Computer Arts

The music design revolution

Within just a few short years, design for the music industry has altered beyond recognition. Lawrence Zeegen asks what this means for today's designers.

There's an insider record industry rumour going round that a million unsold copies of Robbie Williams' Rudebox album are being shipped to China to be crushed and used in road surfacing and street lighting. The music business isn't in great shape - heck, let's be honest, it's in a right old mess. Simon Napier-Bell, with 40 years' experience managing some of the UK's top acts, said recently he thinks that "the record industry is careering towards meltdown". This is really no exaggeration when you look at the stats concerning the core business of the record companies - the sale of CDs. With global sales down last year, which, in turn, were down on the previous year, where does the business with only one business model go next?

The fall in sales certainly isn't being replaced fast enough by digital sales, despite downloads rising almost 50 per cent in 2007, from 52.5 million in 2006, to 77.6 million. Apple, having launched iTunes in 2003, published figures in July 2007 announcing that total downloads reached 3 billion. No mean feat, but then Apple isn't like the dinosaurs of the record industry who refuse to acknowledge and accept change until it's far too late. With CD sales plummeting and downloads not taking up the slack, the current climate of panic in the record industry is no surprise.

The music industry is dominated by four key players: EMI - formed in 1931 and recently taken over by Guy Hands and Terra Firma - Sony BMG, Warner Music Group and Universal Music Group. They account for around 25 per cent of the global market alone. Independents may still account for around 28 per cent of the market, but it's really only the big four labels that call the shots. Or so they thought. Paul McCartney left EMI - the only British company among the 'Fab Four' - and joined Starbucks, describing EMI as "really very boring" as he shut the door. Radiohead released In Rainbows as a 'pay-what-you-want' download last year, then signed to XL for the CD release, frontman Thom Yorke saying that the new management at EMI was acting like "a confused bull in a china shop". And Coldplay are said to be considering their future. EMI certainly has its work cut out.

Axing 2,000 of the 5,500 jobs worldwide and restructuring the company might help, but when you consider that around 85 per cent of EMI releases never make a profit and currently there are 14,000 artists signed to the label, it's going to take some turning round. Of course, the back catalogue helps; half of the company's business is in sales of re-releases by artists, such as the Rolling Stones and The Beatles. But what about the future of record companies generally, and what about the role design plays in that future?

Where better to commence an investigation into current and future trends in design for the music industry than a trip out east, to London's strangely still-¼ber-cool Hoxton, to chew the fat with Rob O'Connor, the man who has spent more than a quarter of a century at the helm of Stylorouge, the definitive music design company. Originally formed in 1981 and based in a two-desk office above Capitelli's restaurant on Edgware Road, fast-forward to Stylorouge 2008, and you could be forgiven for thinking the studio has been imaginatively styled as a cross between a gentleman's club and a sauna. There's an awful lot of floor-to-ceiling pine going on and while this isn't very rock 'n' roll, it isn't very Hoxton either. Despite a constant buzz from computers and monitors, music is being played good and loud over studio speakers, and you get the immediate impression that it's a love of music that drives this design company.

For Blur bassist Alex James, his first visit to Stylorouge - then based in an attractive mews in Paddington - was an occasion worth recalling in his autobiography A Bit of a Blur. The visit to the design company that was to create so much of the band's graphic identity left a lasting impression: "It was the sort of place at which everyone who did art at school would have dreamed about working," wrote James. "They'd designed the covers of all the greatest records ever made, by the look of things, and there were gold discs all over the walls in reception." For O'Connor, never one to sit still or rest on his laurels, and with a client list that has spanned Wham! Morrissey, Bob Marley, The Pretenders and so many others, the temptation must have been hard to resist. "You know," starts O'Connor, "I'm excited about the here, the now and the future. To be honest, I'm sick and tired of the square format." Stylorouge, under O'Connor's leadership, has moved with the times. From the vinyl 7-inch and 12-inch sleeve designs of yesteryear, to the CD packaging of the present day and the digital design demands of new formats, it has embraced change. "During the past 12 months we've worked on websites, MySpace sites, video clips, blogs, web shops, web banners, micro sites with drop-down content, as well as podcasts, content for mobiles, video showreels, animated sequences, TV commercials€¦" The list goes on. So what's left to cover? "I really want to do some animated/video billboards," O'Connor responds enthusiastically. "Cross-media is exactly where we are heading." It looks to us like Stylorouge has arrived already.

