Even while classical music changes — see my last post — it keeps showing why it needs to change. Case in point: the cover of a CD that came in the mail:

bailey elgar

Ugly! And completely unconvincing, if we’re supposed to believe this recording is anything we’d want to hear. The conductor looks like he’s a stiff 14 year-old. The cellist looks blah. The, um, artistic device of putting the orchestra in black and white while the conductor and soloist are in color doesn’t work, because the conductor and soloist don’t stand out enough. (And what are the Indianapolis musicians. Chopped liver? This is unfair to them.)

So just to be clear…I don’t mean to single out Telarc, which released the CD, or the conductor, or the cellist, or the Indianapolis Symphony. I’m not saying this is a bad CD. The cellist, whom I’ve heard, is very fine, and (as you’d never guess from his photo) makes a big impression on audiences.

Nor am I saying that this cover is worse than other classical CD covers. Which is in fact my point. Classical CD covers are fairly uniformly terrible. And often dumb. Maybe the dumbest in recent memory was a CD titled Notable Women, whose cover photo showed two women and a man. Yes, they were the musicians playing on the CD, so that’s why they were on the cover, and the music they were playing was written by women, hence the title. So everything made a literal-minded kind of sense, but — or so it seemed — nobody stopped to think that the title and photo set up a very silly contradiction.

And that’s what I want to suggest here. That nobody thinks about these things in the most important way they should be thought of, as a communication sent out by the record company and the artists, aimed at people who might want to buy the recording. Nobody making the CD — or so it seems to me — feels the presence of a market, of an active connection between the recording and people out in the world who might be made to care about it.

And that, I think, is that, deep in their hearts, the people making the record and running the record company don’t believe the anyone really cares. Yes, the orchestra can use the recording in its PR work, and surely the cellist has a few fans. And maybe, just maybe, someone in the media — at the Indianapolis newspaper, at NPR, at a classical music magazine — might say a few words, sparking (let’s guess) 10 or 20 sales. (Remember that the top-selling classical CDs sell just a few hundred copies in their biggest week. Anything not at the top of the classical charts is down in double digits — on a good week.)

Now, I know that we don’t have record stores any more, so people aren’t going to browse displays, and be hooked by a striking CD cover photo. And I know that (as I’ve just said) classical recordings really don’t sell many copies, so it might seem like there isn’t any market to feel a connection with.

But that’s failure talk. One reason there isn’t any market is that hardly anyone is going out to develop one. The problem isn’t really the CD cover. That’s just the symptom. The problem is that there really isn’t any marketing strategy that could make a difference, any exuberant determination to change the world, and create a market for classical recordings. Or, maybe more to the point, for a particular classical recording.

The CD cover demonstrates how true this is. Because if nobody who wanted to create excitement — as a step toward developing a market — would ever release an album that looked like this. Even if we don’t have record stores, the graphic treatment of any product (in its design and marketing) are crucial in our world today.

To erase the big fail here, Telarc, Bailey, and the Indianapolis Symphony should take one of my branding workshops. Seriously! I don’t say that just to toot my horn, but because the kind of exercise we do in these workshops would really have helped. I’ll explain that in my next post.

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  1. says

    Nonesuch Records does an excellent job with their covers for classical and contemporary-classical CDs. Their original cover for Steve Reich’s ‘WTC 9/11′ was so controversial that it was changed into another and better cover before the CD’s release. Nonesuch released a new Kronos Quartet CD last year that came with a pretty and enigmatic cover. They also put out a CD last year of music by Penderecki and Jonny Greenwood that had a strange and other-worldy cover that nicely fit with the composers’ experimental music.

    Relating all of this your post, Nonesuch knows that their customers want to be hip, and that they want CD covers that are aesthetically pleasing (and could pass for non-classical album covers). I can’t even remember the last John Adams, Philip Glass, or Steve Reich album from Nonesuch where any of those composers were even on the CD cover. Nonesuch knows their brand and their audience very well, and hopefully other classical recording labels will start borrowing their ideas soon.

