Friday, November 6, 2009

Making the Album part 7395: Artwork

If you are of a certain age, you may share the memories I have of laying on my back next to the big stereo system in my parents' home, or perhaps sitting in a beanbag chair with headphones on, and listening to music on a vinyl LP record while poring over the cover and liner notes of an album. Those were the days for album art, I tell ya (he said, sounding like a nostalgic old geezer).

Seriously, you had this big 12" x 12" canvas upon which you could really get creative, as well as these sleeves for the records themselves (aka liners) where the band or artist had room to thank everyone from their significant other to their third grade music teacher. Having that big ol' album cover to stare at helped you get to know the musician a little better, or at least helped you feel that way. And the art! Oh, the art. There was an entire genre of art devoted to creating great album covers, and some of those liner notes were like great literature, compressed into small font on a piece of paper so thin that it was almost translucent.

Enough poetic musing. As we all know, the next thing that came along was the Compact Disc in 1983 or so. Instead of the 12" x 12" area to express yourself, you now had only a 5" x 5" canvas, so people started printing little booklets and such to go along with the music. It wasn't the same. And then, beginning earlier this decade, the CD started to fade as the primary method of music distribution, and you ended up with the digital download. Now, that download maybe includes the front cover art for the album, which is usually viewable in a tiny 1" square on your computer monitor. And so, the art of album art died a pitiful death, a lost and forgotten form of expression. Or... did it?

While I don't have the luxury of releasing the Zak Claxton album on vinyl (I'd love to, but pressing LPs is more expensive than I can afford), I am releasing the music both as digital downloads and on Compact Disc. Like many broke-ass musicians tend to do, my first inclination was to package the CD as cheaply as possible. When you go to the web sites of various CD replication companies, the first thing they try and entice you with is their "500 CDs FOR $500" offer. But when you start looking into it, you realize that you're getting a jewel case with a small and sad piece of paper shoved inside. While I believe in letting the music speak for itself, I also am aware that this is my first album as a solo artist after a lifetime as a musician, and there's no guarantee that I'll have a second album to follow it up. That thought process led me to a decision: don't compromise too much, dude, or you will regret it.

That's why my record label (i.e., my girlfriend and I) decided to go with a cooler packaging for the album. We're going with a 6-panel Digipak. You've seen the Digipak before... it's that cool-looking CD and DVD packaging that uses card stock paper instead of plastic for everything except the tray which holds the disc. Not only are Digipaks more hip than the old jewel case, but they're less likely to get cracked and scratched up and nasty looking as time goes by. They're also more environmentally friendly, with less plastic, and often made from recycled paper. And, since we chose to go with the 6-panel version, we have a little more room where we can be artistically expressive, and to thank the folks who helped in the creation of the album.

So, how do you make cool album art?
Beats me. I'm kind of lucky in that a) I'm an experienced graphic designer, and b) I've been a nut for music for so long that I have oodles of hours under my belt of looking at albums, so at least I have an idea of what I like and what I don't. In my humble opinion about this subjective topic, some of the most iconic albums have been very simple in their design, while others have been devastatingly cool. Let's take a look at some of the ones I've enjoyed in no particular order (many of which happen to be found in Rolling Stone Magazine's list of 100 greatest album covers).

Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon: Floyd's album covers remain pretty legendary. This one in particular kind of defines the iconic album cover image, and makes for a killer t-shirt too. The ray of light; the prism; the rainbow. Read into it what you will.

Fleetwood Mac's Rumors: I have no idea why this is so cool. Giant Mick and little Stevie, in Elizabethan clothes. Meaning what? Who cares!

The Cars' Candy-O: Okay, I'll admit it. I was about 11 or 12 when I got this album, and I spent countless hours staring at this illustration in a purely prurient way. But the artist is Alberto Vargas, who was the undisputed king of pin-up girl art. All those WWII bombers with the hotties painted on the nosecone were based on Vargas' work.

Beatles' White Album: I mean, come on. You're the biggest group in the world. You have a hugely anticipated album. What statement will you make with the cover? A huge one through omission of everything. Does anyone in the world call this album by its proper title (The Beatles)? Nope. Think about that for a sec.

The Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers: Well, I'm not gay, or else I'd probably enjoy this cover as much for the well-endowed cover model as I would for the art, which was designed by Andy Warhol. Contrary to popular belief, that is not Mick Jagger's crotch on the cover. The original version of the LP had a working metal zipper built in. Wow.

The Who's Who's Next: In addition to this being possibly the best rock album of all time, the cover spoke volumes. Oddly, I owned this album for years before finally noticing that the band had just pissed all over the monolith. That has to be symbolic of something.

Supertramp's Breakfast in America: Now here's some art! What a great drawing. You're in the perspective of a passenger in an airplane, looking out at New York City, with all parts of the city depicted as breakfast items. Hey, maybe someday I'll be able to have someone who can really draw do my album covers too. This is about as cool as it gets.

Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here: Yeah, it's the second Floyd cover on this list. Don't shoot me. I'm including it because Floyd really went out of their way to have compelling imagery on their covers. Like DSOTM, this one was designed by Storm Thorgerson, who did an incredible number of great album cover designs over the years.

Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark: Ah, Joni. Well, what can you say? The lady considers herself as much of a painter as she does a musician, and she's pretty damn brilliant in any area of the arts she tackles. Nothing wrong with a neat little piece of artwork designed by the musician herself, right?

Grateful Dead's American Beauty: Another iconic album design. Stanley Mouse helped define the entire look of the psychedelic '60s through his concert posters and album covers, and this is one of his best.

That's cool, but are you going to show us the art for the Zak Album?
Well... hmm. Okay, I guess we can take a look at the front cover, keeping in mind that it's one of six different panels of art and words you'll find in the package. A little info... my cover is based on a photograph that was taken just in front of my home, looking westward down my street toward the ocean. You also have a photo of me, superimposed on the right side. Both images are treated in a way that gives it a semi-surreal, cartoony, paper cutout look. After going through a bunch of different ideas, this is what we came up with that we felt was representational of the vibe of the album. There are other things I can tell you about the cover, but they say that a picture says a thousand words, and since I've already written about that much, I don't want to give a thousand more. Here it is.

Side note: we received confirmation today that my album will be received in advance of the 12/11/09 release date, so that's a bit of a relief. And now that we've approved all the final details of the CD for its replication, I'm happy to be able to share this stuff with you... hence, this long-winded post.

More news on the album as it becomes available.

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