Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Music Rants - Packaging

Anyone remember the classic albums, like Emerson Lake and Palmer's Brain Salad Surgery? Or how about Jethro Tull's Thick As a Brick? As well as being excellent music, they also had some insanely cool covers and packaging that were more memorable than most bands are. If you haven't guessed it already, my first music rant is about... packaging.

Eventually the classic albums gave way to cassette tapes, which were way to small to ever have cool packaging like the albums of old. In all fairness, I love cassette tapes, I grew up using them (I was born in 1992 and the first portable music device I used was a Sony Walkman, when I was somewhere around 8-10) and I still have a couple tapes and a tape player. Even though I immediately associate tapes with the 80s, and I think that albums from that period just feel right on tapes, they simply weren't as tangible or interesting to look at, like the old albums. If the lyrics were printed on the tape's packaging, then the print was too small to read, and albums were these huge masterpieces... they were works of art in a way, especially since they were about as big as a normal canvass.

Eventually cassettes were scrapped in favor of the more durable (and technically better sound quality) compact discs. Something was certainly gained when CDs came into play, since they were basically mini versions of albums. The packaging was bigger, you could read the lyrics if they were printed in the booklets, and you actually got booklets. Some bands just stayed lazy and printed the lyrics on a black background, with white text, and that was it, but some bands added cool artwork on every page, which you'd have to actually open the booklet to see. In this period some, but not all, of the coolness of packaging came back into the industry. Just from going into my CD collection, I can say that bands like Psychotic Waltz had really amazing artwork in the booklets (any band described as progressive hippie metal would have to have cool artwork), Steel Prophet actually printed the song meanings in Book of the Dead's booklet, and Symphony X has put some cool artwork in their albums to.
Some of the coolest ideas for albums I've ever seen (I mean packaging, not the amazing music) are fairly recent. Kamelot's recent album Silverthorn came with a story book, that told the tale of the album in a short story format, which is a cool idea. Another is Annihilator's recent album Feast (it has some amazing music in it), which has a 3-D cover and some really cool artwork, plus there's a second CD which has re-recorded versions of classic Annihilator songs.

Radiohead's newspaper album wasn't completely original, like they said, but at least they brought the idea back to the industry (and it's a really neat idea in the first place).

Now I move onto the digital era of music, where tangibility has died and the music industry really doesn't seem to care much about bringing it back. People still sell CDs, and people still buy them, I think it's close to 55/45 in favor of digital, but I haven't checked the stats recently (probably closer to 60/40). People actually still buy albums and cassettes, but it's still digital's era. Some bands have embraced the internet and what it can do for them, I mean look at YouTube, bands and artists post songs in the early stages, live recordings and just about anything that can get on camera (within reason... we hope).
One band that I think did a great job with their online presence was Amon Amarth, for the album Deceiver of The Gods. They let you put your email, and name, onto a mailing list on their Deciever of The Gods micro site, and it gave you a viking name (Cnut was the one I got), and it let you choose your side between Thor and Loki (so good, who actually all lose at Ragnarok if memory serves, and evil, who cause Ragnarok), then you get a little clip of a documentary of the band, talking about the Loki or Thor side of things. With the email list, you also get all the typical emails about new songs posted online, pre-order links and touring schedules (which reminds me, I should go see them when they come back to Toronto next). In general I find that artists with Metalblade have a pretty good idea of how to use the online world to their advantages (the label themselves do some cool things to, like the Slagel Show).

Some bands really just don't try to engage fans and keep them excited, which is disappointing, and they're the ones who either make millions because they're a pop star, or they speak out against the digital era because they don't sell their music well. I won't go into too much detail here, or name names, because people know exactly what I mean when I say that some bands are exceptionally lazy. Well, I'll list some things anyway; they put out an album and put their music on Itunes and they think that that's all they have to do, they put no effort into the packaging because 'people will just download the music anyways, so why bother?', they completely reject the internet and the potential that's there, they think that digital is the be all and end all so they don't release anything in hard-copy formats (and they don't do anything unique with the digital either), and so on and so forth.

I've ranted enough about packaging and the efforts, or lack there of, that there are. As an advertising student I learned that you have to come up with some suggestions for what to do about an issue, rather than just pick at it all the time, so here's my list of ways bands can actually live in the digital age, but still create something unique and cool in terms of packaging.

1. Don't Be Lazy
- It shouldn't have to be said, but it needs to be said. If a band just slapped together songs and just said 'meh, good enough, who cares' then those bands would make it nowhere. The same should be said for packaging, don't just put the lyrics in the booklet, or even worse put up a link to where the lyrics can be found. Put some artwork in the booklets, if you're releasing it only online, then put time into a nice pdf booklet, complete with artwork, lyrics, information and links (to the band site, or a hidden site or video that can only be accessed through the link)... it'll make people care about the packaging if you add something cool to it. Actually, someone should make their digital booklet an online comic book because that would be cool (Steel Prophet have said that their new album's booklet will read like a comic book, but making one for an album would be awesome). If your band say decides to make the packaging a coffin, and the artwork within depicts the downward spiral of a person, until they reach the grave (or if it depicts a vampire story - and the music supports that story -of course), then the digital side could be the same thing, but the digital booklet could include animations and movement (where the hard-copy one probably couldn't).

2. Don't Do Something Because Everyone Else Is Doing It
- It's like our parents said, 'if everyone else jumped off a bridge...' In this case it's more about the fact that, if everyone is doing a newspaper album, or a comic book album, then your's won't stand out and be unique (like your music is... hopefully). If everyone is making newspaper albums, then do a gate fold. If they're making a 3-D album, then make the packaging a pop-up book. If everyone's doing being lazy, then you've got a great chance to break through with some effort and creative thinking.

3. Look To The Past
- Inspiration can always come from what's been done, but hasn't been done much recently. Again, I point to the gate fold and newspaper albums. One thing to do to keep the digital side up with the hard-copy side would be to make the album a gate fold (so pony up a little more for cool packaging), then design the digital booklet to be like a gate fold (so it opens like one, and it's like going through a gate fold, just online).

4. Don't Get Carried Away
- budgets are what they are, and you probably shouldn't try something that is well outside your means, because insanely unique packaging can be cool but expensive to make in large runs (hence why Annihilator's Feast album only went with the 3-D cover, which still makes it stand out). It's always better to do a little bit well than try something way to complex that probably won't work out very well.

5. Have Fun and Do What Works For You
- I could come up with insanely cool ideas for bands to use for packaging forever, but it doesn't mean that they are the right ideas. A band/artist that really doesn't like comics shouldn't do a comic book album, one that hates gate folds shouldn't use one. I get that completely, bands are essentially brands and they have different personas/personalities, and they should play to those personalities in their packaging.

It's all about marketing and packaging makes a real difference (I'm not kidding when I say that the Vodka industry is actual proof that branding/packaging makes a huge impact)... so I struggle to understand why so many artists and labels are lazy about the packaging and why they don't try a different approach (a creative approach) to make music tangible (even though digital is never truly tangible, trying to make it so is better than doing nothing) and to make the experience of each album unforgettably amazing.

By the way, if any labels see this and want to give me an interview (may even a job), then I'd be very happy to share all my thoughts and advice with them (plus it would help put that advertising diploma to good use).

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