cover art…your last chance power drive
You just raised $12,233.45 on Kickstarter for that first album of songs that you’ve been working on for three years. Playing dives, libraries, parks, house concerts, open mics and the occasional bar where everybody talks over your set, your day job is making coffee at the Starbucks across from the train station and almost all the customers are business people who are always on the run and can never find time to say hello or thank you. After you got that fine arts degree from Parsons, and couldn’t score a real gig, you went home to live with your parents and two little brothers because you couldn’t make enough money to pay for rent, student loans, a car and insurance…not to mention the Martin guitar you wanted and assorted things that a twenty-something year old woman needs. But eight months ago you moved into a one bedroom apartment with your best friend Karen, and your musician friends Ian and Nathan talked you into doing the crowd source thing and it worked and now you’re in the studio…well it’s really an office storeroom with a MacBook Pro, and the producer and engineer is Freddy Blumberg who you knew back in high school and is now in charge of the copy machines here at the industrial park …doing your very first album.
Does this sound about right to any of you? Picking up any resonance? Let me continue.
After a dozen tracks are in the can….right; there is no can but it sounds so retro to say…you ship the handful of flash drives with your life’s output on them to a real life honest-to-god professional mixer in Nashville, who charges only $1500 and lets you put his name prominently in the credits. And when you get it all back you are so excited because you know…it really sounds good. In fact, better than good. You have made a first rate album. The songs are well crafted, the lyrics are intelligent, insightful and funny, the instrumentation is first rate (you are just soooo happy you got the low-end Martin and didn’t settle for the crummy Ibanez) and your friends are tweeting all about you. Before you even have a chance to send them off to have some real CDs made, you get a call from Johnny Mankovich who is a local agent and promoter with “connections” and he agrees to represent you for only 20% of the action and half your advance, should there ever be one, from the record labels he’s going to shop your now- finished album to.
But first…you need to order 1000 copies to sell at your shows, to your family and friends, on Amazon and that local indie store near the campus where Doug is the manager and has promised to have a record release party for you. You’re totally ready to go when you realize you forgot one thing…you need a cover. Shit. Luckily your friend Karen is dating Steve who is a waiter at the wood fired pizza joint on Mill Street, and he has a four year degree in digital photography and production, and he agrees to “do a shoot”. Johnny Mankovich calls you the night before and says whatever you do, make it real sexy. Huh? What? Now, you are an attractive and beautiful young woman, but you haven’t worn makeup since your high school prom, you cut your bangs yourself, the wardrobe hanging in the closet is jeans and jeans and some shirts from the thrift store and other than the Converse sneaks and your mom’s old Doc Martens, you only own a pair of scuffed and worn cowboy boots you bought at the mall when you were sixteen. Sexy?
Johnny Mankovich with his “connections” and experience insists…you can’t “shop a deal for a chick singer” (he really says that) without her “all dolled up” (he really says that, too). So you call the only friend who you know who can help…Kasey Radowski who has a fashion degree from the university and works as a receptionist for the Smoke-A-Roach Exterminators out on the highway and is the sluttiest girl you know. “Please Kasey…I need help” you beg, and she comes over and brings a suitcase full of clothes and together with Karen you find an outfit to wear. And then Claire comes over after she finishes her shift at Fantastic Sam’s and spends a few hours working on the hair and makeup, as she has a cosmetology license. You’re ready for your photo shoot.
Because most of your music is singer-songwriter-acoustic folkie-Americana, Steve decides that for the shoot you’ll be leaning against a truck. With a dog. And a rifle. When you show up in fishnets, cowboy boots, short black skirt, sheer top and dyed blonde hair Johnny Mankovich screams “I love this look” and for the next three hours you pose and primp and do all the things you think you need to do in order to look sexy and sell your new record to the labels in New York or Nashville or Hollywood or any place Johnny has “connections” and you are so excited when you see the proofs because they don’t even look like you, and you are so hot looking that even you would date yourself if you were into that, which you are certainly not.
With the hot sexy photos, you have an album cover, you have the professionally mixed digital files, you send them to the pressing plant and in two weeks it comes back to you. Johnny takes a hundred and hits the road in search of a deal. You’ll never hear from him again. Doug at the record store comes through with a release party and they take 200 copies but only sell 17 in four weeks because you have been burning them for all your friends and family and they have in turn been burning them for their friends and family as well. Two months later you are feeling discouraged but at least you have been working steady and actually getting paid…usually in food and drink with some tips…when Ali, your friend with the marketing degree who is working part time as an intern for an art gallery, has a great idea. She suggests that with all these CDs you have, why not hire a publicist who can send them out to lots and lots of bloggers who will write stories about how good it is, maybe even call you for an interview and your career can go viral. (Raise your hand if you remember that word.)
After coffee and the gym, I came home around eleven and the mailman was just finishing doing what he does. I opened my box and brought the small stack of stuff back to my apartment and sifted through. New releases from some of the marketing companies and publcists and labels who send me stuff, a letter from a guitar player I just wrote about thanking me for taking the time to help him out, a bill from Con Ed, the Kohl’s weekly ad and a white envelope with a return address I don’t recognize. I can feel it’s a disc. Damn. I really prefer just getting files sent to my Dropbox these days. As I take it out and look at the cover there is a girl…my god, she is actually wearing fishnets with cowboy boots…leaning up against a truck with a dog and a rifle, looking like she is trying to make a few bucks from the local boys while waiting for her deal to come down. It’s sad. It’s exploitive. It turns me off. I don’t like it when musicians…male or female…think that they need to use sexuality to sell their art. It makes me think of Dali in fishnets, boots and a mini-skirt, and I shudder. And without giving it a listen, I toss the album in “the pile”. Maybe one day I’ll give it a chance, but for now it’s DOA because I don’t like how it looks.
Cover art. In 2008 there were quite a few articles about it dying off. Not important if there aren’t people to see it nor stores to display it. But it still exists, and it gets flashed on blogs and your web pages and on Amazon and Spotify and places like that. So people see it. And it conveys who you are and what you do. So in what I probably could have said in a couple of sentences but this was more fun, here is my advice: take your time, think it through, get it right. Sex does sell, but it also sends a message. After all your hard work, your ups and your downs, your album cover is the last chance power drive to visually define yourself.
(And as a public service, feel free to send me any pictures you’re not sure about and I’ll be happy to give you my feedback. I’m one helluva guy.)