The changing nature of how content is created, consumed, and distributed has clear implications in terms of the perception of media. One such example is cover art, where the continuing change in buying patterns from tactile forms to digital work may have led to a change in the way in which consumers perceive and understand the importance of a visual identity in books and music.
In conversation are Andrew Dubber and Gary Day-Ellison, with strong pedigrees in music and books, respectively. We start with discussing cover art, and move on from there.
Do we still have cover art? Is there still such a thing? Do digital consumers care about packaging?
GDE: It's all packaged, one way or another. Whether you have a physical package, where the manufacturing is the defining limitation. As soon as you put type together with images, it's packaged... otherwise, you wouldn't know about it, other than on a typed list.
AD: The idea of cover art in music has a strong, 100-year history of being at least a reason for a cover: you have vinyl, shellac, or a CD. A lot of that has carried over into digital. Something feels like it's not finished if it's in your iTunes collection, without an image. People with music in their iTunes without cover art, often go so far as to scan cover art from a CD to make sure that the whole thing looks nice.
GDE: If I don't like the cover art, I take it out and put in a picture that I do like instead.
AD: There's a great opportunity to do that with online music. You don't have to stick with the cover art. There are some really interesting things going on regarding cover art as far as music production goes; there are lots of experiments at the moment, because because people find it problematic. There are people doing things like: “Here are some ingredients, build your own cover.” There are a lot of independent acts doing that. “These are the elements of visual style that represent us”. Download it and engage with the process of making cover art.
People misunderstand music consumption. They think of it as being discovery, purchase and listening. What people do with music is a lot more than that. They like to collect it, organise it, talk about it, and lots of other things. There is an element of visual representation to that. I'm a vinyl collector, but I also have an MP3 player. The MP3s are for having on, and the vinyl is for listening to. It causes me distress when there's something in my iTunes library that doesn't have cover art.
GDE: It's easy to put something in yourself, and I quite like that. We all used to make compilation tapes for friends; I would put my own cover art in there, from the Sunday supplements. I think that still goes on. That's about engagement. I'm all for it. You feel part of it. It's a sense of feeling involved, and people like that.
AD: There's a record label in Birmingham, called Brave or Invincible. They produced a compilation cassette
, that you can only buy online; they chose ten artists that they like, and each artist produced ten covers. Only a hundred of these cassettes were available. So, you had a one-off, handmade, album, produced by the artist.
Cover art is not just pictures. Where things start to fall apart in the digital environment is in liner notes. They are a really important part of the experience of listening to recordings, particularly for someone like me that buys jazz vinyl. You're reading an essay while listening to the music.
I'm really interested in things that aren't currently available for sale: not just from a point of view of personal consumption, but from the fact that these things are disappearing. 95% of all of the recordings issued by the major record labels, are currently not available in any form. Unless you can find a second-hand copy, or there's a revival which makes it viable for the record labels to re-press, these recordings are sitting in vaults, on magnetic tape, decaying. So, 95% of all cover art that we are ever likely to see, is inaccessible.
GDE: The exclusivity is also part of it. I used to buy a lot of reggae from Desmond's in Brixton Market. It was about the size of a phone box, and two people would take turns to go in. They had ex-turntable 45rpm singles; where you could press out the middle to make the record fit onto a jukebox. A lot of these records were coming in from Jamaica as white-label, and the guy playing them would put a fat black felt-tip on the name of the artist. The point is that you could only hear it from that guy's turntable in that shop. You couldn't find out what it was. With many of these records, rather than the middle bit for the jukebox being taken out, the middle was literally drilled out, so it would only fit one master turntable. There is a balance between people wanting a past engagement and attachment.
Psychologically, you love hearing bands for the first time. How many times have we heard that a band's first album captured their real essence? It's to do with holding onto something, which is about participation.
AD: There's another thread to this. Some people are doing cover art as a way of creating authenticity. Brian Eno is releasing a hand-printed, box set
that the fans can buy. It's making something out of the ownership of an artwork, that goes beyond the mere buying of music. To engage with something tactile that smells nice, creates scarcity out of having something which is valuable to sell. One of the things which is interesting to me about that, is the bit which decays. The bit which isn't easily shareable, is the bit which is expensive.
