Storm’s Last Stand: Storm Thorgerson in the decade that ‘killed album art’
In an exclusive extract from his new book, the story of Storm Thorgerson in the noughties – the decade that ‘killed album art’.
In October 2012, Storm Thorgerson asked me to write a chapter for his forthcoming book, The Gathering Storm. The book – which is out now and can be ordered directly from here – is organised around the four decades in which he worked, and I was to do the noughties. My brief was: “2k words on the changing the selling of music, including downloading, vinyl comeback and boxsets as a context for my work during the period, which didn’t change much but everything else did”.
When I sent to him (mentioning that I wasn’t sure of the ending) he replied:
brilliant but lengthy lik many a film classic
id take a razor to the digital section but i laughed out a loud
at thr ending – its fine
as is the opening line
where are you now? want to call me?
i have a little something for you
I never saw him again. He died in April 2013 and the next thing I wrote about him was his obituary. Buy his book, it’s a great testament to his work and that of Storm Studios who continue without him. Here’s the extract:
Music used to be a thing you could touch. And sometimes it’d touch you back. Music didn’t come down a telephone line at all hours of the day, deposit itself in your ‘Purchased’ folder and cost you 99p a song. You had to wait for music. You had to go out, hunting and gathering, to record stores, charity shops, music fairs – places where you could eye it up, fondle and touch it, coo over the sleeve and anticipate the sounds within.
All of that ended – not with a bang but with a series of clicks – in the noughties.
It happened almost immediately. In April 2000, it was announced that thrash metal leviathans Metallica were suing something called Napster. This Napster thing, it turned out, was taking CDs, turning the music into digital files and then making them freely available to anyone with a 56kps modem and a whole lot of time on their hands. Record company execs were understandably frustrated and annoyed. Mostly because they’d just spent hours waiting for a single picture of hot multi-racial lesbo action to download, but also because… Well, why hadn’t they thought of this?
Their decade was about to get a lot worse. In October 2001 Apple’s iPod was released. “It’s like carrying your entire record collection in your pocket,” said Apple. “We’ll take 350 million of ‘em!” said the world. In 2003 a site called MySpace allowed artists to share music directly with their fans. Suddenly you didn’t have to buy the album, you could just visit MySpace and play it over and over while chatting with fellow fans. (Smart move, artists.) Between 2005 until early 2008, it became the most-visited social networking site in the world. YouTube followed in February 2005, enabling everyone to look at and listen to pretty much any artist in the history of music for free. (And then write in txt spk underneath about how ‘they is wack, bro’.) The switch from dial-up to broadband meant downloading, file-sharing and streaming music became quick and easy.
Faced with this free, continuous and on-demand music, the ways music was purchased and consumed changed radically. Radio became less relevant. DAB seemed to offer specialist stations catered to everyone’s tastes, but we were all playlisting our own personal radio shows. Why listen to a DJ playing tracks chosen by some faceless committee when you can hop from YouTube to MySpace, build playlists on iTunes, or swap DVDs full of MP3s with your friends? The BBC’s baffled response to the new multi-channel, multi-platform world was to cancel Top Of The Pops in the summer 2006. It had already been displaced as the one mainstream music programme that the whole country sat down to together. In February 2002 some kid called Will Young won a thing called ‘Pop Idol’. This annual TV singing contest, later renamed The X Factor, was to dominate the charts and the airwaves for the foreseeable future. (“If you want a vision of the future,” George Orwell once wrote, “imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever”. He neglected to mention that the soundtrack would be provided by shop assistants from Croydon warbling power ballads in the style of a hiccupping Whitney Houston.)
Record sales plummeted. All across the web, specialist music blogsites run by music fans – and cynical ad-hungry aggregators – shared albums old and new via file storage sites like Rapidshare and Megaupload. An application called Spotify was launched in October 2008. Music magazine sales dropped; some closed altogether. Retailers like Virgin Megastores, Tower Records, Zavvi, Fopp and Woolworths bit the dust.
