Are music graphics dead post-digital?

The music industry is set for massive upheaval, with digital distribution destabilising long-held business models. How will this affect the designers who create the all-important visual imagery? asks Adrian Shaughnessy

THOSE OF YOU who’ve followed the EMI story in recent months will know that it’s a gripping tale of clashing cultures. In 2007, venture capital firm Terra Firma, run by Guy Hands, acquired the British record company for £3.2bn. With a back catalogue that includes The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Coldplay and Cliff Richard, EMI is Britain’s only major record label, and one of only four ‘majors’ left in the world.

We can all enjoy a snigger at Guy Hands’ comments about artists having to be more productive, and the £200 000 spent on ‘fruit and flowers’ – a euphemism familiar to anyone with knowledge of the hedonism of the record industry. But Hands has correctly spotted that the record business is being run on an outmoded, unsustainable model. The business has to change, because its audience has changed.

In the new digital music environment, the consumer calls the shots. And the new generation of music fans want instant access to music via whatever platform they choose. And just as they do in other consumer sectors of the economy, they want to dictate how much they pay for it. While Hands wrestles with this, and with the vested interests of the powerful managers of the artists signed to his label, the most widely predicted outcome is that music will be given away free, with labels and bands deriving their income from advertising on download sites, and from live gigs – a boom area at a time of declining record sales.

But what about music industry designers? Is there still work for studios set up to service the music business? Zip Design was formed in the mid-1990s working almost exclusively for the record business, and today 60 per cent of the studio’s work is music-based. ‘We’ve noticed a drop in budgets,’ says creative director David Bowden, ‘but I’m optimistic that the digital music era will eventually generate lots of design work. Increasingly, we find that our work is coming from the live sector, and a large percentage of our music work now centres around live venues, clubs and events, and it’s growing fast.’

Brighton-based Red Design has moved from being an almost exclusively music-based design studio to one with a wider spread of clients. ‘At 35 per cent, last year was our lowest ever for music work,’ says Red creative director Ed Templeton, ‘although our total music income has remained pretty steady for the past three years.’ But as Templeton adds ruefully, ‘major label artwork budgets are the same today as they were when Red first opened its doors in 1996.’

How has the downloading scenario affected Red? ‘We’ve begun doing single covers whose only format will be download,’ notes Templeton. ‘Creatively, a 50mm square 72dpi canvas doesn’t give you much to play with, and financially it’s almost not worth bothering about. But if you are designing an album project and the download packshot is just one element of the artwork then it’s fine. That said, we’re actually still doing lots of really good projects with bands and record labels that care about their artwork.

‘We’ve been asked to do our first pitch where the winning firm will do album artwork, videos and websites,’ adds Templeton. ‘That seems like the way forward to me, and is exactly what we have been striving to do for music industry clients for the past few years.’ Striking work for Beck, Goldfrapp and The Enemy has made Big Active into one of the most highly regarded music industry design houses. ‘A large percentage of our output is music-based,’ notes creative director Gerard Saint, ‘but we’re all beginning to feel a squeeze on budgets – certainly with new and developing acts, and definitely in terms of print and production.’

‘We try to look at all campaigns that we create as having a holistic structure across different media from print to digital,’ adds Saint. ‘We try to use each medium appropriately to make use of the opportunities available in each.’ It’s an approach that can be seen in the group’s work for The Enemy’s We’ll Live And Die In These Towns album campaign. A slatted railway timetable board supplies a robust and practical visual framework for everything from CD covers to downloading individual songs.

But Saint is critical of the way labels view digital work. ‘Their thinking is that if it’s digital it must be cheap. There almost seems to be a naive attitude that things should cost less when created for digital usage when we all know that in commissioning terms the cost and value remain the same no matter what the usage. Ethical photography, image-making or graphic design do not become cheaper to produce just because the end usage lives in a virtual medium.’

However, since the music-buying public has come to equate digital with free, so too have the labels. Guy Hands is going to have to find a way round that if his label isn’t going to become part of an endangered species. It may already be too late.

Adrian Shaughnessy’s book Cover Art By: New Music Graphics is published by Laurence King on 7 April, at £24.95

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