An attic bedroom in Carlisle, Cumbria doubles as the office of Motive Sounds Recordings, an independent record label set up in late 2005 by local music lover, Mark Howlette. Since then, Howlette, along with business partner Ben Maxwell (22 and 25 respectively) has released six albums and four EPs by local bands, each limited run boasting artwork and packaging that shames most of what’s currently available on the high street.
It’s significant that Motive, like most emerging contemporary labels, is based largely on the internet. The label sprang from motivesounds, Howlette’s online ’zine about the local music scene, and the company relies on its own online presence and bands’ MySpace pages to maintain an international following. Yet to look at their hand-crafted, DIY approach to sleeve design, you’d be forgiven for wondering if they’d ever touched a computer.
But this is precisely how Motive have succeeded in attracting the attention of music and design fans alike: they’ve taken the best of what the digital music scene has to offer (the power of MySpace word-of-mouth, the ready availability of tracks as mp3s, for example) and combined this twenty-first century attitude with what many have claimed to be the very victim of download culture itself: innovative, tactile sleeve design.
“When we began this endeavour, the idea was to fight against the dwindling interest in actually owning a CD, the excitement of holding a labour of love in your hands and not just worrying about how much space is left on your iPod’s hard drive,” runs the label’s mission statement on their website. Maxwell confirms that this intention, to match the music with inspired design, was there from the outset. “The designers are as important for us, so we have a designer roster, too,” he says. “Each release is a collaboration © ß between band and designer and, even if they’ve just done a poster for us, they get a page on the website. We didn’t want our statement to be all hot air – it should really mean something.”
Howlette, too, is committed to Motive’s ideals – both in terms of their love of creating tactile objects and also as a reaction to how most contemporary music is packaged. “I hate jewel cases. Just look at the Razorlight album,” he says. “‘Jewel case’ is basically a swearword for us,” adds Maxwell. “When you see that the Sugababes or Girls Aloud and the Manic Street Preachers are using the same blocky typeface over a milky image… we just wanted to do something different, create something that you’d enjoy holding.”
Maxwell had formed a band, ctrlaltdelete (now reincarnated as Mt.), while studying Fine Art at Cumbria Institute of the Arts and used the college’s print studio (“we spent thousands of hours in there”) and the design talents of fellow student, Barry Smith, to create the packaging for their first EP. Smith, who also worked on the label’s first proper release, a compilation of local bands, has since gone on to design further releases for the label. “It’s been consistently interesting,” he says of the Motive output to date, “whether it’s a simple, bold typographic solution or something really intricate. I think the most important thing is that the sleeves are emotive and relate to the release. There’s a lot of small labels with a really cool graphic style but they often seem cold in relation to the music. The key is finding a balance between having a house style that people can follow, which helps a small label grow, as opposed to totally individual sleeves for each release. This is something Motive do really well.”
“I actually feel guilty that we use a printing company now,” says Maxwell, looking back at the first few releases for the label. “We’d love to do it all by hand but we simply can’t – it’s just too much work.” What they still aim to do, however, is to employ local talent in as many areas of the design process as possible just as the acclaimed Canadian label, Constellation, has done in Montréal. The art college in Carlisle, for example, has supplied the majority of the designers that have worked with the label. “If any label’s had an influence, it’s been Constellation,” says Howlette. “I like the way they keep things on a local level. In terms of our ideas, we wanted to get everything made in Carlisle but it was too hard to do. With one Godspeed You! Black Emperor release [on Constellation] there was a penny that had been crushed on a railtrack in each sleeve. They also have great inserts, using nice paper. That’s the right way to go about it.”
“As cool as the digital revolution is, it’s also quite sad because the things being produced have become more like entertainment than art,” says Maxwell. “We push the rustic look but we also want to have high finishes etc.” Their most recent release, the debut album from Manatees, used both matt and gloss blacks and some intricate gold foiling, complete with a paper insert. It’s stunning: and now both the band – and the album artwork – are getting the attention they deserve.
Andy Cann of Shellshock, Motive’s distributor, is in a great position to see the effects that these sleeves have on a contemporary audience that can pick and choose its digital music at will. “While there’s been a decline in creative packaging within the music industry due to downloading and decreasing sales,” he says, “Motive Sounds have created a fantastic balance with their music and packaging. I’d hope this encourages the people who purchase one of their releases to check out the whole catalogue. Who knows – maybe they could be the next 4AD.”