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Radiohead and the Requiem for Packaging

2000 marked a significant time in music history. Computer users downloaded Radiohead’s follow up to OK Computer entitled Kid A all across the globe, pushing it to the mass market before the album reached stores. The user usurped the recording industry. Kid A’s new sound signaled an electronic styling, and how it got packaged did not matter at all—the MP3 file itself was what you listened to.

If OK Computer’s title foreshadowed an agreeable relationship between Radiohead and the personal computer, Kid A established it. With Kid A, the band embraced electronica as a musical tool (keyboards, feedback, blips, and syncopation), all while mainstream culture adopted high speed internet connections. With these faster connections, you had faster downloads, and Napster and Limewire opened the floodgates for a myriad of files to be transported from one computer to another, a virtual peer-to-peer exchange of everything from software to movies to music. Swarms of Mac and PC users would acquire albums or singles without ever owning a physical copy: disc, booklet, jewel case. Those who wanted to share an album like Kid A could burn it to a CD or send it over the net, employing Apple’s “Rip Mix Burn” call to action that headlined their print advertisements. Some music fans, including me, would make the grandiose assertion that packaging did not matter anymore. And for a moment, it didn’t.

But only a moment, because while all of this downloading happened, and Kid A populated our hard discs, Radiohead spread a visual phenomenon across the internet through a unique online album promotion with somber videos such as screaming bears and elephants wearing halos. Radiohead called them blips, and had a peculiar bear identity serve as their mascot, who appeared both cartoonish and frightening thanks to large Bart Simpson-like eye balls juxtaposed against razor-sharp teeth. I first saw the website, fell in love with the visuals they created, and downloaded the videos using the QuickTime extension on Oct. 7, 2000. At present, these blips live in the hard drives of users like me who ripped with QuickTime Pro, but you can watch them anywhere thanks to YouTube.

The beautiful artwork on the site and in the videos by Stanley Donwood and Thom Yorke, mirrored the album’s dark sound, and it all carried into the album packaging, right down to hidden booklets pressed into a limited number of jewel cases. I was one of the fortunate few that had a comic included in my Kid A copy, that I purchased at Homer’s Music in Omaha, Nebraska—despite the myth, these circulated in packages outside the UK. This easter egg booklet was a typographic assault on the senses, and was better than any Cracker Jack prize you could find. The standard insert was equally mesmerizing with 3D renderings overlapping photography fused to traditional media, making any designer foam at the mouth in bewilderment while wondering How can I do something like this for my next client? Owning the physical, and printed representation of these online blips completed the experience. It became material.

Since Kid A, Radiohead has produced follow up albums Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief, and each has sold millions of copies. The Kid A cycle continued. When Hail to the Thief came out in 2003, one of my friends said he was running out to buy the album immediately at the release party, and I knew he already downloaded the complete album so I asked, “Nick, why would you want it twice? You already have the album.” He quickly replied, “No, I have the music; the album is the art. I can’t wait to see what they’ve done this time.” Radiohead collaborated with Stanley Donwood on that album as well, and you can view many of the studies that turned into the cover art here.

Get out before Saturday. Stanley Donwood (2000) 168cm x 168cm.

Pacific coast. Stanley Donwood (2003) 150cm x 150cm.

Radiohead’s In Rainbows website screen shot

Many of my design students reference Hail to the Thief when we talk about expressive typography, and now I wonder what they will say about Radiohead’s newest endeavor. Moreover, will they download and buy the album? Point your web browser to radiohead.com, and you get forwarded to their next tour de force, In Rainbows, and this time, it’s the band that is usurping the recording industry. Tracks from In Rainbows have supposedly been played at many of the band’s live performances, and Rolling Stone showcases bootlegged YouTube videos in a track-by-track format (these songs may or may not be on In Rainbows). With their new online delivery, you have a choice, and the band is controlling the content: download it on their website and pay whatever you want (or nothing); or purchase the limited edition disc, that’s sure to be an artistic assault on your senses; or do both like so many Radiohead fans have in the past, only now you don’t need to use a peer-to-peer network since Radiohead is the portal. Myths have circulated about how the deluxe album will look and feel in your hands. Believe what you want. The LA Times reports that the special edition boxed set will cost “40 pounds ($82) which will be available later and will include two vinyl albums, a CD version of the new album and a second CD with additional new songs, artwork and photographs of the band.” Creative Review has also reported that Stanley Donwood will again work with the band, and you can view images of the album on their weblog.

