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Creative Ops

APM Music’s Robert Navarro on giving clients the music they asked for

January 17, 2023 · 8 min read

This is part of our 100 Creative Directors interview series. To return to the series homepage and browse other interviews, click here.

Robert Navarro is a lifelong musician and current Creative Director at APM Music, where he’s also in charge of Custom Music and Indie Artist A&R. Robert’s approach to creative direction is particularly hands-on; he’s an adept musician in his own right, giving him the skill necessary to navigate both client and team relationships with trust and ease.

Below is our conversation with Robert, edited for length and clarity.

What kind of creative director are you? What work has that title entailed in your career? 

I started out as a music director in my early years at APM Music. My job now is really an extension of that – but instead of choosing pre-existing tracks from our catalog for the client to license, I am now running the Custom Music division and creating bespoke music the client can either choose to license or purchase for their exclusive use.  

In general, the music director is the person who interfaces with all the creatives, whether they are editors, producers, directors — all of the above, and beyond. They do the actual music selection, going through our catalog and figuring out what tracks work based on what the client needs.

What my creative director position means is I'm in charge of overseeing the entire process of custom music creation from beginning to end, and it takes a team of specialized personnel to pull it off. I often feel like Ethan Hunt from the Mission Impossible series: basically, I get called in to solve a problem. 

Given the requirements and specifications of the client, I determine which of APM’s producers, composers, or songwriters would be the best to tackle the assignment. Sometimes it involves an individual composer, producer, or sound designer, and sometimes it's a whole group of people. There are all sorts of logistics involved: where is this going to be created? Is this something that can happen in a full studio or is this a home studio or writing room situation? Do we need to actually go into a live recording environment? 

I've done projects with incredibly fast turnaround times, where you have to be able to deal with a lot of moving parts, and sometimes it gets really crazy. In one of the most wild jobs we had to do recently for a client, we were asked to take well-known songs and transcribe them from English to Japanese and back again. 

What we had to do was essentially create karaoke versions of these songs, but not amateur-hour karaoke; it had to be professional-sounding backing tracks. Basically, we were going to be singing from English to Japanese, and then from Japanese back to English over karaoke tracks, from our re-record library, that the client had approved. The reason for this is that when you do translations, the meanings don’t always translate word for word. The client needed to know if the translations were accurate, and we only had two and a half days to get that whole thing done. 

Some creative directors are very hands-off in terms of the actual product, once they get their team started. They’re there for damage control, but they really don't get involved. I get involved quite a bit, depending upon the need. There've been plenty of times where I've had to not just hire the musicians in order to make a project happen, but also arrange the music, do the research, etc., myself. In some cases I've even been involved in the actual recording process, because I play a number of instruments. Every project has different demands. 

What’s the most difficult part of delivering good creative for a client? What's the most difficult part of the journey? 

Well, if there's not a clear direction where everybody's on the same page, then everything can fall apart very quickly. Everybody has to be of one mind. There may be different perspectives on that one vision, but as long as all the boats are sailing in the same direction — if you at least have a specific, shared destination —  it works. Once the concept is clear and you have a sense of what the client is imagining it to sound or look like, then everything is pretty easy. Of course, there’s always another moving part. That's always fun.  

It’s the old three-legged chair concept: good, fast, cheap; pick two. That’s always true to some extent. Sometimes the client has this lofty idea of what they'd like to see materialize, but they don't have the budget for it, or they need this turned around yesterday, and there's just not enough time to make it happen. So what do you do? You compromise. That can be difficult. 

Robert described what the creative process looks like for a music agency like APM.
Robert described what the creative process looks like for a music agency like APM.

As a creative director, on the team level, how do you know when all the processes you have in place to enable your team to produce good work are set up correctly? 

The ultimate measurement of success is when the client is pleased. There are plenty of times I personally know we did exactly what the client asked for, and that’s really satisfying – but it’s meaningless in the end if the client doesn’t feel that way. Ultimately, it’s up to the people we’re working for as to whether or not we’re successful. Sometimes the planets align and everything feels effortless.    

