‘Will Phuq Interviewed on Album Art’

Unknown dissertation research, 2009

How important is the artwork on an album to you? Do you think it has as much importance as the music itself?
I don’t think that the artwork of a release is necessarily of as much importance as the music (e.g. some of the best music is only available as non-descript white-labels, CDRs, etc.), but obviously the artwork does play a big part in whether one chooses to own a product, etc. Some really inspired art has come from the music world too – examples include Jamie Reid (Sex Pistols), Ben Curzon (Planet Mu), Warp Records, Rephlex Records, Hekate Sound System…

With the music world evolving into a more digital front, with the likes of music videos (YouTube), streams (Spotify), and MP3s (iTunes) becoming easily accessible online, do you think the album, and the album cover has become less significant to most people, having all these other options at hand?
With the much wider choice of music and formats than at any other point in history, I believe that the album has definitely lost some of its cachet – when I was a teenager (1995-2002), for example, buying a CD or vinyl was an event, I’d listen to it repeatedly (as I had less music to choose from), pore over the artwork and generally become overly familiar with the structure of the release as a whole. Now I listen to a lot more music through my computer and thus don’t always listen to all tracks of a release, let alone scan through the folders for the artwork. Also, albums tended to be more thought out, working as a whole. These days I think that it’s geared more around the “iTunes culture”, shuffling your entire music collection, skipping tracks that don’t satisfy immediately (More volume! More compression!).

Would you agree that consumers are starting to value music less due to it being easily accessed for free, either legitimately (YouTube, Spotify, MySpace, etc.) or not so legitimately (file sharing, online piracy)?
Unfortunately, yes! As a label (& having a lot of friends who run labels and distros) we’re highly aware that the ‘music industry’ (of which we wouldn’t really consider ourselves a part) has for some time been undergoing a major paradigm-shift, vis a vis the form that releases should take. It’s a very complex issue – CD sales are very slow and there are a lot of people downloading music for free (both legally and illegally) – but there are also still many people who prefer to own a product (myself included), either for the fetishistic qualities of possessing a physical product, to support the artist (particularly important in the independent / underground world), for higher sound quality or just because they are still programmed by the traditional practice of exchanging money for goods (anything else is ‘wrong’). Also, a lot of folks (again, myself included), tend to use downloading as we used to use copying things to tape – to preview items. If I have something I really like as an MP3, I’ll eventually buy it, and a lot of stuff I have on my PC I would never have found or listened to otherwise, with a large percentage of that being music I could happily live without and wouldn’t ever want to buy anyway. I don’t think it’s all bad news, however, as this seems to have finally started to break the stranglehold previously enjoyed by the corporate labels (Geffen / Sony / etc.), allowing more people to choose to distribute their own music and encouraging new ways of thinking about how we consume music – the medium is not the message and the map is not the territory, after all…

If so, do you think there is a remedy for getting people to buy music again? E.g. offering consumers more than just the music.
Of course there is! These things come in waves of fashion, just like anything else. Experimenting with different media, limited editions, extra content, hand-made packaging, bespoke releases, promotions and other schemes all have an influence on sales. I also think that if the public had a better perception of the ‘industry’ that they would feel more comfortable spending their hard-earned wages on music – the media has continually publicised the easy availability of pirate music on the internet and the major labels have not exactly proved themselves worthy of distributing creative products on fair terms to the artist or audience (for example by enjoying ridiculously outmoded and weighted contracts, draconian legal assaults on people who’ve downloaded 2 songs, etc.). Speaking for our (tiny and insolvent!) label, whilst we’ve always enjoyed finding new ways to spread our music around, we’ve now started to put a lot more of our long-held ideas into practice. We’re hoping to redress the balance of our audience versus our sales figures by experimenting with hand-screened inlays, short run editions, CDR, 8CM CDR, vinyl, cassette, free MP3s, MP3 pay sites, enhanced media, releases on reusable memory sticks, promo codes inside releases, bonus art prints and stickers, special offers and split releases (sharing the cost and responsibility for content with other labels). Personally, I’ve often considered the ‘singles club’ concept (popularised by Sub Pop and the like in the early nineties), whereby fans pay for a certain number of releases in advance, guaranteeing that the cost of manufacture is in place BEFORE committing to a release and usually receiving some kind of bonus material / offers / exclusivity for their effort. I also like this because it helps to establish the followers of the label a cohesive identity, feeling that they’re contributing to the music that they love. One of our roster (Dave Stitch) has even made a CD version of his ‘Rave New World’ album available via the internet, in exchange for ‘any seeds’ that he can grow in his garden!

Whose responsibility is it to keep the album cover alive? E.g. Designers, Record Companies, Public, Musicians…
Everyone that thinks they’re worth keeping alive! The more wicked designs, the more chance that they’ll catch someone’s eye enough to want to own them. Being creatives, most musicians would rather their tunes were packaged in / associated with quality imagery anyway (better than the ropey photo of the band posing innit!).

Do you think it is possible for any kind of design alternative to have the impact, and resonance that the album cover has?
Not currently (could put some kind of mental hi-tech video screens on the cover but then how crap would that be after 2 seconds?!).

And finally, what is your favourite album cover?
No favourite! Right now I’m really impressed (both by the hand-screened sleeve and music) by Circuit Parallele – ‘Umani Autodistruttivi’ (12”, Spine Records). Another old favourite (especially the CD itself) is FZV – ‘Precedent’ (CD, Ai). Props too to Various – ‘Wreckage’ (CD, Adverse Camber), featuring interesting and unique jewel cases individually blowtorched by their designer. Peter Christopherson (Coil, formerly designer at Hipgnosis) has a new project, ‘Threshold House Boys Choir’ and is currently preparing a lushly packaged limited edition memory stick release, in some kind of Thai-crafted wooden box and including various items of beauty (there’s a photo of the prototype on the Threshold House website).