that people wanted to explore and be part of.

With this blog, hopefully we’ve been able to showcase how important creative direction is for an album release strategy. This is more than just music videos or a piece of album artwork; this is about being at the helm of an aesthetic vision that, if done correctly, can elevate an album to something more immersive and memorable.

If you’ve been inspired by anything you’ve read here and want to check out more of our music video production work then you can see it all here. If you’re looking to release an album and wondering how to handle the visually creative side of the music industry then why not drop us a line and see how we can help?