Sleeve notes

Conservative record companies and retailers want all record and CD covers to look the same, but some designers dance to a different tune, says Mike Exon

The good times have gone. In fact, for the record design brotherhood it has possibly never been worse. Talking quietly to music-side designers young and old, there is a feeling that the art of music graphics is suffering, bottoming out even, especially in the mainstream. This is not just British cynicism either. A quick run through the Top 20 album sleeves will just about confirm the point.

In the present climate it is probably as hard to find work on a respectable design project as it is for a band to get signed to a record label – pretty miraculous, in other words. As for freedom of creative expression, which these days can amount to having final say over where to position the title, that is a luxury that few are privileged to enjoy.

As the marketing machinery of the record conglomerates has prospered, many designers argue that creativity has been pushed to one side. Money has been “invested” in investigating alternative digital formats, such as MP3 and video downloads, yet budgets for cover design have stood still or actually been cut, some say.

“The big labels seem to have forgotten about the emotive power of sleeves,” says Intro creative director Adrian Shaughnessy. “Promotion departments seem to run labels these days; it’s all about getting their artists on the front covers of magazines, on TV or on radio. And the record cover is not seen as a very important part of that process.” Shaughnessy’s thoughts are echoed by others, though for them speaking out would probably be suicide.

Retailers have had an increasing say over packaging constraints, in a move which sees alternative display formats now frowned upon. Yet all this does not deter the few, those happy few, who strive for creative brilliance, rather than compromise with their music graphics and packaging. Here is a selection of some of the latest work from that band of brothers.

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