How then has Stylorouge moved forward in an industry that has remained so static for so long? "We've diversified, it's the record companies that haven't," explains O'Connor. "They were always governed by the two Rs - retail and radio. Why didn't they get in on the act and start their own retail companies like Branson did with Virgin? They could have got into radio but didn't - they were having it too good and for too long," he says. So, with the diminishing sales of CDs and related cover design projects waning, and diversification across the sector having become a popular option for companies such as Stylorouge, what has changed about working in the music design? "The budgets," O'Connor admits, "the prices have come right down, but you just have to work with it. Change and progress are inevitable. Record companies should have listened to 15-year-olds 15 years ago; the way they consume music has radically altered. If the industry had listened then, it wouldn't be in this mess." O'Connor doesn't sound angry, rather he's excited and upbeat about the future. "I've really enjoyed the past year," he enthuses. "I'm a big believer in collaboration and that's what working with cross-media in music is all about. I've always liked working with people open to new aspects of image-making. We do a lot in-house, but if we need extra expertise we buy it in."

From the pine-clad HQ of Stylorouge, it's a mere hop, skip and jump past a couple of Banksy murals on Hoxton's Rivington Street to the industrial urban chic of Big Active's base. Gerard Saint is creative director at Big Active and certainly looks the part. He's sporting an Ibiza Rocks T-shirt (fair play - Big Active did design the branding) and has an effortless-looking just-got-out-of-bed hairstyle. Saint is upbeat and positive about life as a designer for the music industry. "It's an incredibly exciting time," he enthuses, "it's like punk or rave was, all over again. You get the feeling that it's all so much more do-it-yourself. Record labels have traditionally operated as a bank, advancing cash to bands, as well as throwing in some marketing experience, but now young bands can do it themselves - MySpace offers that alternative. It's an exciting industry to be working in right now."

Saint may appear to champion an alternative vision to the mainstream, but Big Active's client base consists mainly of old-school record labels. "We're proud to be working with big labels and big acts," admits Saint. "In fact, we really don't do a lot of work that we don't like; clients just don't approach us with work that we don't want to do." The Big Active portfolio reads like a who's who in the coolest of contemporary music: Basement Jaxx, Athlete, Goldfrapp, The Enemy, Beck, Muse, Gnarls Barkley€¦ oh yes, and Snow Patrol and Keane. Don't mistake Big Active for record sleeve designers or CD packaging artists though: "It's now about creating an entire campaign," says Saint. "It's about creating visibility and less about an artistic statement. Of course, we always want to design something defining and memorable, and making that intrinsic link between visuals and music is important, but creating campaigns has become our rationale."

Big Active may be a relative newcomer, compared to Stylorouge, but with only a decade to its name the team has defined an attitude that permeates through its work. Back in 2002, when Big Active launched Gas Book 2, a compendium of its work to date, the team members spoke to Atmosphere Magazine, reflecting on what brought them together. "We were just a bunch of working class kids who fancied our chances of making a big name for ourselves, either as musicians or designers. We chose design but with a very rock 'n' roll attitude. Creatively, we don't go in for that 25- minute drum or guitar solo type nonsense. Visually we prefer the short sharp shock of a memorable three-minute pop classic."

From gritty east London, the next stop is seaside Brighton to catch up with Red's creative director Ed Templeton. Formed in 1996, Red has made a name for itself as the agency of choice for numerous music-related clients that have included Skint Records and Fat Boy Slim. In much the same way as Stylorouge and Big Active, Templeton has diversified Red's core business and its overall approach to working for, and with, record companies. "We knew we were already evolving in a much more cross-media way," explains Templeton, "but we weren't getting the message across clearly to our clients at first. They needed to hear exactly how we were moving things along. Design in the music industry has altered, and over the past seven years we have diversified - the 12- inch sleeve and CD formats had started to seem so claustrophobic." Originally motivated to become a designer because of his huge interest in music and record sleeve design, Templeton had understood that changing patterns of music consumption meant that Red would have to change with the times. "Last year," he explains, "Red probably worked on 50 per cent motion graphics projects, 25 per cent web-related and only 25 per cent print. That says something about the approach we've taken, and it's paying off - more work and more varied work too."

The record industry might well be in flux, but graphic design is evolving rather than dwindling, and it's clear that the secret weapon in the armoury is diversity and in offering a full-service practice. "It certainly isn't all doom and gloom - it's evolution!" proclaims Templeton. "We're not trying to be King Canute - we can't and don't want to hold back the tide," adds O'Connor. Over at Big Active, Saint completes the call to arms. "We can't stop the monster, we need to embrace the monster!" Kings and monsters aside, one thing is for certain - the revolution in music design is with us now, as is the rally-cry 'Evolve or Die!'

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