Summer 1996

Reinterpreting the classics

For a handful of classical record companies, expressive design is a commercial priority.

Looking at covers produced over the last 30 years by the leading European and American classical record companies is a dispiriting exercise. The high-mindedness and nobility of classical music appears ill-served by its packaging: endless picture-library landscapes; formulaic use of painting and sculpture; stilted photographic of conductors and soloists; uninspiring typography; and always – emblazoned intrusively across every front cover in an attempt to bludgeon buyers into brand allegiance – the company logo.

Weak design has not always been a feature of classical music packaging. There has been periods of strong and expressive work, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, but these go back to an age of innocence before the arrival of the compact disc and the establishment of the powerful marketing departments which now control sleeve design in most classical record companies.

In America, as early as the 1940s, classical sleeve design was frequently lyrical and evocative. Alex Steinweiss’s covers for Colombia were distinctive artistic statements, full of wit and style, and helped pave the way for the album cover to become one of the most principle showcases for innovative graphic design. Alvin Lustig’s 1954 LP cover for Vivaldi’s Concertos and Sonatas foreshadows the playful geometry of the new wave rock sleeves and, without resorting to clichéd imagery, shows a sophisticated graphic purity.

In Britain, moments of inspiration were less common. However, Decca’s 1961 album cover for Benjamin Britten’s Canticles, on the Argo label (then a general classical label with a British slant, now a specialist in twentieth-century music), designed by Britten’s friend and artistic collaborator John Piper, is an evocative graphic articulation of the music. Unhindered by marketing considerations, it hints at the collaborative efforts that happen today between designers and pop musicians, but are rare in the classical industry.

The great achievement of design produced in this pre-commercial era was to express the character of the music and to allude to relationships between sound and imagery without resorting to the crude techniques of the commercial vernacular. Early classical cover art was often imbued with the personal imprint of an illustrator or designer. But this freedom and sense of packaging-as-an-artistic-statement is something that, until recently, was lost.

Over the past few years the dominant force shaping the appearance of classical packaging has been the sophisticated marketing techniques used by the giant conglomerates who control the modern record industry. The identification of an affluent generation weary of rock music and pop culture, hungry to expand their musical horizons, and infatuated with the CD, has alerted the companies to a vast potential market. Furthermore, in the UK, the huge sales of The Three Tenors, and other similar successes, have convinced the record industry that packaging can no longer be left exclusively to designers. The marketing experts have moved in, and with them have come stylists, celebrity photographers and branding consultants. Sleeve design for most of the big labels has become an adjunct to their activities as fast moving consumer goods businesses competing for shelf space I a teeming marketplace.

The commercial pressures that mould classical music packaging in the 1990s are considerable. David Smart, the art director at Decca, is quick to identify the huge volume of titles released as a key factor in the formulation of a recognisable identity for classical sleeves. ‘We are responsible for over 300 CD sleeves each year, plus promotional items such as posters, advertising and catalogues. Packaging is required each month for between five and ten new recordings and the balance is made up by re-packaging the label’s archive of recordings, an activity known as ‘second exploitation’.’

The other major labels have similarly extensive release programmes and maintaining quality is extremely difficult. The financial and scheduling pressures are enormous and the temptation to resist shortcuts is irresistible. The photo libraries and art galleries are plundered, the small band of reliable classical music portrait photographers are commissioned and gradually, a standardised product emerges, banal, but recognisable around the world as a classical cover.

The design is further determined by a global market. The US and Europe are the main markets for classical music, but Japan is also important. It is unusual, however for companies to have different packaging for different countries. This exerts its own subtle pressure on what they look like. Smart is adamant that he is not unduly compromised by this requirement. ‘The text is often internationalized, and the design is as well, although I think we could be arrogant enough to say that many territories admire English design and feel comfortable with it. I think about the need to be international, but it doesn’t constrain me. I do what is best, what is most beautiful – and generally, people like it.’

Yet many labels manifest the bland tendencies which invariably surface when trying to appeal across national and cultural boundaries. EMI epitomizes the new international stance. The company has recently emerged from years of unremarkable packaging with a considered new approach. Its gramophone listening dog, Nipper, has long since been banished to his kennel and the new livery and sleeve designs by London consultancy Sampson Tyrrell have a slickness that seems closer to luxury goods packaging than traditional classical sleeve design. The touch of a big corporate image-maker is clearly visible in the label’s full-price range with its red logo echoed by a red square anchoring a panel containing the front cover typography. Sleeves for conductor Simon Rattle have echoes of Vaughan Oliver in their textural approach while those for the Matrix series are distinguished by their uncontrived directness.

