21 April 2008

The dying art of record sleeve design by Trevor Baker

I've just finished writing a book about the Verve and one of the most entertaining people I interviewed for it was their sleeve designer Brian Cannon. He's probably best known now for the cover art he did for Oasis and, as a result, his reputation has gone up and down with theirs, from Definitely Maybe being considered a classic 90s image to Be Here Now appearing on lists of the worst sleeves of all time.

The work he did for the Verve's early records, though, is much better, partly because the rapport he had with the band meant he could persuade them to go along with his grandiose, ridiculously time-consuming shoots.

"Richard was fascinated by the fact that I designed record sleeves and I set out to design record sleeves," Brian says of his first meeting with Richard Ashcroft. "I remember him saying to me: 'Most fellas want to be footballers, DJs or rock stars and you actually went out to be a sleeve designer.' "

It's unlikely that there are many kids with that specific ambition now. First the CD and then the download have given the whole concept of "the sleeve" a mighty kicking. Even by the time the Verve's multi-million selling Urban Hymns came out the sleeve was past its glory days. Where once Brian managed to persuade them to have their picture taken playing chess next to an exploding car (for the gatefold of their debut A Storm in Heaven), by the time of Urban Hymns Ashcroft had decided he wanted fans to "just listen to the fucking record". So the cover is a boring picture of the band watching deer in Richmond Park.

The fact that it sold something like 400 hundred times as many copies as A Storm in Heaven might suggest Ashcroft had a point. Do many people care about the picture on the cover? Probably not, but those who do are eventually going to become the only people who buy music in its old-fashioned physical form. If you're buying something as a present, especially, you want it to look good. After all, one of the main spurs of record sales has always been Christmas or birthdays and you can't unwrap an MP3.

Bands who genuinely just want fans to "listen the fucking record" can release it in a purely digital form but those who want to sell old-fashioned albums are going to have to find a new generation of Brian Cannons, Peter Savilles or Peter Blakes. The only really eye-catching album sleeve I've seen so far this year has been by dEUS - who got artist Michaƫl Borremans to give them a characteristically sinister painting for their excellent new album Vantage Point. The care they put into the music is reflected in the care they put into the packaging but are there many other recent records of which you can say the same?

Source: Guardian