CR presents: your labels of choice

The majors may be abandoning great graphic design, but independent labels around the world are commissioning sleeve art every bit as idiosyncratic as the music they release. We asked our Twitter followers to nominate their favourites, our pick of which are featured here. In addition, each label has chosen a song for our CR soundtrack: listen while reading

Music to read a magazine by: the CR soundtrack
This month’s magazine includes an online mixtape, with a track from each of the labels featured here. Thanks to the labels for their co-operation.

January issue by CreativeReview

Berlin, Germany

PAN originally started in 2008 in London, but has since moved to Berlin. The label was initially created as a platform to showcase design and lend some exposure to a range of experimental music. PAN continues to release experi­mental music, without attempt­ing to capture a specific music scene, or focus on a particular kind of sound. Label owner Bill Kouligas describes how each release is individual in its concept, whilst still relating to and complementing each other as a whole.

PAN collaborates with visual artist, Kathryn Politis, to create the artwork for the label. The basic packaging and design remains the same for all the releases, featuring typographic and geometric design, and a silkscreened PVC sleeve. Whilst putting together the artwork PAN utilise found images, often sourced from their private collection. They also work with musicians to produce artwork, with Andre Vida obtaining permission from the ethnological museum in Krakow to
use the images featured on one cover and a Billy Bao release featuring stills from New York artist Henry Flynt’s films.

Kouligas concludes, “It’s not about visualising the sound as such, but there is always an indirect, sometimes ambiguous reference to it.”

Gothenburg, Sweden

Swedish label Service was started ten years ago, “with no particular ambition, but with a strange confidence”.The first release from the label was Studio’s The End of Fame which came accompanied with a ‘try making a ring-tone out of this you bastards’ attitude.

Over the past decade, Service has focused on releasing the best of the Swedish underground, including Jens Lekman, The Embassy, and The Tough Alliance.
Ola Borgström acts as art director for Service, overseeing the creation of all the label’s artwork. Borgström works both alone, and in collaboration with others. Whilst Service doesn’t adhere to a strict, overriding visual identity, Borgström emphasises the importance that all Service releases can be easily identified, with much of the artwork corresponding to simple concepts.

Vernasca, Italy

Hundebiss is based in Vernasca, which label owner Simone Trabucchi describes as  “more a state of mind than a tiny village in the Italian mountains”. Founded in 2007, the label’s philosophy is “all about visions”, and it aims to push the limits of the record as an object, attempting to “exploit the 3D dimension, the tactile aspects, and the paper’s singularity”. Hundebiss maintains the DIY aspect of things, with each release folded and packaged by hand, and the final artwork created as a collaboration between Trabucchi and the artist.
The label has a focus on the analogue,  putting out  limited runs of LPs, and even a couple of VHS releases. However, Trabucchi maintains that VHS is “not about nostalgia”.

She adds, “I don’t believe new media killed old media, I think those ideas of new and old simply don’t make any sense.”

Tor Press
London, UK

Tor Press aims to bring together the work of illustrators and musicians, by releasing vinyl compilation albums which give the artwork as much importance as the music.

All tracks are recorded specifically for the release, with the cover artwork created in response to the music. Each copy of Menagerie also includes a full-colour illustrated zine, featuring work from illustrators such as Pete Fowler, Will Sweeney, and Andrew Rae. Jake Blanchard, art director of the project, explains that Tor Press’s latest release – Menagerie #3 – is the first in which bands will be creating music in response to the work of the illustrators. “It’s quite a big ask to get musicians to react to illustrations, and not something I expect any of them have done before, so I was really surprised everyone was so keen to do it.”

When speaking about the declining importance of cover art, Blanchard comments, “I think it’s a real shame that artwork has gone from being a big 12×12″ image to a tiny 72 DPI square in the corner of a screen. I think most people who are really serious about music tend to buy physical copies of things. I’ve always felt that putting on a vinyl always feels like more of an event than listening to an MP3, it makes you appreciate it a bit more.”

London/Glasgow, UK

Starting life nine years ago as a club night in Glasgow, Numbers has grown into a fully-fledged record label that still runs club nights in Glasgow, London, and various other cities around Europe.

Design studio Remote Location is behind the look of much of the label artwork, with Adam Rodgers at the helm. The label ensures it retains absolute creative control, with each artwork going through several versions before all members of the label, and the artist, are happy with the final result.

For the Cover of the Deadboy EP, Numbers commissioned Carl Burgess and Tom Darracott – a previous CR bursary winner – to utilise Tom’s “hyperreal vibes”.

Numbers are keen to retain a sense of playfulness about the label, whilst continuing to ensure it has a clear identity. Rodgers comments, “I guess there’s a certain aesthetic to the label, in terms of it being quite bright, bold, and colourful. It doesn’t take itself too seriously
at all. Ever.”

Infinite Machine
Montreal, Canada

Started in the summer of this year, Infinite Machine set itself the somewhat daunting aim of broadening the music scene in Montreal through its eclectic programme of releases.  The label specialises in garage, post-dubstep, and bass, with the abiding philosophy being to “release and promote the music and friends we love”.

