The Swarm

August 07, 2013

A Rational Conversation: Designer Michael Carney on Robin Thicke and the Current Epidemic of Awful Album Art...

Eric Ducker

A Rational Conversation is a regular column by writer Eric Ducker where he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.

Last week Robin Thicke released his latest full-length, Blurred Lines. With it, the contemporary blue-eyed soul singer has finally attained superstar pop status via the album’s mega-smash title track; however, the cover imagery indicates business as usual for Thicke – continuing his streak of six absolutely awful, terribly designed album covers, dating all the way back to his solo debut, 2003’s Beautiful World, when he just went by Thicke. (Strangely half of these albums feature multiple images of him on the cover, because sometimes one Robin Thicke is not enough.)

Not to bag too hard on Robin Thicke, but how exactly do so many bad album covers keep happening to one artist – and in pop music in general? These questions are particularly frustrating, especially with so many talented designers and art directors out there, eager to work on creative music projects. Ducker got on the phone with a luminary in this area, Michael Carney, the esteemed art director for The Black Keys. Carney is the brother of the band’s drummer Patrick Carney and is responsible for the group’s album art, merchandise and other aspects of the visual look. He won a Grammy for recording packaging for his work on the group’s Brothers. Carney has also done album art for acts including Dr. John, Lady and Other Girls – when it comes to music packaging, he knows of what he speaks._

Eric Ducker: I have very limited schooling in graphic design, but I fundamentally know that Robin Thicke’s album covers are bad. Can you explain to me why that’s so?

Michael Carney: This is a weird subject because I try really hard not to insult other people’s work – but I also get really bummed about people doing bad design and art. It’s not really fair to single Robin Thicke out as having bad album covers, as this is a much bigger phenomenon that goes on within true “pop” music. Though his covers are bad, I think they’re on par with what other people who have #1 pop-chart hits are doing with their album art: Put the artist’s face on the cover if they are good looking, put the artist’s name on the cover really big, make it look like it was created by someone who is vaguely aware of current trends in design – and do it all in two days. From my perspective as someone who has spent his entire adult life trying to make a living as a visual artist, seeing an album cover that looks like a Pfizer advertisement is a major bummer.

ED: You say these bad albums are part of a bigger problem that goes on within pop music, but you also say that there really isn’t any thinking going on behind the scenes. Many thousands of dollars – sometimes millions – are spent making these records and marketing them. Why does the ball seem to get dropped on the visuals? They know these albums are coming out, they have time to plan – so why do they look slapped together?

MC: Because they are slapped together. The people who I work with at the factory that manufactures physical albums have said that pop records, rap records, and so on always have the art turned in, like, one week before the street date, or something equally absurd like that. But that’s not really the cause. It’s as simple as this: no one involved in this stuff cares. The labels don’t have art departments like they used to, and the people they do have are overworked, so in most cases the management company picks up the slack. At a lot of the major labels, and even the smaller labels, things like artist development exist, but they don’t exist in the same way as they did. It seems like a lot of that is moving into the management companies’ purview. Say you’re some new indie band that’s coming out: in some ways you’re going to benefit more by signing with a big management company than you necessarily would by getting signed to a major label. A lot of my work comes through management companies, not labels. Also, the public does not punish artists for having bad design, ugly merch, or a complete lack of anything even close to an aesthetic. “Punish” is actually not the right word; I just mean that these albums sell regardless.

ED: Why do you think we’ve gotten to a place where this practice is the norm?

MC: This is a difficult subject to try to explain, but it’s really big picture: there are a lot of reasons from what I’ve seen and what I know about how the record industry is operating now. I started when I was 19; there were really small indies, and the labels I was working with got bigger. Now it’s like I’m working with major labels, but it’s not the same companies as before. It’s like seeing the industry after it has started to fall apart. With The Black Keys, we work with Nonesuch, and they’re really good about how they work with the visual artists. We’re in sort of this sweet spot where Nonesuch is through Warner Bros. Nonesuch has a very hands-off indie way of working, and we can push it through Warner Bros. We work with Warner Bros. for marketing. I don’t do web design, but when the website is getting built, the band and the management follow my lead. When we’re planning marketing, everything that goes into a record, I’m giving my two cents. In some cases, that’s a huge two cents; in others, it’s me looking at mock-ups and saying, “These are fucking ugly – you didn’t use the font I sent you.”

