Flicking through the new arrivals on The Wire’s shelves first thing on a Monday morning, I’m not looking for something new, I’m looking for something I know.
In a pre-caffeine fug I pull out a vinyl that looks like a new Honest Jon’s archive release. It has all the hallmarks of Will Bankhead’s designs for the label – black and white archival photograph on the front (here, a man playing a tall stringed instrument, crouched barefoot on a street in a Chinese city), and on the reverse, centred text in a plain serif font. But, actually, it’s not an Honest Jon’s release at all. You’re not supposed to judge books by their covers, but what about record sleeves? The one in my hands looks designed to make me do exactly that.
Touch is another label with a visual style that defines a genre of music and which, therefore, has many imitators. Started by Jon Wozencroft in 1982 (and now run by Wozencroft and Mike Harding), it releases music by artists such as Chris Watson and Philip Jeck: ambient soundscapes of field recordings, dense white noise of fizzing sonics and soft acoustic manipulations. It’s a style that in some ways is easy to do, but hard to do well, and in this golden age of user-friendly software it’s a style that many people have had a stab at. Those connecting the dots sonically with Touch often join the dots visually as well. Look through the racks of the ‘electronica’ section (which Touch is usually shoehorned into), and observe: stacks of records with ambient photography, no bright neons or fancy text, that look exactly like one of its releases.
Touch sleeves are designed by Wozencroft: “I never ever illustrate the music,” he says. “I try to create a counterpoint or some lateral relationship with what you’re listening to, so the cover isn’t like a visualisation of what I think the sound looks like – it’s trying to create a gateway or a context in which that sound can be appreciated: a meditational contemplative space,” he says.
Touch’s visual identity, coupled with its strong sonic identity, has generated a set of design principles for a specific subgenre or style of music. Wozencroft says it doesn’t bother him that people have picked up on his style – the macro and landscape photography, organic forms and rural British landscapes, often with a block colour band in natural Farrow & Ball type colours and plain serif fonts. “Some of the techniques and strategies I developed were so simple and so obvious it would be surprising if people didn’t copy them in some respects,” he says.
The same thing happened to Warp’s output in the 1990s. Sonically it set a template for ‘intelligent dance music’ (IDM), and as more people took up this sound, the sleeve design was taken up as well. Looking back, Ian Anderson, founder of The Designers Republic who designed the majority of the label’s sleeves, says that there are two ways to look at it: “You can either see us as being influential or you can see us as being downright ripped off.”
There’s an element of this that is about aligning yourself visually with an artist or label, and in doing so, telling fans of the successful or well-respected label you’re copying that you sound like them – that fans of theirs might also be fans of yours. Visually, labels like Touch and Warp have from the outset tried to stand out enough for split second recognition when flicking through the racks.
More recent subgenres have been developing their own styles as well. Of the current influx of so-called ‘hypnagogic pop’ – ringfenced by lo-fi recording techniques, 90s pop licks and scuzzy synth lines – there’s been speedy conformity to a certain kind of sleeve. Maria Minerva’s Cabaret Cixous by Estonian designer Ronald Pihlapson and James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual are good examples. The sleeves of both carry a similar aesthetic, as if put together on pre-Photoshop software. Far Side Virtual uses wonkily processed images with colour picking, iPad cutouts and brash graphics. Cabaret Cixous is all colour blended CAD shapes and awkward default fonts with unreal drop shadows. For others wanting to mark themselves as part of this sound there’s already a clear set of reference points set out in the visual language: gadgetry and out of date software, default fonts and colours, and Word Art colour gradients.
Asked about the copying of designs by people making similar music, Anderson says: “There’s an element that goes beyond this ‘same but different’ idea, where it grows into being an accepted visual language. If you look at heavy metal covers – an airbrushed Amazonian woman with a snake wrapped around her – where did that start?
“I’m sure there wasn’t a meeting where they said ‘we’re going to go with this’, but then, through time, not only does that become the norm, it’s also a bit like life imitating art: it starts to create parameters within which bands’ lyrics are written and the kind of music they write, because it has to conform to the aesthetics that were inspired by the music in the first place.”
It’s not just about the sleeve design, and not just about the music. As Anderson succinctly puts it: “If all the stuff on Warp had been shit then there would be no reason for anyone to emulate or be part of it … after a while it became a fact that if you were making an album of that kind of music, that’s how it should look.”