The Curious Art of Wrapping Music

With the 'gratuity' of music fostered by digital ubiquity came a renewed, exacting demand for magic artefacts.

At the turn of the 20th century, shellac records used to be sold in plain, brown, unremarkable sleeves. The central labels of gramophone discs only indicated which marvel lay buried in the grooves (and these labels were slightly tedious themselves). The thought of such uniform, plain packaging has something reassuring to it: in some ways, every song represented an equal candidate for the listener’s attention. The early territory of recorded sound had the stern, minimalist grace of a Communist retail store, even though the recorded music was already very much tied to venture capitalism.

The ‘uniform’ phase of recorded music didn’t last, of course. Music retailers were soon designing their own branding and stamps, flourishing and embellishing the cardboard sleeves with drawings, cursive letters and practical information.

I found my very first shellac record about seven years ago in a rubbish heap, somewhere near Bloomsbury Bowling Lanes in London. Chu-Chin Show, by the Mayfair Orchestra, had been a hit in the bleak year of 1916, and was now a piece of unwanted, scratched memorabilia. In recent years, more shellac records have joined my Chu-Chin Show find. My small collection mainly contains shellac records from England, Scotland, and Italy – their monochromatic, sparse sleeves function as postcards, documenting places that have long since changed.

Book: Worlds of Sound: The Story of Smithsonian Folkways

Author: Richard Carlin

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication date: 2008-10

Image: delicate art of packaging music, which timidly began before World War II, crucially developed after the war. Artworks as we know them steadily flourished after the introduction of vinyl records in the late '40s. In the USA, a label such as Folkways coined a beautiful – now quite canonical – visual language (documented in Richard Carlin’s Worlds of Sound).

In the '80s, a new wave of designers came into prominence with the rebirth of independent record labels – Factory's Peter Saville, 4AD's Vaughan Oliver and his 23 Envelope art studio (V23), as well as more anonymous fanzine-makers and flexi-disc owners designing in the dark, patiently inventing their own visual wonders. Midnight Music had its ‘limited edition A-side only 7-inch singles’ series: this, if necessary, indicated that there was more to music. The B-side was a perfectly flat, opaque surface, smooth as a mirror. It was a pure, mute object of contemplation. Sarah Records (1987-1995), now a cult British record label, released 100 perfect objects, producing a counter, anti-Thatcherist history through artefacts.

The Taste of Music: Perfume and Candies

To this day, music remains very much entangled in material and visual cultures, although the emphasis on materiality is more often than not apolitical. For a while the small English label Fika Recordings would give away teabags and a download code with their physical releases, whilst Cherryade Records once posted me candies along with a 7-inch single. The choice of sweets struck me as rather apt: for music itself, it seemed to me, had become literally wrapped. Wasn’t the record akin to a sweet in a colourful wrapper? There was as much pleasure to be derived from looking as there was in (metaphorically) consuming the music. Or rather visual and aural consumption complemented each other. I also remember Madonna’s Like a Prayer (1989) – how the cassette tape smelled of patchouli and how the cheap, almost vulgar scent became so perfectly entwined with the cheap, catchy pop songs.

It's funny. Something prevented me from eating the candies from Cherryade. The fact that they came with a record transformed their status: an ordinary, mass-produced confectionary became a special sign. One does not eat symbols. So the candies were (perhaps over-zealously) stored in a dark drawer, where they have lain since then; sticky and unconsumed, but not to be thrown away. Somehow the candies reminded me of the plastic toys one would get in cereal or laundry powder boxes. In the '60s my grandfather patiently collected the promotional key-rings given away in Shell petrol stations. He kept his collection on a few clothes hangers, now flimsy and rusty with years. It was an absurd and rather worthless accumulation of plastic and metal (no one else but my grandfather took it seriously), yet my grandfather invested it with much love and care. My music memorabilia was equally absurd and worthless, equally loved and cared for.

