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Monday, 24 November, 2008 2:57 AM

The Look of Music: CD Design in the Digital Age

Photo courtesy of Arista Nashville

Brad Paisley; "5th Gear"

By Holly Gleason
© 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?

"Design principles 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 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," she mused.

Coincidentally, that's 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 equations.

"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."

Lookin' Good: 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 in Stone:
"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 Image Divide:
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."

Don't Forget the Sticker:
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 Side:
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 Simple Does:
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.


Photo courtesy of Capitol Records Nashville

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