In March 2007 Paul McCartney signed a record deal with Starbucks on the rationale that “if people aren’t going to record shops anymore, we’ll take the records to them!” In August that year Prince went one better, giving away three million copies of his latest album with the Mail On Sunday as promotion for a series of 21 nights at London’s O2 Arena. Playing to 420,000 people, he makes a fortune on tickets and the publishing costs paid by the Mail. Prince’s previous album had sold just 80,000 copies in the UK. By giving it away for ‘free’, this deal may have earned him more than eight times as much.
There was a power shift from record companies to promoters and agents. In 2002 David Bowie announced that he was to perform his classic album Low in its entirety at London’s Royal Festival Hall. (“Hang on,” double-checked a cynical audience: “You’re definitely not going to play any of your new album? Really? And none of that Tin Machine guff? Ok then, I’m in!”) Acts with a similar pedigree who previously had thought that they had to release a new album in order to tour, embraced a new nothing-but-the-hits/your-favourite-album-in-full touring model. Promoters, fed-up of losing small fortunes on hot, hyped young acts with no audience, smelled money. The new law: any band that can reform, will.
MP3 players took the focus from long-playing albums and put it on individual tracks. Why download an album padded with filler when you can just buy the tracks you like? Between 1999 to 2009, sales of full albums fell 55%. Sales of individual digital tracks, meanwhile, went from nothing to 1.2 billion. By January 2012 US digital music sales accounted for 50.3% of all music purchases, the first time that digital has over taken physical musical sales.
So where did all this leave Storm Thorgerson? As Storm himself put it: “My work during the period didn’t change much but everything else did”. I became Editor In Chief of Classic Rock magazine in 2004 and interviewed Storm in 2007 when the topic of conversation was most definitely, “In a world without physical albums, where does that leave the sleeve designer?”
Amid the insults and wind-ups I had to endure, Storm was philosophical. The whole issue, he said, “raises a very good and complex question about the need for objects. That is, whether you live in a hut in Tanzania or a mansion in Malibu, there are common characteristics: mementos, objects, possessions. It’s a really deep issue [going back as] early as man had the first bone collection.” And he had already had an inkling of where things were going: “Packaging might make a comeback,” he said. “You can’t get a virtual rendition of fancy packaging. We’re about to do a special pack in remembrance of Syd Barrett, which will include a replica of a piece of original Syd artwork in the form of a little booklet which he made. For those who love Syd, it’ll be great to have in their hands. You can’t get that down the wire. Maybe there are some things that won’t be invalidated by downloading.”
Ironically, the clue to the future (now present) could be found in a significant release that year from a band often dubbed ‘the new Pink Floyd’. In October 2007 Radiohead offered their new album In Rainbows via their website with a “pay what you want” offer. Warner Chapell later revealed that most people who downloaded it from their website paid a grand total of… nothing. There is a ‘but’: pre-sales for the CD version were still more profitable than the band’s previous album Hail To The Thief, aided by the promotion afforded the free release or perhaps as a result of their try-before-you-buy offer. More significantly, the band also created a limited edition ‘disc box’ packaged in a hardcover ‘book’ with slipcase, featuring the album on CD and two heavyweight 12″ vinyl records, artwork, lyrics, a second enhanced CD with eight extra tracks, digital photos and artwork. This package cost £40 and sold 100,000 copies. By October 2008, the album had sold three million copies across both paid-for physical and digital versions.
Some people, it turned out, would still pay for a hard copy – for something more than just the music. The hardcore wanted something hard, a special, collectable edition that they could touch – and that might touch them back. For the serious fan, the desire to own and collect was reawakened. In a culture where you can have anything for free, paying extra for something you actually love makes sense. The years since have seen array of lavish, limited edition box sets, the most ambitious being the “Why Pink Floyd?” campaign that offered Floyd’s back catalogue in a variety of ways. The Immersion Editions offering bonus discs of unreleased music, and a variety of exclusive, irresistible gifts: scarves, drinks coasters, replica backstage passes and tour tickets – and marbles, in case you’d already lost yours.
