Does “Best Recording Packaging” Celebrate Music’s True Outsider Artists?

The covers of this year’s “Best Recording Packaging” nominees.

Music is ubiquitous and confusing. Twice a month, Eric Spitznagel stares into the bottomless chasm of new (and old) songs, albums and musicians that permeate our lives, and tries to pretend he has any idea what it all means.

“I think music can only exist if it has visual support,” Mathias Augustyniak told me. “And visual can only exist if it has musical support. Their destiny is linked together. If one doesn’t do anything strong to find a way to have a visual support to music, music is going to disappear. Do you know what I mean?”

It’s amazing how anything said with a French accent automatically has more authority. Augustyniak could’ve said pretty much anything and I would’ve agreed. He could’ve said “I paint with dolphin tears and my canvass is the skin of your memories,” and I would’ve been like, “Oh yeah, totally.”

It also helps that he’s up for a Grammy, and while music’s most laughably out-of-touch award may be easy to mock in the abstract, it’s considerably more difficult when you’re having an actual conversation with an actual Grammy nominee. Even more so when he’s nominated (along with partner Michael Amzalag) for creating the album art for Björk‘s Biophilia. I’m almost positive that while talking on the phone with me, he was sitting naked in a bathtub filled with swan feathers and holding a blood-stained ice cream scoop for reasons my American brain, numbed by years of having opinions about The Voice, couldn’t begin to appreciate.

“I think a big, big problem in our day is to equate and articulate the link between music and visual,” Augustyniak continued. “Without visual, the music is going to die. And the visual is going to die without music. I really believe this is so. Pop music is going to die. That’s why this nomination is so important. It demonstrates that the Grammy world, they recognize the power of a record cover.”

I should’ve been dancing a victory jig at this point. Augustyniak just served up the perfect melodramatic quote, proving what I halfheartedly set out to prove when I agreed to write about this year’s “Best Recording Package” Grammy nominees. The idea wasn’t mine. It belonged to Mike Ayers, my editor at MTV Hive, my Lady Macbeth, who first suggested it in an email. “You should talk to the folks behind this year’s nominations,” he wrote. “See what they’re doing to celebrate their achievement. Which is so weird since NO ONE BUYS PHYSICAL THINGS ANY MORE.”

To be fair, the award isn’t necessarily about physical objects. Since 1959, it was called “Best Album Cover,” until the Recording Academy changed it to “Best Album Package” in 1974 (ostensibly because albums suddenly started having moving parts). They changed the name again in 1994 to “Best Recording Package,” ironically during an era when CDs had usurped vinyl and “recording packages” were whatever fit in a jewel case. The name stuck, even though album art has become increasingly antiquated and irrelevant. It’s now the music equivalent of being named the best goat keeper or stone carver or armor furbisher. Congratulations on being the best at something nobody needs anymore!

If you do any Googling on album art (and I don’t recommend it), 2008 was a big year for the genre’s death knell. For some reason, that’s when the media decided to make it official. The Independent asked this grim question in a headline: “Rock art … R.I.P?” (The answer… wait for it…. is a chilling spoken-in-a-Vincent-Price-voice YES.) NBC Nightly News aired a segment on how album art used to be “almost as important as the music inside” but had since become “obsolete.” Sir Peter Blake, who came up with the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cover concept, went on record (pun intended!) saying that album art as a creative genre was fucked. (I’m paraphrasing.) “I guess album art won’t exist,” he said explicitly.

That was five years ago. Is album art still dead, or even deader? It depends on who you ask. Rolling Stone is pretty sure that “in the age of the MP3, the album cover is really a lost art.” But don’t tell that to hip hop magazine XXL, who thinks “2012 was a great year for cover art. Nowadays, the release of an album’s cover and track listing are an event on it’s own.” NME, Complex, and Pitchfork all have “best album art” lists for 2012, and a lot of the same albums pop up on every list. Alexis Kraus’s bloody Keds on the Sleigh BellsReign of Terror record. The rabid-Ewok-looking-thing on SwansThe Seer. The two gold chains on the 2 Chainz cover. Are any of them album covers you’ll remember in 10 years, or even next year? Probably not. Certainly not the way Baby Boomers still get teary-eyed reminiscing about Beatles covers with simulated baby massacres, or the way people in my demographic yammer on and on about the baby penis on that Nirvana album or the boobs on the Jane’s Addiction album.

