The high street’s dance with death

To assess how much of an impact their potential closure would have on designing for the music biz, I visited my local HMV to gather some evidence for this article… and, um, to buy the new Adam Ant album. I’ve not been in an HMV for a while, so I was interested to see if they were targeting and catering to serious music fans in an effort to stay relevant.

The depressing reality is that HMV doesn’t appear to be interested in selling much music, to anyone, any more. At the door things get off to a bad start when you’re greeted by a rack of cynically positioned fitness DVDs, no doubt placed as reminders of broken New Year’s resolutions to passers by. Inside, things get worse, as an alarming number of racks dedicated to cheap DVDs that you’ve already seen on Sky fill the majority of the shop floor, with the rest of the scruffily arranged tables beside them hastily piled up with cheap electronic tat and, bizarrely, a couple of stands of Haribo sweets and a Coke vending machine.

Music books are represented by heavily discounted Michael Bubl and Little Mix biogs that clearly no one wanted in the first place, judging by the layers of sale stickers plastered onto them. Behind the displays of Sonic the Hedgehog badges, Nirvana mugs and Beatles coasters I did find a solitary rack of CD s, miserably containing a predictable collection of acts launched on Saturday night TV, and a few overpriced Best of the Beatles compilations. A design desert. I took a few pics, while the sales staff stared blankly at me, and got out of there.

Across town at Rough Trade East things were a lot more encouraging. A light, airy store is home to well-stocked racks of a surprising number of vinyl LPs and 12-inch EPs, including limited editions, white label promos and imports. They’ve got in-store DJs who are more than happy to talk about what they’re playing and offer advice, adverts for upcoming events in the shop, and gigs (I have fond memories of an Exfoliating live set by the Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster in this particular store). There’s a comprehensive library of books on music and culture too.

Quality design and dedication to music is found everywhere in Rough Trade, from the lavishly packaged 180-gram vinyl to the high-end, perfectly bound CD-book hybrids. It’s the specialist stores like this, and their customers, that will continue to drive the demand for high quality design for music on the high street.

More generally, serious musicians and composers will always want their music to be communicated visually, whether thorough film, photography, graphics, interactive and other media that we haven’t even invented yet. For example, I was impressed recently by regular Radiohead designer Stanley Donwood and IN SA’s collaborative work for Thom Yorke’s Atoms For Peace project, which involved IN SA painting XL Recordings’ London office multiple times with ‘frames’ of Donwood’s graphic illustrations, creating what IN SA describes as ‘GI F-ITI ’, effectively turning the building into an art installation. The various stages of artwork were captured and used as animated elements for the Atoms For Peace website, and are used creatively on the – wait for it – double LP with triple-gatefold sleeve, debossed and hot-foiled limited edition vinyl release.

Enigmatic avant-garde composer and singer Scott Walker demonstrated that he’s hip to graphic and design trends by hiring Saatchi painter Ben Farquharson and designer Philip Laslett to collaborate on a bold and dark typographic treatment for his latest album Bish Bosch. Live footage in the studio of Farquharson daubing the enormous type onto his canvas alongside Walker himself features heavily in the promo trailer for the album, and the resultant stills were expertly used by Laslett for the CD and vinyl packaging.

Limited boxed editions are becoming more creative and desirable than ever. Nick Cave continues his relationship with artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard on his latest release, Push The Sky Away, which intriguingly includes a DVD of specially created visuals by the artists alongside seven-inch vinyl, CD and vinyl album, and a 120-page book.

Music and design are joined at the hip, and it’s going to take a lot more than the downfall of a hopelessly out of touch retailer like HMV to damage that relationship.

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