GDE: You also have a conflict between originality of the packaging, and how rackable it is, for stores and distributors...
AD: … and home collectors. There's nothing worse.
GDE: Yes; companies put the product into different boxes, tins and so on; mutating the form, trying to replace the ghastly jewel box. It suggests that there's an opportunity here to become more imaginative with packaging, because we can now do great things, based on a wider experience.
AD: There is that, but there's something else to it. Box sets, strangely-shaped packages and so on, are interesting occasionally, but as a standard practice, would piss everybody off, because there's no easy way to store it. What makes CD and record collections work, is that the packaging is all the same size, and they sit nicely next to each other.
GDE: They [original packages] work only as exceptions. If every programme was like Twin Peaks, watching Twin Peaks wouldn't be half as much fun.
How do you then bring that uniqueness and scarcity into less engaged audiences?
AD: There's one simple answer: be interesting.
GDE: Given that I work with books, this is about identity. If you go back to source, and to the creative juices of the writer or the musician, and let the ideas flow from that, you will see the constraints in print, packaging, and digital. How do you design a book cover? If you sit down with someone that has never designed one before, the first thing that they will draw is a fucking rectangle. The first thing that you will do is put a fence up.
The same applies with CDs; draw something that is off from the square. Go right back to what the band's about, or the piece of writing is about. Work from that, and reach limitations as they turn up. It's going to be an ongoing transition.
AD: I like the idea of a rectangle, or a square – simply because you are conforming to a convention. You are conforming to a convention because it works. I don't want circular or triangular books. I have a bookshelf that works in a particular way. I don't mind different sizes, but if you are going to change the shape of the item itself, it's the wrong creative approach. There are all sorts of other aesthetic and tactile ways to make things interesting, apart from drawing a rectangle. Give me a rectangle, then make the rectangle's contents interesting.
GDE: It's not about the limitations of the shape, it's thinking about formats in the broadest sense. You mentioned the liner notes; it has been possible to read lyrics for sometime, in Spotlight on a Mac.
AD: Liner notes in digital music are problematic, because people have thought more about form than content. I wrote a blog post about this, three years ago, called On Liner Notes. The way in which it is presented is not interesting. Liner notes are not a method of delivery, but a type of content. I was suggesting doing a format-list presentation; XML data that anybody could write a methodology with, to present notes on the computer screen, or on your phone, or wherever. You could choose the presentation that you wanted, but the content was delivered not in a way by font or layout, but as straight XML data. You have innovation around how people choose to display it.
That then doesn't create problems as was the case with the iTunes album format, which only works with iTunes.
Are we seeing a change in how products are being delivered? Live performances, book signings, author and band Twitter and Facebook campaigns all change how artistic endeavours are planned. They start from someone making something, but now they are planned much more as campaigns across a range of media.
GDE: The received wisdom is to tour to sell a product. That has changed. The concert is now much more in focus.
Are we now missing out on content wrapped around the composition? Is there a decline in liner notes, because a place has not been set up for them?
AD: The design works differently on the Internet. You see this with eBooks. I choose the font size, lines per page, and so on. With a book, if I was writing and publishing, I would be careful about the font that I chose, for example. The decision lies at different ends of the process.
So what we're moving to is less of a threat and more of an opportunity, across a wider range of channels.
GDE: The opportunity is fantastic. The most innovative thing that I have come across in terms of identity, was from Radiohead. It wasn't In Rainbows, but a concert where they combined footage of everyone's digital photographs and video, to be pulled together to make a concert. Radiohead contributed the music for free. I thought that was fabulous.
AD: There's some really interesting stuff going on. The Beastie Boys have been giving out cameras to shoot a movie. There are all sorts of new ways to do that.
GDE: … and it's all about identity; the identity of the band. There's another aspect to this, where the artist wants to keep some control. When you see video awards on television, it's the artist, not the director, that collects the award. Some people want to control the minutiae of how they are presented. Susan Boyle is not going to let you make a nude collage of her.
