Some of the best musical experiences have been listening to a new record while poring over its creative accompaniment, the sleeve. It could be the added depth of conceptual artwork, or it could just be a beautifully crafted object. If the designer is particularly particular, it can border on the fetishistic. Colour, texture and text; embossing, die cuts, special inks, choice of paper stock, imagery, and some great ideas add up to something worth owning. Adding to the musical experience in this way is much easier with vinyl releases. The bigger canvas makes for a greater visual impact. The best sleeves can be enjoyed again and again, much like the music itself. And many musicians, either through collaboration with designers or by designing for themselves, communicate visually as well as through sound. And with electronic music often the only way to get a less abstract impression of where an artist is coming from, interviews aside, is through the sleeve.
Contemporary music history is littered with stories of design and music collaboration. Of course it is partially about the service of selling products, making one album or cd stand out form the others in the racks at the record shop, but there is a growing appreciation of design that is pushing into the territory of art. This is acknowledged by Sound Design, an exhibition of British music industry design which is currently touring the world featuring the work of 15 designers including Peter Saville, Malcolm Garrett, Jamie Reid, Neville Brody, Intro Design, Ian Anderson, Vaughan Oliver, and Mark Farrow.
Sleeve design and design aesthetic is often a large part of an artist or label’s collectability. Not only are the British and American pressings of many labels sought after for the quality of their vinyl, but often the quality of their artwork is higher, too. For instance, the Australian release through the local licensee Festival Records of New Order’s Confusion (1983) lacked the embossing on the sleeve and similarly the release of Blue Monday (1984) was minus the die-cut. The Peter Saville/New Order relationship has been long lasting, and has a rich history. Saville’s sleeves enhance the experience, both intellectually and visually. Around 1983, both New Order’s music and Saville’s designs were minimal yet complex, and to some degree futuristic. There was not a lot of written information, but the sleeve design spoke volumes. In the case of Confusion it seemed the band had bought a production style by working with seminal New York electro Arthur Baker (Planet Rock) that did not quite fit with the rest of their work of the time. It was the sleeve managed to hold it together as one body of work.
Apart from Saville’s designs there was not much minimal or modernist design work around in Britain at the time. His interest in Russian Constructivist art was passed on to Factory Records seeking to make an impact in a post-punk scene. It was visually striking in the context, emerging from a period of the rough and ready style adopted by punk and the highly stylised cut and paste work of Jamie Reid (Sex Pistols) and Saville’s work for Factory worked in tandem with the label’s aversion to using images of band members on their sleeves. Although New Order never gave him a design brief, this is just one of many examples of close design/music relationships. Buying 4AD records would have been very different without the designs of 23 Envelope (Vaughan Oliver and Chris Bigg), similarly Warp and Designers Republic, or even Me Company and Bj’rk.
Famously, in the case of Factory, design can almost kill a label. As a 12′ release Blue Monday was not expected to sell many copies, so it appear to matter that Saville’s die cut sleeve meant that the label lost money on each copy. As it edged up the charts, however, there was not much celebrating in the Factory office and when it went to number one in the UK and became the best selling 12 of all time ‘ a catastrophe. Even today, Saville continues to design all of New Order’s record sleeves in thematic styles.
More currently it is rumoured that German Force Inc offshoot label Mille Plateaux make very little on their releases because they believe there is worth in spending extra on high quality design and production. Sometimes design communicates an inferred set of values. I bought Meem’s Miffy & Yum Yum album on the basis of its handmade wooden cover without thinking of listening first. The packaging is elaborate but unpretentious, showing a care and dedication to producing something special and unique.
Like Meem’s use of wood, CDs using uncoated board have a tactile richness absent in glossy or coated stocks, and even minimalist design takes on a new character on plain brown or grey board. For example the sleeve for Tortoise’s self-titled debut. And New York-based designer Stephen Byram often uses uncoated board, combined with embossing, scratchy illustration and simple use of colour for labels such as Screwgun and Winter & Winter to match their avant garde content. So-called ‘Undesigned’ or ‘amateur’ packaging also has a lot going for it now too. Whether it be a musician’s doodles or Mr Scruff’s cast of wonky cartoon characters or famously the UNKLE charcters made by Nigo and Futura 2000 which have ended up being turned into highly fetishised and hyper-expensive figurines. And Neville Garrick’s covers for Bob Marley are a famous example of covers that addressed racial politics and history congruent with the musician’s intent, contributing to his mystique and iconic status along the way.
The advent of CDs meant new challenges for designers and this has arguably led to more creativity, especially in recent years, with a seemingly endless succession of new approaches to packaging the small silver disc. There is an even greater imperative to do this in an age of loss-free duplication and rampant CD burning. Record labels, however tiny, have to at least break even, and if they want to fund tours and further releases they must make money. Making the CD a special and desirable object means that they may actually sell some copies. No matter how inventive designers become, the trouble with MP3s is there is nothing to package ‘ which is our loss. In contrast, the rise of the accessibility of music through downloads and the nature of major record labels means the humble 7 inch single has become a statement of independence, of belonging to an underground, of dedication and love of music. Ironic, considering that this format was once the volume seller, used as a marketing tool to boost album sales.
Over the coming months in Cyclic Defrost we will be looking at certain album cover designs and particular designers and ‘reviewing’ sleeve designs to bring to the fore the importance of the visual in a world of audio.