Quality music packaging is more important than ever, says Saddle Creek’s Zack Nipper
I’m a very lucky person: as a designer for Saddle Creek, an independent record label in Omaha, Nebraska, I get to work with friends of mine on projects that I care about. I’ve known the people involved since shortly after the label started, when Conor Oberst (of indie rock band Bright Eyes) and his brother Justin were releasing cassettes out of a bedroom in their parents’ house. Artwork and design were just things that I did for fun. I never thought they would turn into something I could do as a job. It’s been amazing to watch it grow over the years into something that people connect with.
My first album design was in 1998: a run of 300 LP jackets for Bright Eyes that I silk-screened in my bathroom. In 2005 the label became big enough to need a person in the art department, and they offered me a job. After I won a Grammy for best package design for Bright Eyes’ Cassadaga, I received a very tempting offer to design an album for a high-profile major label band, but I ended up turning it down. Maybe it was a stupid career move, but I wouldn’t have been able to commit to this other huge project and still work for the label. I really believe in what we’re doing.
What I do day-to-day varies a lot. Some days are mostly mundane tasks like laying out promotional one-sheets; but other days I sit and make physical artwork that ends up on an album, and those are the best. I love working with my hands to make things, and that’s where most of my older designs came from. I decided to return to this for the Old Canes album Feral Harmonic in 2009. The whole office was involved in the assembly, which for each CD involved seven separate ink stamps, gluing a card to the front, gluing in the booklets, and affixing and tying closed a ribbon. It ended up being a monumental task but I liked the hands-on process.
As more people move to digital formats, we might find ourselves doing very limited physical pressings for some bands. CD sales have dropped significantly, but digital sales and streaming revenue haven’t made up the difference. Package design for smaller bands can be a challenge. While fewer people are buying physical music, those who are left are more likely to care about the quality of the packaging. But of course, the fewer you manufacture, the more expensive it is per unit. If you raise the list price, you make the digital option even more appealing. It’s a vicious circle.
Vinyl sales are increasing, but they are still a very small segment of the market. Pressing LPs is expensive at small quantities and might not make sense for a band that doesn’t sell a lot. But there will still be the opportunity for more bands to release albums on vinyl and offer nicer packaging. I think we’ll soon get to the point when we can release an album in two ways: digitally, and a vinyl LP with CD or MP3 download card.
My day-to-day work hasn’t changed a whole lot as a result of the move to digital music. At Saddle Creek, we’re mostly vinyl fans, and will offer that format whenever possible. We’ll continue to press CDs as long as there’s sufficient demand for them. We did start including a ‘digital booklet’ PDF with purchase of full albums from iTunes, which is just a reformatting of the artwork and liner notes of the physical version. So far, we haven’t considered app-based albums or anything like that.
A big component of my job is designing the actual package itself, and trying to make it as high-quality a product as we can. As a record collector myself, I try to make each release something I’d want to purchase. Of course, it would be great to release deluxe pressings of every title with elaborate jackets and inserts, but it’s usually just not possible. At times I also make major compromises on artwork based on the band’s wishes. I don’t ever try to force a band to accept my view of what their record should look like, even though it’s sometimes really tempting. But ultimately, I think it’s a good thing to give the final say to those artists who want to use their packaging to communicate their own visual ideas.
There has been some evolution in our CD and LP packaging. When I first started with the label in 2005, almost all of our CDs were in jewel cases. We eventually moved over to a cardstock ‘wallet’ for most CDs, similar to what you’d see in a gatefold LP jacket. It’s more expensive than jewel case packaging, but the end result is much nicer. The cost for pressing LPs has gone up, but we try to press on heavy 180g vinyl when we can.
I’m disappointed that more and more people have no interaction with physical album packaging at all. I think something important in the experience is lost. ‘Digital’ says an album is just a collection of tracks to be split up and put on shuffle. Hopefully the vinyl trend will continue, and be a refuge for people who care about the artwork of an album.