Something else started to happen. In 2011, SoundScan – them wot measure the sales of music – reported that sales of vinyl were at an all-time high: 3.9 million in the States, up over one million copies from 2010 and now accounting for 2% of the 228 million physical albums sold. In the UK, sales of vinyl increased 44% to 341,000. You might be tempted to think that these records were sold to people stuck in the past, Luddites who refuse to move with the times. In fact, SoundScan estimates that 9 out of every 10 new vinyl albums sold included a digital download code for the same album. That is, the people who bought them still wanted the music in a form they could add to their iTunes playlists and stick on their phones – but they also wanted the artwork, the tangible thing, a little bit more immersion.
Throughout all of these changes, of course, Storm kept on working, defying bad economics just as he defied bad health. Storm’s 21st century work was still instantly recognisable, even in cases where the album itself wasn’t well known. (If you want to test this, trying viewing Megadeth album sleeves on Google Images. Storm Studios designed only one – I guarantee you that among the skeletons, zombies and apocalyptic scenes of Megadeth’s other sleeves you will easily be able to identify which one.) In the noughties Storm Studios produced work for a diverse bunch of artists, from rock classicists, to electronic futurists and jazz-rockers. They’re not all household names – O.A.R., Goose, Powderfinger, YOURCODENAMEIS:MILO, Umphrey’s McGee, Shpongle, Thornley, Disco Biscuits – but they do have some traits in common. For all their variety, there’s a lack of acoustic-based roots music. Storm’s lot are electric. Epic. They have big ideas, big sounds, big visions. They write songs with titles like Supermassive Black Holes or Mountains. Often they are a bit daft. Almost all of them are loners – bands that don’t fit in any scene or movement. Single-minded dreamers. Mavericks.
And apart from a few blockbusting acts – Muse, Biffy Clyro, Pendulum – few of them have enjoyed massive success. So the recent work of Storm Studios is perhaps not as iconic or as recognisable as work from the 70s and 80s. It’s not the art’s fault, obviously: with iTunes, DAB, Spotify, SoundCloud, our own individual tastes are now indulged to such an extent that it’s hard to imagine that we’ll agree on any one collection of tracks from one artist ever again. It’s tempting to say that this is reflected in Storm’s work, to suggest that just as music has fragmented and we wave good-bye to the kind of consensus that brought us megabands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Genesis, so the artists that Storm works with now have become more niche, more obscure. But it’s not as neat as that: for every Pink Floyd there was always a Public Foot, for every Led Zeppelin an Orange Bicycle. These days Storm’s sleeves for Norvalis, Hydra, Gravy Train, Strife or Quiver are better known than the music itself.
What it means for the art itself needs a mightier mind than mine. The circumstances that turned the artwork for Dark Side Of The Moon into a rock icon have changed. From where I’m standing, Storm Studios produced some of their greatest work in the noughties. Since yer asking, I like the Powderfinger sleeves, all The Mars Volta sleeves, Thornley’s Tiny Pictures, Europe’s Secret Society, Yumi Matsutoya’s Setsugekka and The Cranberries’ Wake Up And Smell The Coffee – none of which are probably recognisable outside of the bands’ fanbases. But does it matter? Is art to be judged on the amount of eyeballs that view it? If a tree falls in the woods, does it still make a noise?
I’m with Aristotle on this one: of course it fucking does.
Images courtesy of Storm Studios.
Audioslave – Audioslave Design & Photography StormStudios, 2002 © StormStudios
Biffy Clyro – Only Revolutions Design & Photography StormStudios, 2009 © StormStudios
Cranberries – Wake Up and Smell the Coffee Design & Photography StormStudios, 2001
Mars Volta – Frances The Mute Design & Photography StormStudios, 2005 © StormStudios
Pink Floyd – Oh By The Way – Lilac Design & Photography StormStudios, 2007 © Pink Floyd Music Ltd/Pink Floyd (1987) Ltd.
Sperm & Egg Design & Photography StormStudios, 2009 © StormStudios
Steve Miller Band – Bingo Design & Photography StormStudios, 2010 © StormStudios