Radiohead has been making musical and visual statements that teeter between pop culture and revolutionary angst, collaborating successfully with Stanley Donwood to visualize the album’s look and feel. To those who swear by nothing more than the MP3 digital file, and shun the packaged album, consider Yorke’s existential lyric “Just cause you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there” (Hail to the Thief, ‘There There’) the next time you’re listening to your album or moving it from computer to computer with your mouse.

The biggest question is Where do designers fit into all of this? Just doing the website? To the question, Are JPEGs the New Album Covers?, I say No, JPEGs are JPEGs, and fit well into merely a website, your iTunes album art, or iPhone’s cover flow. Album packaging could evolve into elaborate and ambitious designs, much in the way that artist Matthew Barney created limited-edition packages to house video discs from his Cremaster Cycle. I’m not referring to the standard DVDs you can buy on Amazon.com, but rather, the packages Mr. Barney designed that became sculptures in and of themselves with self-lubricating hinges and Vaseline encasements, and cost from $10,000 or up—now that’s a must have for any collector, and some would call it a worthwhile investment. Hopefully designers will create innovative design endeavors (lubricated with Vaseline, or not) to challenge the status quo in the way that Radiohead has. Radiohead has killed packaging, long live packaging.

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PUBLISHED ON Oct.04.2007 BY Jason A. Tselentis
elv’s comment is:

For some bands there is definitely more than just the music.
But I'm an old school guy who buys CDs...

On Oct.04.2007 at 06:59 AM
Kevin Tucker’s comment is:

Hi Jason. Long time listener, first time caller :) Great article, you make some very strong points.

As someone who designs a lot of music packaging, this is definitely an issue that concerns me. I've built my career on this niche, and though I've diversified to a degree, it's still a core business. As you suggest, the design of an album, and the image of an artist transcends the packaging, especially with large amounts of exposure; those image become tied to the public consciousness of the music to which it's associated. This association combines with other visuals used in the promotion and community aspects of the artist to form an impression on the user. Even if there's no physical packaging, an image is always inextricably tied to the music as part of the user experience, and therefore as part of the brand of the artist, the project, and usually of both.

Within the music industry, some are downplaying packaging (at least economically), while others are embracing the ability to create something of tangible value by innovating in packaging as an incentive to purchase a physical product.

Time will tell which approach will win out, but in the end there's always a place for design in the realm of music, as long as people have eyes and ears in the same head.

On Oct.04.2007 at 12:31 PM
Tselentis’s comment is:

Kevin, your comments are valued here, especially since you're an industry practitioner. One thing that this essay does not address is the issue of control. When working on an album for Bob Dylan in 2004, Mr. Dylan's management team controlled so much of the look, dictating what photos could be used (and couldn't). One caveat made, for instance, was that Mr. Dylan could not be smiling in any of the images. This type of control may disappear, as musicians take control of the image you mention above. At the same time, musicians may decide to design the items entirely on their own. As you say, Time will tell...

There is always a place for design, but will it be a cooperative between a designer working with musicians? A singular effort completed by the designer as musician, or musician as designer, or musician with designer's skills?

On Oct.04.2007 at 01:15 PM
Kevin Tucker’s comment is:

Jason, you've just scratched the surface there... this is nothing new. The artist always wants to have a hand in the design process on their own projects, whether Bob Dylan or Joe Schmoe, and the more successful they are, the more likely that is to happen. Sometimes this can be good, sometimes it can be bad, and I've seen both happen. Anyway, it's seldom been my own focused vision that's prevailed in the end product, as there are multiple parties to approve everything simultanously in most cases (label, management, artist, etc). More often than not, this results in compromises that water down the creative, but occasionally - and I depend on these moments - its the combination of ideas that become greater than the sum of its parts. And then there are those rare occasions, which hopefully will increase along with my skill to create them, that my vision survives this process unadulterated by compromises. It sounds awful when I put it like that, but somehow it's not :)

Anyway, as with most such issues in our industry, I hold to the belief that quality— and clients' desire for it— will win out in the end over the DIY mentality.

On Oct.04.2007 at 01:33 PM
Thomas Guzowski’s comment is:

The article is another story of tradition versus technological innovation. It was not too long ago and people were swooning over the abilities of digital photography and neglecting film. Next was the loss of the cozy sound of the needle scratching over the record for "improved" sound quality. Now it is the album art people are abandoning for the mp3. The sound quality may not be the loss now, but the tanglible is. Perhaps the next solution to this will be a "print your own" album pdf.

On Oct.04.2007 at 04:06 PM
Matthew Latkiewicz’s comment is:

Super essay dude; and interesting to hear your insiders take Kevin.

Time will tell which approach will win out, but in the end there's always a place for design in the realm of music, as long as people have eyes and ears in the same head.