The big retailers also wield enormous power. ‘They can dictate,’ says Smart, ‘and play a part in the design process.’ Conservative and cautious, they are bound to discourage experimentation and fight for the kind of commercial design styles that will appeal to the largest possible market. No supermarket buyer ever allowed a tin of shortbread onto the shelves that was not swathed in tartan, and for the same reasons, many a Vivaldi CD comes with a Canaletto on the cover.

The biggest single factor mentioned by those who design classical sleeves, however, is the obligatory and overbearing presence, usually in the top right hand corner, of the company logo. ‘The first thing you see is the logo, and it shouldn’t be,’ observes Russell Warren-Fisher, who has worked for Smart at Argo and Decca. ‘And it’s not easy to work with. If you take the 12cm front cover surface of a CD, there isn’t much space. Proportionally, the logos end up much larger than they are on a 12-inch sleeve.’

The labels, for their part, claim that the prominent logo is a tradition, a comfortable convention, expected by customers and retailers. More importantly it helps to distinguish them in a fiercely competitive market. Try to buy a copy of Handel’s Water Music or Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and you will be faced by an extraordinary choice of versions. How do you decide which one to choose? The labels use their brand to persuade potential customers by capitalising on widely recognized attributes – the excellence of Decca’s recorded sound, for example, or the Germanic authority of Deutsche Grammophon. But until record companies refrain from using their logos as corporate battering rams, classical sleeve design will find it hard to rise above the level of the contents of the supermarket trolley. Independent avant-garde specialist ECM might have the dignity to put its name on its cover in discreet 6pt type, and indeed, it is the covers restrained stylishness that has become the label’s trademark. For the rest, cod-Heraldic scrolls and blob-like medieval seals abound.

The conservative classical music world is not one to encourage progressive or radical design and neither, for the time being, are its core consumers. Many are middle-aged, and as likely to be swayed by the name of a preferred conductor or performer on a record sleeve than by its design. For the market to expand, however, a more aggressive image conscious approach will have to be taken. In much the same way as the book trade has in recent years embraced contemporary design trends, so one or two more forward thinking record companies have turned to contemporary designers capable of producing graphic design worthy of the music it represents. Of the major labels, Decca and Virgin Classics (owned respectively by the entertainment conglomerates PolyGram and Thorn-EMI) manage to consistently produce covers of quality.

Decca’s move away from its logo festooned chocolate box packaging was led by art director Ann Bradbeer, who worked with the partners to overhaul Decca’s corporate identity in 1989. (They are also responsible for the label’s innovative series of music banned by the Nazis, Entartete Musik.) Bradbeer was replaced five years ago by David Smart, who has injected a sophisticated modernity into Decca’s sleeve design and appears to work comfortably alongside the label’s powerful and influential marketing department. ‘It’s easy to dismiss marketing people because they have a different set of priorities,” says Smart, “and often a designer’s priorities don’t meet the priorities of a marketer. There are different interpretations about how much power a designer should be given and how important designers are as contributors. And there are disputes about what is good and bad design. But I sometimes underestimate the importance given to design by marketing people.’

As well as running a busy in-house studio, Smart is an adept commissioner of design and photography. Apart from Warren-Fisher, he has employed, among others, Angus Hyland, perhaps better known for his book jackets (see Eye no. 18 vol.5). But it is the Double Decca series that epitomizes the transformation under Smart: a mainstream classical repertoire is finally treated to packaging that represents cool 1990s design.

Virgin Classics is a relative newcomer. Formed in 1988 by Richard Branson and subsequently sold to EMI, the label now has a substantial catalogue of recordings, and exudes the youthful glamour expected of a company with the Virgin signature on its letterhead. Virgin sleeves are commissioned and art-directed by Jeremy Hall, one of the few Virgin staff invited to join EMI after the acquisition. Hall now divides his time between art directing and editing. ‘Most companies view packaging as a sales aid, a way to get a product on to a shelf,’ he says. ‘My view is that packaging should be an integral part of the purchase.’ Working mainly with designer Nick Bell, whom he encourages to use daring and unconventional images, Hall is Virgin Classics’ sole commissioner of cover art and is not required to seek approval for his designs. His great achievement at Virgin has been the successful application of adventurous design to a mainstream repertoire.

Bell also works for Virgin’s mid-price classical label Ultraviolet, where he has used some startling eclectic images – a toy car on Haydn’s String Quartets; quasi-scientific graphics for Elgar’s Enigma Variations; a light-bulb for Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. For Bell, the choice of modern imagery is justified by the fact that ‘although the music may in some cases be 200 years old, the performance made now’.