AD: But, it's not to do with what the artist wants. If you are signed to a major label, the creative control that you have is nearly nil.
GDE: You need to go up and down the food chain to justify that. Madonna? U2?
AD: You have, maybe, a handful of artists.
Haven't these artists risen to such a level of prominence that they are able to exert a degree of control?
GDE: That can also work in a libertarian way, which is why I admire Radiohead so much; that they continued to experiment after OK Computer. They made enough money to be able to do that; to experiment with In Rainbows and in their live performances. Bands starting up will not have this financial clout, or such a following, to be able to do it.
AD: First of all, Thom Yorke would probably punch you in the face if you called him a libertarian. Secondly, the only reason that they had the creative freedom to do that, was because they were not signed to a major label. They have complete creative control. What makes them interesting - and problematic for major labels - is that it works. From the point of view of creative control, the only control that these people have is directly proportionate to the buying power that they have over their catalogue. Radiohead have complete control, post OK Computer.
GDE: It's power, one way or another; people choose what to do with it. Some would choose the Thom Yorke route, others would simply redo the classics. Those choices are there, but in terms of the identity, there are now more opportunities for it.
AD: There are opportunities there. If you take MySpace, then there are five million bands on there, and not all of them are Madonna or Radiohead. The most important thing that you can do right now, is to innovate. However, if you consider innovation as being the opposite of what people consider to be conventional, then you run into problems.
GDE: But I don't think that.
AD: What I am saying is that I want to make the point clear that I am in favour of convention, and I am in favour of innovations. Bandcamp
is a good example; it allows people to publish music and artwork – but there's a convention to it. It uses a particular font, and the images are of a particular size. It gets over the MySpace problem of allowing people who shouldn't make design decisions, to make design decisions.
The only control that [musicians] have,
is directly proportionate to the buying power that they have over their catalogue.
AD: One of the problems of MySpace is that it is just so ugly. People have that option to put in background images which look awful, and so on. You have this set of conventions within which you can innovate, and that's where things start to get interesting. “Here are the parameters; knock yourself out.”
GDE: You learn that as a toddler. From the minute you are told not to go up the stairs, the most interesting thing in the world is going up the stairs.
Are we in the age of “mass amateurisation”? Are we seeing a greater degree of potential here for innovation, or just seeing the same old conventions coming through? Bands congregate on MySpace, but is the real innovation happening somewhere else?
GDE: I have some friends in a band called Le Chat Noir, and they don't bother with MySpace any more. There are just too many bands there.
AD: I don't think that is the problem with MySpace, but I also recommend that people don't use MySpace for other reasons, such as the fact that you have no control over what is advertised on your page. I don't think that there are a lot of people in one conventional online space, is evidence of a lack of innovation online.
I don't completely go along with the idea of “mass amateurisation”, because “amateur” has an overtone of not being good enough to be professional. What I would go with, is “mass deprofessionalisation”. You don't have to belong to a guild, or pass exams, to be able to make music. There used to be a world of signed artists with access to an audience, with gatekeepers that either allowed you to participate, or prevented you from participating. There were massive barriers in terms of cost of production. There's now a completely smooth curve starting from doing it from nothing, and the artificial barriers no longer exist.
GDE: So we should start the Master Guild of Preposterous Bloggers [!]
AD: Quite the opposite! We should prevent people from being able to make those sorts of decisions.
GDE: Make them wear mittens before they become designers. There are always limitations. There is software that you can't just sit down and start to use. There may be cheap versions or a Works package, but you're never going to have the ability to do what you can do with InDesign or Photoshop.
AD: My point is that there is now nobody stopping you from messing around and trying. The best thing in the world is a 5-year-old can be a designer. A 5-year-old can record music and let other people hear it. You don't have these professional hurdles to get over, in order to be allowed to be able to do things which are creative. That's the greatest thing in the world.
It applies to lots of other things: we have always been allowed to knit, or to cook, but the idea is exclusive to media - including books and music – that you have to be chosen in order to participate. The best thing in the world about the Internet, is that you no longer have to be chosen. You can just decide to do it.
GDE: So we shouldn't have University lecturers, and have soapbox speakers instead?
