|Thanks to Randall for taking the time out of his day to do this with me...his answers rule.|
Frank: Randall, art and music have developed more of a hand in hand relationship as time has progressed. Why is this, and why does art play such a big part in the music industry today?
Randall: It’s a natural relationship. Music and Art are two of the few remaining outlets to creatively express ourselves.
You see more and more of what I like to call a Renaissance Environment - artists that play music, paint, photograph or draw. Music and Art are both becoming more accessible. People have always been able to pick up a guitar at the pawnshop and/or experience music in the classroom, but now people can download a copy of Photoshop or buy a digital camera, and they have a full studio. This leads to a vast amount of amateur designers and photographers, but we all get our start somewhere. The music community has always provided rich soil for burgeoning artists. Every band needs a flyer made, every band needs an album cover, and there is always a friend close by who is happy to help.
Unfortunately, Art and Music have also been two of the most-frequent casualties of our education system. I was fortunate to grow up with both Music and Art. I was able to play music in Elementary School, and I experienced it at home since my father was an accomplished bluegrass musician. I also had access to art. I swear, in 5th grade, all we did were art projects. Today, educators focus more on test scores, and getting into college, and so fine arts programs have been cut. It is tragic, but it leads to more people playing a guitar instead of a trumpet, and designing show flyers as opposed to painting. It's been good for the scene, and thankfully some of those people expand from where they came from, and discover Fine Arts on their own.
Musicians understand art, and are fans of it. The independent scene allows them to pay back some of their favourite artists, allowing them to express amazing creativity. The major labels all too often realise the marketing of putting a band on the cover, which is great marketing, but the way it is accomplished today betrays the idea of the entire album being a piece of art. Think of the Beatles covers with the band on them, they were creative. Abbey Road? Sgt. Peppers? It was artistic, it was unique, they still stand out in our minds years after.
This same passion for art leads a lot of musicians towards careers in design or advertising because often you can work for yourself, and have a flexible schedule. You are able to tour and make some money on the side.
Frank: When designing a cover for a band like Copeland or Cartel, what do you take into consideration? I mean, obviously the sound of a band plays a role in the look and feel of the art, but what other aspects are significant in trying to make a cover that is directly proportional to the band's overall image?
Randall: I should point out that at Militia a lot of our artists are very involved with their art. Copeland is a great example of this; James does all the art for the band. Albums, Tour Posters, pretty much everything you see Copeland is done by him. They feel strongly about keeping the art a part of the band, just as important as the music they write. It's really great to see people with that mindset, and I follow it as well.
The band and their sound is always the most important influence, I listen to a record constantly in the process. The formula for a layout is so unique to each release, and some you can get the first try, and others you have to keep going.
It is always tempting to get into a mode, and start designing things all the same for every band. I personally feel that's not fair to the band, that is the easy way out. I don't think you should ever have two layouts that resemble each other. There are so many options there to explore for a layout, so many tools; a camera, a pen, paint, paper, texture. The possibilities are endless. I just want to give the band something that compliments and completes the art that they worked so hard on.
No designer is bigger than the band, ever.
The other huge influence is one of marketing. Making sure the design works with the fans that will be buying a record. It is so important that an album on the shelves is easily identified to the buyer, but still fits the entire package. If the package design doesn't help sell the record, what are you really bringing to the table?
Frank: Do you prefer independent art projects, or do you prefer getting paid a salary to design for a company like Militia Group?
Randall: It is always nice to have a paycheck to count on. Bottom-line. Sometimes you can do that through steady clients on retainer, other times it is a corporate environment that gives you the stability.
When you get out into the freelance world everything is in your control, but that includes a lot of responsibility. You have to promote yourself constantly; you will live and die by self-promotion. You will get burned on a job, or a few. I had a job where a client not only stiffed us, but also stiffed a printer who gave me incredible deals; to keep that relationship I had to cover with the printer.
I enjoy a corporate setting because it furthers your ability to do thoseÜIndependent projects. It allows you to pick and choose the jobs; puts you in contact with more potential clients. It is absolutely the worst thing when you have a job that you are only doing for the money, and that applies to freelance projects as well.
Frank: Can a band on The Militia Group refuse to have you design their album, and choose to hire somebody else? If so, does that rule out any invovlement you have in the band's art, or are you still incorporated somehow?
