Music Industry Creative Case Study: Survival Mode Part 1

Survival Mode - Part 1

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.

As we look back on this one year anniversary, it feels like a great 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.

This was a huge campaign that spanned the best part of 12 months, so in order to get stuck into the details, we’re going to split this process into two blogs. This week we’re going to take a look at the origins of the campaign and the visual world building we did across music video production. Next week, we’ll be focussing on how the creative for an album can really stretch across a band's output, from their live gigs to their merchandise.

The Brief

The ‘brief’ for the Survival Mode album campaign can be broken down into two broad sections: the literal deliverables that would be required by the record label in order to promote the release of the record and the creative thoughts and feelings of the band and how they wanted to be visually and creatively represented throughout this time. This kind of approach is really at the crux of the music industry as a whole - the meeting ground in the middle of the ‘music’ or ‘creative’ part and the ‘industry’ part.

The deliverables were as to be expected when it comes to an album launch and the music industry creative side of it. There was artwork for the album itself in various different formats, music videos and associated social media posts for six single releases, tour posters and promo videos for a live tour to support the record’s release, merchandise, and finally, a general aesthetic to be applied to all visual aspects of the band.

vinyl artwork for the hara's survival mode album with three faces and devil face behind and the text the hara and survival mode
The most expected part of album deliverables...the album artwork, in all the product specs

When it came to the band and their creative desires, this was a lot more involved and less tangible. There was a strong desire from everyone involved to create a strong overall aesthetic that would exist across all platforms and facets of the band. Something that would feel cohesive and complete. Every visual asset that was released throughout the album campaign would look like it belonged directly to this era of the band and that this would be a full reset on everything that had come before. In terms of what this aesthetic was going to be, there was a feeling that it needed to be bold, out of this world and colourful. There was demand for a single colour that would come to ‘define’ this era on an aesthetic level.

On a personal level, this was a time for the band to ‘step up the game’ and really cement their place in the alternative music scene. As a result, they were looking for polished visuals that would match their newer, heavier sound. A look that felt at home on the stage of Download Festival or in the pages of Kerrang! The band had spent the previous years passing through the crucible of the music industry and the album that came out the other side was testament to their ability to survive the rigours of what can be a trying and demanding space. This was their ode to their own ‘Survival Mode’ and this ‘Survival Mode’ would come to be the defining characteristic of the aesthetic of this campaign. Whilst the album dealt with this on a sonic level, we needed to bring it to life visually and it was felt around the camp that this should be a ‘concept’ album and creative experience - something that felt narrative, almost filmic and linear.

The band viewed the music industry as a violent video game that was out to destroy them at every turn - a game where you had to learn the rules quickly and know when to follow them and when to break them, if you ever wanted to reach the final boss battle. This video game survival mentality would come to be the centrepiece of the album’s creative. It was time to create a narrative world that would take fans, new and old, by surprise by planting a creative flag in the ground and defining this period as a new and unique era.

Our Proposal

Based on everything outlined above, we knew we needed to go high concept - a big, bold narrative that would be easy to hang all of the desires of the band on, whilst giving us enough of a flexible framework to actually create and deliver the myriad of assets that were required. So what was the idea?

‘What if The Hara were sucked into a video game, where they had to fight their inner demons in order to get back to the real world?!’

It was as simple as that: everyone loved it and we ran with it for the whole campaign. We’d tell a narrative through the six music videos, starting with the band entering this video game world and then fighting their way out through to the epic conclusion. Each music video would be a new level of the game; we’d go with a big 80s movie poster feel for the album artwork and all of the surrounding visuals would be informed by the video game world that we created. The colour for the campaign would be red and we’d be able to create defined, signature looks for each of the band members that both matched the video game world and featured the colour.

three screaming band members of the hara being sucked into the tv screen, light rays emit from the screen to show the energy pulling them in
You know you've got client trust when you suggest that they're sucked into a video game and they don't flinch and instead, agree instantly!

The narrative framework provided us with plenty of opportunities to tick all of the boxes that the band was looking for, whilst also allowing us enough flexibility if anything needed to change along the way. If we needed to change the look of the band for some reason, then it wouldn't be a problem - it could be a new level or bonus content or even a cheat code.