ED: What you’re saying is that the band, which is busy with stuff like touring and recording, has hired someone else – in this case you – to be their gatekeeper when it comes to their visual taste.

MC: I started working with The Black Keys when I was a freshman in art school. My brother is the drummer in the band, and I’ve known Dan [Auerbach] since I was 11. It’s a really abnormal situation. My aesthetic has been really influenced by them on a personal and creative level. And as the band gets bigger, there are more things that go into putting an album out, and both Pat and Dan are very involved. On some records, Pat will take the lead on working with me on creative, and on other ones Dan will; on others, it’s both of them. I have a lot of experience doing everything from flyers for house shows to global marketing campaigns for the biggest rock album of last year. I’ve been through all of it, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to be successful with every artist that I work with.

ED: Here’s my thing. You’ve won a Grammy, you’ve worked with a very successful band that is tied to a major label. That’s as big of a cosign as you can get. I don’t understand why for a pop star, his label or his management wouldn’t say, “Let’s get someone who is known for doing good work to do the album cover.”

MC: I look really good on paper now, but honestly, part of the answer in these situations is – and this is a nerdy analogy – if you play Dungeons & Dragons or a videogame, you have the skills you can give to your character. From what I’ve gathered, if you’re a management company, you’ve got things that you’re good at and not good at. Robin Thicke has a number-one hit on his hands. To me, that says his people are fucking awesome at getting songs on the radio, and maybe getting endorsement deals. Maybe art and design isn’t their thing, or part of their equation for the success of an artist. To be honest, and it’s something that I hate to say out loud, but this almost proves that to have a pop hit, you don’t have to have good album art. But I also look at it like I would like to think that you would want to.

ED: That’s the other thing. I know people have varying taste levels, but I feel like every time Robin Thicke puts out an album, I hear people making fun of the album art, or I see it on “Worst Album Cover of the Year” lists. Maybe that stuff never gets back to him or his people, and maybe they don’t care, but I would imagine that at some point that would affect their egos.

MC: When big artists have good album art, they’re going to the MoMA and calling a living artist who is in the MoMA. It’s not like, “Let’s find somebody making good album art”; it’s like, “Let’s find somebody who is a hugely successful visual artist and let’s ask them to make album art.” That’s not always the case. The truth is that in terms of other people doing what I do, I don’t know a lot of them. You read interviews with really big name older designers or art directors and a lot of times they’ll say something like, “I worked at CBS from 1972 to 1983 doing album art before I started my other design career.” That’s not happening in the same way now. I don’t know how many people there are out there living and breathing album art, where that’s a huge part of their career. For me, you see the big artists not looking to people who cut their teeth doing album art. It’s kind of disappointing, but I understand why it happens. The other thing is, I’ve had meetings with country labels about doing design work, and country music is the one genre that still sells, hands down. If you’re talking merchandise, they’ll do 5 to 10 times as much merch sales. They sell to a demographic in America that still buys physical copies and that still buys merch, but I’ve seen the templates that you have to design within for country, and they’re dictated by Walmart. Like flat out, there’s going to be a Walmart sticker – a two-and-half by three-inch sticker – on the front of the album, so you have to design this cover you can still identify with this big white sticker over it. It’s crazy. The fact that country artists rely on selling albums through Walmart, and Walmart puts these big stickers on them, is why country albums are all kind of weird looking: they need to have this weird spot of negative space in the same place on every album.

ED: I understand that there are commercial responsibilities in making and distributing music, and I don’t believe that everything around music has to exists for solely artistic reasons, but…

MC: But why is it so bad? Why does it have to be bad? Why can’t the labels go to Walmart and say, “Put the sticker on the fucking back”?

ED: I can’t imagine that this album art would make the albums more popular. I know we’re harping on Robin Thicke, and I’m not trying to call out the designers and art directors who probably had to make these album covers under shitty situations, but I don’t know how this sells anything, how they make the albums more appealing. I believe the point of an album cover is to make potential buyers intrigued by it, but I don’t understand what’s intriguing or interesting about them. They look bad. I don’t see them being anyone’s taste.

MC: Let’s assume they were probably made by someone who works in-house at the label, just because it doesn’t look like something by somebody that was hired independently. (And if that’s not the case, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to put somebody on blast.) But if it is a guy who works at the label, he probably has to turn in six options after they go, “Here’s some photos, here’s the name and here are maybe three sentences about what the artist wants that are maybe impossible to interpret.” Then he’s got to shit out some comps in, let’s say, a week. In reality, maybe it’s two days.