AD: Being allowed to do something doesn't prevent you from wanting to learn more about it.
GDE: Absolutely – and it doesn't make it good, either.
AD: No, the point is that it doesn't have to be. You can make crap music now, and let people hear it. You can do it for the fact that you simply like doing it, and somebody's value judgment doesn't have to come in and impinge on that. If you want to learn how to be an amazing violinist, you will want a violin teacher.
Have we moved on from major record companies and publishers becoming heavily involved in rights management – protecting their existing intellectual property, and limiting consumers from what they want to do? Are we now moving towards a more open, engaging approach from artists and writers?
GDE: Publishers' contracts now ensure that you sign away your digital rights, so they get a part of it.
Is it a good thing?
GDE: I don't think that creators are good at their own licensing generally. After a certain amount of success they can afford to engage that expertise.
AD: In terms of record labels changing their approach to rights, the answer is no. They are exactly as controlling, and are keen to have as many rights as they can possibly get. The point is that you don't need them any more, and you can do all the things that you want to do with your music without needing a record label.
If you're going to sign with a record label, you go on the understanding that they are unreconstructed and will take whatever rights they will get. Now, you can have whatever control over your rights as you want. The tradeoff is that if fame is what you are after, then a record label is your best shot at that, but it's still a lottery. If you want a sustainable career, and creative control, and you want to own your rights, then signing with a record label is about the stupidest thing that you can do.
Do you think that designers are increasingly less interested in working with artists, because they see a decreasing value in what they do, in relation to the work?
AD: I think that the most interesting designers are more and more interested in the possibilities of what's available. There are so many opportunities to do cool things with video, with physical packaging, and with digital content that incorporates the music, style, and image. I have yet to meet a designer who feels that these things take away from what they do. If nothing else, it's an opportunity to find new ways to design, and to find a new aesthetic practice.
So, the call to arms to designers, is to be part of this, and re-invigorate their creativity. It's not to think about the rectangle any more, it's to openly think, “What can we do with this?”
AD: It's addressing the media on its own terms. I'm not saying that all designers must make websites, because they are packaging designers, or product designers, or whatever. There is a category of designer who will look at a design challenge and think “What are the parameters here? What can I bring to it as a designer?” If all you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. If you consider the right tool first, then you will come up with some interesting answers.
GDE: Being a designer is a reactive activity, otherwise I would paint. The joy is working with, reacting to, and sparking off, great writers, musicians, illustrators and photographers. I really enjoy that.
AD: Should all the designers “get on the bus” of the Internet? No, absolutely not. If you're not comfortable in that environment, then leave it alone. What it means is that there is more space, platforms and opportunities for creativity to take place. What we get is not a situation where designers have to move from one environment to another, but there's more designer.
GDE: I won't call it design... it's visual communication. If it's visual, it's design.
AD: You could even question the visuality of it. I spent my time as a sound designer, and that's a different thing from being a musician. I'm not a musician, and wouldn't want to label myself as one.
GDE: You make it easier to free design from the constraints of a print tradition, by just going back to calling it visual communication.
AD: Happy with that.
Being a designer is a reactive activity, otherwise, I would paint.
Are we now moving towards a more integrated approach: where works are cross-media, with an originating intellectual item and a campaign around it? Should we be moving much more towards much more of a “planned” multimedia experience?
GDE: There is certainly a convergence. In front me is a copy of the last music piece which I worked on: the music from the the Lord of the Rings
. I was lucky enough to speak to the composer, Howard Shore
, last week, and he was amazed at how quickly at his scores were appearing on the Internet, before they were recorded. It's 400 pages of pre-production sketches, stills, text, a CD with liner notes. I would love to see it as an ebook.
AD: We seem to be talking about commercial products, and within a particular genre. So, there are things that you do in the world of jazz, that you won't do in heavy metal. There are sorts of packages that just won't work and won't communicate in one context, where they will in another. You then drill down, and then you get the differences between the individual works themselves.
GDE: You do that by going back to the identity... the character of the music, the character of the author.
