Classic Covers

With the sad passing of legendary Hipgnosis designer Storm Thorgerson, we can use this moment to take stock of design’s broader health within the music industry.

Music and art go together hand in hand dancing through the decades, centuries even, sometimes being so intrinsic to one another that the results help spawn new genres and defining moments in pop culture at large.

Presently there is a debate about just how influential or indeed important artwork and packaging is to the music industry, in an age of instant digital consumption and dwindling record label budgets.  I wrote my design degree dissertation on the role of design in this aspect, two years before Apple launched iTunes Store and the music world downloaded into a new era.

I wrote about how dance music via Acid House pushed the DIY creative ethos into new territories complete with new visual communication methods, club flyers, stand-out packaging and how Ecstacy helped inform new ways of thinking  just like Acid and pot did in the 60’s and 70’s.

Like Pink Floyd, Miles Davis, Cream, The Velvet Underground et al helped promote this new language of experience and abstraction, Acid House (followed closely by the indie and Baggy scenes) took the neon wrapped baton and helped influence a new wave of designers in the late 80’s early 90’s.

80s into 90s

In the mid nineties I had a lot of UK based graphic design heroes: Mark Farrow (Spiritualised/Cream), Designers Republic (Warp/Supergrass), Tom Hingston (Massive Attack/Chemical Brothers), Tomato (Underworld), Swifty (Mo’Wax/Talking Loud), Nick Purser & Gareth Jones (Good Looking Records). They all had a huge effect on setting these new values across different media such as large profile advertising, film and art exhibitions. Some of these are now well established and respected multimedia companies who’s creative strands extend out across the globe.

Influences 1


Influences 2

So with the rise of do-it-all recording artists alongside the advent of austerity culture, how is the visually creative arm of the music industry staying afloat? With the old guard of this creative stream now more likely to pitch for global ad campaigns, it leaves the artists themselves to do a bit of digging and get  their album or single artwork created with the aid of friends and collaborators, with amazing results.

With lower budgets for designers and photographers comes new factors to consider:

  • Artwork that is striking and different enough to be eye catching across thumbnails on online music stores. There’s no point having crazily detailed designs if you can’t make it out on a 50×50 pixel thumbnail.
  • There’s not always need for text as the stores have this alongside the release artwork.
  • The demise of physical stores such as HMV might do away with the need for time consuming and fiddly print costs, also RGB and not print CMYK colours have a larger colour range.
  • The need for singles to be more label-based using their logo? Or for the artist to be instantly recognisable by way of a consistent visual identity?

In a recent article in Computer Music magazine (CM190) entitled ‘Is music artwork dead?’, Jay Aquasion of Textures Music Group and Soul Deep Recordings notes,

“The philosophy behind using the Textures Music Group logo as the cover art for the digital releases is that, with artwork, it’s hard to distinguish which label the release is from at the glance of an eye. Most people don’t read the small text where the labels name is written on the leading download sites in the digital market. With Soul Deep Recordings, we initially did the same to create recognition with the brand, using no artwork. It worked well, but then the label switched to using artwork, and it’s been unbelievably well received. if the shoe fits, wear it.”

“The best advice I can give to anyone who wants to use artwork is to find someone who is a qualified graphic designer and arrange for them to design all of your artwork so that you maintain consistency with the designs.”

Of course back when a physical release couldn’t readily be copied and distributed like now, the investment of cold hard cash for a spanking hot and exclusive card box in a bespoke size with metallic inks, made sense; an investment in the artist and the label to gain exclusivity, collectability and desirability within customers. It also helped the product stand out on the racks of HMV. You could always head straight to the dance music and box set areas of a store by looking for the packages sticking out over the top of the racks! Now that clean advantage has dissapeared.

In the same article Oliver Ferrer of Brazil’s LuvDisaster Records says,

“It is very dangerous to think that the music alone will do the sales job – getting fans goes far beyond that. I think that only a complete work will truly captivate your customers.”

Vinyl used to be the original and best format for artwork, with those classic prog rock gatefold sleeves which were still going strong in the 90’s and 00’s. Indeed when I started working at Good Looking Records it was a complete joy to rifle through the full set of 12″ EPs which featured lush hand crafted paintings on some with futuristic digital vistas on others. The creative ethic led to many themes being explored to their full potential and then to be displayed proudly in the best stores across the globe. Nothing beats that tactile experience, the smell of print and the weight of 180-gram vinyl concealed in well executed print and packaging.

Good Looking Records

Perhaps musicians should take a more active role in their visual output and how it relates to their fans and supporters. They are creatives after all and they more than anyone else should have an idea about how they want ‘the other half’ of their relationship with the consumer to stand. I agree that not all think like this and for them it is purely just about the music (leave the artwork for the label & distributors to create and push) and that’s fine, but now more ever it is also marketing that musicians must learn to embrace.

If they are on tour then visuals, flyers, tickets, online promotion and interactive campaigns can all be based around that most important of things, the artwork.