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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.)