THE RISE IN RECORD SALES
By Amanda Bartlett
It’s no secret that music lovers are dropping digital and turning to vinyl records.
Previously, album cover art was considered to be a dying field in the world of modern graphic design as customers found digital copies easier to obtain.
But in a report released last January by Nielsen Soundscan, data showed that more than 9.2 million vinyl records were sold in the U.S. last year, marking a 52 percent increase over the year before. Conversely, it revealed that purchases of digital downloads dropped 9 percent for albums and 12 percent for songs in 2014.
That’s great for the industry, but the surge in vinyl sales comes even more of a responsibility regarding musicians’ visual identities. People aren’t just buying music – they’re purchasing pieces of art.
Jon Lloyd, a music genre specialist at Juno Records, explained to TIME that physically owning a record offers a connection in a way that the digital file doesn’t, comparing the “digital/physical divide in music” to that in the book market.
“People will buy a Kindle for convenience, but people will still want to have a bookshelf (in their home),” he said.
Bobby Larson, an assistant manager at local shop Record Collector, shares a similar stance on the resurgence – one he hopes resonates with the Iowa City community for years to come.
In 2014, Record Collector and Gabe’s concert venue joined forces to create ‘Bring Your Own Vinyl.’ The event, occurring once each month, invited customers to bring their records to play at the venue and collaborate with other listeners.
“It’s a whole lot cooler to put a record on a turntable, drop a needle on it and watch it actually spin and hear the sound come out than it is to press ‘play’ on a digital device of any kind,” Larson said.
“It’s definitely for people that want a unique piece of artwork, a physical object, and I hope (the trend) sticks around.”
SHAPING A BAND’S IDENTITY
The design process itself is enjoyable for today’s art photographers and graphic designers alike, including Michael Watson, a 29-year-old freelance photographer.
The Des Moines native most notably collaborated with Expire, a hardcore band from Milwaukee on Bridge 9 Records; designing the cover artwork for their sophomore album, Pretty Low.
“In a digital age, I personally love the resurgence in vinyl,” Watson said.
“I think it’s beautiful to be able to hold something that someone created in your hands, and not just see or hear it through your computer screen. Records are an appropriate format for music because the whole thing just looks and feels like the piece of art it is.”
Watson has been professionally involved with freelance photography – including live concerts, art shows, pro wrestling, weddings and family portraits – for about four years.
“As far as getting into art photography, I’m not really sure I could pinpoint an exact time, I think it’s always just been part of what I’ve shot,” Watson said. “Doing art shows and creating photographs that weren’t for a specific purpose, but that I planned on or found organically has always appealed to me.”
As Watson acquired an array of images – a mixture of staged photographs and organically discovered situations – he started printing a few of his best and eventually found a gallery that was willing to let him show. A fan of Expire and friend of most of its members, he was approached by the band as they worked on the completion of their newest album and accepted their request to come up with photography for their album. He explained that the entire process took just a few weeks.
“They had a pretty clear idea and concept of the artwork, they just wanted my creative spin on it. A lot of it was taking the broad idea they gave me and making something that would fulfill that vision, but doing it through my own eyes.”
Watson shot on a few different film mediums – mainly 35 mm and Polaroid instant film – and submitted his final picks to the band, who chose two images for the front and back of the album. Though the collaboration went smoothly, he explained that there are mental challenges, particularly when asked to make something that will represent someone else’s art.
“For this band, these friends of mine… it isn’t just a hobby. It’s their full time jobs and a major part of their lives. There’s a pressure I put on myself to make sure what I’m giving them is my best product to represent what they’ve worked so hard on.”
Pretty Low debuted at #175 on the Billboard 200 last year, selling roughly 2,200 copies in its first week released – Expire’s first appearance on said chart.
Matt Rafalko, a 20-year-old business and psychology major at Iowa State University, recently designed the logo for another hardcore band, Dorado,as well as the casette art for beach rockers, The Honeydips
Both bands hail from Lake County, Illinois, where Rafalko is originally from. He said he finds his artistic inspiration by listening to the music first.
“Without that, it’s hard to come up with an image that fits the band. The music puts an image in your head, which makes it much easier to draw something out.”
He explained that it is also important to remain mindful of the genre’s audience. “The biggest challenge is deciding what you want to design and how that will impact the band’s image,” Rafalko said.
“Album art is like the cover of a book. If people don’t like the look, they might not listen to it.”
Dorado’s latest EP, “Bona Fide,” is available for mp3 download or casette purchase on Bandcamp. The Honeydips’ new single, “Lost and Found,” can be downloaded for free on known-pleasurerecords.com.