Randall: We are a VERY artist friendly label. The band always has a say in the art, and we would never have it be any other way. If I am not doing the work myself it is because someone in the band is doing it, and I am always working closely with them Art Directing.
We have to have certain things accomplished with the art, so there will be some minor tweaks here and there. It is a lot of close work between the product manager, management, the band and myself/ We have strict deadlines to meet, and other marketing pieces for the release that rely on the album packaging, so we stay on top of it all.
In a situation where I don't do the layout I will be working on other marketing pieces based off the album art. It's all a partnership, and I stay very involved in it all, even when I may have done it differently. We really get along well, I guess we are really fortunate to have some amazing graphic and musical artists on our label whose work I am a big fan of, and I suppose a few of them must be fans of my work as well.
Frank: With kids never even getting the chance to see the cover art of an album, due to downloading it online, do you feel you have to put extra effort into the design, just to encourage more kids to buy it rather than download it?
Randall: I definitely feel you have to do more with the package to encourage people to buy it. Limited Edition packages utilizing die-cuts, O-Cards, emboss/deboss, gloss UV, digipaks or even hand construction to give a release diversity. Its special things like that people get excited about, and the labels realise this as well.
The amount a band sells does also affect what we can do with their art; not all artists can have completely unique layouts with brilliant packaging. It is just more fuel for anti-downloading.
We must encourage not only the illegal downloader’s to purchase a copy, but also the legal ones. If suddenly we sell 90 percent of our records through iTunes, I probably don't have a job. It was a huge thing to me when they added album art, and I know they have plans for more. One day the experience of looking through the booklet will be digitally impersonated, though nothing can replace the feeling of sitting in a parking lot and having the audio and visual stimulation from a complete album.
Great artwork/packaging can do amazing things for a record.I have gotten into a lot of amazing bands buying a record based purely off the art. I think this resonates through to a lot of music fans. Who out there can look at the new Sigur Ros album and not want to have a copy at home?
Frank: Does a band give you a general idea of what kind of cover they want before you get to work on it? How does that work?
Randall: I think the easiest way to answer that is by examining a couple situations. In two instances of recent Militia releases, Umbrellas and Cartel, we have vastly different experiences. I thoroughly enjoyed both projects, and they both stand out to me for different reasons.
1) With Umbrellas it literally came together in a few days. I had done a logo for their temporary website, and we all liked it and the colour palette I used, so we went with it. It was their first release, and it is an absolutely amazing record. With the packaging I didn't want to take anything away from the music, or give too many answers. It is a lot like the band’s sound, it has this mystery to it, and I think that was conveyed well in the open space of the art and enabled the viewer/listener to participate in it well.
Working with the band was fairly easy as Scott spends his time off the road out here. He was around the office fairly frequently, and I was able to show him comps in person. Scott is one of the nicest guys in the world, and he made the whole process a breeze. Once we got the major details locked up we had time to add on some extras. I believe it was Paul, our publicist's, idea to have the lyric call outs on the back under the songs. We were already using some UV coating in other spots, and so it made sense to try it here. It came out even better than I imagined, and it is one of my favourite parts of this layout.
2) In the case of Cartel I remember discussing the full-length art about the time “The Ransom EP” was released. We had some amazing concepts going, which once the record was written did not work for the album. The album had a lot of themes running throughout it, and it was becoming very apparent to all of us. I still feel this album can be placed in several different genres all at once, and we wanted to convey this in the art.
Will was actually going to school for design around the time they got signed. He has a great conceptual mind, and would call and email over input and ideas constantly. The whole band was great to work with because they offered a lot of really good input, and at the same time allowed for a lot of freedom. We wanted it to be something that carried the message of the title, and at the same time some level of anonymity. We went through quite a few concepts for "Chroma," and we finally got to the one you all have seen. It's great to hear kids reaction to it, and to what we were trying to do. Some people loved it, some people hated it, and most of them "knew" exactly how it had been accomplished.
