Earlier this year, with estimated debts of £170 million, the UK’s biggest high street music retailer HMV announced a refinancing deal with its lenders that involved shifting its core business from selling CDs and DVDs to selling headphones and other technology products. With people downloading music or buying CDs from Amazon and similar sites online, HMV’s traditional business of selling music product has all but evaporated. What then are the prospects for the physical music release?
“The big problem is that major record companies have allowed the CD to become so devalued that for me, working with a number of labels’ back catalogues, it’s not economical to do the small pressings required to keep albums in print,” says Steve Webbon of Beggars Group. “I feel we can no longer afford to allow the chain retailers (who demand product as cheaply as possible) to drive the price down to unsustainable levels, and that we should put our lowest prices up and add quality back into the package. Luckily we have the type of catalogues that attract a musical following who can be re-educated into paying more for something special.”
The labels that Webbon works for are well known for treating CD packaging with respect. When Ivo Watts-Russell, the founder of one of those labels, 4AD, first heard music played on a CD about 30 years ago, he chose never to listen to vinyl again. But Watts-Russell didn’t think that packaging needed to be cheapened. “For me the Japanese approach to making mini replicas of original LP packaging is a wonderful insight into what was happening in graphic design to mirror the creativity of the music,” he says. “It’s a fantastic method of archiving both sound and vision. The quality [of packaging] that can be achieved in Japan is second to none.”
Watts-Russell’s love of high quality Japanese CD packaging is clear to see in the recently released box set comprising four of the albums he created under the moniker This Mortal Coil on 4AD between 1984 and 1993. The box set is
beautifully realised with four thick card gatefold albums (each containing a booklet in one side of the gatefold and a CD in a clear plastic sleeve in the other) housed in a box that fits snugly into a slipcase. It’s glossy but unpretentious – and the build quality is tangible. It feels worth the £100 price tag.
“It’s very beautifully done,” notes Daniel Mason who regularly works with record labels as a packaging consultant and a freelance producer of bespoke packaging projects (recent work includes creating the round injection moulded plastic boxes for the Primal Scream Screamadelica 20 box sets released by Sony, and he also produced the padded, oak-boxed ‘ultimate’ version of Björk’s Biophilia album that comes with a set of chromed and screenprinted tuning forks). “You see a lot of these things but they’re never as well made as this,” he continues. “Everything’s been dealt with in a kind of audiophile way – it’s very appropriate for this release.”
This idea of appropriateness is hugely important. Mason, a voracious consumer of physical music releases, warns of the dangers of what he calls “a load of crap in a box syndrome” where labels repackage an album or create a special edition that assembles lots of items but with no real thought to how the fan will interact with or value the contents.
Mason excitedly shows me a new acquisition – a ‘super deluxe’ boxed re-issue of The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls album. The box includes a CD of the remastered original album, a second CD containing 12 unreleased bonus tracks and a DVD with live footage and promo clips. But the real star of this package is a thoroughly researched, beautifully designed 100-page hardback book which includes an exclusive, previously unseen Helmut Newton photo session from 1978, a new essay by Anthony de Curtis with brand new interviews and, rather brilliantly, unseen images showing the design of the cover art from sketches by designer Peter Corriston up to finished artwork. There is no crap in this £80 box but rather a collection of lovingly produced items all relevant to the album and which no discerning Rolling Stones fan should be without.
“We seem to be moving towards a situation where either you download the music or you buy a really great, beautifully realised physical package,” says Jimmy Tilley, who along with Stephen Kennedy at London’s Studio Fury designed (and researched) the Rolling Stones Some Girls package. “The jewel case middle ground will disappear.”
Paul A Taylor, art director at independent label Mute isn’t quite so sure the jewel cased CD is going to go away just yet. “Mute is totally behind deluxe editions, but not just for the sake of it,” he says. “It’s important to have extra content for [these packages] but to also offer a full range of formats for different tastes – ie a reasonably priced standard CD edition for a casual purchase, and a digital download for those who only care about the tunes. Once that is covered, a deluxe CD and a vinyl release put together my perfect range of formats for a release. The vinyl release should also be treated as a deluxe format and include a digital copy, either a CD or download of the album.”
Mute act Apparat’s recently released album, The Devil’s Walk, was released in a selection of formats including a deluxe CD version which, along with the equally deluxe vinyl version accounts for about 45% of the album’s sales to date, Taylor says, compared to 35% downloads and just 20% on standard CD.
“With the increasing polarisation of recorded music listening, from computer streaming to playing vinyl records, the value of the physical package has more importance now than ever before,” suggests Stephen Godfroy, co-owner of London’s independent ‘record store’ Rough Trade. “We famously celebrate music the art, not the commodity, so having recording artefacts that echo this value is extremely important,” he continues. “Thankfully there are many labels which allow artists to convey their recordings throughout the entirety of the package.”
One such label is Theartre, which recently launched a new artist called Tom The Lion whose first releases (sold exclusively through Rough Trade) were on limited edition double 10-inch coloured vinyl EPs that were housed in leatherette gatefold sleeves, and a CD album housed in a bespoke wooden box. “In general the effort and craft that goes into making music today is not matched by the effort and craft that goes into ‘productising’ and packaging the music,” says the label’s founder James Scroggs. “My pitch to Tom and the other artists I’ve signed is that I want to enable them to go from a laptop straight to glorious premium products that can be relished and that have real discovery value that celebrates and reflects the craft they’ve put into making the music.”
The Tom the Lion releases have been produced by Daniel Mason, who Scroggs describes as “a product fetishist of the highest order. Giving him free reign to explore things he finds interesting will always reap rewards.”.
Of course not every label gives designers and the packaging specialists free reign. On the contrary, most record labels need to be cajoled into doing things in new, original ways. “We have a responsibility as designers,” says Studio Fury’s Tilley, “to do a really good job and push the label to get what we want. For example we were recently told we could only have 12 pages for the booklet of a CD release we were working on. But we had all this fantastic photography by Frederike Helwig so we pushed and pushed and eventually got 16 pages. That may not sound like a big deal, but it’s up to us to push what’s possible as hard as we can.”