Monday, 24 November, 2008 2:57 AM
The Look of Music: CD Design in the Digital Age
courtesy of Arista Nashville
Paisley; "5th Gear"
2008 CMA Close Up News Service
Digital downloading has
changed practically every aspect of making and marketing music,
but what impact has it had on the more visually artistic types who
make their mark through album cover design? On that long road from
LP to CD to the virtual world, is their handiwork becoming literally
a diminishing art?
shouldn't change," insisted Wade Hunt, former Sony BMG Nashville
VP Creative Services and current Associate Creative Director, Catapult
Marketing, who has been at the forefront of album cover design for
about 25 years. "Good design is good design. A good designer
can make whatever format effective. But things do have to get 'cleaner'
for online delivery, especially for album covers. The Beatles' Sgt.
Pepper [Lonely Hearts Club Band] album cover, for example . it's
so complex that it doesn't work well in today's online market."
The opposite principle
- simplicity - seems to work best in today's online market. "The
resolution sometimes is smaller and therefore more delicate designs
or smaller typefaces don't translate well in the digital world,"
said Astrid May, Creative Director, Sony BMG Nashville. "It
affects the way I pick colors and fonts and photos. The overall
quality suffers, in my view."
Photos also "have
to be more graphic for the online market - a cleaner look with a
lot less details," she added. "Head shots or simple concept
ideas work better."
But other factors come
to play on the mission of stimulating online purchases - and some
of them lead to the conclusion that simplicity isn't always the
best choice. "After designing squares for 12 years, it takes
some adjustments," said May, referring to the time she's devoted
to creating album covers. "The digital design is very colorful
and busy. Things that work on print do not necessarily work in an
environment with banners, pop-up ads and such. A minimal, plain
cover with just a line of type, which would look very impactful
on a store shelf, would be completely lost and overlooked online."
The key is to come up
with a look that can be adapted for both the physical and virtual
realms. Karen Naff, VP Creative Services, Universal Music Group
Nashville, cited Vince Gill's These Days as an example. "That
boxed set was printed with a linen fabric on the box, with 'VG'
foil-stamped with dark brown and clear foil," she said. "It
looked great in person but you couldn't read it on a digital file,
so we created a version for advertising and online viewing that
showed the 'VG' in a dark brown, which showed up really well on
the neutral background."
For Naff, another legend's
recent album was equally impressive, regardless of the fact that
it happened to be designed by one of her coworkers. "One album
of ours that, to me, features an especially memorable cover design
is Willie Nelson's Countryman, designed by our very own Craig Allen,
one of the best designers in town. The design and colors really
popped and conveyed that it was a reggae album. Also, the Sugarland
Enjoy the Ride cover represents them really well - energetic and
fun. The image and logo are really impactful."
Images like these, which
transfer effectively from one format to the other, aren't always
easy to conceive. "I believe the Internet and sites like www.MySpace.com
have changed design in a negative way," May suggested. "Everybody
with software believes they can design, and design rules have been
ignored and overlooked. Maybe I am old-school, but such things as
kerning, typography and color theory seem to be completely obsolete."
Even so, May observed,
the future of design lies online. "It seems to be the future
place for imaging, marketing and A&R. Good news/bad news: I
feel that we will be designing exclusively with digital in mind.
Therefore, in my eyes, cover design integrity will suffer."
Naff does see a fun side
to the possibilities offered by the Internet, particularly in its
potential for customer involvement. "It might be fun to show
different cover options and have people vote on their favorite,"
what the team behind Dierks Bentley was thinking. Capitol Records
Nashville and Brad Henderson, VP, Brand Strategy & Creative,
and Drew Huddleston, Senior Designer, both of echo, formerly echo
music, are responsible for enacting the Dierks Bentley Fan Project,
which enabled fans to choose the title, songs, cover art and other
aspects of his recent greatest-hits collection.
