As a one of the UK's most cutting-edge design agencies, Big Active can claim responsibility for some of the most iconic album artwork of recent years. So when Beck was looking for a visual style as radical and inventive as his new album, only one agency came to mind.
Having forged its legacy with work for Goldfrapp, Muse, the Futureheads and house pioneers 808 State, Big Active knew exactly how to approach a project in need of the wow factor.
"The physical format of an album is the most complete statement of the album idea and should work as a whole, and that includes the way that it's packaged," says Gerard Saint, Big Active's founder and creative director. "If the packaging is poor then why spend extra money to own that format?"
It's this steadfast belief in the power of an album's visual style that inspired Saint's concept for the new Beck album, The Information. Released across four CDs, the artwork arrives blank, but includes one of four sets of specially commissioned stickers with which to customise the cover. The result? A truly interactive release that positively encourages the listener to participate in the album experience. So much so, in fact, that fans' results can be uploaded to Beck's online gallery to be shared with other Beck aficionados.
Beck takes a similar view to Saint. In a recent interview with Record Collector, he said: "One of the things I want, when I play music, is to give people ideas - for people to go off and do something else. Maybe somebody takes the stickers and does something even better with it on their record. It's about trying to engage instead of pacify."
A visual accompaniment
The stickers were designed by 20 artists working under the Big Active umbrella, including Genevieve Gauckler, Michael Gillette and Will Sweeney - as well as Beck himself. Saint points out that it's not so much the threat from downloads that has inspired a rethink of album artwork, but a desire to create an impressive visual accompaniment to the album's style.
"Typically, CDs offer little more than five inches of plastic disc and at best a welldesigned booklet," he argues. "If the packaging is integral to the experience of physically owning the album, then the idea of a physical format is still relevant. In a world where you can now cherry-pick tracks online from an album, it's the album format as a 'collective work' of songs that's almost becoming obsolete."
The kickback to this depressing trend is to rethink the way that album art functions. The process for The Information started as a rough brief, and evolved almost on its own until several individual themes and styles slowly began to emerge.
"We basically gave the artists involved starting pointers as reference from their own work. The most important factor was that each image would make a good sticker. In certain cases we'd be a little bit more specific if we felt the need to explore a certain idea," says Saint, who curated the entire project together with Beck. "During the process, Mat Maitland also created a number of specific stickers as we started to see themes evolving across the sticker sheets."
No matter how radical the artistic approach to The Information may have been, it would have amounted to nothing without the support of Beck's record label. Polydor must be congratulated for supporting the project, especially in light of the Official Chart Company's decision that The Information is ineligible for the UK chart. But ask Beck and he sees it as less about the profitability of the album, and more about value for money.
"I have to give credit to my record company for taking it all on, because it's triple what they normally do on a package," he admits. "But the time has come. We'll be giving people more anyway, not giving them less. That's why they're not buying the CDs."
This is an interesting and divisive point. If consumers aren't buying CDs because they've mentally divorced both the iconography and art from the actual music, then surely a balanced package like The Information - one that exists both musically and visually - will sell itself.
Gerard Saint believes so. For him, dwindling CD sales aren't about the consumer's growing consumption of other formats, but rather a lack of imagination and an understating of the importance of an album's design and visual style.
"It's not so much about the competition from downloads, it's about creating something inspiring in the market place," Saint maintains. "We conceived the idea as a way of making the packaging experience integral to the physical CD format, and yes, I definitely think we've achieved that."