Music on CD dead? Not so, say the fans - retro continues to be cool and collectors continue to collect. Debbie Galante Block talks to designers and artists who listen to fans and give them what they want in terms of desirable physical media.
Like vinyl, music packaging was scaled back by major record labels way before consumers were ready to let it go. Also, like vinyl, it’s back! With the advent of digital music, it originally seemed that designers were doomed to designing postage size pictures for iTunes, but artists and their true fans have clamoured for more. Designers, of course, have had to adjust to a changing market with less money in it. However, design freedom, in many respects, has made a comeback as fans have begun to buy deluxe packages directly from the artists.
Grammy winner, David Gorman, owner of Hackmart Inc, designs many packages including some for Rhino Records, a label that was always known for their award winning packages. Gorman is nominated this year for his work on Wingless Angels. He says there was a time when labels believed CDs had to be priced at $9.99 at a retail chain, or customers wouldn’t buy them, so packaging was made real simple.
“Consumers didn’t want to spend $18 for a CD in a jewel case, it never felt like it was worth it. Now, we’re done with the argument that the product has to be $9.99 or Best Buy won’t take it. We are in a place where there is a lot of creative freedom.” The question when designing now is: ‘How much is a fan willing to pay?’ From there, a package design can be created.
Tom Recchion, Senior Creative Director for Capitol/EMI, agrees that when the music business started to decline, “and marketing took over the creative, there was less willingness to take a risk in terms of packaging. It took a while, but people started to see that collectors are interested in more than just a jewel case. The labels are outdoing each other now.”
FANS WANT MORE
An interesting example of fans’ hunger for more is the Grateful Dead package that Gorman designed – Europe ‘72: The Complete Recordings – All Music Edition. The package was pre-ordered and sold out on the Dead’s website on the basis of a sketch. “It was the concept for the box.” 7,200 boxes were sold. “The discussion was not ‘How cheaply can we can get it out the door?’ but rather ‘How can we blow their minds?’,” he adds.
Hugh Brown, who won several Grammys for his work when he was employed at Rhino says, “The record labels believed the press that fans did not want packaging even though actual sales figures really didn’t support that assumption. The year Rhino decided to outsource design was our third biggest year.” Both Gorman and Brown admit that work is not as steady as it once was, but more marketing involvement was when budgets for special packaging got slashed.
If only 20,000 copies of a package are made, it sells out, and the label says, “We only sold 20,000 copies,” rather than, “We sold out the 20,000 copies,” then there is a different perception in the marketplace, adds Brown. Now, it’s amazing to see the several different configurations of one title, like the Recchion-designed Beach Boys’ Smile all doing well despite the cost,” he comments. What’s also an interesting change in the industry is that the fans are more interested in how packages come together. For example, Capital/EMI did a webisode which featured the creation of the Smile package.
Todd Gallopo, 2012 Grammy nominee for Chickenfoot’s III, and owner of design firm meat and potatoes, comments that, “The fundamentals of a good package never go away. If you can master those on pennies per unit, then you’ve done your job really well. Designers say they would love to use more unusual materials and inks, but costs prohibit that.”
Phil Yarnall, owner of Smay Design agrees, “I’ll start out with something cool, but the designs get shrunk down and materials changed.” With the economy the way it is, this scenario has become even more common, as Yarnall explains: “I have to find a way to make things more deluxe without spending money. At meetings it comes down to pennies.”
He offers the example of a Janis Joplin package he is working on. It is a double album with a gatefold jacket done to keep costs down without doing a book, “But there is an enormous amount of copy; six or seven different essays from different people. I’ve had to squeeze them in. It’s like a Sudoku crossword puzzle!”
The key now to creating special packaging is to plan ahead. Designers need to be like lawyers. They have to prove the case of special packaging to corporate, they say. “When Smile got on the schedule, I took the initiative to start working with vendors to come up with some ideas,” says Recchion. He worked with printers to create something 3D for the cover.
“I got some very nice comps. When I got the one I wanted, I took it around to the creative pool. It made enough of an impact, so that in the back of everyone’s mind, they wanted to make sure it happened.” With budgets going back and forth, materials being substituted, dimensions changing, Recchion had to fit his vision within a certain limited budget.
While he didn’t have carte blanche, he knew he wanted to retain the cover treatment, “So what was left was ... how do we fill out the rest of the package? Part of it was convincing the powers that be that it was worth investing in.” Of course it helps when the package is for a bigger more established band like the Beach Boys.