It would be a long journey to bring this world to life and to tell this story, whilst delivering what would ultimately be 100s of assets, but with the framework set, we knew we had what we needed. Let’s take a deeper look at how the overall concept would work for each of the specific requirements of the album campaign.

Introducing The Narrative to Fans: Music Industry Social Media Marketing

With the framework for the album creative set, we next needed to explore how we’d deliver such a narrative and involved concept to fans. We decided to orchestrate a social media stunt that would simultaneously act as a hard reset on the band's aesthetic and output to date and ‘announce’ the start of the album campaign and introduce fans to the new era.

In short, we had the band disappear ‘live’ on Instagram, in front of all of the fans. This began a week-long ‘in character’ campaign where the band was missing - trapped inside a video game - that culminated in the reveal of the new aesthetic and announcement of the new album. It was a fully committed, interactive social media marketing campaign.

We created a video asset that showed the band appearing on Instagram live - shot on a phone, talking to camera etc. We then added visual effects to this to make it look like the band were being sucked into the television and into a video game. We used bridging software to actually release this video ‘live’ on Instagram, which is usually impossible unless you actually are ‘live’ and using your phone's camera! This little trick enabled us to really complete the illusion of a live disappearance - afterwards, it was so fun to watch all of the fans discussing what had just happened - and it also helped us to increase the reach of the video asset by leveraging the algorithmic favouring of ‘live’ videos.

Whilst the video was going out live, the band was behind the scenes, hiding all of their previous social media posts and replacing all of their profile pictures with a mysterious pixelated phone number. By the time fans had seen the ‘live’ video ,and the dust had settled, they were pointed towards the phone number for answers. When fans called, they heard a pre-recorded message from the main ‘villain’ of the Survival Mode narrative (more on him next week) who was directing fans to a further announcement later in the week.

a circle image of a pixellated red phone with a number and a second circle image with the hara band members
We relied solely on two images once the Instagram Live had dropped and the lads disappeared...a phone number and the album artwork

After a few days of this mystery, we reached the time indicated by the phone call. At this point, we dropped the first music video of the album campaign, revealed the name of the album, showed the album artwork and introduced fans to the story and aesthetic that would come to define the next 12 months.

This whole ‘stunt’ was a huge success. It enabled the band to have a clean break on their social media channels, with a defined aesthetic reset. It also had the added bonus of bringing fans into a new world in both an exciting and organic way. As far as album announcements go, this was considerably more interesting and involved than during a gig at a local venue - it got people intrigued, excited and clued up on what was to come.  The band wanted the fan base to join them on a creative, narrative journey and there was no better way to get this started than literally bringing them along for the ride.

There were a few other added bonuses to this approach that really involved the business-end of the album campaign. Namely, by gathering all of the fanbase into one place for the ‘live’ stunt, we were able to get a read on who their fans were and how many were along for the ride. The phone number also allowed a significant amount of organic data gathering - it helped to create a marketing database for the band, something that would be leveraged later in the album campaign with text messages to encourage album sales, whilst also providing fans with a fun experience.

In short, this was an album launch unlike any other. It was a modern day magic trick: a live illusion to a digital audience that helped to build an imaginative world that we could play in for the next year.

Music Video Production

If the social media stunt introduced the world of Survival Mode to the fans, then it was up to the music videos to carry the heavier load of telling the narrative and fleshing out that world. We could spend thousands of words discussing each music video production, and all of the filmmaking that went into them (maybe we will if people want to hear about it?), but for this overview, we’ll just take a quick look at how we handled the process of the music video portion of the album campaign as a whole.

Music videos were the spine of the Survival Mode album creative - they were the ‘film’ that everything else would hang off. As a result, we started with a look into what were the most important aspects of the music video production that we needed to concentrate on. These were broadly two things - the narrative that fans would need to follow and understand, and the aesthetic guidelines for the Survival Mode world, as they would inform all other visuals, such as merchandise or album artwork.

a behind the scenes image of a band member holding a phone whilst being filmed on camera
Creating a narrative for a concept album was loads of fun - it was a great chance to develop and flesh out characters and motivations and plenty of visual gimmicks

For the narrative, we worked with the band to tell a story that matched the emotional story that the album told. The record was a concept album about survival, but it didn’t have defined characters or locations; these would be achieved through the music videos. We wanted this to feel like a journey; we wanted the band to grow along the way and increase in power, so that by the time the record was released in the ‘real’ world, they would be at the peak of their powers in the music video world. We knew we wanted the band to compete against a villain - someone who they would need to defeat, in order to succeed, and take their throne in the music industry - and we knew that all of this needed to be told in 6 chapters to match the singles that were being released.

a behind the scenes image of a director with an actor in devil prosthetics
Every video game, and every story, needs a villain...this one symbolised the music industry and really didn't like The Hara...