Just a month into 2013, we already have two contenders for album art of the year. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs released the cover art from their forthcoming album Mosquito, due on April 16th, and the Internet, in a rare moment of solidarity, stood united in how much they hated it. “Thank god CDs are dead & I won’t have to look at this” wrote one disgruntled Twitter user. “Yeah Yeah Yeahs fans say Mosquito album artwork sucks,” the Guardian helpfully shared. “Yeah Yeah Yeahs Submit Early Frontrunner for Worst Cover Art of 2013,” Popdust surmised, looking on the bright side.

The other big news came from the Strokes, who gave a tantalizing first peek at the cover art for their new album, Comedown Machine, out March 26. And it’s…. well, orange. It’s got RCA written in big type on the top, and jokey promises like “Splice Free” and “Professional Standard” written near the bottom. And otherwise … yep, it’s orange alright. It looks like the kind of album art you’d pick because you’re on a deadline and nobody wants to make a decision and the record company needs something yesterday. It’s definitely not art you “leak” on the Internet a full two months ahead of an album’s release.

As it turns out, the guy who designed the new Strokes album, Brett Kilroe, is also the guy who’s nominated for a “Best Recording Package” Grammy, for Alabama ShakesBoys & Girls, which I didn’t realize until I’d already called him to talk about how album art is maybe dead. “It’s based on an old RCA quarter inch tape box from the ’70s,” Kilroe told me about the Strokes cover. “It’s very understated intentionally. It feels iconic in a way that’s simple. The good news is that it does read online really quickly.”

It’s a perfectly reasonable explanation. But it’s not the explanation I wanted. I wanted him to be like Raymond Pettibon, schooling me on the ambiguous textual motif that I’m too bourgeois or stupid to grasp. I want there to be something more than meets the eye, something that you wouldn’t truly understand without smoking a crapload of medical marijuana and staring at the cover for exactly 75 minutes, 38 seconds (that’s the new Strokes album played twice, with no breaks.) But apparently not. Apparently it’s just “iconic in a way that’s simple.” It’s exactly what you think it is. And nothing gets lost when it’s shrunk down to postage stamp size.

I called all the “Best Recording Package” Grammy nominees. Everyone except David Longstreth, who was on tour in Asia with Dirty Projectors and doesn’t have time to talk about dinosaur shit like album covers. But I talked to everyone else. Kilroe and Augustyniak and Gail Marowitz (nominated for Aimee Mann‘s Charmer) and Noah Wall (for David Byrne and St. Vincent‘s Love This Giant). I called them all hoping for the kind of story that’d disappoint my editor. I ignored all my better journalistic instincts towards shooting fish in barrels. I didn’t want to rehash the gleefully glum album art postmortem of 2008. I didn’t want to be the guy who interviews the stagecoach driver who doesn’t believe all the hype about horseless carriages. I wanted a reason to be hopeful.

Depressing Thing I Learned From Talking To The “Best Recording Package” Grammy Nominees #1: Nobody Does Album Art For a Living Anymore

In 2008, NBC News claimed that the average budget for album art packaging had dropped from $100,000 to a teacher’s salary of $10,000. In 2013, getting $10,000 for one album has become adorably bloated.

“I wouldn’t say it buys me a couple of months rent,” said Kilroe, who’s been making album art for 18 years. “But it allows me to be comfy enough to be a creative New Yorker for maybe a month.” Gail Marowitz, who’s “been working for record labels for over 20 years,” just recently learned that she’s out of a job. “Road Runner (her full time employer) was bought by Warner Music,” she said. “Downsizing kind of put me out of the game, in terms of 9-to-5.”

Will winning a Grammy make a difference? Marowitz already has one — in 2006, she won for Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm – and she’s collecting unemployment. “A colleague of mine won a Grammy for doing a Miles Davis box set,” she says. “He said that winning a Grammy for your design is like winning a Nobel Peace Prize for giving up your seat on the bus.”

