Danny Asks: Can… other art forms save the music industry?

21 February 2008

Danny McMillan

Reader, my procrastination has reached a new low. Just when I thought that I couldn’t distract myself from work anymore I stumble upon a website called sleeveface. It’s basically nothing more than people getting old vinyl records and putting them in front of their faces to try to bring them to life. Someone sitting on a chair in front of the tv wearing a brown coat and holding a copy of Bowie’s Low in front of their face, or holding a microphone and a copy of Heart Of Glass in front of their noggin. That kind of thing.

Being the wannabe music journo that I am, I couldn’t just think to myself “wow, some people have even more time on their hands than I do” (although I reckon if I grab a guitar and dump a pair of shoes on the floor I could do a decent version of Nick Drake’s Bryter Later) and move on. Instead it got me thinking about this general idea that vinyl, unlike CDs, are some kind of art form.

The members of the vinyl purist’s club (of which I am not one) will tell you that their chosen medium is a superior way to buy music. Sure, I remember when I was a kid rummaging around the old family vinyls before they got destroyed in a flood and being amazed to find a poster inside Dark Side of the Moon. There were some cracking covers; the sleeve for The Return of the Durutti Column was actually made of sandpaper.

But CDs can come with great artwork too. Radiohead, whose collaborations with Stanley Donwood have produced some incredible looking sets of liner notes, for example. CDs provide you with booklets and covers which can at times be as interesting as the music contained in the little plastic box. On my desk I have a CD of Chess originals containing a book with the story of each song and a bunch of CDs whose sleeve contains small replicas of the front covers of old fashioned American pulp fiction novels (the ones with titles like “Scarlet Lil” where everyone on the cover is smoking).

Now, as I’m sure you have gathered over the past few weeks, I quite like buying CDs and I wish more people would. Thinking about what I’ve just written, it seems that manufacturing CDs so that they are more attractive to purchase could be an incentive. Apart from the obvious idea of packaging them in folded up cardboard sleeves rather than those flimsy plastic boxes which break if you put them down on the table too hard (if they aren’t already broken by the time you take them out of the shop), it would be nice to see musicians work a bit harder at the overall product. Rather than a couple of pages with some snaps and a few lyrics, why not take the time to make some great artwork like the old vinyl sleeves, or tell us a bit about the songs?

I think we can take this one further. From the 1980s onward music and television combined to produce music videos for emerging channels like MTV. Some of them are genuinely watchable pieces of film; think Thriller, Sledgehammer, Like a Prayer, or Sabotage by the Beastie Boys. Well, what if in the noughties music combined with other art forms in a similar way? Apparently the music industry is crumbling before our very eyes, so you would think big record companies might hire the odd creative team. For example, artists could do deals with unpublished authors and use the CD booklet to put out a short story or poem. How cool would it be if, apart from buying some great music, you also got to read something by the next literary sensation virtually for free? What about CDs containing portraits by great photographers you could take out and keep? Or if you opened up your brand new CD case and found there was some sort of model to make?

These ideas are all off the top of my head, and I don’t think they’re sparklingly creative, but it would be interesting to explore them a bit more. Who knows, if people put more work into designing CDs then it might be possible to convince more people that shopping for records really is a joy, rather than something to shove in front of your face for a bit of a laugh.