AD: Precisely. So, the most sensible answer to the question is, “It depends”. What a designer can bring, is an understanding of what the cultural meanings are of the thing that's being communicated; and for people to whom it's being communicated, what their expectations and what their uses of it are. So, I think that all of those things are really important. We are not all “moving towards this”, as that would be absurd. What we can do is say that there are opportunities to work in a creative way, in an understanding of cultures, communication and meanings. The palette is broader.
GDE: Authors can have exactly that sort of participation. They can set up a blog, and build up a community that is constantly throwing in new ideas in terms of what the community wants from the book. Some of that feedback can be integrated into the final book, which is great.
So, one of the opportunities that we are now starting to see is an increasing degree of participation, in every stage of the artistic work.
AD: There's one more point. These conversations always take place from the point of view of a producer, a consumer, and a medium through which the producer communicates to the consumer. The point that we made about amateurisation... I would like to think of it as participation. It's the point that I made earlier. There are no barriers to getting involved, and also it restructures the whole producer/consumer dynamic. There are not just broadcasters and listeners any more. The Internet is a many-to-many communication medium. It's a conversational medium. It's not about a centralised creator of meaning that sends out to passive consumers.
The point of what the consumers do with things now, is that they can take, make, shape, re-interpret and re-spread, the cultural meanings that take place. Whether it's through remix, or putting soundtracks to home videos... whatever it might be. This idea of designing products and then selling them to an undifferentiated mass, is completely problematised by the Internet.
GDE: Again, we go back to the problem of generalisations. There is a pretty large problem with the majority, that will want to buy the work as a fait accompli. They will not want a different “sauce with the meal”. They want to buy it, take it away, listen to it, or read it. There are different constraints for different people.
AD: The parallel that I use, is that prior to recordings, people used to go to a shop, buy some music, take it home, and then play it badly on their pianos in the parlour. It wasn't a read-only culture; it was a read-write culture. Lawrence Lessig makes some really good points about this. The way in which he frames it, is that we are now returning to a place where we have the opportunity to engage in cultural production, as a read-write engagement, rather than just read-only.
That opportunity makes things interesting, even from the view of product design. It can be intended for lots of consumers, but you could say, “How can we let consumers who want to do other things, do it?”
95% of recorded music is unavailable. We have books out of print. There is a huge quantity of artistic work that is not currently available. Given the potential in digital, do we now have the possibility of re-appropriating these works? They are not just about releasing them, but giving people who want to re-engage, the chance to rediscover and re-appropriate in their own way.
AD: But copyright's broken, so it prevents them from doing that. I'm writing a book called Deleting Music
, and keeping a blog of all the examples of this. There's no commercial imperative for record labels to put them out there – they're not going to lose their rights if they don't use them commercially. If it's going to cost money to digitise, they just leave it alone – but it's a massive loss to cultural history.
If copyright law was changed so that works which were not being used commercially were made available to the public domain, then you would have the best open source project imaginable. You would have lawyers, audio enthusiasts, and fans, descending upon the archives of record labels, opening them up, digitising them because it's important rather than merely profitable, and making copies available – because copies are how you keep things safe nowadays. Locking things away in a vault, is the sure-fire way of ensuring that they disappear. Digitising it and spreading it around, means that whatever happens, there are always copies out there.
GDE: I'd like to throw in something which is important. I'm open-minded to all the different forms and media; I see them as opportunities rather than threats. What I don't think is the case, is that when everything is available to everybody, it's necessarily going to be good. That removes the judgement calls of making things better; making standards higher.
Everybody can do it, but it doesn't necessarily mean that it's going to be any good. Who the gatekeepers are, is a whole different concepts. Giving someone the keys to Sainsbury's and asking them to come out with what they like, is not going to make them a great chef.
AD: No, but having an arbiter of taste that says “These are the recipes that we think are what you should use” prevents people from receiving hand-me-down recipes from their grandmother, or anybody else that they trust.
I don't listen to bad music. I haven't listened to bad music for at least five years. The only reason why I haven't listened to bad music, is because I take recommendations – not from the press, but from trusted sources; friends, blogs...
GDE: … but that means that the arbiters have changed. It doesn't mean that there are no arbiters.
