Record Store Day 2017: Why Album Art Is More Important Than Ever
With the 11th annual Record Store Day celebration on the horizon, two Big creative directors reflect on recent album covers they've designed and whether or not vinyl is here to stay.
Content by Jeremy Burgess
When aliens study the history of the human race in thousands of years, teenage alien students may initially assume that Record Store Day dates back to the 1970s, 1960s, or even the early 1900s when the vinyl record rose to prominence.
But they would be wrong!
Ten years ago, in April of 2007, Record Store Day was created not to celebrate the origin or rise to prominence of the vinyl record, but rather its resurgence.
And what a resurgence it’s been. Just last year, LP sales increased more than 50% as music enthusiasts hearkened back to the glory days—not just for nostalgia purposes or a familiarity with physical media, but a desire for premium sound quality as well.
The current state of Birmingham’s vinyl community is sound (no pun intended). Charlemagne Records and Renaissance Records are still going strong after many years of business, and relative newcomer Seasick Records has already established itself as a local favorite. And lest we forget, stores like Oz Music, Vertical House Records, and Mobile Records are holding it down for the rest of the state.
Here at Big, we consider ourselves vinyl aficionados as well—not just because of what we buy, but because of what we make.
Creative directors Aaron Gresham and Matt Lane Harris are no stranger to album cover design when it comes to Alabama artists, from Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires to St. Paul & The Broken Bones.
And with vinyl sales showing no sign of slowing down, they’ve been productive in the past few years.
“Because of the vinyl resurgence, but also because of streaming too, I feel like album art is more important now than it has ever been,” said Harris. “From a streaming perspective, that art is really an identifier—it’s really the only visual touch point you have. So from a certain point of view, it’s more important there than it ever was on a CD or cassette.”
“The greatest thing about designing an album is that there are no parameters, and the worst thing about designing albums is that there are no parameters.”
“I think people appreciate tactile things,” echoed Gresham. “They want a physical thing to hold. It’s the best canvas, and vinyl is a massive canvas. It’s a genuine piece of art.”
And Gresham should know—his design for St. Paul & The Broken Bones’ “Sea Of Noise” album ended up tattooed on the arm of a British fan.
“I don’t know what’s the right way to react to someone filling their arm with something you’ve drawn,” said Gresham. “I’m glad he liked it so much that he would permanently put it on his body, but I still kinda questioned his judgment.”
Gresham and Harris lend their design expertise to just about every branding project that comes through our doors. But working with artists, compared to working with business and marketing executives, presents a whole different challenge.
“The greatest thing about designing an album is that there are no parameters, and the worst thing about designing albums is that there are no parameters,” said Harris. “Freedom is a great thing, but it can sometimes be a rope to hang yourself with. Focusing on one idea and seeing it through, that’s probably the biggest challenge.”
But there’s also a beautiful balance when it comes to artists of one ilk working directly with artists of another. A visual representation of sound and lyrics. It can be magical.
“I think there’s something about an artist working with another artist,” said Gresham. “Right out of the gate, they’re expressing themselves and building an emotional story around sound and words. And I come in with images, so there are a lot of complementary things to what we do. We understand each other better, I think. Musicians feel what you feel.”
Want to know more about the album cover design process? Dive into the stories behind each album cover from Gresham and Harris.
Gresham: “Second St. Paul cover, completely different from the first. We sat down and talked through ideas together—individual songs, what the process was like, which songs really came first and in what order, since albums tend to be a narrative. As we went through the story, the band pulled out moments that they thought were very important. One of them said it’d be great if we took all these elements and made them into some sort of scene or collage. Paul liked the idea of something surreal—he used the term ‘spacey.’ Initially we talked about all of these elements in a pulpit inside a cathedral. I said that it’d be easier to make a larger image if we did a stained glass window made of all these pieces. I went heavily down that road, spending almost all my time on this one idea. I think there’s actually 13 individual things that you can find on there.”
Harris: “We were fortunate to have a really good photo that was taken on an ancient 8×10 camera obscura, one of the earliest cameras. A very talented Birmingham photographer, Cary Norton, took that photo. We really loved that photo, so it was really just about doing color treatments that would bring that to life, and then letting it live on its own. This cover was a bit of a challenge too because it’s got no text on it. At first we were trying to put text on it any way we can, but it was this one big headshot of a photo, and it just did not want type. I tried a million ways to put text on it—big, small, miniscule, to the left, to the right, to the top—nothing worked. So we went with the decision to just remove all text from it. If the photo didn’t want it, the photo didn’t want it.”
Gresham: “Dylan and I sat down and talked for 30 or 45 minutes, and when he told me the inspiration behind the album, what he’d been through in his life, he mentioned that each of the songs were a commentary about good and bad—good decisions, bad decisions, repercussions and rewards. It was this sort of balance, and for him, he always saw that the temptations are always there, this common force that’s trying to lean you into the bad. I felt like there was a sophistication in his sound that felt both old and new, something timeless about his sound, so I wanted something that drew in older-looking elements. I worked with scales, and I wanted a snake that was pushing the scale. But surrounding this snake, I wanted to have beauty, so I did a floral pattern on the edges. Beauty surrounding this process of evil or temptation.”
Harris: “With Lee, it was very much about evoking a certain sense of ruralness that he wanted. A certain DIY angle that the band really has. Lee is all about nostalgia, and he’s all about an abstract, rural ideology, so it was all about articulating that. We went with half tones, and purple ink to simulate old mimeograph type machines, the kind that if you were a certain age in elementary school, all the tests you took were purple. We did that purple mimeograph-style ink from when we were kids. It used to be that in school, you’d get your test from your teacher, and it would be purple ink. A lot of people don’t remember that. That purple is something that we carried throughout, and they even did a purple vinyl edition.”
Gresham: “We invited them to the office and sat down with them, they explained the album, we got to listen to some tracks. I was really excited to do it because this was my first album cover, and that had been like a dream; I’d always just done the posters. I didn’t really have my process down on this first one, because I wasn’t sure how collaborative it should be. When they explained what Half The City was, they talked about how there’s always this underlying story of peoples’ lives and other experiences that aren’t apparent as you just walk through the world. Since they have a vintage sound, I wanted to start out with a cover that gave you an idea of what it would sound like. So I used sort of a vintage style on it.”