|Weve all been there trying to switch a CD on the sidewalk. Fumbling with a Discman in an overloaded backpack. In this instance, an iPod makes a lot of sense. Its convenient, compact and relatively painless to use. You can take your entire CD collection with you wherever you go, giving you unlimited choice and freedom.
However, not everyone who has an iPod uses it to transport music they already own. One of the big draws of mp3 players is the ability to listen to music without paying for it. While access to the iTunes store is still unavailable in Canada, the web-based music store has had a major impact on legitimizing music downloading. Its managed to turn piracy into a customer friendly, affordable and legal shopping experience. The web stores biggest success so far has been its ability to give the mp3 value by marketing it as a commodity rather than oddity.
The iTunes store has even begun offering downloadable cover art to its customers. You can now customize your boring CD-R jewel cases with a picture or piece of artwork to accompany the songs you have burned onto a disc. It looks nothing like the glossy inserts found in most store-bought CDs, but customers dont seem to mind.
A lot has been made of the claim that downloading is killing music, but what about cover art? Ever since artist Alex Steinweiss began putting images on jazz covers in the late 30s, cover art has been an important part of music packaging. Using a limited amount of space, an artist creates a visual to convey the music inside, which not only has to sell the album but the image of the band as well.
"There are two kinds of people in the world," Calgary graphic designer Jarrod Pacholko says. "Those who like the album art and those who dont care."
Pacholko is an avid record collector and at last count owns more than 1,500 CDs and 3,000 LPs. He admits to sometimes buying records solely for their covers (he mentions purchasing Ikara Colts Chat and Business because the record came with stickers to personalize the albums cover). In the past year, Pacholko purchased an iPod and explains that its just another extension of his music habit.
"The biggest reason I bought one is because I have to have music with me all the time," he says. "Music kind of runs my life and I cant take all my records back and forth to the office."
Pacholko doesnt download music off the Internet, but he has noticed that its become more popular with his friends. Most of the people he knows dont even have record collections anymore, just blank CD-Rs with handwritten labels.
Mark Ohe, art director for Matador Records, explains that sacrificing the art in music probably started the minute vinyl albums were replaced by CDs.
"Why even pretend to bother with the art when, for the most part, its been left out of the equation by the people making and releasing the music," he says. "This has led the music buyer to find it acceptable to simply download the specific songs they want and have them on their iPod, eliminating the skimpy visuals a CD provides as well as the weaker music the music buyer was never interested in having in the first place."
However, Ohe doesnt believe that downloading will phase out designers. He says as long as they embrace the technology and use it in effective and innovative ways, there will always be room for visual artists in the music industry.
"Most recording artists have websites that need to be designed by someone. The more adventurous also need artists to help them with aspects of their live show like lighting, staging and merchandising," he says. "Other than CD and LP packaging, artists are required to design posters, magazine ads and digipacks."
One label thats embraced this idea is Arts & Crafts, the artist-run Canadian indie collective (Broken Social Scene drummer Justin Peroff does a lot of the labels cover art and web design). Its art director, Louise Upperton, says that an incredible amount of thought goes into developing a CD package, from the photos, artwork and fonts, to the paper its printed on.
Upperton explains that downloading hasnt had a tremendous effect on her label or its art department. Arts & Crafts already puts most of its albums on its website so the consumer can sample them before buying.
Major labels are finding it hard to stop progress and Upperton thinks that the reason they arent doing as well in sales as the indie labels is because theyre on the defensive when it comes to downloading. By trying to get a handle on the situation (or capitalize on it), major labels have forgotten that cover art can be used as a valuable marketing tool. Instead of trying to produce a product worth buying, major labels cut corners to make a profit.
"People who have been growing up in the last few years (have) been able to download music for pretty much their whole lives," she says. "I think what the major labels are trying to do suing kids for downloading stuff you just cant take it away and expect them to be cool with it. I mean, major labels have to sell so many numbers and volumes. They have to keep the costs down of records and CDs, and often the packaging and the artwork gets overlooked."
Sub Pop resident artist Jesse LeDoux is a proponent of downloading and thinks its a great way to sample new bands. He also believes that it is a tangible reason why labels should spend more money on cover art. If you are sampling music off the Internet and see a great cover, you might be more willing to spend a little extra money and add it to your collection as a piece of art.
LeDoux knows eye candy. Hes responsible for creating one of the most talked about CD covers of 2003 The Shins Chutes Too Narrow. Its pastel-colour palette and cutout design was impressive because it managed to turn a relatively small space into a big idea.
The Shins cover got people excited about what could be done with CD art and raised the bar for other labels to become more conscious of design and packaging (it also helped the band sell a ton of records). LeDoux feels that the best defence against piracy is being creative.
"As a society, there is no importance (placed) on art anymore," LeDoux says. "Its really sad and Id like to naively blame the decline of civilization on the fact that art and culture is no longer a priority in society. So, Im just going to keep trying to make things as easy on the eyes as possible and let the consciences of the suckers who are pirating music get the best of them."
While there will always be diehard music collectors who will purchase albums by their favourite musician or band, downloading will no doubt become more popular with the casual listener in the years to come. Consumers are using the technology as fast as they learn it and it seems as though the music industry is now paying for its reluctance to move forward.
However, the one facet of the industry that has seemed to embrace downloading is the designers, who are willing to work within these new challenges by finding interesting ways to spark the publics imagination. The customer may be king, but the artist is still holding court.