Editor’s Note:
This year each Rock ‘n’ Roll Quarterly takes a look at the process of making records, from getting things right in the studio to getting someone to listen to what you’ve done.

In this issue we look at an important and often overlooked step in turning a set of recordings into a finished album–figuring out what the artwork is going to look like.

The Indy‘s Fiona Morgan talked through the process with a handful of locals who have seen their share of covers–good, bad and ugly–and have some ideas on what makes good record art and how to go about it.

If you missed our first installment in the series, “The Producers”–an inside look at recording from some of the area’s top studio folks– you can still read it online at indyweek.com/durham/2005-02-09/cover.html.
–Kirk Ross

Think of your favorite albums of all time, and you remember what they look like. Digital music might be taking tunes out of their packages, but for those putting out independent music in the Triangle, the way the CD or 7-inch looks still matters. Musicians are often artists themselves–band members might also be painters, designers or photographers–and their fans certainly are. So taking the time on the visual part of the art is important. And if you’re sending out the demo to labels, or trying to move units at the local record store, you’ve got to get people to look before they listen.

But even the most creative people have trouble pulling off an album cover from concept to completion and making it look good. We spoke with a handful of designers and owners of local record labels about their tricks of the trade, and came up with a few pieces of advice.

According to the Do It Yourself ethos that drives independent rock music, there are no rules. But even without rules, there are certainly limitations. Those usually involve money, often time.

In any case, it’s a good idea to pick a simple concept instead of trying to pull off something ambitious.

When Mac MacCaughan and Laura Ballance founded Merge Records in the late 1980s, the goal was to put out music made by their band, Superchunk, and their friends’ bands. “When people first start with a band or a label, one of the things they look forward to the most is designing the cover,” MacCaughan says. Now Merge puts out about 15 records a year. “The most interesting thing is something simple and affordable and really beautiful,” he says.

MacCaughan made the first Superchunk record cover himself, “which at the time I was excited about doing, but it’s just the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen.” It’s really not that bad: orange, yellow and green collage with a woodcut print and text handwritten with a marker. “He basically laid that one out–I think it was on a paper bag,” Ballance recalls. “And we sent it to the printing place like that, for them to take a picture of it and print from that picture. One of the words came unglued. So the first 20,000 copies of that record had that thing hanging crooked.”

Many albums later, MacCaughan and Ballance still alternate designing Superchunk’s record sleeves, but their style is a little simpler.

A big part of the problem is that people tend to think literally–not visually. Christine Gill, a graphic designer in Durham, often collaborates with her husband, Zeno Gill, who runs Pox World Empire records and plays in the band The Sames. She says the hardest thing to communicate to musicians is the beauty of a small, simple idea. “Don’t try to go with some huge concept that’s going to be really hard to pull off,” Christine says. “It’s really funny because people have a tendency to go big with their ideas, and when you want to distill it back to something simple, they tend to get freaked out a little bit. They think, ‘That’s all? You’re going to do just that?’ Usually, it’s about distilling it down and doing it more confidently.

“Bigger budgets don’t equal better,” she adds. “Look at all the worst, cheesiest stuff–it’s usually where the biggest budgets are.”

You may have seen the cover to The Rosebuds’ 2003 release Make Out. It’s a subtle visual joke on the title: a color photo of a horse in the foreground, turning its neck to look up the hill at the rear end of a horse in the distance.

The picture was taken by professional photographer and longtime friend Chad Ress at Christine’s family home.

“The Rosebuds were trying to design their cover themselves and they were kind of struggling with it, and Christine just volunteered to do it,” Zeno says. “We’re their friends so we said, ‘Here’s an idea’ and we showed them Chad’s photo and they just loved it.”

It was a snapshot that he had already taken, so it didn’t require any more work. “Christine also told him, ‘This is a great band that we love and they just got signed to Merge, so this album cover is going to be in magazines around the world,’ which it was.”

“It’s all about trading favors and calling favors,” Christine says. Even if a band or label can pay a designer, illustrator or photographer, she says, “it’s still going to be a labor of love. If you can get a famous photographer, somebody who shoots big editorial stuff, for instance, if you can get them to fall in love with a project, they’ll do it for very little or for free. Some people think, ‘Oh, I could never get them to do my album cover.’ But you never know. You can just call somebody sometime, a photographer or an illustrator, and send them a sample of your music and they might do something for you if they really think your music is great.”

What you don’t have is a lot of space. Vinyl album covers had an expansive 12 inches square for elaborate illustrations and visual splash, but the CD sleeve is only 4.75 inches square. That’s another reason why simple is better.

If you’re working with a snapshot, Christine says, “don’t try to make it look like it’s not a snapshot. Or go with Polaroids with hand scribble and lay them out and scan them. That would be cooler than trying to make it look like you pulled off some fancy photo shoot. Go with the funky or the simple, or just Xerox something.”

