There’s a serious dearth of interesting sleeve design right now. The rise of the monster record label, the template design formula and the thinly spread marketing budget have all played their part in its demise, at a time when musical genres have become greater in number and more and more specialised.
The daft thing is there’s more music than ever. We talk to a handful of the designers who still don’t want to compromise on creativity.
Forthcoming exhibitions: Suede, from 22-27 September; Mego, on 28 September; and Domino Records, on 4-5 and 12 October. All show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Mall, London SW1. Contact 020 7930 3647
Photographer Jason Evans has carved himself a niche shooting album covers, having made a reputation shooting for British style mags. He’s had notable collaborations for record sleeve artwork with designers like Tom Hingston and Red Design and this month his work for Domino Records can be seen at an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts to celebrate Domino’s tenth birthday.
Of late it’s been improvisation projects that have inspired him. From magazine work Evans has graduated to working on furniture, interiors and still- life projects, as well as record sleeves.
His collaborations with Domino on the Four Tet sleeves combine what’s best about record design, says Richard King, curator of the Domino exhibition.
For Domino, which has no house designer, the artwork is always very startling and quite personal and different from artist to artist. So the warmth and idiosyncrasy of the music comes out in the sleeve.
For Four Tet’s latest release, Rounds, Evans photographed a curious-looking child’s toy.
‘Kieran from Four Tet realised he’d had that in his bedroom for as long as he could remember. It’s obviously a very personal statement, but it also allows you to wonder what it is and what perhaps the connection is. It really lets you take what you want from it in a similar way to the music, which is reflective and best listened to on its own. It’s not drive-time music,’ he says.
Evans has long sought to break what he’s called the conservatism that has characterised design for the past few years.
‘If you look at history we can expect a backlash soon. Style mags, for example, which were a breeding ground for music industry talent, are at their lowest ebb since 1989-90 and that period gave birth to a terrific flood of talent,’ he says.
Andrew Shallcross has always done what he’s done. That’s why he set up Twisted Nerve records in 1997 with Damon Gough of Badly Drawn Boy fame. It’s also probably why he’s not only ‘that guy who did the Badly Drawn Boy covers’, but why he managed to make it as a DJ at the same time. His second record, Music to Watch Girls Cry, is on the cusp of being released on his own label. And he designed the cover, naturally.
Votel – his stage name taken from ‘Violators of the English Language’ – works out of Manchester, also turning his hand to producing, film-making and remixing. That’s what happens when you run a successful independent label. This ambitious ‘accidental world music album’ as he calls it, is drawn from his own burgeoning collection of vinyl.
‘There’s metal on there, folk stuff and hardly any American or English music,’ he says. His eclectic tastes apply as much to design as they do to music too. Favourite record sleeve? ‘Black Sabbath’s Paranoid,’ he told Jockey Slut magazine recently.
But despite his foray into music making, it’s as a designer he sees the world. That’s why he wasn’t too upset when his dad, a fine artist, decided to cut up the cover of Votel’s last copy of his Badly Drawn Boy EP1 seven-inch, ‘because he needed some blue’.
Stylorouge is another stalwart of record design. ‘Yes we’re dinosaurs,’ jokes Stylorouge’s Rob O’Conner. But like other big names in record design, the group has furrowed into a wide range of multimedia design within the music industry, not only producing DVDs, but shooting and directing pop videos. Recent collaborations have been with 1980s revivalist Act and the new album from Skin (of Skunk Anansie fame), re-worked from a Tom Hingston Studio concept.
O’Conner’s years at the helm have given him a certain view on the industry and he would like to see a two-tier system for releasing records, like there is with hardback and softback books.
‘If you wanted to collect the record you could buy the hardback version, which would be more expensive, but really well packaged. Then if you just want the music, you could wait for the less expensive softback that would be released later,’ says O’Conner.
Intro’s Adrian Shaughnessy reckons the designs for Broadcast’s album Ha Ha Sound, released last month, are among the best that Intro has done to date.
‘It’s very graphic,’ he says. ‘The whole point is it’s a very tactile object. And it doesn’t look like anything else that’s around at the moment.’
Like the best record sleeves, this is a double-sided design. It was created by Julian House of Intro. Shaughnessy says it’s not easy to describe, but it’s made up of lots of hand-crafted artwork.
‘The broadcast name is hand-rendered and overlaid with lots of completely dysfunctional typography,’ he says. ‘Broadcast are sorts of magpies themselves and have echoes of 1960s electronic music in their work – but they don’t pick up on anything post-digital, it’s all in the pre-digital era.’
Shaughnessy credits the all-important freedom given by the record company, Warp Records, for the success of the design, which includes extra thick vinyl and a very collectable book-style cover.
‘What’s really interesting is that a lot of labels are being a bit more open to innovative design because they see it as a way of countering piracy,’ he says. ‘Funnily enough, it’s leading to labels being quite bold with their packaging.’