When MP3s first infiltrated my music collection, I realized that I was being used in a war between the objects and the non-objects. The non-objects (i.e. MP3s, ebooks, etc.) appeal to my sense of convenience and economy - so much easier to distribute the ones and the zeros than the horrible plastic of the CDs.

The objects, however, while cumbersome and expensive to produce have the opportunity to appeal to my sense of beauty in a way that MP3s and websites (at least in their current state, and I say that as a web designer) never ever can.

BUT: the objects got to step it up, like you detail in the essay above - they gots to get more beautiful. For the most part, CDs were a terrible weapon in the objects arsenal - most of them are terribly ugly.

Radiohead is obviously well entrenched in this war, and might possibly be a band that can bring the two sides together.

Cheers guys.

On Oct.04.2007 at 05:22 PM
Portland Graphic Designer’s comment is:

Packaging is essentially wasteful here. I miss it, too, but how much garbage does digital music prevent? Remember the long boxes CDs came in for the first 5-10 years?

On Oct.04.2007 at 06:44 PM
Whaleroot’s comment is:

CDs themselves are a burden if they're wasted (i.e. thrown away instead of given away [LaLa]) and the jewel case is downright stupid 90% of the time. Things have been done to ease this burden; things like Digipaks and fold-up packaging where the art is the packaging.

Like it's been said, design and music will always coexist so, (difficult clients aside) I feel it's mostly the designers duty to research and implement these different options. Printing things on recycled stock and of course creating such a wonderful design that people won't want to throw it away! I have a lot of CDs and plan on keeping them on my shelf so for me it's about balancing that indulgence with sustainability and aesthetics.

My personal prediction (and remember I'm not a actually a psychic) is that if we don't find a way to make CDs more economical people will just revert to records. I don't think digital music will ever take over.

On Oct.05.2007 at 12:32 AM
Thomas Guzowski’s comment is:

The remarks regarding sustainable design raises a great point about the benefits of the immaterial realm of the digital. However, we can have both.

The movement is driven by the consumers choice, but the designer must provide more choices. Recycled material, great aesthetics, or optional download of pdf booklet are all great solutions to offer the consumer. The consumer should be left with multiple options of making a sustainable purchase. It shouldn't be green or no green. If we don't design the options, they can't choose.

On Oct.05.2007 at 08:45 AM
Tselentis’s comment is:

Thomas, I am so glad you brought up this point, as we continue to look for creative ways to be conservative as designers. I for one, am interested in the topics you mention above.

On Oct.05.2007 at 08:59 AM
agrayspace’s comment is:

I've been saying for a long time, to my inner circle, that the only thing that is going to save the non-digital music industry, is a heightened care for design and packaging.

But the packaging issue is really a side note in the overall relationship between image and music. As Jason noted, there is a huge relationship in how an image can give a certain set of songs a strong identity that is as recognizable visually as it the album is aurally. Stanley Donwoods art being a fine example. In fact, this visual identity model is the only thing that is going to save the idea of the "record" at all.

For a while, as packaging was disintegrating, it seemed like the visual side of music was fast disappearing as well. But thanks to Itunes and new features like Cover Flow, the visual side of albums seems to have a glimmer of hope for survival.

Already I can see album art becoming more and more important is the perceived identity for song groupings. I have even taken to making my own album art for collections of one-off songs that didn't have any supplied by the artist or labels, because I just couldn't stand to see the default "no artwork" icon in my cover flow.

I can only hope and imagine this re-emergence of visuals in music becomes stronger and stronger as our devices for digital music become more powerful, iPod Touch is only the begginning.

Maybe soon, we will see the static digital image come alive as motion graphics become as indelible to the music as LP art once was, all the while resurrecting the music video from the grave of MTV.

On Oct.05.2007 at 10:11 AM
Tselentis’s comment is:

And for the record... iPod touch lets you touch a screen, a slick and smooth surface. You will not be able to handle the new Radiohead album itself using that tool [at least, not to my knowledge, unless they have something in the works we've not seen yet!].

On Oct.05.2007 at 01:06 PM
Steve Mock’s comment is:

I submit the current hand-made gigposter trend as a viable music/design connection that neatly satisfies a perceived aesthetic void and somewhat fills in the tactile gap.

It's no coincidence that this medium has taken off just as music packaging appears to stagnate.

On Oct.09.2007 at 12:29 PM
Tselentis’s comment is:

Has music packaging stagnated? Maybe you mean innovative music packaging, or new directions for packaging like JPEGs and iTunes' coverflow. Packaging is still out there. But does it matter as much?

On Oct.10.2007 at 07:13 PM