    • says

      I agree! Nonesuch is good, ECM is good, Naive is good. But here’s a story — granted, from a previous decade — showing how little even a big classical label understands about this. There were internal discussions at DG about cover art, and some people there, who wanted art that meant something, were frustrated because the company said that their familiar yellow rosette had to be on every cover, and had to be so large that it effectively sabotaged whatever the rest of the art was trying to do. Doubtless they thought they were branding their CDs, but they were doing that at the cost of wider appeal. What they needed was a way to brand themselves in cover art without shooting themselves in the foot. ECM is a perfect example of a company that knows how to do that. Their covers are excellent, and immediately recognizable as ECM.

      • thad says

        I’m not so sure you’re right about DG, Greg. The big yellow cartouche still packs a punch for me even though DG has been doing their utmost to hide it for about 15 years now.

        Of course I’m still much more of a vinyl buyer than a CD buyer, and I am in fact browsing through bins in stores, although they’re thrift shops rather than music stores. All I know is when I see a DG yellow cartouche, I grab it. Not that they’re necessarily better recordings or performances than say, old London/Deccas or RCAs, but they are much more rare on the second-hand market, meaning people part with them less readily.

        Point is, the Germans knew that branding isn’t just about promoting an artist or a recording, but also about promoting the label as well, building a rapport with the record collector (I consciously use the word ‘collector’ here rather than ‘buyer’). That’s why DG is still considered the most prestigious label, even though their newer artists and repertoire have been pretty sad in recent years, years that coincide with their ‘hide the cartouche’ strategy, I would point out.

        Their best-selling discs are reissues that consciously evoke the old iconic covers and branding (‘The Originals’). If I were a new DG artist, I’d want my covers to look just like Karajan’s, right down the the giant cartouche, the composer and work in big bold Garamond, and some sweet Siegfried Lauterwasser photography depicting me in a black turtleneck looking pensively into the distance. That’s why you sign with DG in the first place (it’s certainly not the sound); you’re seeking a place in that artistic continuum.

        You’re right that ECM and Naive do a great job, and I’d add that Harmonia Mundi does an even better one. No one does a better job than HM of making a CD FEEL like a precious object. Even though their covers are pretty mundane by the standards of ECM or HM, Hyperion has a consistent look and presentation to their covers which lends new or lesser known artists a credibility derived from other more established performers (‘If you like Stephen Hough, you’ll love ….. .” I’ll buy almost any disc Hyperion puts out, such is my trust in their aesthetic and musical judgment. THAT’S branding.

        Of course if your point is that record companies should try to convince people that the Schubert disc they’re buying is sort of like Kanye, only with violins, well, that’s one way you can go.

        And, yes, this Telarc cover sucks, like almost all Telarc covers suck.

        • says

          Thad, I see your point. But isn’t there a difference between appealing to longtime classical recordbuyers like yourself, and reaching a new classical music audience. With all respect, the field can’t survive if its support comes largely from people like you. Or me. There just aren’t enough of us. So classical record companies, as well as everyone else in the field, has to reach out. And there the DG cartouche isn’t very helpful, I’d think.

          • thad says

            Speaking of DG, lots of coverage in the Telegraph of a recent speech by the head of Universal’s classical division (includes DG), basically saying what you’ve been saying all this time, albeit less eloquently:



            I find myself more in agreement with Telegraph critic Ivan Hewitt than with Mr. Hole.There’s nothing wrong with the music or its presentation. The bigger problem is cultural and demographic, in my opinion.

            Mr. Hewitt says ‘But they and all the people urging drastic reform need to remember that an orchestral concert is a social event as much as a musical one, and social relations can’t be reinvented overnight.’

            He’s right, of course, but that doesn’t mean classical music organizations shouldn’t be working towards the reforming the social side. Where you and I differ, Greg, is that you want to reform the musical side and thereby induce a change in the audience. I say ‘reform’ the audience directly, i.e. literally recast it. Not attracting the kind of people you want? Identify them and comp them, repeatedly, extensively, all season long. Fill every goddamn seat every night, even if 1/3 of the places are comps.

            Every orchestra should have a team of ‘cool hunters’ and ‘talent scouts’ pushing free tickets into the hands of the ‘right’ sort: young, extraordinarily good-looking, fashionably dressed and ready to party. Free tickets, free drinks in the lobby, keep doing it ’til it sticks.

            You can’t hand out the freebies randomly or in line with PC criteria; you’ll just piss off the people who paid for their tickets. No one ever complains about there being too many attractive women in the room, however. And the attractive women will attract the guys, who will attract other women, who attract … und so weiter.

