Lockdown spurs vinyl design boom

Designers and record labels are conspiring to make new vinyl experiences for home listeners. We take a look at how they’re doing it.

We all know the story of vinyl’s, rise, fall and renaissance. It’s had to contend with cassette tapes and then CDs, which for a time outsold them in the 90s and early 2000s. CDs were themselves usurped by digital downloads in the 2000s; and with the 2010s came our dominant form of music consumption today, streaming.

In the twenty-first century, vinyl eventually prevailed as the favoured tangible format, noted for its tactility, collectability and superior canvas for design. Now there are signs that our enforced sedentary home lives in 2020 are encouraging record labels and designers to take advantage of the situation.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic forcing many to cut back on luxuries, online vinyl retailer Discogs reported a 33 per cent rise in sales of records in its mid-year marketplace analysis compared to 2019. With nearly six million records sold in the first half of the year, sales of vinyl make up the biggest portion of the 7,657,626 total pieces of physical music it has sold overall.

Vinyl Moon Vol 018

“People don’t skip or shuffle vinyl”

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense why people are still buying records – records are expensive, fragile and cumbersome,” says Brandon Bogajewicz. “It’s not logical at all, but for some reason we still love them.”

Bogajewicz is the co-founder of Vinyl Moon, a monthly record delivery service based in Los Angeles, US, which introduces listeners to new recording artists (and some rather nice graphic design) via a curated vinyl “mixtape” and artwork experience. The company celebrated its fifth birthday in 2020.

He says the 2020 boost for vinyl makes sense, since “it’s an experience you can have at home which is both socially distanced and transportive”. He adds, “People don’t skip or shuffle. With vinyl, you give up a bit of control.”

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“Come for the music, stay for the artistic experience”

Vinyl Moon centres on the physicality of records, Bogajewicz says, since this is a big part of the experience.

“We just thought: if vinyl is a physical medium, then lets make it the most physical medium we can,” he says. “So we focused on creating a memorable packaging experience. When you come across a record with a really unique physical presence, it sticks with you.”

For this reason, each monthly Vinyl Moon bundle also comes with added elements beyond just the record mixtape itself. These can range from posters and artwork, to more out-there ideas like scratch-and-sniff stickers. Bogajewicz says this is an attempt to tap into the “skills and wild minds” of creatives, since there are “just as many talented artists and graphic designers out there as there are musicians”.

Giving designers the budget to “go wild” on the album artwork brings the best results according to Bogajewicz, who says they have the added bonus of not being constrained by elements like barcodes and even band names, which would have to be considered for records designed for general sale. Given that the designers can also work on accompanying materials, he sometimes feels like an “art direction Santa Claus” he says.

He likens Vinyl Moon’s offering as similar to a Kinder Egg: “A Kinder Egg asks you to come for the chocolate, and stay for the toy – and we ask people to come for the music, and stay for the artistic experience.”

Straight Music Presents upcoming concert releases

“Rebuilding the sound to make it feel like you’re right there”

It’s a position shared by Gary Shoefield, co-founder of Straight Music Presents. He’s a life-long music fan, with experience in the recording industry, and is currently working in the field of concert holograms. Like Vinyl Moon, Straight Music Presents’ latest project aims to be “transportive”. Using Sana360 sound design technology, the team is remastering concert recordings to bring listeners “a sense of place”.

“We’re rebuilding the sound to make it feel like you’re right there in the concert again – it’s a technology that works perfectly for vinyl,” Shoefield says. The Sana360 technology itself has been developed by Grammy Award-winning music producer Jay Rifkin.

The often never-before-heard masters will be offered to fans in a boxset with other memorabilia and extras to further the experience. The project aims to speak to vinyl fans who are “completists”, Shoefield says.

“I’m a completist in that I’m a big fan of Bruce Lee and so have every form of Enter the Dragon available, from VHS to Blu-ray,” he says. “And in the same way, we’re offering fans another element to add to their collections – it’s something they’ve never heard before but know they’ll appreciate instantly.”

Unusual Ingredients packaging

“Electronic music meets cutting-edge science meets Willy Wonka”

Straight Music Presents and Vinyl Moon’s offerings aim to be a treat for the eyes and ears. Collaborative vinyl project Unusual Ingredients wants to add taste into the mix too.

Created between Leeds-based design studio Split, musicians Jacob Thompson-Bell and Adam Martin and food artist Caroline Hobkinson, the musical offering pairs 14 tracks with corresponding food to eat while listening. The studio says the experience aims to be something like: “electronic music meets cutting-edge science meets Willy Wonka”.

Hobkinson’s work as a food artist sees her explore gastrophysical (the science of gastronomy and food) ideas and how our senses react and interact to different external prompts. For a studio that often designs album artwork, this was a chance to take things to another level, Split creative director Oli Bentley explains.

Her work in the context of music adds another element to the musical experience, Bentley says. He mentions one pairing found on the record, which sees a “poppy” track coupled with popping candy. The result makes it feel “as if the music is coming from inside your head too” and “like a whole new kind of surround sound”, he says.

Unusual Ingredients tasting notes

“It gives artists ownership”

The presentation of the at-home gastronomical-musical adventure was key to the experience, Bentley says.

“There’s a lot of science involved in this project,” he says. “We wanted to lean into all this to create an experience that was both fun and informative at the same time.” The vinyl LP is set in a box which comes also with a set of filled test tubes and petri dishes. It opens out to reveal an illustrated guide to tasting and listening.

Bentley is clear that the offering of Unusual Ingredients is a luxury that some, especially now, won’t be able to afford. But he maintains that finding new ways for the public to engage with music and its creators is more important than ever, given that so much support for the arts has tailed off during the pandemic. And vinyl is a good way to pledge that support, he says.

“It’s an important medium because it gives artists an ownership over something that would otherwise not actually be in the physical world,” Bentley says. “And bringing it alongside something like Unusual Ingredients is a good way to ensure listeners engage with music in exactly the way musicians want them to.”

Vinyl Moon Vol 007

“It became more important than ever to find solace in art and music”

All these projects offer something beyond the vinyl listening experience but even without extras, the physicality of vinyl offers designers an unparalleled canvas on which to work in the age of digital music.

As Bogajewicz explains: “A lot of the artwork found on records today was never designed for vinyl but instead for tiny thumbnails on screens. It’s a missed opportunity because vinyl is a beautiful canvas that deserves a good design treatment every time.”

When the shortlist for the Best Art Vinyl Awards was announced earlier this month, the Art Vinyl organisation said this year’s nominations reflected “a year of lockdowns and self-isolation”.

This year has seen a number of artists release their work using self-portrait-style album designs, Art Vinyl says, with Marilyn Manson and US singer-songwriter Frances Quinlan among those adopting the approach. Other designs reflect the turbulence of the pandemic whether directly or not; producer and musician Tenderlonious’ Quarantena features an illustration by Theo Ackroyd of a medieval plague doctor; while Drab City’s Good Songs for Bad People employs a chaotic scribble-like sleeve.

In 2020, our relationship with the physical world has become more important than ever, suggests Best Art Vinyl founder Andrew Heeps. This year’s records mirror a world that has been put on pause, threatened existentially and provided plenty of time for reflection.

“In this new Zoom culture, it became more important than ever to celebrate and find solace in art and music,” says Heeps. “It’s the tactile mix of sound and vision that will always bring people closer.”

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