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Some Notes on Rock and Roll Graphic Design

There’s an interesting article by Tom Vanderbilt over at Design Observer on ‘the rise and fall of rock and roll graphic design’, highlighting what he perceives as the death of iconography in contemporary music. He asks three questions:
>Has heavy metal graphic design run its course? Is the band logo as a species dead? And is there much of a future for the graphic representation of music itself?
I thought I could answer these questions, so I scribbled down some rambling notes here and there over the last few weeks, starting with the second question. I don’t believe that the band logo as species has died out; it’s just that the concept has evolved.
>Punk and new-wave, the story goes, arrived in response to the excesses of the 1970s, and I wonder if, as a kind of corollary to the anti-consumerist ethos of bands like The Clash, the idea of having a single, marketable kind of logo suddenly became recherché.
The way I see it, there’s a gulf here (besides the blindingly obvious) between the underground and the mainstream that didn’t exist, say, ten years ago. Band logos today are inextricably associated with crass commercialism[1] — the logo is a powerful symbol of corporate co-option, a notion popularised by Naomi Klein’s anti-globalisation bible, No Logo — but that’s not to say that artists who eschew the logo are not at all concerned with their design aesthetic (a point which Vanderbilt acknowledges). In fact, for many artists, their overall visual identity is as iconic as any logo in terms of the signals it sends to their audience. From Michael Azzerad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, upon the release of Mission of Burma’s debut single in 1980 (p.106):
>At the time the cool thing for Boston bands to do was to have official colors, as if they were a sports team, and [Mission of] Burma took primer gray and fluorescent orange, the color scheme for the “Academy [Fight Song]” single. It seemed to embody the band’s contradictions — the gray, machinelike aspects and the sensational Day-Glo side as well.
There is an opposing side to the anti-logo argument. The logos of independent[2] record labels are still typically regarded as powerfully positive signifiers, markers of good taste and quality. In a way, they have usurped the band logo in the hierarchy of significance for much of today’s youth.
Think of Sub Pop — especially in that label’s early days, from 1987 to 1991[3], when their singles’ cover art had a uniform aesthetic: a generic template of band photo, name and title across the top[4] and, of course, the Sub Pop logo prominently displayed in the corner[5].
Another powerful and iconic symbol belongs to Black Flag‘s label, SST Records. Vanderbilt mentions Black Flag’s minimalist ‘bars’ anti-logo (which, because it was so quick and easy to tag on walls, led to that band becoming the scourge of Los Angeles law enforcement at the dawn of the 1980s) but the SST logo is arguably more significant to the underground music culture as a whole — and it wasn’t just about marketing[6].
These two might be the worst examples I could have given, seeing as SST exists as a shadow of its former self, and Sub Pop is no longer geographically nor culturally specific. Better examples would be Matador, or Epitaph. Relapse Records and Fat Wreck Chords host label-branded concerts and tours, recalling the days of Tamla-Motown: when you see their logos, you know what you’re getting.
In the world of metal: Hydra Head, the name to drop in contemporary metal, is run by a graphic designer, and has given heavier underground music a strong visual identity to match. The work of labels like Hydra Head and Relapse, and the artists they release, proves that heavy metal graphic design has hardly run its course. (Even one glance at the murky world of black metal should disspell any such notions.)
As you can see, graphic design plays a vital role in the independent sector. The issues of decline for the major labels have rarely been issues for the indies. (This is the bizarro world, you should be aware, where smaller labels are sustained rather than threatened by peer-to-peer file sharing: from mix tapes to Gnutella and beyond.)
>Will graphic design ever have as great a role in popular music, or indeed any role at all, in the future? I know that there continues to be a quite vigorous graphic design movement affiliated with “indie rock” and other forms … More often than not, however, these works are boutique, one-off projects, done in letterpress or some other antique-feeling method; works of art thought they may be, they have not, like the bands they announce, broken through to any kind of mainstream national consciousness.
Vanderbilt is worried about the disappearance of the iconic logo but, as I’ve outlined here, and as he admits himself, it hasn’t died out: it’s merely gone underground. He complains that this vigourous underground design movement has not broken through to any kind of mainstream national consciousness — but is it even supposed to?
What he should be more worried about is the disappearance of popular musical artists who are worthy of such iconography. Mainstream popular music has never been so anonymous, nor so disposable. It’s not worth the effort of designing for, so when the artistic director Vanderbilt spoke with says that album cover design is disappearing, he’s right. Vanderbilt views the disappearing logo as “the canary on the coal mine signifying the dematerialization of music”. But it’s not the dematerialisation of music that’s signified; it’s the dematerialisation of everything.
But only as far as the mainstream goes. Is there a future for the graphic representation of music? Of course there is! Kids today are still inscribing their notebooks with logos; they’re just not the ones you know — though you might if you scratched the surface.

1. This is a trend that began with the birth of punk rock in the late 1970s, and continued through post-punk and new wave well into the 1980s; Vanderbilt notes this himself.

2. I should stress that this concept really only applies to independent labels: each operates (or at least begins) in a niche market, like a boutique; as such, there is often a two-way signification of quality between the independent label and the artists it signs. This is not the case of major labels, which sign anything that will possibly sell and don’t have any coherent musical identity. After all, does the average teeny-bopper care or even know what labels her favourite pop stars are on?

3. This was the time of Sub Pop’s “World Domination Regime”. The label’s artists were battalions in the Sub Pop army; the label was a manifestation of a community spirit influenced by other music scenes in the Pacific Northwest. To the world beyond Seattle, the individual bands had little or no identity — but the Sub Pop logo get them noticed.

4. These were set in a standard typeface which was common to most of the label’s early record artwork; if anyone can tell me what it is I’d be grateful.

