Label of Love

Motive Sounds is a young, independent record label based in Carlisle. While fully embracing digital music culture, their sleeve designs owe more to a desire to make tactile objects and maintain a local, handmade aesthetic. Mark Sinclair spoke to the founders

 

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.”


 

More from CR

A poster about posters

Former Creative Future winner Zak Kyes created this series of posters in collaboration with Wayne Daly to accompany artist Ryan Gander’s talk at the Architectural Association in London last week. In keeping with Gander’s work, which focuses on language, ideas and communication, the poster itself became an artistic collaboration between the artist and Kyes. A conversation between the two about the nature of poster design forms the text that runs down the right hand side of the poster, while Kyes commissioned nine illustrators to draw a portrait of Gander at the artist’s request, because, as he explains, “I have never been drawn, and often watch those guys outside the Pompidou drawing people but am always too reserved to get one done.” Gander’s favourite of the nine renditions is by Ed Fella, shown above.

72+

To say that design studio Bibliothèque are avid collectors of graphic design would be something of an understatement. It’s more like they have an addiction to sourcing print classics, particularly from the European Modernist tradition. But they’ve finally managed to find an outlet for one of their favourite collections; Otl Aicher’s work for the 1972 Munich Olympics, in the form of an exhibiton of some of his best work from the project, and the show, 72, has just launched at London design store Vitsœ.
We met up with Bibliothèque, Mark Adams, owner of Vitsœ, and designer Michael Burke who actually worked on the Olympic project with Aicher and had invaluable first-hand experience of the processes and methods involved in creating this seminal body of work. The following is the full transcript of the discussion that took place at Bibliothèque’s studio. (An edited version appears in our current March issue as part of a four-page feature on Aicher’s legacy and the 72 exhibition).

Gang of Four

With its concentration of top talent, Rattling Stick is the new supergroup of the production business. But will it turn out to be Cream or Tin Machine?

Making Charity Shop Art Better (but Still for Charity)

Dave Cooper’s take on an otherwise fairly innocuous paint-by-numbers picture
The Corey Helford Gallery in Culver City, California has been showing a range of bastardised paint-by-numbers artworks for its latest exhibition, Charity by Numbers. Each painting has been completed in its requisite palette of mundane colours – there are nautical scenes here, depictions of riverside cabins, animals and forests there – and then a range of contemporary underground artists (including Boris Hoppek, Ian Stevenson and Dave Cooper, above) have added their own daubings onto the canvases.

Graphic Designer

Fushi Wellbeing

Creative Designer

Monddi Design Agency