            If you create a scene, the hipsters will come of their own accord. Lord knows they’ve embraced MUCH weirder crap in the past.

          • says

            Yes, i’ve seen that statement. More vulgar than what I say, in my opinion. And without much respect for art. By which I especially mean respect for music that isn’t popular, doesn’t sell, but has transcendent artistic value.

            But that’s another discussion. I love your notion that hipsters (not a precise term) can be attracted to more or less anything, as long as you somehow get them there. Then, once you have a hipster scene…

            I can imagine that fortunes have been lost in the commercial world, by acting on that belief. In fact, I’ve seen big failures in pop music, when record companies imagine they can sell some new release to some emerging or existing group of people. Fail, fail, fail. Their track record is pretty bad, and the number of times they’ve been gobstruck by some unexpected evolution of taste is rather striking. “Hipsters,” after all, aren’t blank containers, zombies of a kind, with a tropism for whatever’s trendy. They’re a subculture, or various subcultures. Each subculture has its markers — its identifying traits. Some of which are taste. Ultimately — and often in the history of pop music you haven’t had to dig very far to find this — these subcultures express/act out big changes going on in culture and society.

            Which is to say that they’re not attracted to just anything. They’re attracted to things that express/encourage the social changes that the hipster subculture(s) embody. You can read Virgil Thomson’s 1950 on the intellectual audience to see a classical music hipster subculture in operation in New York. It was an audience of artsy or artistic people, not specifically classical music fans, but fans of art. They’d come to events they felt were artistic — not Horowitz, not Schnabel, but recitals by Jenny Tourel, a cultured mezzo of the era. Not just any performance at the New York Philharmonic, but special, edgy things, like the concert performance of Strauss’s Elektra that the Philharmonic did when that opera wasn’t in the Met’s repertoire. Or, I’m sure, the concert performance of Wozzeck that happened in 1952, which I’m sure was the first time the opera had ever been heard in New York.

            So there you have it — the behavior of a genuine, for real group of hipsters who went to classical performances. If classical music had been threatened back then, they couldn’t possibly have been its salvation, because there weren’t enough of them, and — like hipsters throughout history — they only liked very particular things. If you actually got hipsters (and I’m so tired of that term, just using it now, to be honest, out of laziness) going to classical music, they’d surely behave in much the same way, and display just about zero interest in most of the routine performances of standard repertoire that fill our concewrt halls. In New York, there actually is a (sigh) hipster audience for classical music events, but it goes mostly to new music.

            Do you know of any examples of what you’re talking about working in practice? Not just to attract a younger crowd for a performance or two. That’s easy. But to attract the kind of people who go to indie rock shows and Quentin Tarantino films, and to get them to go over and over again. Has anyone done that?

  2. MWnyc says

    Greg, I suspect that both Telarc and the Indianapolis Symphony see the primary market for this CD as being ISO patrons who buy it while at the concert hall. (And they’re probably correct.) That’s the one case I can think of where this particular cover art would make sense (by matching visually the reason the buyer is in the building in the first place).

    • says

      I’m sure that’s right, that the CD is mainly aimed at the ISO audience. But even then, the cover art is wretched. Surely they’d sell more copies if the CD — when, let’s say, you encounter it in the symphony store (if they have one), or at a booth in the concert hall lobby, just popped out at you. And if they’re going to release a series of CDs, then they should find a consistent approach to cover art, so that people immediately recognize the CDs as theirs. And actually look forward to seeing what the next cover will be.

      The mere fact that the musicians shown on this cover are from the Indianapolis Symphony, and that the music director is theirs, doesn’t mean that the cover is effective, even for their own audience. I remember a little gift the Pittsburgh Symphony once sent out. It was a keychain, with a little thing attached (I don’t know the name for this), a plastic construction with a lens at one end. You held it to your eye, and saw a photo of the Pittsburgh Symphony. Except that the photo was tiny, and showed ALL the musicians, arrayed on the Heinz Hall stage. As you can imagine, the photo was entirely ineffective. Totally generic. It didn’t say “Pittsburgh Symphony.” It said “any big orchestra anywhere.” Another fail.

  3. Pacer1 says

    …and then there are the proposed drastic cuts to the ISO, and the subliminal message this image sends. Music Minus 76?