For a designer, the best relationship to foster is the one with the artist themselves, according to Recchion. “There has always been a conflict between marketing and creative and there always will be, but when you have the artist on your side, it becomes a more creative system.”
Initially, Recchion didn’t have the budget for the lighted box, one of the Smile configurations, but when Melinda Wilson (Brian Wilson’s wife) found out about the idea, she got very excited and helped convince people that it was a good thing. “Then, I spent a year and a half working on the project.”
Yarnall who designed AC/DC’s BackTracks with a working amp believes that dealing with the artist direct is ideal. “If you strictly deal with the label, it can hold your creativity back. For big bands like AC/DC, the label will pull out all the stops; not true for a lesser known band. When working with Indie labels, you have more creative control, but that’s not always easy either. Sometimes you have to jump through hoops because there is a lack of experience in knowing what it all costs.”
Artists are saying, “Design whatever you want and then we’ll figure out how to make it,” comments Gallopo. “That’s all well and good if the artist is already signed to a record label, like Gabe Dixon who is on Concord Records. For One Spark, “I made a diorama by hand... two feet high; nothing done in Photoshop. It felt like the 1970s!”
However, that wasn’t the case with Chrysta Bell’s This Train which got scaled down because there was no one to pay. “What package design comes down to is problem solving, and that’s kind of the fun of it. It’s about making the package cool and not spending too much,” believes Josh Cheuse of Sony, who recently designed Tony Bennett: the Complete Collection, which includes 74 discs and a 250 page book.
“It’s about building trust. Artists don’t know about procedures and prices.” Cheuse recreated all of Bennett’s albums with replica sleeves. The box looks like a collection of LPs on a shelf. The title sold out at $499 with an autograph. At the time of writing, the package was on backorder or available without a signature for $399. It is being sold from Bennett’s website and Barnes and Noble only. Cheuse says that, while direct to consumer sales are growing, the loss of record store browsing really hurts the market.
However, there are ‘lifestyle’ stores that want to carry the ‘cooler’ titles. Cheuse mentions a project done for the chain store Supreme, which is an international skate board type store. “We branded a Miles Davis CD with the Supreme brand. The kids bought it because it says Supreme on it and they want everything that says that on it because it is a limited edition and it is cool. Now these kids are turned on to Miles Davis.”
This boutique mentality has helped Gorman as well. For example, back in the 1970s there was a Bobby Charles Record.”This is a record that didn’t sell much, but we were hired recently by Rhino to create a new expanded version with a great packaging budget because they are selling direct to consumer.” Designing today is a smaller business, “But it is still profitable. Fans are willing to spend money if we give them something that is worth it.”
Brown offers a similar story about the creation of the new Kevin Gilbert’s Shaming of The True package.
Back in 1999, while the titles didn’t sell much, it was nominated for a packaging award. Recently, there was other material found, so Brown was asked to create a new package. He designed a package that includes: a 12” x 12” quad gatefold container with all the lyrics, original liner notes, plus new photos and an alternate cover drawing, fourteen 12“x 12” frameable quality prints of all the art from the original book and a frameable lead sheet of Long Day’s Life. The CDs themselves are mounted on a board with two alternate drawings and a full colour photo of Gilbert on the reverse. About 1,000 copies were made to be sold direct to the consumer, and the package was released just before Christmas. At the writing of this piece, Brown says 400 copies have sold.
What will the future bring for album art designers? Is there an art model for iTunes? Gorman says physical and digital markets are separate. “If someone is buying on iTunes, they are comfortable with the fact that they are not buying a product to take up shelf space. I don’t think they care to print stuff out. Digital packaging is going to come into its own. It is likely to be more interactive with updating and remixing for example,” says Gorman.
However, there are other ways to boost business, he believes. “When Rhino let go of their whole art department and editorial department, they took us on. We do design as well as the back end. We hire the writers, do the proofing and deadline management, but Rhino only has to write one cheque! We can also bring on other designers if it’s something we are not necessarily good at.” The point is that business may be different today, but it can remain profitable with patience and a little creativity.
Gallopo concludes that it’s important to remember when you design something – be creative, but be reasonable. “It’s important to design something that can be made at a reasonable cost, so that no one is disappointed and business will remain strong.”