As well as these more linear narrative considerations, we also needed to think practically. Because of production limitations, such as time and budget, we knew we couldn’t shoot all of these music videos at once, like we would a film. We knew this process had to be broken up, so we needed to be able to tell the chapters flexibly. It needed to be easy to solve problems, like band members' appearance changing over time, without destroying the linear narrative. We also knew there would be further changes along the way that would need to be accommodated for, such as location and crew changes and desire for any creative changes from within the band. So whilst we were enjoying weaving a story together that straddled multiple video game worlds, we knew we needed to keep ourselves grounded and realistic for the actual music video production.

With all this in mind, we settled on the following narrative:

Rockstar - The band members are pulled into the Survival Mode video game and have their first run-in with their new enemy. This is the first hint that there is a power that lies within the band.

Talk To The Manager - The band is trapped. We see the full scope of the game they’re trapped in and we begin to understand the stakes.

Fire - The band is thrust into a horror game and they have to literally fight to survive - it’s time to show if they have what it takes to survive.

Okay, That’s Me - Defeated, the band find themselves surviving in a different way, combatting the wilds of an abandoned corner of the game world. They begin to realise that if they’re going to succeed, they're going to need to look within themselves.

Died In My Twenties - The band face their past in order to move forward. It’s a time of growth and rebirth.

Autobiography - The band arrive at the final battle. Their journey is complete and they evolve into their true form. But, is it enough to defeat the villain and get back home?

a collage of music titles and their visuals with strikes of lightning
The story, told over six music videos...

Each of these individual music videos would be unique and fully mapped out and conceptualised, as part of a separate production. At the beginning of the campaign however, we did need to create a unifying set of visuals that would hold them all together as part of one cohesive, visual campaign. We needed to establish a Survival Mode look and feel.

For us, this really came down to how certain aspects of the video game world worked. We knew we wanted a signature font that could be used throughout the album campaign, but specifically within the music videos, as the video game world messaging. We also wanted to pair this font with an iconic video game narrator; when you think of video games, it’s hard to not think of the classic ‘Continue?’ moment and we wanted to create our own versions of these iconic video game motifs.

We trawled through lots of fonts before arriving on an 80s Japanese fighting game style. We went through all of the text assets we knew we’d need for the campaign and tested that they all worked well with the font. We then hired a voiceover artist and had them record a long script that featured all of the vocal lines that we’d need to tell the whole story, that way we would have all of the assets we'd need in case something changed, or there was a new marketing need. From there, the last piece of the visual puzzle was to establish how the ‘world’ looked. We knew each music video would be different, but what visual elements would tie them together? We decided to create a unifying look for all ‘powers’ within the world - lightning, power ups, etc. For the aesthetic of these, we stuck with 80s video games and pixelation - it’s the iconic, quintessential video game look and it also felt synchronised with the font and voiceover that we’d established.

survival mode written on a transparent background with some lightning strikes
The chosen aesthetic - an 80s style Japanese video game look, with consistent lightning strikes to feature throughout

We introduced these elements to fans in the first music video, Rockstar, and never looked back. We managed to create six individual music videos that flowed into each other, thanks to always filming the start of the next music video at the end of the current music video production period. The suite of visual elements that was crafted - the font, the voiceover, the visual effects - was strong enough to spill out beyond the music videos and would come to define all other visuals throughout the album campaign.

That’s just a quick overview of some of the considerations that went into creating a whole suite of music videos for an album release. In the future, we’ll try to do a deep dive into each music video production specifically, but for now, it’s probably best to let the filmmaking do the talking so here’s the full Survival Mode saga, as told through music videos.

Next Week

We’ll be back next week with our detailed overview of the Survival Mode album creative. We’ll be taking a look at how the crazy world and characters of the music video campaign extended out beyond the screen into the live shows, merchandising and more.

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?

See you next week for more!