  4. says

    “And that, I think, is that, deep in their hearts, the people making the record and running the record company don’t believe the anyone really cares.” [sic]

    Greg, I assure you the remaining people in the classical record industry care about our customers and loyal fans. I talk and email with them daily, follow them on twitter, etc., and can say from personal experience that the discussions and meetings about album cover art are among the most time-consuming aspects of making a record. I can’t believe I have to defend the passion of this group of overworked professionals to you, but I can’t let such a gross mischaracterization go unchecked. Cheers.

    • says

      Marc, you’ve entirely misunderstood me. I wasn’t attacking the passion or commitment of these people, or any other of their moral virtues. I’m saying that the results of their work show that they don’t understand how to sell a product. And, charitably, I’m blaming this on a deep, underlying feeling that the product won’t sell, rather than on any judgment of their competence.

      Classical CD covers are almost universally awful. With exceptions noted in another comment, and my response — Nonesuch, ECM, Naive. I’m sure there are others. Don’t mean that to be a complete list. The almost universal awfulness cries out for an explanation. Which, again, I suggest is a lack of connection to a genuine market, the kind where design decisions influence sales. If you tell me that they spend long meetings discussing cover art, then, then you’re truly alarming me, because those meetings are wasted! They’d do much better hiring a graduate student in design, and letting her do anything she wanted. The cover art on most classical CDs wouldn’t survive five minutes in a smart profit-making company. Can you imagine Apple putting out something that looked like that Indianapolis Symphony CD? Or, for that matter, can you imagine a good pop label putting it out? Can you imagine New York magazine, or Wired, or Vanity Fair putting something like that on their covers?

      The classical music industry often looks — to people outside it — as if it were playing in some tiny sandbox, entirely unaware of how it looks to the world at large. This is improving. The Met Opera, for instance, has really respectable, sometimes truly striking design in its printed and web material. There’s no reason Telarc or the Indianapolis Symphony couldn’t have striking graphics. Graphics are something our culture does fabulously well. And, as I said below in response to another comment, fabulous graphics on CD covers (and other marketing material used with recordings) would make a difference, even if you think you’re selling the record only to the audience you already have.

      • says

        You believe people working in an industry do not understand how to sell a product based on the prevailing lack of good design of that industry’s products. They have a hidden bias about not believing there is a marketplace for their products. By this logic, Microsoft should have gone bankrupt some time ago.

        • says

          Microsoft is certainly suffering from its not great designs. Though there are exceptions — Bing, for instance. Beautifully designed. And makes no difference, because design isn’t the only factor involved in selling something.

          Marc, you need a lesson in logic. Try to think in syllogisms, if I may presume to instruct you. Your “refuation” of me would look like this:

          Greg Sandow says that companies with bad design aren’t good at selling their products.

          Microsoft has bad design.

          Therefore Greg Sandow must believe that Microsoft should have gone bankrupt long ago.

          The silliness of this is plain. The “going bankrupt” part is dragged in from some other universe. The conclusion of the syllogism doesn’t remotely follow from the premises. A syllogism that at least is logically correct might read like this:

          Greg Sandow says that companies with bad design don’t understand how to sell their products.

          Microsoft has bad design.

          Therefore Greg Sandow must believe that Microsoft doesn’t understand how to sell its products.

          And there would be some truth in that. I think that Microsoft doesn’t understand a lot of things about sales and the current market. Just look at Windows 8.

          But this syllogism, brought into the real world of light and shade, of nuances that go beyond pure logic, isn’t very helpful. For instance, classical record companies have at least some small success, or else they wouldn’t exist. I’d conclude that the success they have depends on markets for which design isn’t important. But those markets aren’t large. We know that from the level of classical CD sales, which are low. We also know — any conscious person living today knows — that design is very important in marketing, outside particular niches where sales are driven by niche factors. So I conclude from this that classical CD companies aren’t going to be successful selling to any larger market — the larger market that classical music so very badly needs. Since the role of design in marketing and sales is so inescapable today, so universally acknowledged (and in fact celebrated), I conclude that classical CD companies don’t function in any larger market. And, very likely, can’t conceive of one. This last, of course, is speculation on my part. Though it’s bolstered by my experience with other classical music institutions, which tend not to understand the kind of market other economic entities deal with.