I am really against doing things in a computer that can be done outside of a computer, it has always been my mentality, and I actually rarely use Photoshop to manipulate images. I absolutely love giving things an organic feel, even if they are hardly noticed. Nature has a way of doing things you cannot in a computer, and a lot of designers forget that. What we did for "Chroma" was take gels (the coloured plastic used for lighting), and cut them to various shapes and sizes, made rings out of some of them. We used a lot of different lighting techniques, and photographed all these coloured pieces. The gels became one of my absolute favourite assets ever; I still have all of them in my office and will no doubt find some use for them in some outlet of art in the future. The way they could create a natural gradient, and blended two colours to become one, was amazing. I intentionally left some flaws in the photos, to give it that added organic, not perfect feel.
When you have a band with a look like Cartel its a give in that they should be somewhere in the packaging, but the way it was pulled off, utilizing a gatefold in the middle of the booklet, just presented a unique way of doing things. When it all came together, I think it really embodied what "Chroma" is, the word and the record. The way all these colours played off the pages that were entirely white, it is powerful and at the same time simple.
Frank: In your opinion, what albums have some of the best design work?
Randall: Thrice – “Vheissu” - David Eggers? David Freaking Eggers?(www.mcsweeneys.net) How did they pull that? I have only seen the cover of this, but I know it will be high on my list forever. If you haven't read "AHWOSG" or "YSKOV! (Sacrament)" you really should. I am a huge fan of everything this man does, including "The Believer and "McSweeney's Quarterly." Art is alive and well inside Mr. Eggers, and he does a ton of work helping out children with literary workshops and the likes.
Converge – “Jane Doe” - Jake Bannon(www.jacobbannon.com) is one of those renaissance types, his music and fine art are equally impressive. Jane Doe is also the best use of typography I have ever seen in a layout.
Sigur Ros - The Entire Catalogue, especially “Takk” and “()”- Jonsi is obviously insanely talented in so many forms, and they take it up a notch every release. They show so much diversity in the art they do for their albums, which I think is an absolute must.
The Shins - Chutes Too Narrow - It's a brilliant album, and brilliant art. Jesse LeDoux(www.ledouxville.com) was nominated for, and in my opinion absolutely robbed of, a Grammy for this layout. The world created visually by Jesse is pretty much the one I get in my head when I listen to The Shins. This is a perfect example of a layout just enhancing the overall experience of a record. Jesse does have a defined style to his art, but he manages to create a completely different look for every album.
Bush - Sixteen Stone - I used to HATE this record. Then I realised how talented Gavin was. David Carson(www.davidcarsondesign.com) did the art, and also basically named the band. This may not stand out in a lot of minds, but at the time the design was unlike any other, and gets a nod simply because it is David Carson's work. David Carson is probably the guy who designed 90% of the things you look at. He is a legend, and he was pretty much self-taught. He is also extremely accessible and humble, while I was in Art School IÜsomehow came in contact with him; we wound up exchanging quite a few emails and thoughts on design and philosophy over the years. He has influenced me on so many levels.
Frank: Any last words, advice, tips, jokes, stories, etc.?
Randall: I would like to apologize for my over-use of the comma and semi-colon, but you will notice most of the usage is correct, however if they are not I claim artistic freedom. I will however not apologize for my British spellings of words.
In the spirit of self-promotion, should anyone wish to contact me regarding design work please do so. I just started up a collective of design firms/studios that includes my own studio and a few absolutely wonderful designers out there that cover every aspect of design/marketing/advertising. The website is www.wearethecoalition.com, it's under construction, but you can shoot me an email off of there.
I would like to also plug a band that I think has some amazing potential from the wonderful Isle of Britain, The Maple State(www.themaplestate.co.uk). Super good guys that have grown a lot since the short time I have had the opportunity to listen to them, and manage to get on some of the most amazing tours over there. They have done it all on their own, and I know eventually it's going to pay off big for these guys.
In closing I would also like to remind everyone how absolutely hilarious it was when Jason had the re-design the Simple Plan cover contest on here. Someone has got to go dig that up and find us a link. My favourite AP.net moment for sure.
Frank: Thank you so much Randall.
Randall: Frank, thank you and the entire site for always providing an interesting read. AP.net is so much more than music, and some of the political conversations are the most well presented and debated subjects for young people. I think that this stuff is really important, getting people thinking, challenging the inherent ideas passed to them. Keep fighting the good fight.