Teodoro Zamudio acts as art director for the label, working almost  single-handedly to produce artwork for each release. He explains that the final result is generally a careful balance between the opinion of the musician and the label themselves, with the artwork for the Bwana EP (left) resulting from a collaboration between Bwana and Zamudio.

Hamburg, Germany

Smallville was founded in 2005 as a record shop in the St Pauli district of Hamburg, an area long associated with radicalism and underground culture. In 2006, it expanded into a label and released its first record.

Stefan Marx takes responsibility for all the artwork for the label, creating the paintings and illustrations by himself, many of which are simple, humorous, black and white affairs. Marx explains that his illustrations are sometimes in response to the release itself, or a result of a studio visit from a musician. When talking about putting together illustrations for a release, Marx comments, “I see it as a kind of publishing. Like publishing an edition of an artwork.”

For Smallville, the artwork plays a secondary role in its releases. From the beginning, the label made the decision to use only drawings or paintings and Marx adds that, “The drawing should be a second component to the music, an image which could add something to the music, but it’s not necessarily a must. As the feeling comes through the music and the parties, the image can stay in mind.”

Sound Pellegrino
Paris, France

Paris-based  Sound Pellegrino is curated by DJs Orgasmic and Teki Latex, with Ill-Studio taking responsibility for creating the label’s artwork.

Starting in 2009, the label has released 10 EPs and a compilation album each year, focusing on a wide spectrum of house and electronic music, including “all mutant subgenres and nanogenres”.

Emile Shahidi from the label explains that it was of key importance to establish a classical identity for Sound Pellegrino, and one that would insert “modern codes and retro imagery” into something that would become easily recognisable over time. Working closely with Ill-Studio, they came up with “the Deutsche Grammophon pastiche idea, and that gradually evolved towards contradictory visual grammars being fused”.

Night Slugs
London, UK

Emerging from a club night of the same name, the Night Slugs label has only been in existence for the past couple of years. The club nights cultivated and developed “a new sort of hybrid club sound”, and the label continues to do the same.

The strong visual identity of the label relies on art director Alex Sushon’s interpretation of the music. Drawing influence from brutalist architecture, modular constructions, early computer art, and pre-hyperrealism computer games, Sushon explains, “to me our tracks are made up of these geometric blocks or modules, glowing with energy in the darkened void of a club. So the record covers depict these metaphors for the tracks.”

Sushon hadn’t initially been thinking of the artwork in terms of a series, but adds that  “I knew that I wanted them to live in a sort of Tron universe”.

No Pain in Pop
London, UK

Growing out of promoting shows in South London, No Pain in Pop has been active since 2008, and now has almost 30 releases under its belt, also running a blog alongside the label to showcase its music.

The label focuses on working with “young, creative, original acts with clear artistic visions, who aren’t easily pigeonholed into a musical niche”. This means that, for the most part, the artists themselves take responsibility for their artwork.

Matthew Barnes, the creative mastermind behind Forest Swords, produced the artwork for his releases using an old scan he’d had on a disc for a few years. This identity runs throughout his releases, and he comments that “it’s important that if someone is investing in a physical product, they should feel like they’re buying into a series or a collection, and have a clear thread that runs through them all. It feels more complete and rounded that way, both for me and for the person owning it. It always frustrates me when there’s no thematic link between musicians’ records.”

Jane Eastlight worked on the cover for patten’s GLAQJO XAACSSO EP, which was created as a digital collage that used old books, magazines and journals as its sources. Eastlight adds that “I try rather than just to illustrate, to produce a visual analogue to the audio. [Acting as] another layer to the sonic experience.”

Eastlight is positive about the future of record artwork: “Although many lamented the death of record sleeve artwork, I think it’s more important than ever. These highly evocative, powerful images help us to navigate through the unfathom­able amount of music out there.”

Glasgow, UK

Founded in 2007, as a record label and artist collective, creative director Dominic Flannigan describes the LuckyMe aesthetic as “a natural fusion of design and music, and hopefully something that feels authentic and classic”.

All the artwork is designed in-house, with Flannigan using the musicians’ visual influences as a starting point. For Lunice, Flannigan drew inspiration from the artist’s collection of graffiti photographs, and commissioned Colin Faulks to illustrate the cover. Flannigan argues that, “Now, just as much as ever, we associate music with the visual.

Just because the majority of us download music, it doesn’t necessarily undervalue all design. The jpeg sleeve, the viral and the press photo all carry a message. The power of design to add context to music is as vital as ever.”


What's the story?

The Storytelling issue, Oct/Nov 2017, is out now.
We invited writers to respond to our cover image
this month: read their stories inside.
PLUS: Tom Gauld, Oliver Jeffers, Giphy & S-Town

Buy the issue

The Annual 2018

The Creative Review Annual is one of the most
respected and trusted awards for the creative
industry. We celebrate the best creative work from
the past year, those who create it and commission it.

Enter now


South East London - Competitive


London - £35,000 - £40,000


Birmingham - Salary £30-£35k


Leeds, West Yorkshire - £20,000 - 30,000