Autumn 2008

The digital reality of ‘emotional products’

Cover Art By: New Music Graphics

designed and written by Adrian Shaughnessy
Laurence King £24.95

Adrian Shaughnessy has long been an astute observer of music graphics from both outside and inside the ‘industry’. His first major piece of design criticism, ‘Think of your eyes as ears’ (Eye no. 16 vol. 4) was a cool appraisal of the design and identity of ECM, Manfred Eicher’s Munich-based label, and he produced three books of music design under the series name ‘Sampler’ while he was creative director of Intro.

Cover Art By follows on from the Sampler books as a valuable snapshot of current music design, but this time the content is more arcane: there are no albums by Primal Scream, or the kind of mainstream rock and pop acts you see in the high street. The most commercial examples are Jason Kedgley’s covers for Underworld (to whom Kedgley refers as ‘the boys’) and fellow Tomato Dylan Kendle’s evocative work for Nouvelle Vague. There are few encounters with the so-called majors. Confronted by an once-powerful industry in a state of churn, chaos and denial, Shaughnessy turns his gaze on the necessarily independent margins and finds a hive of graphic activity.

The book’s format is simple: an opening essay, ‘The Initital Moment’, and 30 interviews, each followed by a gallery of work from the designer, studio or label in question. Some designers double up as label boss or performing musician, like Intro’s Julian House, who runs the Ghost Box label with Jim Jupp in his spare time, or designer / musician Kim Hiorthøy (see Eye no. 63 vol. 16).

A common theme runs through the interviews: a close working relationship with the client results in good work. And a significant number of young designers appear to show a commitment to wedding design to music that goes way beyond the immediate financial rewards or the apparent long-term health of the sector. Music design is seen as a labour of love rather than a route to fortune and fame. Kendle’s advice to young designers who want to design covers: ‘Don’t base your mortgage on it.’

James Goggin is perhaps better known for his art catalogues and books than his music design, but his recent stint as art director of

The Wire gives his comments extra resonance: ‘I am constantly surprised how frequently one sees incompetently designed covers for major pop stars, for whom you’d expect a decent promotional budget for good production, design and photography.’

Jan Kruse offers several reasons why he prefers illustration to photographs: ‘We often had no time and no budget for photo shoots. Another reason is that we like a simple and bold style and often four-colour photo covers look very uncharismatic and arbitrary . . . I think people buying an “emotional product” like music also expect some emotion in the cover art.’

For much of their professional lives, Tom Recchion and Stephen Byram, have been known for producing cutting-edge work while holding down senior design and art direction jobs for corporate labels (Sony / BMG – formerly Columbia / CBS – and EMI respectively). Recchion, who is also a musician, provides some insights into the major labels: ‘REM and Los Lobos, though very big and complicated projects, were very fulfilling to design for because of my direct relationship with Michael Stipe and Louie Pérez.’ Recchion recalls working on ‘a beautiful and long day doing a photo session with the great jazz singer Jimmy Scott, after which he said, “Well, thank you, I’ll see the final CD in the stores.” I said. “No Jimmy, you have to approve the final design.” He said, “I trust that you know what you are doing.” Now that is a really good client. Dr John was just as easy going. So I’ve had two easy jobs in 25 years.’

Shaughnessy asks each subject for their views on the dematerialisation of music (into non-physical MP3s and the like), and receives a variety of answers: it’s inevitable; yes, there will always be a need for an object; there’s no hope for sleeve art; the artefact will always have a place in our collective hearts; we prefer vinyl to CDs anyway; digital radio is more progressive; it would be nice to have better accompanying materials for digital files. Airside’s Fred Deakin (though not one of the subjects) is quoted as saying, ‘it’s either zero artwork or incredible packaging: the stuff in between is just bullshit.’

Touch’s Jon Wozencroft has similarly clear views: ‘We just don’t want to reduce complete and authored music to a bitmapped snapshot of its former self.’ His beautifully printed and art-directed card packaging for CDs such as Oren Ambarchi’s Grapes From The Estate are always a delight to handle and use.

Yet here’s where Cover Art By faces a digital dilemma of its own. Most of the 480 images in it are presented in a ‘flat artwork’ format that undermines many of the arguments set out in the text. This matters less for the clear, bold graphics of Rick Myers, Kruse and Check Morris, for example, but the haptic, tactile, 3D qualities of work like Byram’s for Winter & Winter, Goggin’s digipaks and the Touch releases, are lost in digital flatland.

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