The adventurous spirit of the Ultraviolet label is carried into other areas of Virgin’s catalogue. Hall cites the work done for the Veritas Edition series as his favourite. ‘This is period music, as it was played at the time,’ he explains. ‘We don’t have the complete picture, hence our use of details of images of the period.’ Virgin’s Veritas range and Decca’s early music series, Florilegium, designed by Angus Hyland, are eloquent examples of carefully considered design intended for a small erudite audience. Both maintain high standards of typography and design rarely encountered in classical packaging, and then only in the twentieth-century work.

There is no doubt that the growing demand for twentieth centaury music has helped the evolution of classical sleeve design. The unexpected success of modern composers Henryk Gorecki and Michael Nyman has led to the expansion of contemporary music imprints within major labels and the utilisation of contemporary designers capable of bringing a welcome spark of radicalism to sleeve design. Bell’s sleeves for Tippett’s The Ice Break and two volumes of American Piano Sonatas, all on Virgin Classics, also stand out as designs that are emotive and brave in their determination not to resort to the formulaic typography demanded by classical record companies.

Even so, the demands for conformity and standardisation in typography can be seen when comparing Decca’s 1990 Shostakovich series, designed by Angus Hyland. Both use refined illustrative techniques to make striking sleeves that are evocative of the Constructivist associations found in the Russian composer’s music. But Fern’s type is integrated into the illustration in a way that would be unacceptable to today’s marketing experts. Hyland’s typography, tasteful and considered though it undoubtedly is, conforms to the standard, accessible approach demanded by the current marketing strategists.

The arrangement of text on a front cover is rarely left solely to the designer. Contractual wranglings do not mar classical CD covers to the extent that they blight film posters, but conductors and star soloists can insist on the relative size of their front cover credits and when this is combined with the demands made by marketing departments to isolate or highlight key pieces of cover text by the hair line calibration of size and weight of type, the result can be uncomfortable.

With the plethora of sizes, weights and typefaces used, many classical sleeves resemble typographic battlefields. In the work of designer Russell Warren-Fisher, however, whose fluid and inventive typography is found on many Argo covers, these demands can result in interesting design. He readily accepts the challenge posed by the requirement for subtly graded type and the needs to make key points of emphasis. Looking at his work it is possible to detect the instructions issues by the marketing department – this piece of music large, this piece small, this soloist more important than this conductor – but by what Warren-Fisher calls ‘the careful management of elements’, he avoids blandness.

In pop music the universal use of logos on front covers has long since been abandoned. Young marketing departments – staffed by ex-Coca-Cola trainees, where once there was ex-musicians – are equally keen to cajole and direct designers in the pursuit of an ever greater market share, but compared with the classical world, their influence is less abrasive. Instead pop packaging seems more concerned with creating a desirable artifact, collectable as much for itself as for the music. This apparent design superiority also has something to do with what might be termed the ‘auteur principle’. Musicians such as Peter Gabriel, Blur and the Pet Shop Boys take control of their entire recording and release procedure and, in collaboration with sympathetic designers of their own choosing, the packaging of their music becomes a constituent part of a total artistic statement. This does not always result in good design, but it is an attempt to create a unified artistic declaration.

This cannot, of course happen with much classical music, where performers and conductors are largely interpreting the music of others. But many contemporary composers, Michael Nyman in particular, are involved in the development of their sleeves, although Russell Warren-Fisher claims with some regret never to have met any of the contemporary composers whose sleeves he has created.

The future for classical packaging appears uncertain as the innovative work commissioned by Argo and Virgin shines out in a sea of mediocrity. Nick Bell professes to be dumbfounded that ‘the other companies can’t see how far behind they are’. But the reality is that the big labels are content with the conventions of classical packaging and more interested in putting their resources into the cultivation of celebrity performers to boost sales. Anne-Sophie Mutter is the latest in a lengthening list of artists as much as their musicianship. Her latest DG cover is more the work of stylists and image consultants than a graphic designer.

If the labels were willing instead to invest in thoughtful and emotive covers for their hug armies of titles, to try different packaging formats or different stock, to allow designers to tackle entire CD booklets and to treat all the surfaces of a CD with equal care and attention – even the surface of the disc itself – they could stop lagging behind their popular music counterparts. One doesn’t necessarily expect to see the Designer’s Republic designing Vivaldi sleeves, but would there be any harm in Virgin Classics and Decca being the rule, and not the glaring exceptions?

Adrian Shaughnessy, graphic designer, London

First published in Eye no. 21 vol. 6, 1996

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.