Event Recap: The Art of Music

Thursday night’s “Art of Music” discussion panel proved to be a treat for everyone in attendance. The combined wisdom from our featured panelists was a great blend of business, design and inside information, and music by DJ Darla Bea helped set a groovy tone. The following recap is tied to the event’s recorded audio (by sound tech Gary Atkins) streaming in full at the bottom of this post.

Panelists: Hale Milgrim (former President/CEO, Capitol Records); John Kosh (former Creative Director, Apple Records; current Principal at Ten Worlds Productions), Andy Engel (former Art Director, CBS Records; current Principal, Andy Engel Design, Inc.); Jacob Tell (CEO/Creative Lead, Oniracom). Moderators: David Cowan and Keir DuBois from AIGA SB.

Introduction – Getting Close to the Music
To begin the discussion, Keir asked each of the panelists to describe when they first fell in love with the music, and how that set them on their eventual career paths. Hale immediately replied that his violin- and piano-playing mother was his first inspiration, while Kosh noted his early stint at the Royal Opera House in London. Andy told of being mesmerized by his high-school friend’s “House of the Rising Sun” cover, and Jacob credited “my hippie parents” with his early indoctrination in 60s/70s-era classics.

Epiphany I & II – Lennon Calls, CBS New York, Toy Stores & Phish Shows
David continued that topic with a question about the particular epiphany each panelist experienced when they knew their career was kicking off well. Hale spoke of the charm of 45rpm singles in his parents’ toy store, Andy told us about landing an early plum job at CBS after moving to New York, and Jacob related his first mind-blowing experience with friends at a Phish show, but Kosh’s understated, modest answer—“the epiphany happened when I got a call from John Lennon”—stole the show early. David could only reply “OK, we can all go home now.”

Design – Translating Emotion to Visuals
Artist vs. Label – Walking The Tightrope
Keir then asked the two designers to describe their process of inspiration and execution when creating imagery for music. Both Kosh and Andy emphasized the importance of listening first—to the artist as client, and to their music as early as possible—a critical part of rapport and discovery, but which in some cases might not be as easy as you’d assume. Andy and Kosh also talked about the idea of branding an artist before the term was fashionable, in order to emphasize the musician instead of their parent record label: “I’m not selling Elektra or Warner Brothers; I’m selling the Eagles, I’m selling Linda [Ronstadt].”

Creative Selection – It Was An Amazing Time
Merchandise – Give it a Shake, But Be Careful
From there, David asked Hale to talk about his selection process when matching a designer with a musician, such as Neon Park with the band Little Feat. Hale replied “I was a kid in a candy store,” and went on to praise the many talented designers available to him as an executive, especially in the days of liberal cash flow. Keir asked Jacob to draw parallels with Oniracom’s current process; Jacob talked about how the design and marketing of merchandise (apparel, souvenirs, etc.) drives artist profits in place of dwindling returns from recordings.

Iconic Pieces – Hard Work Behind the Scenes
David’s prompt for backstage stories from Kosh about some of his iconic work yielded a back-and-forth about how his career’s painfully true “Spinal Tap” moments have always been balanced by shared respect with musicians who’ve worked relentlessly hard on their craft. Hale echoed that, noting that the best label employees did the same, to which everyone agreed.

Career Arcs – I Love Working With Dead People
Keir’s question to the panelists about the challenges and rewards of creating and re-creating successful imagery for particular artists over the course of their careers brought wisdom from both Kosh (via his work for Linda Ronstadt) and Jacob (for Jack Johnson). It also inspired one of the night’s best quotes from Andy, “I love working with dead people,” but that crack was leavened with the serious respect of being responsible for the visual legacy of jazz legends like Billie Holliday.

Changing Formats – Don’t Ask Me to Draw Hands
Packaging – We Got Rid of the Album Too Soon
Andy also responded to Keir’s question about adjusting to different formats (LP vs cassette vs CD vs mp3) by noting that he felt a liberating challenge with each change, especially with CD reissues that came close to book designs. Kosh agreed and added that changing formats also meant changing tools, but artists well-trained with fundamental analog design skills often found the transition to digital-based design less rocky than expected. The discussion continued to packaging, and Hale observed that “we got rid of the album too soon” and the consequence was a stifling of the impulse to collect and the creativity that went into serving that impulse.

Client Involvement – It Hits You in the Face
Composition Materials – I Kinda Had to Fake That
Last Question – It Wasn’t Them Inside the Bag
Questions from the audience included “how much is the musician involved in the design process?” (Short answer: it varied case by case); “before computers, what materials did you use to create?” (Answer: “shall we go all the way back to spray-mount?”); “what do you think the future experience will be for visualizing music?” (Answer: “it’s about the music, so whatever the music of the time dictates”); “what are your personal favorite Beatles stories?” (Answer: appropriately tactful hedging from Kosh). With that, the panel ended and the audience was invited to view the physical pieces each panelist brought to the show.

It was indeed, as Kosh said, “a splendid time guaranteed for all.” If you want to hear the whole thing start to finish, we’ve got you covered:

By Keir DuBois
Published November 10, 2014
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