By Graham Reid,
Cover art still sells albums
Paul McCartney perhaps spoke for his generation when he recalled the thrill of buying a new record as a teenager and, while taking it home, sitting in the bus pouring over the cover photo and liner notes, scanning for clues.
The covers of subsequent Beatles albums also had that effect on another generation, and their covers were emblematic of the era: their debut album Please Please Me of ’63 was shot quickly in the EMI building one afternoon. Four years later the artist Peter Blake was assembling the elaborate cover for Sgt. Pepper’s which came in a gatefold sleeve.
By the late 60s and early 70s the album cover was an art form, but conventional wisdom says that was lost with the CD generation with the limitations of the jewel case and the paltry size of compact discs.
Not so, says Auckland’s Andrew B White, who has designed more than 600 CD covers for albums, singles, special projects and promo discs, among them covers for Greg Johnson, Tha Feelstyle, Jan Hellriegel, the Nature’s Best collections (in multiple formats and sizes) and Greg Fleming.
White began his design career in the Flying Nun era of the 80s (Able Tasmans, David Kilgour) and consequently has worked in multiple formats.
“The good thing about the CD was it was just a shrinkdown of an LP cover. The most difficult was converting to cassette format which stayed around a lot longer than LPs, in fact as recently as the early 2000s we would still do a major release of a cassette.
“But you had to reformat a square design to a diagonal.” As someone who grew up with cassettes at home, White says he always felt short-changed by cassette covers so when he started designing for them he would have foldouts for liner notes and information just as on the album version.
And he argues the CD format actually offers more possibilities for design than the vinyl album. “The booklet enabled you to do more because you had pages, as opposed to an insert which was two-sided. Sometimes a booklet can feel more substantial and read more coherently than an insert.
“With a CD you can have a booklet with maybe up to five panels on each side which folds out in a long form, you can fold that out again so it is essentially an A4 poster. You have more options to experiment with layout.”
With a CD you can also change the colour of the plastic tray, go to the cardboard digi-pak format or the more substantial super- Playing covers Cover art still sells albums music graham reid jewel with the rounded corners which are less prone to being damaged. It is possible to design without using plastic at all. And with the disc itself there are possibilities for colour, patterns and even textural feel.
Some CD cover designs are exceptional: last year’s album Skeletal Lamping by the Georgia band Of Montreal opens out into an elaborate multi-panel floral-style design, and American rockers Clutch offered an equally handsome fold-out with an A3 poster insert in a cut-out slip cover.
Locally CD cover designs range from the simple ‘exquisite corpse’ multi-panel by Tono and the Finance Company on their Fragile Thing EP (black’n’white drawings on a fold-out card) through White’s design for Greg Fleming’s Taken (a full colour 12-page booklet) to the origami buffalo with the limited edition version of Phoenix Foundation’s album of the same name.
Loop’s release of the CD/DVD package for Fly My Pretties’ A Story last year was an object lesson in what is possible in packaging and design: an embossed cardboard sleeve contained the two separate digi-paks (each with an embossed cover) and the ten-page booklet of acknowledgements, a synopsis of the concept, photographs and credits.
Mikee Tucker, manager and creative director at Loop Recordings, says they have always lavished attention on their DVD and CD releases.
“I guess that comes from us being a magazine at the beginning and appreciating design, and doing books of art with New Zealand artists and designers. We’ve always had a soft spot for creativity, and not just music but also films, art and design, the creative culture as a whole.
“With every Loop release we believe packaging is a key aspect. Our market is discerning and Fly My Pretties’ audience is a bit older and appreciates that packaging.
“For Barnaby [Weir, of Fly My Pretties] and I, Fly My Pretties is not just another release, it is a special something that comes along once every three or four years and we might as well do it right. That was as expensive as it looks.
“We did the design to emphasise the story that Dick [Weir] and Barnaby had written through the disc and DVD.”
Sponsorship offset some Pretties production costs but Tucker says they still took a hit on the price which others might not wear—yet the CD/ DVD set, which retailed at the standard price for a doubledisc set—is almost certified platinum (15,000 sales).
The digital-download age has created a different era again. White recently did a survey through Facebook asking if people who bought music digitally cared if they got liner notes: 90 percent said no, they just wanted the music. “If they really want to know who played on track five they will probably Google it. The other camp, however, absolutely wanted liner notes. They’ll probably buy the vinyl version and get mp3 download and the CD as well, because the CD might have bonus tracks or a DVD.”
However even White, who is so used to designing for CD he doesn’t compare to vinyl albums as much, acknowledges sometimes the difference between the two formats is obvious. Size does make a difference.
“Tha Feelstyle cover was one, the LP had a much better impact.” The original cover painting was rather flat so it was photoshopped to bring it out the colours and was printed with an overgloss. “The CD is okay but, side by side, the LP is streets ahead.”
White also notes when people talk nostalgically about Storm Thorgerson’s Pink Floyd covers that he had the advantage of using the LP size for a powerful image which, when re-sized down, are much less striking: “His is an art form that really works in that large format. If he’d started out when it was CDonly they may not have had the same iconic impact.”
Bad design or art won’t stop people buying if they like the music, but striking design can bring in those wavering. The small comeback of the vinyl format has also seen an interesting change, says White, who last year designed the limited edition vinyl version of Jan Hellriegel’s All Grown Up. The seduction of a high quality album cover still works.
“You used to pay $35 for a CD and an LP was $40. But for that you get two pieces of vinyl in a gatefold sleeve and nice printing and I think I’d rather have the record, thanks. You can’t put your LP into iTunes but the smart people today include codes or you’ll get the CD as well. It’s no cost to them.
“I pick things up and think, ‘That’s great. Ah, what the hell, I’ll buy it’.”
Graham Reid is an Auckland freelance writer and proprietor of elsewhere.co.nz