Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Physical Formats: Doing it Right

If you're going to the expense of manufacturing CDs, vinyl, tapes, memory cards, download cards, anything tangible that will either be sold or given away, make it look good. Even if you're doing a very simple package, like a CD with a two sided front insert, it is still worth your time and energy to make it professional. Here are some things to consider:

Create a budget. Cost is clearly an issue for most independent artists. I understand that, I'm in the same boat. But since we know that we're more likely to sell digital albums, we can do a lower run of physical product and save a little money. Don't try to do too much yourself to cut corners if it's not going to look how you want it to look. Don't let the upsell of cheaper per unit convince you to order 2,000 jewel cases when when what you really want is a digipak with a die-cut. Maybe you can only order 500 of this packaging and it eats up any room for decent profit. But your digital sales can offset the cost, and it's always a bad idea to let profit margin affect artistic decisions, especially your own.

Package Copy:
Before you begin envisioning the artwork, start thinking about the words that go into the package. This is called the 'copy,' or specifically 'package copy.' I'm a fan of consolidating things to have as few words as is necessary. For example, list the musician credits in one place, unless every track has a different combination, in which case it's good to list them track by track. And many people are starting to leave copy out of their package and putting it all on their website. But whatever you decide to include in the package, figure out your lyrics, thank you's, legal lines, track list, writer credits, liner notes, and all else before design begins. Then separate them out in each area or component of the package. What needs to be on the cover? What about the back? How about the disc? Finally, proofread. Ask somebody to help you with this. It's a lot easier to catch typos now rather than once it's in some fancy, tiny font in the artwork. Plus it will save you time and money once it goes to design, which brings us to the next part.

Get a Designer:
Or at least consult a few. Unless you've designed CD artwork for many, many other musicians, you don't have enough experience to do this properly. I've seen many talented graphic designers try to put together a CD package and fail. They don't don't consider all the realities of printed components. Printing has some physical limitations with paper types, ink, screening, etc. that a web designer won't know. There are also some cool tricks a good print designer will know to really make your package stand out. The best CD artwork I've ever seen are designed from the perspective of the customer--as you open it up and turn the pages, the story of the music unfolds before you. A good, experienced designer is worth the expense (and will probably work with you on your budget). You didn't cut corners to make the music sound right, why not make it look right?

*The biggest pitfall I see with inexperienced designers happens on the disc label. The disc surface is a tricky place to print. Most manufactures print a three color disc, NOT the four color CMYK used for the paper. Gradients don't usually print smoothly, meaning most photographs do not look right. Therefore it is important you and your designer understand the process your manufacturer uses so you can translate your design to the disc label.

Create Dummies:
Your final CD artwork will not be viewed on a flat piece of paper or on a computer screen. Print it out, cut it out, fold it up, put it in a jewel case, and flip through it like you just tore off the shrink wrap. This is a great way to catch mistakes.

The manufacturer is the critical end of the line for your CD. This is where it your design is printed and will either pop off the shelf or blend in with everything else. There are many, many places to manufacture CDs. To find the best one for you, do some research online and ask other indies where their CD was made. Decide what kind of package is right for you and figure out who does it the best for your budget. "Green" packaging is becoming more popular, and there are some very cool package designs that don't use any plastic (other than the CD itself). These open up new design possibilities and will stand out at a store or on your merch table. Get samples from several companies to see different finishes, paper stock, and package options. Look closely at the black areas--do they have a greenish tint? There are a number of factors that will alter the way your final print turns out. Ask questions about how they gang up jobs on the line. Grouping multiple jobs on one press is a common paper-saving practice, but it can slightly alter the colors on your print. Bottom line, allow plenty of time to find the right manufacturer.

Don't Go it Alone:
Most importantly, don't let your ego as a creative individual get in the way. We're creative people, we express ourselves through music, and we might even be talented visual artists, painters, illustrators, web designers, or whatever else helps pay the bills. But if you don't have experience designing CDs, it's going to show. Take your time getting the package copy together. Put together a budget. Research manufacturing companies and ask them a lot of questions. Get the help of a professional so you can be happy with your final product. After all, you'll probably have a few boxes sitting around the house for a while.


Before I close, I need to give a lot of credit here to the folks I used to work with at Verve Records creative department. Hollis King, the art director, is easily one of the best in the business. Every day I went to work it was like going to school. The three designers that worked there every day, Kazumi, Philip, and Sachico, all had different approaches to their designs. It was a blast looking at a round of comps with everyone and narrowing down the choices. And then all the artists and managers that we worked with, plus the sales, marketing, and executives' feedback exposed me to all the perspectives one could imagine when putting the pieces together of a new CD.

1 comment:

Ryan K said...

Great breakdown.

Working with art that goes on beer labels and cans my job deals with a lot of the same issues you described. The design firms that we work with come up with good looking designs, but their files do not meet the printing or legal requirements needed.

We usually use 6 spot colors on metallic or white stock. Cans have more restrictions since the printing process is wet on wet which does not allow overprinting of colors on top of each other without contamination.

We also proofread everything, create mockups or order comps, run questions past the legal department, work with the print coordinators, try to keep costs down while keeping the integrity of the design, keep continuity across a brand, ect.

Even for a simple project, so much more work and thought goes into it than most people would think.