STURDY. contributed visual direction to Bad Bunny’s “El Último Tour Del Mundo” this spring. (Jason Koerner/Getty Images)
MUSIC EXECUTIVES & ENTREPRENEURS

A STURDY. Foundation for Creative Direction in Music

Co-founder Kevin Henry pulls back the curtain on what goes into designing winning creative and live stage productions for artists like Bad Bunny, Becky G, and Drake.

STURDY.CO lives up to its name. It was founded in September 2018, but the company’s origin story is the culmination of its founders’ respective come-ups as freelancers in the music industry.

Brothers Kevin and Tyler Henry previously worked in tour management and artist management, respectively. Tyler has been the managing partner at Range Media Partners since spring 2021, and he’s an acclaimed manager to the likes of HARV, PARTYNEXTDOOR, and Wondagurl. Through Tyler, Kevin came to manage tours for Drake, G-Eazy, PARTYNEXTDOOR, and more. And then, it was through G-Eazy that they met Adrian Martinez, a photographer and videographer who lifted up the hood on the creative side of the industry for Kevin and Tyler.

That sparked a curiosity that led to the formation of STURDY.CO, a firm specializing in creative direction, live production design, and stagecraft across the worlds of music, art, and fashion.

“We’ve always done everything in our power to make sure artists feel appreciated and respected at every step of the process,” adds Jasper Heenan, co-founder and CG producer. “We do our best to make the process feel human. Our core founders started their careers as freelancers themselves, so they understand the challenges freelancers often have to deal with — like the freedom to own and post their work, and fair compensation.”

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Along with the Henry brothers, Heenan, and Martinez, Connor Moy and Ben Wolin also serve as co-founders. Their collective backgrounds as freelancers allow them to speak the same language as the artists who approach them for creative direction; everybody in the room prioritizes the craft. Martinez and Kyle Nolan, head of film/video production, explain that leaving all egos out of the room produces their greatest art.

If you’re a music fan, you’ve probably seen examples. Captivating collaborations between STURDY.CO and influential artists include Bad Bunny, Becky G, Kid Cudi, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Rosalía, Travis Scott, and more. At this year’s Coachella alone, STURDY.CO was responsible for stage designs and set productions for Baby Keem, Belly, Daniel Caesar, EmoNite, GIVĒON, and Karol G.

Kevin Henry took time out of preparing several tours to pull back the curtain on STURDY.CO for Boardroom.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

MEGAN ARMSTRONG: How did the foundation you have laid since 2018 prepare you for the pandemic, when live music was impacted so much?

KEVIN HENRY: The main thing is the hustle of it all, but also individually figuring out what everyone was good at and then how that worked together as a team. That became what got us through the pandemic. Even though shows got taken away, our ability to see what’s needed in the music industry [wasn’t taken away].

Essentially, the independent hustle — the freelancer hustle — of just getting things done really helped us when everything went to shit. All the work that we were counting on was going away. We were in the middle of some tours that just fell apart. We just had to face that fear of, like, Okay, that’s gone. Everything’s gonna be online, and everything needs to be enjoyed from everyone’s home. Thinking in that mode of, ‘what opportunities can we grab there?’

MA: Because all of the things that you thought you were going to be working on fell through, what is something that you guys produced during that time that maybe you wouldn’t have done otherwise but helped push the company forward?

KH: [Creative director] Adrian [Martinez] particularly worked with Gibson Hazard on the 2020 VMAs. A lot of the animations for the intro sequence, and then [animations for award] categories, we were helping make those 3D animations. Adrian was working a lot on technical things like camera angles and making that all look good. That was [good] for us to get behind it in a tough year.

We also worked on 88rising’s Double Happiness festival, which was nice. We were able to make a stage that had some projections and visual usage in it and wanted to do something a little different. Plus, with each artist, we were making visuals custom to those performers. They had NxWorries play with Anderson .Paak — it was cool to be able to see him in person, especially around that time. To keep some hope alive that like things will get better.

MA: What role do you think that intricate visual storytelling still has in this age in which attention spans are short and things can feel a bit diluted?

KH: I think that it’s everything. It’s never just one shoe fits all. Like with film, there’s so many different ways to tell the same story. I think it’s too easy to kind of check boxes in the creative space and in the entertainment industry. There’s deadlines and all these things, so you’re like, Okay, I’m gonna get this done and then shoot it off.

But if you can put enough care and love into it and really try to make it different, that’s been what we really focus on. Spending extra hours up at night figuring it out until we get it there. I know Adrian will stay up all night to finish something when it needs that extra attention. Even with the deadlines, we’re not gonna just send it in and call it a day.

MA: How does your background working with such global artists as Drake or Kendrick inform the way that you’re able to cater and deliver to any kind of artist that comes to STURDY.CO now?

KH: It’s really just the pressure of the bigger artists, and there’s pressure at all levels. It’s similar to the Super Bowl, where millions of people are watching it — you get that feeling when you’re at an arena show or a stadium show, and everyone’s experiencing what your work is contributing to the show.

Obviously, the music and the artist are front and center, and that’s penetrating the audience emotionally and experientially. But then, the visual part helps finish that storytelling. We just feel a lot of importance, and I think [working with] the bigger artists, it helped us believe that we could do it, no matter what, at all levels.

MA: There is such diversified roster of artists that you’ve worked with and continue to work with at STURDY.CO. Has that been made possible through word of mouth, or do you specifically target artists you want to pursue?

KH: It’s usually through word of mouth. This is our first time doing PR; we’ve pretty much just been organically growing. My younger brother and co-founder, Tyler, has really helped create opportunities for us through being a manager and getting to know a lot of the industry through his artists. He’s really advocated for us — pushing us out there so that we are first of mind when people need visuals or want a show design.