Digital Ruins and Novelties

To this day I do not fully enjoy music if it's not embodied in some capacity. Digital files cannot entirely fascinate me. Perhaps it's just that I think of them as throwaways or future ruins, here today, gone tomorrow.

I believe that with the 'gratuity' of music fostered by digital ubiquity came a renewed, exacting demand for magic artefacts: in some ways, a music object can only be commoditized and will only be purchased if it also looks and feels good. Sometimes it's as if the music was not enough (but was it ever enough?); in order to distribute their albums, musicians must deploy ruses and unsuspected feats of imagination.

Faced with the unprecedented abundance and availability of online music, listener’s attentions are endlessly divided; they require new fetishes and exceptional images. Something to remember music by. The digital consumer's 'exigency' for new objects of affection is not altogether devoid of childishness, or for that matter nerdiness. The current resurgence of hand-crafted fanzines or comic-books, distributed with vinyl or a CD betrays the will to restore music into the realms of reality, the realm of touch.

Singer-songwriter and label-owner Jack White (of Third Man records) has perhaps become the most visible and most self-righteous ambassador of ‘objects’ ; for a few years now he has been producing, with the help of sound engineers and keen researchers, replicas, intricate music artefacts, elaborately-packaged vinyl records, and so on. Here the technological prowess makes up for the extreme dullness of the recordings themselves; the object is more original than what it holds.

Material Souls

Book: DIY Album Art: Paper Bags & Office Supplies

Author: J. Namdev Hardisty

Publisher: Batty, Mark

Publication date: 2009-06

Image: the glitter and quick varnish of 'gadgets' lies the deeper mystery of things. The material/digital debate encourages artists to make statements about the material world. The record, a cultural product, may become a political as well as poetical topos: a place where visions are coined and conveyed through the crafted body of the object. The book DIY Album Art – Paper Bags and Office Supplies visually retraces the North-American hardcore scenes of the early '90s, through a gallery of unusual, stapled or hand-sewn sleeves, made with recycled material and DIY printing techniques (screenprinting, xerography, etc.). The current resurgence of hand-crafted fanzines or comic-books, distributed with vinyl or a CD betrays into the will to restore music into the realms of ‘reality’, the realm of touch. It also provides a new way of distributing and exchanging music.

French illustrator and musician Shyle Zalewski released in 2014 a comic-book, Peu importe les trous noirs dans ma tête mon cœur est une galaxie, with his latest album. The original strips he made were in some ways a means to invite people into his songs. British songwriter Benjamin Belinska similarly home-produced a small fanzine, Bearzine, to accompany his 2013 album; the fanzine mainly circulated through untraceable, analog routes, relying on an informal network of penpals. Once again, the book was an entry-point into the album; what would have traditionally existed as a discrete booklet became a full-scale publication.

As for the collective of designers ½, based in Amsterdam, Vienna, Paris and London; they publish mixed media magazines, incorporating photographs, recordings, drawings and texts – much in the multi-media spirit of North-American publication Aspen, ‘the magazine in a box’ (1965-1971) or the British cassette art zine Audio Arts (1972-2004). ½ also has a website, a digital space of exhibition.

I believe, or would like to believe, that the longing for (and production of) material artefacts cannot be simply dismissed as a childish need for more, let alone a shortcut for conspicuous consumption. Nor can it be seen as a Luddite, hopelessly nostalgic attempt to reclaim the ‘lost’ tangible world. The fact that many artists chose to release their music in physical formats may indicate, beyond fashion or retro-fetishism, a need to converse with the world and with others.

Perhaps naïvely, I see packaging as a form of gift (as may still be the case in Japanese culture) – not necessarily as the sign of a lurking capitalist conspiracy. (But it is, of course: the recent, now sold-out Go-Betweens boxset is a good example of this.) Though it sounds paradoxical at first, I actually believe (with Sarah Records’ founders) that the making of objects can be a way of remediating and (who knows?) overtaking capitalism.

We need more of these things.





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