Thursday, June 23, 2011

How to be a rock'n'roll client

It’s hard to meet a young graphic designer who doesn’t want to design record sleeves. Having spent the early part of my career working on record campaigns, when designers ask me about getting into the field I usually try to put them off. The main reason being that recording artists (and their record labels) for the most part are lousy clients.

It’s a lot to do with them being (or at least considering themselves as) ‘artists’. Many of them have been dreaming about what their album cover should look like as long as they have been dreaming about making their album. They feel it’s their album and hence — with some reasonableness — that it is their sleeve. They also tend to be quite young and ‘sensitive’.

Worst of all, in delightful Spinal-Tap alignment, they often have girlfriends who are at art school, or who like to paint...

I’ve triggered more than one rock’n’roll hissy fit in my time by politely suggesting that, while we all agree that they are very talented musicians, it might be best to listen to another talented professional when deciding on the look of their sleeve. We wouldn’t, after all, tell them how to play guitar etc, etc.

Unfortunately, most designers’ romantic vision of working on record sleeves is built on a skewed image. The kind of record sleeves they aspire to being able to create often come from labels such as ECM, 4AD, Mowax or Rune Grammofon where the label has their own favoured designers and is not contractually obliged to have the artist's approval on sleeve artwork. These opportunities are graphic design Nirvana but they are few and far between and tend to be labours of love rather than rent-paying gigs.

As long as you are not in it for the money, there are great graphic design jobs to he had in music but they tend to come from the older and more experienced players. One of the best clients I’ve had from any field, was Primal Scream. I worked with them on the Xtrmntr campaign. By this time they were in their early 40’s, off drugs and starting to have kids, so you could argue I got them at a mellower stage than others before me might have experienced. But it would be hard to find a more directed, decisive and pleasant client than Bobby Gillespie. It helped that we were working with Julian House for whom the Scream have enormous trust and respect as well as a vast terrain of shared influences. It also helped that they know a lot about about design and visual culture in general. Bobby would come to meetings with books and other reference materials under his arm. He gave directed but open briefs, clear and concise feedback at every stage and was free with praise and appreciation when a job was well done (hear thick Glaswegian accent: “Yer, that’s fookin’ brrrilliant.”)

In this, Bobby (perhaps unknowingly, perhaps not) shares some graces with one of his heros. I was delighted to come across this piece of rock-n-roll ephemera the other day (via my former colleague, the very talented Xiaofei Zhang).

There are so many things to love about this letter — the delightful, well-brought-up politeness of Jagger’s tone, the typewriter on yellowing paper — but my favourite thing is Jagger’s one (hastily qualified) piece of direction about avoiding ‘complicated’ formats because we now know Warhol so flagrantly ignored it.

The album that this letter was sent to commission was Sticky Fingers, the one with the tantalizing openable jeans-zipper set into the cover. Besides Motown Chartbusters vol. 7 with its revolving die-cut cover and the imitative Led Zepplin III, Sticky Fingers was probably most elaborately constructed 12 inch sleeve made at that time. 

The sleeve, of course, is a classic and in my opinion far exceeds Warhol’s other more famous effort with the Velvet Underground.

As with most design projects, great album sleeves usually happen when there is mutual respect and like-mindedness between two well-qualified and talented parties. Think Storm Thorgeston and Pink Floyd, Ben Drury and Dizzy Rascal, Peter Saville and Joy Division, Sex Pistols and Jamie Reid... the list goes on.

No comments:

Post a Comment