MA: Going back to being in an arena and knowing your visuals are enhancing an atmosphere, do you remember the first time that you had that experience?

KH: At that level, it was for sure the Drake [2019 Assassination Vacation Europe] tour. I’m trying to remember if Adrian and the others got to see that [2018 TDE] Championship Tour, but I know the Drake tours were the time where it really [clicked regarding] what we put into it and seeing it at that level.

It was really cool seeing these ideas come from scratch and seeing it develop into 3D models and animations coming together on a computer, and then seeing them on a big stage, like that Drake tour where it was like a basketball court-sized LED floor. It’s not a feeling of, like, everyone in the building knows; it’s more just the feeling of seeing how it turned out. A small dream coming to life on a big stage.

MA: I know there’s symbolism in Coachella for STURDY.CO. Adrian grew up sneaking in as a fan. What is your personal connection?

KH: My first years were 2006 and then 2007, when I was just leaving high school. I went to college at Notre Dame, so I wasn’t able to get back. It was right around finals time for me, so I only came back one more time before graduating. But each year has its own memory — your favorite shows and how they impact you.

As the years have gone on, and I’ve learned this industry more and more, I really judge the shows harshly. But the ones that impress me, it makes me that much happier. There’s a stage presence and ownership of the stage that you support. When it all comes together and the artist or the band has this command of the crowd, that’s what I show up for as a consumer and a fan. It’s nice to play both sides: How do you put on a show? And then also, how do you enjoy it? You have to understand both sides to do this job.

MA: STURDY.CO. pulled off six different sets at this year’s Coachella. What stands out about what you just achieved?

KH: Obviously, the accumulation of the work and getting it all done. Getting through that together was amazing. We were able to get all of our team out there and enjoy the immediate feedback of how it was going. But I think the Baby Keem one was really cool just because of how people talked about it and the amount of work that went into it. The amount of people that we hear saw it and have commented on it, it felt a little different.

I don’t want to compare it to others. Each show is different, but the time slot and the stage, all those things matter so much to the trajectory of an artist’s career, so a lot of things came together with that one. The fact that [fans] felt like the visuals really added to it, and since then, a lot of people have like referenced that [to us] and said that they’re looking for that particularly in their show — that feeling that it gave, and the visual contribution, was very vast for people.

MA: We’ve talked before about GIVĒON. To me, he stands out among the batch of artists that you guys work with because he is so classic and subtle. But is there an artist that you were most surprised to have reach out to you?

KH: I mean, honestly, Bad Bunny. It came out of nowhere. It was cool because once they remembered this thing that we did with them on an Apple Music project — he did a performance in 2020, and we just did a handful of visuals for the project. He really loved how that felt. Once he was looking for a visual team [for his El Último Tour del Mundo], and we got brought up by his agent, he was like, Oh, yeah, I like those guys. He basically let us pitch, and it felt like it was ours to lose.

That was cool to have that opportunity and get to this point now where we’re on tour No. 2. It’s an even bigger one that we can really have some fun with, and we know him better. So, that’s turned into this fruitful relationship because he’s so great to work with and such a humble person. A true artist. The origin of that, it wasn’t something that we particularly sought out. It was just like, Hey, this opportunity’s here. We’d love to work with him, and it seems mutual. That turned into something great.

MA: I’m curious about STURDY.CO’s relationship with Becky G, too.

KH: It started off where Kyle [Nolan], our head of production, was running PrettyLittleThing shoots for STURDY.CO Becky had done a shoot that we produced, and she was just so professional — on time and really good at what she did — it allowed us to speak to her management and try to have a further conversation about bigger-picture creative. So, it’s been a slow build to the point where they wanted to do full creative direction. Now, we’re doing full creative direction from how her album [Esquemas] rolled out, and the assets that came with that, all the way through her live shows.

David Salazar, who’s creative directing her account, is doing a great job of adapting to the curve balls and keeping everything together. Same with Kyle and other members of our team. It’s been rewarding to see that they feel good about having us continue with them into the future and pushing her creatively more and more.

MA: What are you working on to round out 2022 that would best symbolize where you and STURDY.CO are moving toward?

KH: Once this Bad Bunny tour gets done, we have GIVĒON’s tour coming up. We’re really focusing in on coming up with that concept, and it’s coming quick. He’s had a US tour before, but this one’s gonna be his biggest yet. Him and his team counting on us creatively is what we’re looking forward to because he’s great to work with, and his team really gives a shit. It’s cool to have that trust and be able to work closely with them. Adrian has always been ready for the task when creative is needed on GIVĒON’s side.

We’ll always continue to work on shows and with artists, and there’s a mutually beneficial relationship. We’re also wanting to get into a space where we’re working with brands and doing different experiences that can tie in with what artists are releasing or different tours happening. So, just looking to expand our business into different, new territories.

MA: What’s the feedback that you get from an artist that means the most to you?

KH: When you can tell that there’s a genuine excitement with how things turned out. Artists are always very self-conscious about their artwork. I think the partnership of putting something like a show together — and there being a timestamp similar to an album of, ‘we’re leading up to this, and then it comes out, and then what do people think of it?’ You’re putting yourself out there, and there’s an accomplishment to put it out, but then, what’s the feedback? How does society take that in?

With shows, it’s a city-to-city experience. Everyone gets to experience it for themselves in person with the artist. When they’re excited about what’s behind them or what they’re interacting with on stage and then thank you for it — a genuine “thank you” means the world to us because it shows that they’re not taking it for granted. It’s not just a business transaction. It’s that something deeper that we all look for in life.

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