Autumn 1999


The urban swagger of this small label’s music is mirrored by its freewheeling ‘house style’. By Adrian Shaughnessy

‘If it looks a bit ECM-ish, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.’ An admirable sentiment and one I’ve notice cropping up with increasing regularity in design meetings with record industry clients. The high approval rating for Manfred Eicher’s Munich label (see Eye no. 16 vol. 4) comes from the most unlikely sources: managers of speed-garage acts; young guns from major record companies; owners of specialist music labels. On closer inspection, they don’t actually want wintry Nordic landscapes, or bleak images of desolate tundra or austere lines of Univers. But clearly there is something in the visual presentation of ECM that attracts such diverse groups of industry professionals. Perhaps, in a business obsessed with creating brand identities around individual artists and groups, it is the recognition of a genuine label identity that attracts them to Eicher’s packaging.

In the early days of the record industry a visual ‘house style’ was a desirable and often necessary requirement for many labels: if you bought one record on a particular label (so the thinking went) you might be persuaded to buy another. This elementary branding strategy persists today among many jazz, roots and classical music labels. For genre-based labels, retaining a strong stylistic identity has quantifiable benefits.

But in the pop world, or at least the world of the ‘majors’, house style is anathema. Record companies make their money by turning performers into stars. And while it makes good business sense to give groups and individual performers their own ‘identities’ there is little commercial advantage in having a distinctive label style. It is of little consequence to the great mass of record-buyers whether act is signed to EMI, Sony or Universal.

In the wake of the dance music boom, there has been a proliferation of genre-based labels. And we have seen the rise of a new generation of anonymous recording artists – musicians, producers and DJs – with scant interest in conforming to the traditional stereotype of pop stardom, happy to be subsumed in the greater identity of a label. It is these two factors that have renewed interest in house style for many contemporary labels. For small labels, the benefits can be considerable: unable to afford lavish advertising or PR, many labels rely upon graphic design – or at least a consistent deployment of a design sensibility – to give themselves a recognisable identity and a presence in a crowded market place.

Size is another factor: as the big labels become bigger and more international, the new genre-based labels tend to be small, flexible and owned or run by individuals – usually working with one or two designers – with the will to sustain a visual identity across many releases.

There are few better exponents of ‘house style’ – as design sensibility, as ethos, as a consistent visual articulation of the music – than the London label Mo’Wax. Founder James Lavelle and designer Ben Drury have created a freewheeling visual identity that perfectly mirrors the loose-limbed urban swagger of the label’s music. Drury, using none of the design-manual techniques beloved of big design groups, has created a label with a robust identity recognisable around the globe.

Drury employs a few simple devices: a palette of street-style graphic expression; a logo which is allowed to skitter about in a manner guaranteed to give any suited corporate ID consultant heart failure; and the distinctive, consistent use of non-standard packaging. As music journalist Nicholas Barber wrote, ‘Mo’Wax’s design … heroically avoids the jewel case in favour of die-cut folded card: the cd sleeve as origami.’

Drury hesitates to confirm the existence of a Mo’Wax house style, yet accepts that others may detect one. For fans of the label, there can be no doubt: Mo’Wax sleeves have a singularity that distinguishes them from the great mass of record industry packaging. For professional graphic designers Mo’Wax has something else to offer.

Perhaps this small label provides some sort of blueprint for the corporate identities and brand strategies of the future. Flexible, freewheeling, expressive, yet instantly identifiable, it is the polar opposite of the monolithic identities foisted on consumers over the past two decades.