Sight and sounds

Design and branding have always been of paramount importance to a band’s success. Garrick Webster discovers how entrepreneurial designers are helping upcoming musicians to stand out from the throng

It already feels like accepted wisdom that downloading has revolutionised the record industry. But while record labels continue to gnash their teeth and count the change, young designers are diving in, managing bands, organising gigs and founding labels that revive Krautrock, revel in Nu-Folk, give Goth a makeover or expose experimental beats. For them, it’s not just about designing sleeves and logos, but about using their communication and entrepreneurial skills to get the music they love out there.

’The Internet has crippled record labels through the download culture, but empowered artists through social media, enabling musicians to self-release with more chance of success than ever before,’ says Jesse Boyce of design consultancy Lethal. ’But because anyone can, everyone does, which creates a lot of clutter for the real talent to rise above and get noticed.’

This, in turn, creates demand for designers that can offer differentiation to bands. Boyce’s day job sees him helping organisations like UK Music and Capital Sound to raise their profiles, but on the side he manages Danish trio The Good The Bad. The band’s music is hard and energetic, which Boyce has tried to reflect in its visual identity. ’The band’s online presence and merchandise are now in line with its uncompromising, bold music. Our most recent campaign launched the latest video with a million views in less than a month,’ says Boyce.

Lethal’s passion for music – and sense of humour – shines through when Boyce muses, ’We create our best work listening to Metallica’s The End of The Line and our worst work listening to Burn Back’s Make the Logo Bigger.’

In Manchester, illustrator Ben Tallon is co-founder of Quenched Unsigned, a grassroots consultancy offering its skills in copywriting, design and illustration to new bands hoping to forge a distinctive identity. What Quenched Unsigned is most proud of so far is No Right to Be Here, a night it hosts at Fac 251 at The Factory in Manchester, bringing unsigned bands like The Rimes, Mount Fabric and I am Austin to public attention. ’Basically, we’re sick of all the manufactured rubbish dominating the mainstream and we wanted to help really good musicians to get exposure,’ says Tallon.

Social media and downloads are key marketing tools for new musicians, yet sleeves, posters and vinyl records are still produced in surprising numbers. Ben Seary is co-founder of the singles label Hit Club, which has already released six 45s by various bands. Seary is inspired by physical music media. ’I really like Farrow Design’s minimalist approach, and also looking at CD and vinyl packaging as more than just a plastic or cardboard case,’ says Seary. ’Music can be a very complex message to communicate visually, and packaging can reflect that by being a book, a sculpture or a video.’

Illustrator Jake Blanchard also loves CDs and vinyl, and founded the Tor Press record shop, for which he lovingly crafts his own releases under the moniker Menagerie. Each run of 500 is lusciously produced, featuring a CD or vinyl LP of music Blanchard rates, along with a magazine of bespoke illustrations inspired by the music.

The upcoming Menagerie 3 promises another innovation. ’It’ll be the first issue where the bands produce tracks as a reaction to illustrations,’ says Blanchard. ’Maybe in the future I’ll try to get writers involved too.’

The visual volume is also being turned up in the music blog scene. Kit Grill is co-founder of online magazine Vessel Music. He says, ’We see the website as a ship on a continual journey, never stopping.’ The blog includes gig and record reviews, interviews, and exclusive remixed tracks contributed by the bands covered. They’re already promoting nights with the bands they rate and hope to launch their own record label.

’It’s inspiring to give a musician a visual they deserve,’ says Grill. ’It could help their music have an impact, which is huge for them. I enjoy helping them out.’

Music and design in…

The 1960s…
Pop artist/illustrator Sir Peter Blake’s sleeve design for The Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band comprised 61 famous faces. It became an icon of the decade, musically and visually.

The 1970s…
In 1972, Roger Dean gave Yes its logotype-with-gradient-fill mark, kicking off a trend in band logos. He went on to design the stages for Yes’ 1975 US tour. He also collaborated with Storm Thorgerson on Pink Floyd’s album art.

The 1980s…
Peter Saville’s work with Factory Records and New Order in particular inspired a generation of graphic designers. In 1983, Blue Monday’s sleeve, a die-cut replica of a floppy disk, cost more to produce than the single’s sale price.

The 1990s…
Formed in 1998, Lemon Jelly is the musical guise of Airside founder Fred Deakin. It has sold more records than any other tight-knit collaborative project between musicians and designers, aside from Gorillaz

The Noughties
Heavily based on a visual concept, Gorillaz arrived with a line-up of four animated characters drawn by Jamie Hewlett, animated by Pete Candeland, and living out their story to the music and vocals of Damon Albarn.

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