5. A similar uniform approach is evident today in the packaging aesthetic of Michael Gira’s Young God Records, and also the modern classical and jazz label ECM.

6. Before the rise of Sub Pop, and the debilitating lawsuits from its own artists, SST Records was the biggest and most influential independent record label in the United States, if not the world. As home to Hüsker Dü, the Meat Puppets and the Minutemen, it was a fertile ground of musical innovation — while later artists such as Soundgarden, the Screaming Trees, Dinosaur Jr and Sonic Youth arguably achieved widespread prominence by association with those three little letters on the backs of their album sleeves: a signal to the cool kids that their records were the records to have. Maybe they didn’t draw the logo on their school textbooks, but it did etch itself on their minds. (It did on mine, even years after it ceased to be immediately culturally relevant.)

Mommy, What’s a Folksonomy?

After mulling over the idea for the past few weeks, I recently got around to adding folksonomic tags to my individual weblog entries.
Don’t know what a folksonomy is? The quick and easy definition is ‘folk taxonomy’, but Wikipedia has a slightly more detailed introduction.
If you happen to be reading this entry on its permalinked page, you can see how I have implemented this by adding tags relating to the content in the Folksonomy box on the sidebar; alternatively (if you can’t be bothered looking there) I’ve provided a figurative image of tags I’ve applied to the previous entry on this weblog:

Clicking on any tag link listed in the box should take you to a page at Technorati‘s site pulling together links to weblog entries, social bookmarks and Flickr photos tagged with the same word. The hoped-for result of this effort is that this weblog will be included in the greater blogospheric conversation. Or something like that.
I wanted to experiment with this for two reasons:
Firstly, to broaden the scope of my classifications. Entries in this weblog are currently divided among 24 different categories, but even at that some of the subject areas (i.e. culture, current affairs) are too general and wide-ranging to be of much practical use. They might be fine as umbrella terms, but there’s too much variance within for them to be accurate. Using tags in tandem with my categories allows me to apply more specific keywords as sub-categories. Rather than replacing the broader umbrella categories altogether, these new tags should provide for greater detail and contextualisation within those categories.
Secondly, as I already stated, I want to include this weblog in ‘the greater blogospheric conversation’. Or at the very least, give my site an opportunity to speak up. Using tags not only allows me to apply more specific keywords as sub-categories, but also to imbue the text with greater semantic value — in terms of machine-readability, anyway — so that my site isn’t lost like a needle in the world wide haystack.
Unfortunately, this hasn’t yet proved to be working: after monitoring the Technorati Tag pages this weblog has linked to over the previous 21 days, my entries have failed to appear on a single one of them, and this is despite following Technorati’s own instructions. Whatever the reasons for this (I can’t rule out my own ignorance, since I’m not a programmer) my tagging experiment has already had a positive effect insofar as my weblog entries since the start of the year are no longer dead ends; even if the main text of a given post contains no links itself, the folksonomic tags provide pathways to similarly categorised content on other sites across the web.
I really should have done something like this a long time ago. It’s in my field of interest after all, being a graduate of UCD’s Department of Library and Information Studies (with a First, just for the record). Yet I wasn’t enthused about it until recently, as there was no easy way for a non-programmer like myself to set up this site to accommodate these features in a way that fit in with my design aesthetic without looking and feeling awkward or tacked-on — and the truth is that while I’ve been familiar with the concept for a while (through del.icio.us, natch) my poor brain never made the leap from tagging links to tagging almost anything until Technorati launched their tagging service some weeks ago.
So I let the idea simmer away in the back of my head for a while — until last month, when I chanced upon Jack Mottram’s method of folksonomically tagging his weblog posts, employing Movable Type’s keywords field and a snippet of Perl code borrowed from Ben Hammersley (who, incidentally, is putting this and other inter/intraconnective features to good use at The Observer’s new weblog). Having previously ignored the keywords field — seeing it as superfluous to my needs, lacking in any practical application — it might well prove to be intrinsic to the future functionality of this website.
I should also point out that I am keeping a list, which will grow as need be, of all the terms that will serve as tags for my weblog entries, to keep overlaps and redundancy to a minimum. In other words I’m employing, however loosely, a controlled vocabulary. Now I know this might not appear to be in the spirit of the ‘open’ nature of folksonomies, but look at it this way: if there’s no continuity, then what’s the point?
I don’t want to impose a hierarchy — I’ve already got one, with my umbrella categories. What I do want is for my tags to mean something. They won’t mean anything unless they’re used properly, and for me that means having a set standard of words and terms to use, influenced both by general tagging conventions (given two similar terms, if one is more popular than the other then that’s probably the one to go for) and my own whims (it’s my own information I’m tagging, not anyone else’s).
So, now that my experiment in folksonomy is underway, and now that I have the potential to directly include (or at least imply inclusion of) my weblog in a greater discussion with other webloggers — rather than relying on the usual vague connections that are traditional to the web — the question I’d like to ask is: where do we go from here?

Some related links:

* Wired News: Folksonomies Tap People Power
If you’re new to everything I’ve talked about here, this Wired article is a good introduction to folksonomies in practice.
* Guardian Online: Tag Team
A suitable companion to the Wired piece. It’s funny how the main focus of both articles is Flickr, which to my mind isn’t as significant in this area as del.icio.us has been.
* Guardian Online: Emerging Technology
From today’s paper, The Guardian’s Jack Schofield with his perspective on the buzz surrounding folksonomy at this year’s Etech conference.
* Folksonomy, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Mess
Previously noted in the Linklog. It’s an enlightening discussion, showing how folksonomies mean different things for different people: Joshua Schachter of del.icio.us has some particularly interesting comments.
* Guardian Onlineblog: Some thoughts on folksonomies
The Guardian’s Bobbie Johnson contributes his own thoughts on the phenomenon.