*Excerpt by Brooke Comer from 1999 Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market.
There are several different routes to success in record label design, according to Stefan Sagmeister of New York City-based Sagmeister, Inc. “You can try to get a job in a record label’s in-house design department, work for a design firm that has music industry clients, or you can go out on your own.”
After learning his craft as a staffer at different design firms, the Austrian-born designer chose the path less taken – he works in his own New York studio as an independent designer, where he has the freedom to remain true to the unique vision that distinguishes him in the business. He also has found success. His innovative designs are sought after by the likes of the Rolling Stones, Lou Reed and David Byrne – all creative icons in their own right.
If you want to break into record label design or illustration, Sagmeister recommends you pay close attention to the kind of work individual record labels or design firms turn out before offering your services. “Make sure the companies you apply to are doing the kind of work that suits your particular esthetic.”
He also advises artists to visit record stores and make note of the companies who produce the artwork they like most, “then go to the label that matches your own vision.”
It’s not easy to break into recording design work, and you can’t always pick and choose your first opportunities, says Sagmeister. If landing a job as an in-house designer at a label is your goal, you may find you have to start out as a freelancer until you get your foot in the door. On the other hand, if your dream is opening your own design studio, you might move toward your goal by working on staff at a record label or design firm with music clients until you accumulate enough experience and contacts to strike out on your own.
If you can’t get a job with a record label – or prefer not to – Sagmeister recommends a two-fold plan of action to gain experience and make contacts as a freelancer. “When I was starting out,” he recalls, “I approached bands directly, and I also approached their managers. If you don’t have any work to show them, create something relevant. Put together a CD cover for a band, but choose an unknown act rather than someone like Pink Floyd. Everyone already has an image in their head of Dark Side of the Moon.”
Sagmeister, who studied at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna and then at New York’s Pratt Institute, always knew he wanted to design record covers. As a child in a small Austrian town, he spent hours in record stores, mesmerized by the work of the London-based design firm Hypnosis, creators of cover art for Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and XTC. “They did such great work and they had no house style whatsoever; everything was different and visually unique,” Sagmeister recalls. He went to London at age 19 hoping to get a job at Hypnosis, “but the company had just closed.” He spent time in Hong Kong, where he worked on staff and helped open The Design Group, a division of Leo Burnett advertising agency. Working with The Design Group was “unbelievably hard work, mostly commercial, for large clients,” but the stint in advertising gave him exposure to the world of market research, and an entrée into music. While at The Design Group, Sagmeister created an album cover for European jazz group.
When Sagmeister returned to America, he worked for M & Co., the design firm responsible for many Talking Heads albums. When the company relocated to Europe, Sagmeister started out on his own. He had a friend in the music world, a musician in the New York band H.P. Zinker. Sagmeister designed a cover for the act’s CD, Mountains of Madness, on Energy Records. At first glance, the CD cover shows the peaceful face of an old man. As the booklet is pulled out of the case, however, the old man’s expression transforms into a terrifying grimace before the viewer’s eyes. “The concept behind the design was that fine line between madness and sanity,” says Sagmeister. The design won Sagmeister a Grammy nomination.
Once he won the nomination, Sagmeister says, “I began to get more attention. When I called record labels, they’d finally take my call.” But until that point the designer points out, he had a long, uphill road to climb. “In this kind of business, you need complete persistence. And you have to realize the situation at record labels: they get many portfolios and many calls from designers. But timing is everything. Just because you don’t get a response, don’t give up.” They may not need the particular look you’ve presented right away, but when they do, you might get a call.
Sagmeister’s reputation began to grow, but he continued to focus on every aspect of the design process from creative and marketing standpoint. “I spent a lot of time in record stores conducting informal market research studies,” he explains. He was familiar with the market research process from his days at Leo Burnett in Hong Kong, and realized that often research results are not as accurate as they could be because of the disparity between people’s responses and the way the responses are analyzed. Sagmeister simplified the process by streamlining the research technique. He asked music buyers what they thought of certain covers and what aspects of the artwork intrigued them.
It is part of Sagmeister’s work ethic to stay as close to his projects as possible. He works with the help of one other designer, Iceland-born Hjalti Karlsson, and an intern. “I go to all my meetings myself. I don’t even employ an accounts servicing person, because you can get stuck in your studio thinking that people will understand your design when in fact most of the population doesn’t.” He also points out the challenge of designing covers for bands with enormous followings, like the Rolling Stones. “David Byrne has a more closely knit audience, but the Stones’ audience is basically all of America.”
When Mick Jagger requested a meeting with Sagmeister to discuss his group’s upcoming recording, the mega-star established one ground rule: the design had to relate t the band’s latest tour, which would coincide with the release of the CD. Sagmeister did his homework by listening to all the Stones’ previous recordings and watching their performance videos. Halfway through his research he got a call from the band, telling him the recording/tour title: Bridges to Babylon. “I’d been going in a more baroque direction visually,” Sagmeister recalls, “and I had to start from scratch.”
For inspiration, Sagmeister researched Babylonian art at the British Museum. While walking the galleries, he spotted a large sculpture of an Assyrian lion with a man’s head which provided a symbol not only for the CD cover but for the entire tour. The silver curtain which covered the stage was transformed into a slipcover for the CD case; when you slide it out, you see th lion in the desert. “The lion is also a British heraldic image,” Sagemeister observers. “And Mick Jagger’s sun sign is Leo.”
Sagemeister’s Stones project established the already-renowned designer in the music design hall of fame. Now that their work is in deman, Sagemeister and Karlsson “only take jobs where we are responsible for initiating the creative concept. If it’s just a question of a layout, if the photo shoot’s been done, we’re not interested.” Sagemeister, Inc. is not in this business strictly for money. “We want the creative challenge.”