Packaging and Music
By David Byrne
"There are those who mourn the vanishing of the nice big cardboard packages that vinyl came in," writes David Byrne. "The usual assumption is that much of this imagery, like music videos, is a reflection of, and extension of, the music creator’s sensibility. As if the packaging and the videos were usually under the direct control of the author. This is absurd."
By David Byrne
David Byrne recently posted this article in his own journal and is generously allowing us to publish it here as well.
There are those who mourn the vanishing of the nice big cardboard packages that vinyl came in. The format allowed fairly large images, credits, and photos. The usual assumption is that much of this imagery, like music videos, is a reflection of, and extension of, the music creator’s sensibility. As if the packaging and the videos were usually under the direct control of the author. This is absurd. Though pop artists attempted to wrestle control of the way they were presented from the distributors beginning in the 60s, most LPs design, and music videos as well, are directed and designed under the control of the record companies. Here are some obvious examples:
We tend to remember the exceptions to this rule.
We also tend to link things that aren’t really connected. It’s a neural tendency that probably has some very useful and practical applications, but these assumptions also lead us to make connections that are imaginary and unjustified. We connect the typefaces and designs of some fairly arbitrarily designed LP covers to the music inside that we know and love, as if the images actually embody some part of the music. Well, OK, if you want to be picky about it you probably can tell something about James Brown by his choice of footwear as seen on that LP sleeve. But you learn nothing about the Kinks from their sleeve. Our sense of the author and the music being represented and embodied graphically is imaginary. We see the music and its package as all of a piece. This of course is what good packaging does. Salty snacks and washing detergents are sold mostly based on their brightly colored packaging. Most people don’t make this assumption about books — we don’t assume that the cover of a book is a visual representation of the writing, as imagined by the author, but with music we sometimes do make this leap. Hence the love of LP sleeves… and even CD booklets.
I imagine that record companies in the 60s realized that selling to a new market — one that saw itself as hip beyond the generic record sleeves then prevalent, a new demographic who saw itself as outside and distinct from the mainstream — would require some new approaches to design. They, the record companies, realized that to make a credible product for this reluctant market the inclusion of the bizarre and funky imagery made by their graphic pals was probably essential. In addition, the music artists themselves began to demand control over their own sleeves, when they realized that they could.
Not all of this newly seized artistic control was a good thing. There were a lot of atrocious sleeves done by boyfriends, girlfriends and arty schoolmates. We prefer to remember Pedro Bell, represented on the amazing Funkadelic sleeves, Cal Schenkel’s Mothers of Invention sleeves (but his cover for Burnt Weeny Sandwich was originally done for an Eric Dolphy LP! — So much for identifying the cover art with the music) slightly more recently Factory records sleeves done by Peter Saville, the 4AD sleeves by Vaughn Oliver (all of which were pretty interchangeable from one musical group to another) and many blingarific hip hop covers in the last decade.
In the case of Factory, 4AD and many others — the covers were not even done for specific artists and recordings — so our sense that the art was connected and embodied to the music is imaginary. With the Snoop cover above it is easy to see how the vibe of the music is expanded and sold via the artwork. The whole self parody (I assume) and appropriation of symbols of wealth along with the don’t fuck with me doggies tells you how to approach the music, sort of. Though another artist could also be substituted here and it would work just as well. (What is Snoop’s arm resting on? Is that a microwave oven?)
We presume these connections — author to package — with cultural products in ways we don’t with other stuff. No one stares enraptured at a Downy bottle while doing the laundry or at a Progresso can while opening a can of soup — there is no “author” behind these packages. We are alienated from the creator in most industrial age mass-produced products. Imagine a pre industrial economy — it might be reasonable to presume that the craftsman who made it, whatever it is, can be sensed in the product. Maybe this is what we sense to some tiny extent in recorded music. A longed for human connection. Sensing this connection, this link, un-alienates us. The (sometimes) imaginary connection between the author and the packaging of his or her product is not in fact a direct link. It is a marketing button that the sales people have learned to press, over and over.
They have sensed the brains tendency to link a package with author and have exploited that neurological hiccup, that need to feel less alienated.
Now, all this is going away. It will be a thing of the past as most music is purchased or listened to online and stored on an iPod or a computer. There is sometimes thumbnail sized artwork to accompany downloads, but let’s be serious, that’s not what attracted you to the recording and you don’t ID this artwork with the music. It’s not what attracted your eye as covers did while flipping through LPs or CDs in a store. These thumbnail images are not the through line between the video, the print ad, the billboard and the CD cover. There are residual versions, but for how long?
Lots of people will miss these olde objects of veneration — even CDs will be missed. The photos and the lyrics, the liner notes, the credits, shout outs and thanks can be perused in a comfy chair while the music plays — you don’t have to be at your computer screen to savor the graphics and text.
But downloads could offer so much more. They could be an opportunity to expand the experience rather than a whittling away of the music/image connection. For less than the price of printing those sleeves and CD booklets you could get slideshows, photos, videos, bios, credits, lyrics, merch…. some of this stuff could play on your MP3 player along with the music, the rest could be on your computer to view or print out. You could get way more than could ever fit on a dinky little CD booklet. The LP sleeve was a package, a square billboard advertising the record. Now it is possible to connect this material to the music, but it is no longer packaging in the physical sense. It is liberated, in a way.
Music didn’t always come in packages that presumed to represent the contents. Originally what you as a music consumer could buy was sheet music — which sometimes had the picture of the singer on the cover. Later, recordings — cylinders and 78s — usually came in generic sleeves. Only in the 50s with the advent of the Long Player did packaging that included large breasted women and snazzy typography become commonplace. The era of graphically packaged music may have had about a 50-year run.
But the era of music bundled with multimedia may have just begun.
I don’t shop at iTunes because they limit what I can do with the stuff I pay for. I buy loads of CDs still. But I rarely go into record shops. I read about them, hear word of mouth, an artist is recommended or linked to on a website and rarely but sometimes there is an image — usually online these days — that draws me in. So the function of the image as an attention getter on the actual package is pretty much obsolete. I would argue that even the recessive minimal design of much alt pop packaging is attention getting as well. Reverse psychology they used to call it.
These covers don’t try to shout above the visual din, they whisper quietly, vaguely passive aggressively, and hope to attract and seduce us that way. Partly because their function as billboards is lessened they are freer to be arty and moody.
Now, with cable TV and the Internet, the marketing of mainstream music takes place in a whirlwind of media bits. Gossip, paparazzi pix, photo opportunities and appearances and even some actual music is the content. In a way this bundle that constitutes mainstream music begins to establish a model that could be the future of recorded music — that the recordings are the “loss leaders” for everything else. Loss leaders are the taste of a product you give away free in order to lead someone into your world. PDF software could be viewed that way, flash players, etc. And now maybe free recorded music will be the thing that hooks you into the universe of Britney, Ashley or the Ying Yang Twins. The music will be your introduction into a universe of merch, relationships, video clips, links, on and on.
The role of graphic designers will change. Rather than being called upon to create one or two iconic images that are emblematic of an artist and a new product their job will be to imagine sets of links, connections and relationships…. and to make those visually enticing, fun and rewarding. I can’t imagine what exactly that might be, but it will be whole lot more than LP sleeves.
David Byrne's most recent release is the reissued My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.
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