As an example, something like that just happened today. We had a project that was relatively straightforward, and something that I knew our team could do in their sleep. We were asked to do a jazz piece that was basically just piano, strings, and some light percussion. The team could do it with one hand tied behind their backs, practically, and the client had no idea that we'd be able to turn it around in less than two days. 

Mind you, this was just the mock-up. We still had to record live instruments, mix it, and master it. But we made it happen, and we blew the client's mind! As far as they were concerned, we just handed them Mozart's Requiem mass. How pleased they were was unbelievable. I'm like, great, I'm glad you're happy, if you like this wait till you hear the final product! 

So sometimes, I already know we’ve won and we're not even done yet. That’s what I always hope for. 

Can you share a time when you felt your team was working in perfect synergy? 

Again, I really believe in the team versus the individual. When your whole team is working properly, you can really accomplish anything. 

We just had a project with the NFL where I felt that synergy. The team consisted of the composer, the account executive, and me, working together to put the deal together and make it happen. Through cohesive navigating and negotiating through all the different aspects with the client, something really special materialized. A true collaborative effort, even from the client-side. We all had a real stake in the project’s success. I've never been happier in my career than I am now — we have an incredible team in place at APM, and I‘m extremely proud of all that we have accomplished together. 

What are three things you can't do your job without? As in tools, methods, or practices you find necessary to your job as creative director. 

I'm always quick to say that I'm only as good as our team. One aspect of this job that can be overlooked, and that I really value, is I take a lot of time to vet the people we work with: the composers, the producers, the sound designers, and so on. It’s never just, “let's give it a shot and if it doesn't work out, no big deal.” They've got my life in their hands, you know? APM’s reputation, my reputation, and most important of all, the client’s reputation. I have to be sure about the people we work with. 

I've worked in and around organizations that basically say, “Well, this guy is a great composer, he can handle it. He's not necessarily the greatest person for the job, but he's a versatile guy and we’re sure he can make it happen.” I've never had that philosophy. No one is great at everything. 

Some composers may be versatile enough to write in more than one style or genre, but I endeavor to find the exact person for the exact task at hand. It’s back to that Ethan Hunt Mission Impossible thing: with all the different operatives you might have at your disposal, utilize the best one for the job. Bottom line: having a great roster of talent to pull from I think is extremely important; without a diverse talent pool, you’re pretty much a one or two-trick pony. 

Another thing is you need to be well-rounded and have the experience derived from hands-on work. You need familiarity with a variety of different types of projects, but also the musical know-how from either a school setting or however you learned it, maybe you’re self-taught. Personally, having the ability to compose, perform and record music myself is crucial. For example, I would never in a million years hire myself out as a drummer for anyone, but I can sit down at a kit and play. And when I'm writing, it really helps that I know how to play the drums. 

It also helps that I understand how to write for orchestra, although I’m primarily a guitarist and vocalist. At the end of the day, having familiarity with a wide variety of musical styles and genres, and knowledge of the range and capability of the full spectrum of instruments at my disposal is essential when there’s some problem I need to fix on one of the projects I oversee. 

What's the best piece of advice you've ever received as a creative director, a piece of advice that has influenced how you work? 

It’s a simple answer, but just that old retail credo: the customer is always right. Of course, in my case it’s: the client is always right. No matter what the story is, whether you're the composer or if you're the creative director, whatever your role is, you should never take yourself too seriously.  

Never be so precious about the work that you stop being open-minded enough to receive criticism from the client. Ultimately, the client is the one buying the product, and if they’re not happy, nobody cares how great you are, or what you’ve done in the past. It’s not about what you want to create, it’s about what the client wants. Sometimes it takes a minute to figure out what that really is, but in the end it’s their vision, not yours. 

Sometimes a client will zero in on some nuance of a project, or piece of music, that you didn't even think was important — but to them, it was everything.

This is part of our 100 Creative Directors interview series. To return to the series homepage and browse other interviews, click here.

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