Depressing Thing I Learned From Talking To The “Best Recording Package” Grammy Nominees #2: Nobody Has Any Idea How To Save Album Art

When album cover artists talk about their craft, and try to explain why they’re still relevant and should still be paid to do what they do, they use the word “tactile” a lot. During my four Grammy nominees interviews, “tactile” was used exactly 39 times. That breaks down to roughly 9.75 times per artist. That’s a lot of “tactile” talk for an art form that almost nobody touches anymore.

Not that any of them are deluded enough to think that “tactile” albums are making a comeback. “Traditional packaging, with the jewel box and the big fat retouched face, that’s a bore and I think it’s fallen by the wayside,” Marowitz told me. “People can go to an artist’s website and see big fat pictures of them there.” To keep album packaging on the cutting edge, they need to be innovative … or something. “Now music can be illustrated in many, many formats,” Augustyniak said. “It could be a video. It could be a chair, or a perfume that represents the image of a song or an album.” What about utilizing a technology that was briefly popular in the late ’70s? “I’d like to do something based on an interactive element,” said Noah Wall. “Like scratch and sniff. Something that’s pushing that tactile quality a little bit further, just to turn it into more of an object.”

Oh my god.

When I couldn’t take it any more, I called Eric Christensen. He’s a San Francisco filmmaker who’s not nominated for anything, much less a Grammy. He made a documentary about album art called The Cover Story, and he’s selling copies on his website. (For $25, he’ll send you a DVD, which is about as “tactile” as it gets anymore.) The movie’s got Elvis Costello, Sammy Hagar, Yoko Ono, Nick Lowe, Pete Sears, Steve Earle, and an endless parade of grey-templed hippies talking about how album art used to be awesome.

I didn’t call Christensen expecting anything like optimism. You don’t interview a man who owns 10,000 vinyl albums and expect a lot of cheerleading for the digital age. “We are devolving,” he told me. “We’re heading towards no packaging. Songs will exist in the air. It’s the same with books. People don’t own anything anymore. They’ll get some Danielle Steel trash novel on their Kindle, and then it disappears.”

But like anybody with a truly obsessive love for recorded music, Christensen doesn’t waste a lot of time bemoaning the industry’s dystopian future. For the first 20 minutes of our conversation, we talked exclusively about his quest to find Mariora Goschen, the mystery woman who posed topless when she was 11 years old for the infamous 1969 Blind Faith album cover. We talked about his 10,000 albums, and how he sometimes organizes them alphabetically and sometimes chronologically. We talked about Sticky Fingers, and how you’ve got to be careful with that zipper cover, because it’ll rip your other records to shreds. Did you know that Jackson Gleason put out an album in the ’50s with a cover painted by Salvidore Dali? That’s apparently a real thing. And even stranger, it’s got a song on it called “Dancing on the Ceiling,” which is not the same as the Lionel Richie song, despite also containing the lyrics “Oh, what a feeling/ When we’re dancing on the ceiling.” He also told me that he wished he’d  been born in 1945 (rather than 1948) because then he would’ve been 33 in 78. Get it? 33 in 78? If you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, then you probably don’t spend a lot of time hanging out in record stores that smell like mildew with guys who have wordy opinions about Roxy Music.

On a hunch, I emailed Christensen a jpeg of the new Strokes album cover. I fully expected him to get hysterical about its awfulness, railing against the kids whose brains have been so deadened by video games that they don’t know how to make compelling album art anymore. But weirdly, he had only good things to say about it. “The RCA logo is the most prominent thing on the cover,” he wrote to me in an email. “And that may be a statement in itself. Is it a commentary that the label dominates the artist, and that’s why their name hovers over the name of the group?”

Huh. Well what the fuck do you know? Maybe it is subversive after all. Maybe Brett Kilroe is a bigger subliminal genius than even he realizes. If album art is going to survive, it won’t be the Grammy Awards that recognizes it. It’ll be some middle-aged music hoarder with 10,000 vinyl records in his home and a website selling DVDs about the time he met the naked chick on the Blind Faith record.

Album art is dead. Long live album art.

For more coverage of Grammy 2013, check out MTV’s hub here

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