ED: It feels like there’s this desperation in the music industry, like, “Okay, we lost; now what can we do to even get a little bit of our power back?” And the fundamental stuff goes by the wayside.

MC: The visual look that the entire popular record industry is putting out to the world looks like an industry in its twilight years. It looks like its death flail. Not to be melodramatic, and I guess I’m kind of being melodramatic, but it’s like desperately grasping at straws. This is all weird for me because the Keys are how I got into my whole career as an artist, and obviously it’s really important to me, and I think with the Keys our take on this is that our fans appreciate that we think about everything that we make. But then at the same time, I had a day job up until two years ago in corporate fashion doing t-shirt graphics. I left to go out and do my own art, and last year I made it a point to do as many album covers as I could, and it was not feasible. I hate to say it, but you’d be shocked at some of the things that go on in terms of how album art does or doesn’t get made. Things I’ve experienced in the last year of what labels are going to pay or how they approach it, it’s like a chicken with its head cut off.

ED: Is it worth it for someone like you, who has a positive and fulfilling relationship with a band, to even try to work with a pop artist? If Robin Thicke’s people came to you and said, “You know what, you’re right, we can do this better. We want to work with you” – is that worth it to you?

MC: Sure. My take on it is, if someone is game to do something cool, I’m up for it. The problem is when people aren’t really trying to do something cool. “Cool” is probably not the right word, but my creative process is not that you send me a photo and I Photoshop it. My creative process is that you play me the record, tell me the title, tell me what you think it’s about or what it’s not about, and then I try to come up with ideas and try to figure out a way to do it. I take this big-picture concept approach to it that’s kind of a leap of faith for people, because you’re basically trusting that if I tell you we need to do a painting of a dog, then I can make a painting of a dog.

ED: Also, you run the risk that they say upfront, “We want to do something better,” but then you turn in your comps and they’ll tell you, “Well, we can’t really see his face” or “His colors are red and blue, we don’t do anything with purple or green.”

MC: Sometimes a lot of input is just a person wanting to feel like they’re in control. Sometimes you’ll run into clients or artists and they want to change a color so they feel like they’ve had a hand in it. This is part of any creative field. These are the issues. But I feel like in the music industry, it’s especially weird. The answer to the question about whether it’s worth it to make art for a big pop artist is: Totally. That’s like dictating culture. I don’t want to put my job on a pedestal by any means, but there is a huge amount of exposure that comes with that type of record that could be very valuable to an artist’s career, or it could just be that the fans appreciate it. Maybe the fans would get a kick out of seeing a type of art they’ve never seen before. The way I learned to do this was trying to remember the feeling of buying CDs or records when I was super young, and looking at them with no internet, no context. I try to keep that reverse-engineering thought process as my goal. If there is someone on this planet who will manage to see this album cover with no context, I try to design for that person and then build everything out from there. In terms of Robin Thicke and whoever is doing his art, I’m super stoked that there is someone doing that. I would to hate to find out that the person that did it had their feelings hurt by anything I said. Believe me, when I started doing this stuff and started hearing negative feedback about my work, it fucking gutted me, even to this day. And it’s one of those situations where nobody knows what was going on behind the scenes that made the final album cover what it is.

ED: That’s a very important point. They could have had multiple versions that were great, and we don’t know what got tinkered with and what they had to change, and then their name is still on there.

MC: As far as Robin Thicke himself, I don’t like the idea that if that guy reads this, he’ll be bummed.

ED: I don’t think we’ve been approaching this from the perspective of, “That dude sucks.” I’m genuinely flummoxed. I’m trying to get a sense of how it came to this.

MC: It’s like, “Who dropped the ball?” Well, the industry dropped the ball.

ED: Where is the miscommunication happening? Where are things getting mucked up?

MC: My opinion about this whole thing is that it’s a lot harder to succeed at this than it is to fail, especially at this scale. If you’re that big, everybody is going to want to have an excuse to say what’s wrong with what you’re doing. Even if Robin Thicke’s album cover was, in an alternate universe, agreed upon to be an amazing album cover, there would still be people saying it was bad just because of who he is. I’m not saying that as an insult to him. I mean that, with a music industry-obsessive public, with someone in his position you’re to find somebody to be mad about anything he does.

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