Sopp Collective

Think of a collective and you usually picture a group of artists working together in one space. But for Sopp, it means working across different continents and time zones, as well as musical genres. By Laura Matless.

There used to be a time when being a music fan meant simply buying records and going to gigs - even the compact disc seemed like a betrayal to the hardened muso. But leaps in internet technology mean that music lovers can now download the latest releases from their favourite bands, visit websites, listen to podcasts and attend huge concerts - which could be to plug the sponsors as much as the artists themselves.

We might no longer learn about gigs from posters in record shops, but changes in the music industry have opened up a whole new avenue of employment to those designers able to capture the attention of a click-happy customer. Sopp Collective first formed when a group of European students were preparing to leave art college in Sydney, Australia.

"It was our friendship that got us together, so I guess we do share a good deal of common interests and ideas, like all good friends do. The fact that we were all far away from our families and friends back in Europe meant that we do have a very close family-like connection," says Sopp member Kre Martens. "Other than that, we share similar ideas about design, art and music. We probably do get excited about many of the same things, but I think we also have our own individual likes and dislikes."

Like any group of friends, it was their common tastes that brought them together, but it has also been important for each of them to develop different skills and working patterns, as well as respect each others' different directions as their expertise branched out. These days, Katja Hartung works predominantly in publishing and branding, and Thorsten Kulp aims to work on installations and product design. These skills are complemented by broadcast designer Nelson Alves and Kre Martens, who specialises in design for feature film.

"There are obviously other things we do, such as illustration and photography, but it's not our main occupation," says Martens. "I guess that's a natural evolution; it takes a few years of working in the industry before you really find out where your passion lies."

Although they do specialise, the Sopp members still allow themselves to stray into each others' areas sometimes. But they also recognise the importance of not being too proud to ask for help and share advice with each other.

The most recognisable piece of Sopp work might be a music poster spotted on the streets of Sydney, but Martens says that the collective's geographical separation has done as much as their different tastes have to keep their design work fresh and constantly evolving - in style as well as medium. The time difference is their biggest challenge to overcome because Sydney goes home from work just as London is logging on.

"A new thing we've started doing to combat the loss of physical contact is for each member to compile a little experimental magazine with work he or she has done recently - inspirational photos, drawings and so on - and send it to the other members," he says. "Thorsten did the first one and he included a CD with music he has picked up recently as well. I think it's a nice, informal way of staying in contact with each other. I guess the fact that we live in different cities, with different impressions, so far away from each other is a thing we should try to capitalise on."

Just a decade ago it would have been almost impossible for Sopp to keep in touch so easily. Now they use messaging software and make the most of the time difference in that the team in Sydney can continue to work on a project while it's night-time in Europe.

With the bulk of their work coming from the music industry, the Sopp designers have a grandstand seat from which to view the way the music industry is changing. Martens believes it's the bigger labels that are having the most trouble adjusting to the new ways people get music, while the smaller labels turn to limited edition box sets and specially printed covers.

"It's been hard for them [the big labels] to figure out what's actually happening and where it will lead to," he explains. "They're also having a hard time steering their big ships around to point them in the right direction. With the smaller labels that we mostly work for, I actually think there are a lot of positive things happening in-between the confusion that they surely feel as well. They are more adaptable because they are smaller, but they also take more chances and try to set the agenda for where digital music is going.

"For designers it's exciting in many ways," continues Martens. "Sure, it's worrying that the CD is dying out and the physical presence of music might be dying with it, but on the other hand there is more interest now in doing special packaging, for example. And, with everything now happening digitally online, who knows what opportunities will arise out of that."

Martens believes that the links between music and the arts have made it easier to jump between the two, with Sopp having started out working for a music label but now moving into branding for galleries, photographers and feature film promotion. He says, "I think if we had started out doing corporate branding or something like that then we probably wouldn't have looked so attractive to clients in the arts and entertainment sector, which is where we want to be. Having worked for both big music labels as well as small, independent ones, it's definitely the case that the bigger the label you work for the more you're selling a brand rather than the product itself."

Sopp members find that working with a small label becomes more of a collaboration between the musicians and the designers. But with bigger record labels, Martens says, their work becomes more about finding a look that fits within a certain category of music to help the record sell as many copies as possible.

"There is nothing wrong in wanting something to sell as much as possible," he says, "but this whole idea makes the process a lot less creative and very formalistic. It's not always the case, of course, but very often you feel like they want to put an artist out there to simply fit in or to look like something that has worked well for someone else before.

"In music at least," concludes Martens, "the saying 'money ruins everything' definitely holds true."