"The greatest difference
between creating covers for the physical and online markets is the
ability to allow the audience to connect so quickly to the artist,"
Huddleston said. "With the instant connection the Internet
provides, artists can quite literally ask their audience what they
want, which is what we did for the new Dierks Fan Project. Because
we could facilitate a direct connection to the fans, Dierks had
the ability to create excitement in his audience through the album
design process. Where in the past his audience's first exposure
to a new album would be through advertising for the already packaged
album, now the Internet has given him the opportunity to start building
buzz earlier and even commit some of that core audience to purchase
months before release."
"On a purely practical
note," Henderson added, "looking good on a screen, whether
that is a computer screen or a phone screen, is more important than
ever. Print continues to be less frequent and less important. So
you don't have the control you used to have over size, color and
quality. If you're lucky, people are going to see it everywhere,
and they have to recognize it and connect with it, whether it's
huge on the cardboard sleeve of limited-edition vinyl or an icon
on the screen of their iPhone."
Aesthetics aside, making
the design process a communal adventure definitely enhanced the
connections between Bentley and his following. "From getting
sneak peeks at potential cover photos to picking the name and track
list, the fans loved being involved," Huddleston said. "And
the fact that 3,000 fans were so quick to join in the process proves
how excited they were."
"Almost half of
those people showed up in a live video chat room to see Dierks present
the CD package, answer their questions and even do a couple of acoustic
songs, " Henderson added. "Dierks had a blast and so did
those 1,500 people."
The Internet is changing
the visual as well as the musical side of music, from basic questions
of finding the most effective image for an album to whether that
image might break beyond the static requirements of print to empowering
consumers to be a part of the creative as well as the purchasing
"All artist imaging
must be consistent to be effective," Hunt said. "There
will always be new ways to deliver ideas, and creatives have to
adapt to the boundaries of the type of media they are designing
for. Digital is just a new, additional way to deliver. As for whether
we'll see 'glory days' in the near future of album art, well, creative
is creative. A good creative designer has no limit. The computer
and Internet are just tools and shouldn't alter the creative process."
Ideas for Effective Album Cover Design
Hook the Listener:
Create a design that will connect with viewers. Consider playing
up the album or a song title or lyrics for a theme.
Nothing is Set
"Virtually anything is possible," said Drew Huddleston
at echo. "It's limiting in some ways and quite freeing in others.
But that also means that you can't put all your time, effort and
money into a single format: The new opportunities will stretch creatively
beyond simple design choices. It'll mean that you can create everything
from scratch, right down to the business model."
Cross the Digital
When transferring CD artwork into the digital domain, be prepared
to deal with readability issues. "Depending on the cover, we
sometimes have to tweak color and type for better readability resolution
when it's displayed much smaller than actual size," said Karen
Naff at UMG Nashville. "And in addition to the traditional
cover, you want to help consumers connect the dots for a project,
so using the cover image and the type treatment separately, not
just when composed as a cover, allows us to reach a lot more folks
than in the past."
Try Special Delivery:
"Tie the packaging to art, animation or video," suggested
Brad Henderson at echo. "It can even be tied to live performances,
personal interaction with the artist, limited-edition vinyl of hand-printed
versions - this is where it gets fun."
Make sure your design leaves room for a retail price sticker on
the physical product, without looking too empty when transferred
to digital format. "Larger chains have preset placement guidelines,"
Astrid May at Sony BMG Nashville advised. "So we consult with
our Marketing and Sales departments for placement."
Use the Flip
Both sides of the jewel case can work together to create an effective
impression, to the point that it may even be worth putting the artist
portrait on the back. "I believe most consumers do pick up
the CD and turn it around, if they are drawn to the cover,"
said May. "That gives you some freedom to try something new
with the front, knowing that you have the back of the CD to fall
back on for artist recognition."
Simple is as
When viewed as a much smaller piece of art than on CD details can
shrink to, effectively, nothingness. Wade Hunt at Catapult Marketing
advises that fonts be cleaner and much larger, proportionate to
the image, than they would be on larger physical products.
courtesy of Capitol Records Nashville
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