CD cover footnote

design blogFascinating pushback that I’ve gotten to my “Fail” post, about how bad classical CD covers are. To me, their prevailing hopelessness suggests that classical record companies  — even the biggest — don’t really believe they have a market. Any healthy company engaged with a market wouldn’t put up with these covers for five minutes.

But one commenter, who’s often angry with me, rose up to defend the record labels, saying I had no idea how many hours they spent in meetings, trying to decide what the covers should be. This was appalling news. So many hours, to decide on something so terrible? And, from any sensible management perspective, you shouldn’t devote much meeting time to CD covers. You might have meetings to decide on an overall cover strategy — a general design concept — but from there on, you ought to have a design team, and trust them to do good work. Yes, each cover should be reviewed by top people at the label, but meetings? Pointless. That’s not how you get good results.

Someone else, in the comments, a  longtime classical music veteran, asked with real puzzlement what alternatives there were. If you didn’t have a photo of the artist, or an image of the composer, or a scene from nature, what else was there? A whole world of images, I’d think, including far better artist photos than we usually see. I like and respect the person who made the comment, whom I’ve known for a long time. But I do think she’s reflecting a larger problem in our business, one of the many ways classical music has gotten stuck. (Luckily, it’s getting unstuck.) CD covers have, by and large, been done in the same unimaginative ways for so many years that it can be hard to imagine any other way to do them.

Someone on Twitter pointed me toward his own CD, of pastoral British music. The cover had, surprise, a pastoral scene, quite generic. And the title of the album in greatly unappealing gothic type, maybe to suggest that the music was British. (Britain = tradition = gothic type.) When I replied that the image was generic, and the gothic type questionable, he said that, after all, he had little say in what was done. Which I’m sure is true. It’s very hard to change course, even when it badly needs to be done.

In another post, I talked about ways to come up with better cover designs, based on exercises I lead in my branding workshops. But there’s another way to talk about it. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, I worked at Entertainment Weekly, where I was music critic, and later music editor. Any major story in the magazine — any lead review, any profile, any feature story — had to have some kind of graphic, and many smaller items did, too.

For that we had a very fine art department. When we started planning a feature — interview, whatever — we’d have a conference, typically  including the writer, the editor in charge of the story, and someone from the art department. We’d talk first about what the point of the story was, what it was going to say, what its tone and point of view would be. That would suggest the kind of art we should have, because — as we all took for granted — the art had to reflect what the story was about, its inner meaning as well as its outer subject. So, fine, we’re doing a profile of Jon Bon Jovi, and countless photos of him are available. But what’s the story going to say? Does Jon talk unhappily about the days when he and his band topped the pop charts? (As in fact he did when I wrote a profile of him.) Well, then we need a graphic that reflects this. 

Typically we’d assign a photographer, a freelancer, to do a photo shoot, with the theme of the feature firmly in mind. Or we might decide to commission a graphic designer to create something, again reflecting what the feature was going to say. When the photographer did her work, we’d have a meeting around a light table, looking at the contact sheets. There might be hundred photos, or more. We’d go through them, find the few that really nailed what we were trying to say in the writing, and then pick one or two of them to use in the piece.

This was a wonderfully creative process. Our art department was terrific, and often enough we on the writing side would fine that the art people had sharper editorial judgment than we had. That is, the art they come up with — or simply conversations about what the art should be — focused our thinking more sharply than we’d managed to do on our own.

And so the art told the story of the piece, as much as the writing did. Clearly no one’s doing anything like this for many — maybe most — of the classical CD covers we see, beca use they tell no story at all. Which then creates the impression that the recording itself tells no story, has no point of view. Which means that, in the largest sense, it has no reason to exist. Yes, maybe the artists are notable, and they’re recording key repertoire, but if the performances don’t say something individual, then the artistic basis for releasing the CD is very thin,

All this is very bad when you’re trying to interest new people in classical music. Remember that the poeple in our prospective audience are smart and sophisticated, and live in a culture saturated with design, much of it really good. If they see us releasing recordings that look utterly blah (or worse), they can be forgiven for thinking that the music on the recordings is blah as well, and that all of classical music — at least as we’re presenting it — is blah.

And this is so easy to fix! If I were running a small classical label with limited money, i’d enlist some design students (just as the Baltimore Symphony has, as it works to create new concert dress for its musicians). And I’d work with them the way I worked with the art editors at EW. We most likely wouldn’t be hiring photographers (unless we found some in early career, who’d work very cheaply). But we’d get designs that fit the concept and meaning of a recording. And that might be striking enough to make at least a small difference.

I’ve scanned some truly awful CD covers, and will present them in a later post. Truly, truly awful. And I might point toward book publishing as an industry that gets design right. Some book covers are terrible, it’s true. But as I page through the New York Review of Books, and look at the advertisements (typically from university presses, which don’t have the cash that commercial publishers do), I see very capable designs, which in most cases give you an idea of the content and tone of a book, and may make you more likely to want to read it.

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  1. Tom Laskey says

    Hi Greg:

    I think your branding advice might carry more weight if you posted examples of what you or your branding students have come up with. Also, how about a few examples from existing CD’s that you think are effective? As I’m sure you can understand, without actual examples of the types of things you think work, your words are just, well, words.

    – Tom

    • says

      Good point! Would have been much better to use examples. Though in fairness to myself, a lot of people know my work, in branding and other things. And I’ve posted on this and related issues before. For instance, I did a whole series of posts about effective and terrible orchestra websites/graphics/photos, with a lot of input from readers.

      Still, there’s always someone new finding me and the blog, so you’re right: I needed examples.

  2. says

    Greg and Tom, I disagree with Greg in general, and with Tom’s reply specifically! Please show us some covers you actually like, or describe what you think might work! Classical record companies don’t have a lot of money — can’t afford the priciest designers (have you checked out their prices recently?) and meet budgets for typically limited sales expectations. (Believe me, ECM probably outsells any “traditional” label, for example.)

    • says

      So you’re saying classical record labels should doom themselves to failure, because they don’t have large enough budgets for success? We in classical music have to do better than that, both in what we actually do, and in how we think about it. Some labels — and ECM is a good example — really do have terrific covers. I doubt ECM has a larger budget for such things than Sony Classical does. Or than Sony Classical at any rate could, with the entire Sony corporation behind it.

      You also don’t have to hire the priciest designers to get terrific work. Hire young designers. Work with students! As the Baltimore Symphony has done, in its quest to develop new concert dress for its musicians. Instead of hiring a top fashion designer, they made an arrangement with Parsons, to have Parsons students tackle the problem. Might produce terrific results. A classical record label could take a similar approach.

  3. says

    There are many counter examples. ECM is famous for its covers and includes much contemporary composed work in its catalogue. And the UK’s NMC Records is also well regarded for its covers (and, of course, what’s found inside).