Music makers

Manchester-based design studio Music has business cards cut from old vinyl records and a clear sense of where it’s heading.

Having a design studio called Music is a bit like having a band called Type Foundry. It’s always going to be misleading for the uninitiated.

“It was exciting coming up with a name,” says Anthony Smith, one of Music’s three co-founders. “There was much deliberation: should we use our names? Should we be some sort of Collective or Department? In the end, we just thought ‘what do we like? What are we passionate about?’ And there was already a company called Cake….

“Of course, after you’ve thought about the name Music for a bit you realise how great it is – it transcends language, it makes people feel all sorts of things,” he continues. “And it looks good on a letterhead. At first it’s a bit of a worry (‘you can’t call a company Music can you?’) but after you’ve answered the phone for a week and you’ve done some work you’re proud of, the name’s just a badge for whatever it is you’re doing.”

Music occupies two floors of an old cotton warehouse in Ancoats, an ‘up and coming’ (underdeveloped and slightly scary) area just to the north-east of Manchester’s trendy Northern Quarter. Despite the “inconvenience” of a fire in an adjacent building destroying the contents of its then new premises back in December 2007, Smith and the company’s other two founders, Dave Simpson and Matthew Beardsell, believe that Music began as they meant it to continue – with a clear sense of purpose and a set of fully-formed values.

“We spent a lot of time when we first started talking about setting something up trying to articulate what kind of company it would be, how it would function, what the core values would be,” recalls Beardsell. “We wanted to create a company which other people would want to be at, a company that people would be proud to be part of. We also wanted to be successful financially, we didn’t want to be ashamed to make money – after all, profitability validates what we do.”

“It’s a difficult balance, getting paid for doing the kind of work that you actually want to be doing,” maintains Smith, “but one that’s really important.”

Simpson, Beardsell and Smith had all worked together before setting up Music two years ago, initially at design firm Tucker Clarke Williams in Stockport. Smith left tcw for a job in London in 1997 and in 2001 Simpson and three other colleagues left to form creative agency Love in Manchester.

“When Dave helped set up Love, I actually went across with them shortly after and was at Love for about six years,” recalls Beardsell. “I left to go freelance, Dave quit Love around the beginning of 2007 and very quickly, because Manchester has a reasonably small design community, we found ourselves coming into contact with each other on the same jobs – the first of which was working on the promotional materials for Manchester International Festival 09. I was working as a production consultant and Dave was on the design side, but we just seemed to mesh really well. And Ant was starting to get involved too because we were all friends.”

The trio met regularly for a period of about four months at Simpson’s flat in the Northern Quarter, mainly at weekends because Smith was still working in London during the week. “We’d meet up and talk about what we’d want to achieve if we set up something of our own,” says Beardsell. “We all felt that we’d learnt lessons from our time at Tucker Clarke Williams, at Love and also whilst freelancing, and we wanted to make sure we tried to avoid making at least some of those mistakes again.”

Music’s co-founders still make a point of meeting up for a two-hour early breakfast once a week to make sure they’re all still on the same page and in touch with each other’s way of thinking. “Even if we don’t discuss work at all, those two hours are really important,” maintains Simpson. “It helps with the running of the business but it’s also a great way to just put your head up and talk about anything; work, money, staff, or even something cool we saw in a magazine. One thing leads into another and we’ve had the most valuable results from those two hours each week, they’ve made a massive difference to the path Music has taken.”

Music still has close ties with Love, the company Simpson previously co-founded. Music’s Alison Johnson and Love partner Phil Skegg run creative hub, Dorothy – the result, Johnson reveals, of an afternoon drinking session last year. “We’d previously worked together for nearly ten years at tcw, then at Love,” Johnson explains of their relationship. “We went out and got drunk one afternoon, talked a load of shite, then the next day Dorothy was born.”

“The idea behind Dorothy is simple,” she continues. “It’s about investing time in a good idea. Sometimes we work for clients and sometimes we work for ourselves. We don’t wait for the right brief to come along to produce ideas, we’ll do things for no reason other than we instinctively think it’s a great idea.
This means we don’t just do one type of thing but that we’re constantly trying to do things we’ve never done before and bring in other creatives and artists to work with us depending on the nature of a given project. We’re currently collaborating with Suck UK on getting our first product manufactured, developing commercial ideas for the brand Ctrl.Alt.Shift, working on our own short film and we’re also planning a temporary art installation.”

On why he left Love, Simpson reveals that too much got in the way of actually doing the work he wanted to do. “Love is a great company and I’m very proud of what was achieved there. I guess towards the end [of my time there] there was a move towards more of an advertising feel and, also, when a company grows above a certain size you lose the ability to stay in touch with projects. So much time is taken up with ‘running the business’ that direct contact with clients becomes much more difficult – as is finding the time to actually create. At Music we try to maintain and develop relationships personally, to make sure they work as well as they possibly can and to always be available to speak to the client.”

It is perhaps unsurprising to note then that in its first two years of business Music has tended to work with companies it can talk to face to face, clients based in the Manchester area. As well as ongoing work for the Manchester International Festival, the studio also produces work for Manchester City Football Club and its recent work for Manchester Independent Economic Review – a series of six books each printed on different pastel coloured sugar paper – prompted much positive feedback when posted on the CR Blog in May.

“There was no particular plan to work with local companies and we are also working with clients further afield,” maintains Smith. “The thing we did want to concentrate on was the relationship between us and the people we work for. It’s never going to work with everyone, but it’s really important they value what we do. So when we find clients like that we really want to develop those relationships. The mier project was great because our client there believed in what we were trying to do, and so was integral to it getting produced.”

“What we’ve realised,” adds Beardsell, “is that if we get the work right, then people will want to work with us and for us, we’ll attract the right clients and we’re going to make money.”

So with an ever-growing interest in the studio and its work, what’s next for Music? “One of the biggest challenges to us at the moment is to try and keep a lid on it, keep things small,” claims Beardsell, “which may sound a bit adverse to the industry at the moment, but it’s difficult to get that balance between doing the right kind of work and being profitable. When we started out we definitely wanted to keep it to a certain size, maybe eight people. There are seven of us now but we do have 12 desks in the studio, so we have room to employ the right freelancers on the right job.”

The illustrations for the mier project, produced by freelancers working in-house, are a case in point. “The way we feel is that smaller is probably better. You’ve got the capability of doing great work in a studio this size. If you haven’t, then you’re doing something dreadfully wrong.”

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