Or raid your parents’ photo album. When Schooner was putting together the art for their 2004 album You Forget About Your Heart, Zeno and Christine suggested they look for old family photographs. “Katherine and Reid Johnson, who are brother and sister, they went to their parents’ house for the weekend and came back with some really amazing images,” Zeno says. Photos from their parents’ wedding “fit perfectly with the whole Schooner aesthetic. You don’t even have to know it’s their family, because it’s all about love and there’s a lot of that in the album.”

“I’d say most of the time, the worst mistake a band can make is to not enlist the help of a designer,” says Charles Cardello, co-founder of Bifocal Media in Raleigh. “Even if it’s their concept, they should have someone directing their efforts. Something that’s like a visual version of the album in general, but it should be graphically sound.” Bifocal Pictures started as a multimedia company; Bifocal Media spun off to release local music, most recently Des_Ark’s Loose Lips Sink Ships. Cardello says that, as a rule, the bands don’t design their own album cover unless there’s a designer in the band.

“I probably get 40 demos a month with the most godawful covers,” Cardello says. “I think the fact is that a lot of musicians–they’re artists, they’re just different kinds of artists. I’m not going to put out a record of my own music anytime soon because I’m not good at it, but I can design a package for a band’s album and I’m pretty confident that it will be good.”

Using design skills to help friends promote their music was what brought Cardello into the record business. “I went to school for design and media production, film and editing, and I was just into the whole DIY-punk-hardcore scene. If you wanted anything done at that point in the mid-’90s, you did it yourself. It was just out of necessity. Our friends were in bands that would play 50-city tours but they were all in living rooms, tiny spaces and VFW halls.”

There’s another good reason to ask a professional designer to help you: You won’t have to worry about hurting their feelings.

Mary Gunn, art director at Yep Roc Records, has worked on all kinds of projects. Her label is known for its diverse styles. “In my estimation, good album art gives you a sense of the artist. People do judge books by their covers. You have to always assume that whoever sees your CD has never heard of your band. The artwork should in some way give an impression of either what the music sounds like or what the artist is,” she says.

“I’m not advocating design conformity–like I don’t think all punk rock records should have ransom note lettering or all country records must have a color photo of the artist on the cover,” she explains. “But I think the artist should feel like you’ve captured something about the music in the packaging, and that whatever that is should be evident to the audience.”

Irony is fun. So are inside jokes. But if people flipping through the titles at CD Alley can’t tell what the album is, the joke’s on you.

“I think this is kind of obvious,” MacCaughan says, “but as someone who runs a label we always kind of insist that you be able to see the name of the band on the cover when you’re in the record store. It is a record cover after all, not a museum piece.” That can be done with stickers on top of the cellophane wrapper in some cases, he says, as with the latest Crooked Fingers album.

Cardello agrees with that rule. “If it’s a band that nobody knows about, then yeah, it needs to be obvious. Not in a cheesy, overstated way, but it should be legible, just so if someone heard a song online or read a review, at least they can find it in a store.”

The more well known the band, however, the more obscurity they can get away with.

“Right now I’m finishing up the artwork for the new Cherry Valence album, and I’m really excited about that,” Cardello says. “They’re kind of a Raleigh band, and the artwork is kind of a tribute to Raleigh.” The cherry red cover has an iconic picture of the Dorton Arena in metallic silver ink, with a map of Raleigh subtly peeking through. The album title TCV3 is in bold on the cover, but the band name is a little harder to see, in metallic silver scroll on the spine. “You can hardly read the name of the band on the cover,” he says, “but I know people will be searching for that record anyway because it’s kind of a big deal.” Look for it in late July.

There is a surefire way to ruin a strong, simple concept or piece of art: tweak the hell out of it. “There are thousands of filters in Photoshop but that’s no reason to use them!” Gunn says. “If your images and text are good to begin with, you shouldn’t need to mess with them. Using too many special effects can ruin just about anything.”

The effect will look too computerized, and amateur, says Cardello. “Anybody can learn Photoshop. There are a pretty high number of people who are computer literate, but they’re not design literate.”

Everyone agrees on one thing: Handmade stuff is much cooler than mass-produced stuff. Isn’t that why we like this music in the first place?

To Ballance, there’s nothing uglier than a generic, computer-generated design. “Now, things that look handmade are much more attractive,” she says.

“I like things that don’t look like they’re done with a computer, even though they probably were,” Cardello says.

That’s a hard thing to pull off. So if you’re doing a small run, consider leaving the computer out of the design as much as possible.

Gunn explains that doing things on the cheap can make something much more valuable. “My friends in Jimmy and the Teasers designed their own CD cover and silk-screened the booklets in their kitchen. It’s a lot cooler than a lot of things that cost a lot more money to produce, and it’s a lot more original than a standard package from the duplication places that offer design services,” she says. “I’m sure it took forever and probably stank the place up, but the finished product is one of a kind.”

MacCaughan echoes that suggestion. “You can silk-screen your own sleeves, you can do something cheap and handmade that looks really cool,” he says. “I think that jumps out at people and maybe interests them before they’ve heard the music.” Don’t rush it, he adds. Take the time to make it unique. “You can do anything you want. People don’t think about that sometimes.”