10 questions about music packaging


Visit Hard Format – reaching for the sublime in music design.

Michaela Stone wrote:

My project concerns the topic of digital music downloads and the subsequent potential for development and innovation in the design of music packaging. In terms of collating “successful” CD packaging examples, your blog has been such a help. So I write to ask if you would be at all interested in answering the following ten questions. This would help my research.

So here are my answers:

I’m going to answer this promptly otherwise it’ll take me forever to do so. Justin’s been taking a back seat on HF for some months now, so it’ll just be me responding.

Interesting subject, but I would say that… I hope the following responses are of interest/use.


1 Can you share any initial insights into the topic of music graphics for digital music downloads?

It’s probably terribly out of date, but you might read my 2004 piece ‘Interfacing with music in the digital age’ on my music reviews site, Somnambule. Given that computers and mobiles devices have more than enough power to deliver amazing visual experiences to accompany music, development in this area has to date been disappointingly limited. This is the quick answer: http://www.hardformat.org/snow-patrol-a-hundred-million-suns. Unfortunately it’s platform-specific. A platform-agnostic solution would of course be preferable. Given Apple’s current dominance of the digital marketplace, one might look to them hopefully. iTunes’ interface, however, has tended towards file management over anything else, though Coverflow and the latest Grid view options have been welcome.

I’d also refer you to Adrian Shaughnessy’s ‘Cover Art By: New Music Graphics’ in which he interviews a number of contemporary designers and asks them about digital graphics, but the summary is that no-one comes up with anything very much.

2 What has been your experience with digital music packaging thus far?

See above. I’m still waiting on art labels like Raster Noton, ECM, Ghost Box and the like to deliver something creatively interesting. One area you should explore if you’re not already are the likes of RjDj and Bloom for the iPhone – these are clearly new directions for interaction and (limited, but artistically fascinating) creative music-making. My experience of music artists’ websites has been not great, but Beck has done some fun things and there’s probably others.

3 What do you see as the future of music packaging? Will there be a revolution, or a slow process of change?

It’s hard to find record stores on high streets nowadays (and I live in London). Change is happening quickly. My domestic music playback system consists of multiple laptops playing through Airport Express into a stereo amplifier and speakers. I use the laptops to play CDs (I don’t have a CD player in the living room), but I do have a decent turntable which I received last Christmas – I buy vinyl off eBay and play it regularly. It’s the Japanese tea ceremony applied to music playback of course. My listening’s captured to last.fm (which I check too frequently) and I’m currently listening to Pole and Jan Garbarek on Spotify. I share musical recommendations via last.fm, ftp and dropbox shares. Since Spotify my use of soulseek for scoping has reduced significantly. I scan multiple RSS feeds in Google Reader for music news. I’m not certain I had an iPod five years ago, but that may be my hazy memory. Many of the aforementioned media have appeared or matured in roughly that time. Conclusion: change happens fairly rapidly.

4 What would you consider problematic in terms of designing within a smaller space (e.g. album covers that are viewed on iPods)?

Covers look beautiful on the iPod screen – they’re smaller, but they shine in the darkness! iTunes has since something like version 4 allowed multiple graphics to be pasted into its mp3 file artwork tab – that’s not been exploited yet, but I really hope it will be one day – the single screen is frustrating in terms of visual design, but I’m not the average consumer. You should check Kraftwerk’s yet to be released career retrospective The Catalogue: http://www.kraftwerk.com/ > click Info > click Der Katalog. They’ve clearly retro-designed their back-catalogue to function at smaller scale by emphasis the iconic aspect (which was already there admittedly). Note how recognisable they are in those small thumbnails. Then again if you refer to that post of mine again, graphics need to look good at a screen size larger than CD covers…

5 What potential positives do you think digital music packaging has?

Books are nice things, but I’ve now read four or five novels and a couple of volumes of short stories on my iPhone. I don’t buy paper books any more (well, except for photography books). The point is it’s all about convenience. That’s why digital wins – the vast majority of us are satisfied with lower quality sound and image because of that. I know I am (though I listen to mp3s while on the move via mp3s encoded at 192kb/s on £110 Ultimate Ears Super-fi 5EB headphones). I also happily play records which are the antithesis of mobile convenience. My unreliable conclusion – the medium is more fragmented than ever which allows us consumers to pick and choose and develop solutions that satisfy them.

6 Do you see CDs as becoming redundant? What do you think of this notion?

Probably, but with a niche market surviving. That’s what’s happened to audio and video cassettes. Vinyl sold with digital downloads may prove to be a stronger niche. Labels like Rune Grammofon and Southern Lord are seeing impressive sales there I believe.

7 Who (agencies, designers, record companies) do you think are being the most innovative in the field of music packaging?

You’re not referring to digital are you? Physical design-wise, I hope we’re covering them on HF:

Kim Hiorthoy/Rune Grammofon
Julian House/Ghost Box
Olaf Bender/Raster Noton
Susan Archie/Dust-to-Digital+Revenant+Table of the Elements

In the mainstream it’s Mark Farrow and Trevor Jackson.

See: http://www.hardformat.org/the-designers

8 What role does the designer play in determining the future of music packaging?

I’m not a designer, but my guess would be very little. Look at interviews with Peter Saville in this regard.

9 What role does the consumer play in determining the future of music packaging?

Surely they’re voting with their feet by choosing digital. We’re on our way back to the pre-Alex Steinweiss period, but there’s a slim chance that someone will realise the value in aggregating music metadata and design into more concentrated form as record and CD sleeves used to do/still do. We do have more information available to us now than before, it’s just that it’s dispersed over the web and takes Google to find.

10 How do you feel about the idea of music packaging as a non-physical thing?

I’d welcome it – there’s clearly massive potential (RjDj, Bloom), but also danger of platform deprecation a la Brian Eno’s generative music system Koan.

And of course, any last thoughts or suggestions for possible areas of research [within my research] are more than welcome.

See above, particularly the interactive/visual aspects of iPhone development. Also, that any definitive conclusion would be misguided. Music is in a state of massive upheaval. Hope that’s of help.

Two questions for you: how would you feel about my publishing this interview in HF’s news section and two, sending me a copy of your dissertation when it’s finished?

Good luck with it!

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