AD: But, I get to choose who the arbiters are.
GDE: The possibilities of the media, as they evolve, is not the same as everyone being able to do everything. That in itself is a good thing.
You still have arbiters, but you can choose who they are.
AD: Obviously there are still arbiters of taste that you go to, to find out if something is any good, worth listening to, and what else they recommend. The gatekeepers – the appointed tastemakers – are collapsing, to an extent. Obviously, this is not happening completely. You still have newspapers, radio and television, but the point is that you no longer rely on what is told to you; you build your own filters.
I think that people do this intuitively. You trust your friends, and when they say, “I think that you should check this out”, you check it out.
That ability to accelerate that kind of recommendation and word of mouth is through things like Twitter. You follow people that you find interesting, and you don't follow people that you don't find interesting.
GDE: On a basic level, it has other implications. Gone are the times when you would pick up a paperback and look at three sections of reviews chosen by the editor. You can go online and find out all sorts of opinions, if you want to; if the technology is in your hand, you can do it in the bookstore.
AD: If we frame the whole conversation around cover art, we need to consider what it's the cover of, and what the word “cover” means in context.
GDE: In the context of books, if you are talking about packaging and the hard-nosed commercial end of it, you are talking about rooms at WH Smith, where people behind closed doors, with no other representation, are looking at front covers, and are giving it a scale-out. “This is how we grade it, and this is the stock volume in-branch.” You do have the fact that you are fighting for face-out display. Most books disappear in some form of spine-out display. The consumer already knows that they want that product, and are searching it out, or its ilk, before they go in.
The sharp end is in getting face-out and window displays, rather than spine-out. The same goes with records, and with websites: people can't all be on the homepage. They will be judged and prioritised, where there is more than one of the same product: whether on iTunes or at Waterstones.
AD: I wrote an ebook about three years ago, that people could download from my website
. It wasn't available for sale; it was free. Everybody that saw it, got it. There was no promotional reason to have cover art, and yet the book that I made had a cover. I don't know why
it had a cover, but also why it didn't have a spine. I know of lots of people that make music or text for the Internet, and they will always produce a front and back cover. They will never add a spine.
There is something weird in the way in which we think about what packaging is, and what cover art is for, when it comes to something like a book, or a record.
GDE: When I worked on Douglas Adams' books, the face-out idea was to start with one book, and build into a trilogy. When he decided to write the fourth book, we had pressure at the publisher from Douglas and his agent, who wanted to see face-outs in display bins in Smiths. At the time, Smiths had a policy of no display bins for reissues. We had three books which were re-issues, NENCs – New Edition New Cover – and one new book. We had to come up with something interesting enough for Smiths to break their own house rule. We considered covers which built up across the four books to one image, but we also considered spines. If you put the spines together of those four paperbacks in order, it spells out “42” in Lucia Colour Test colours, which means that if you're colour-blind, you've got no chance.
AD: Thanks for that Gary...!
GDE: Oh, right! [laughter] But, any good designer will consider the spine, and the reason for this consideration is that these are three-dimensional products. If you don't consider the spine, you're not a book cover designer, you're a front cover designer. These things are all geared to ease you slowly towards the till.
AD: The kind of creativity that looks at the book as a thing in itself, and not just a picture that gets slapped on the front of it... what kind of thinking a does designer like that bring to the Internet?
What is this artifact when it's on the Internet?
Andrew Dubber is an Arts and Humanities Research Council Knowledge Transfer Fellow in Music Industries Innovation, a founder member of the Interactive Cultures Research Centre and a Senior Lecturer in the Music Industries at the Birmingham School of Media at Birmingham City University. Andrew blogs at andrewdubber.com, and is @dubber on Twitter.
Formerly Creative Director of Pan Books, Picador Books and Decca Records, Gary Day-Ellison is currently Art Director of Like Minds Magazine and developing book and web projects including Great Women, with Sandi Toksvig & Sandy Nightingale; The Golden Age of Illustration; and the 100 Books of David Larkin. Gary's website and blog are at day-ellison.com, and is @garydayellison on Twitter.