          Back to Microsoft for a moment, since I’ve got geek blood in my veins. There’s a way that Microsoft and classical CD companies are similar. Microsoft, at least in the past, has so dominated business computing that they haven’t needed to make their products attractive to users. They have, in other words, a niche market of their own. A huge one, which of course contradicts the normal meaning of “niche.” But it has this in common with a niche market, that the buyers gravitate to the product because they have some special need for it, regardless of what competing products might offer.

          Classical CD companies operate, I think, in similar ways. One commenter here suggested, correctly, I’d guess, that the market for that Telarc Elgar release was the Indianapolis Symphony audience. In other words, the people most likely to buy the CD would be fans of the orchestra. So the CD doesn’t operate in a market where there’s any competition, and hence doesn’t have to be designed with any flair, or even competence. It sells for reasons independent of its larger appeal.

          This stuff is so elementary, Marc.

  5. argist says

    I’m still trying to read the message intended by highlighting in color:

    1. the conductor
    2. the cellist
    3. a portion of the floor

    • says

      Love it! I’d be happy to know the message they intended. Maybe someone from Telarc will show up here to defend their choices. Or at least to explain them!

  6. Steve Ledbetter says

    Way back in the late ’60s and early ’70s when I was in grad school at NYU and Nonesuch was just getting started (in LPs, of course), several of my classmates, and me to a much smaller degree, were involved in providing liner notes to those Schuetz and Bach and other recordings. To us, it was important to have really informative information on the back side of the album cover (and there were certainly some peope who noticed), but certainly one of the best lessons I got at that time was hearing Tracey Sterne insist that it was the quirkly and original cover art that really sold most of the records. Over the last forty-plus years they have had various approaches, some (I think) more successful than others, but I certainly agree that their approach to the covers has played a significant role in their continuing success.

  7. Suzanne Ford says

    This is someone’s idea of artful. They probably thought it was a brilliant use of photoshop. So what would be a good cover? Photo of Elgar — who most people probably wouldn’t recognize and the visual message would be “old fuddy-duddy” and “not music of our time.” Some “aesthetic” nature scene? What visual really captures music? So you go with something safe and literal: cellist + conductor + orchestra = cello concerto! Photo could be better I do agree — they do look a bit stiff — but motion shots have to be really good to work well.

    • says

      Good to see you here, Suzanne. And I like the way you think about this. Though my sense is that you’ve run through the normal things that we see on classical CD covers, all of which are bad ideas — shot of the composer, generic nature scenes.

      What you’d need is something that captures the spirit of the recording. Very easy to do that in a photo, or other graphic. When I was music editor of Entertainment Weekly, we hired photographers to do photo shoots for the stories we ran. They’d take hundreds of shots, and we’d pick a few that embodied what we wanted the story to say. And then pick one or more from that group to use. Similarly, our art department designed the stories (layout, graphics, often photos), and were expert at finding a design that embodied what the story was about. Sometimes I thought they were so good at doing this that they were better editors than we editors were. That is, they went much faster than we could to the heart of what a story said.

      In the case of the Indianapolis release, I’d first want (as I said in my last post) to do some work on what the spirit of the recording really is. Once we defined that, I’d want to get dozens, if not hundreds, of closeups of Bailey playing. Photos. Done by a very fine, artistic photographer. I’d want a motion shot that conveyed many things — a sense that he’s a strong musician with lots to say, but above all the shot should convey whatever we decided the spirit of the recording was. Once we picked the shot, I’d use it on the cover with the fewest words possible. Maybe:


      In a typeface that complemented the visuals. And with the lettering arranged so it didn’t dominate the cover.

      That’s one approach, anyway. Somehow I see the photo as black and white, but of course many color photos would work. Black and white might be more expressive, more eye-catching, but maybe that’s just me.

      Who does this well: Book publishers. Page through an issue of the NY Review of Books, and look at the color ads for book publishers. Look at the high quality of the cover designs. It really can be done.

  8. says

    Yes – Classical releases are handled with all the enthusiasm a lawyer typically brings to pro bono work. And, why not? It’s just another recording of an already over-recorded work, and primarily serves to let yet one more soloist or conductor put his or her “stamp” on the work. The differences in performances are interesting to experience, but subtle differences do not equal a marketable product.