April 12th, 2018

A ‘silly’ question because, yes, of course it does! Doesn’t it? I was certain of it. Though I recently questioned that notion when I came across a highly successful techno and house label, Suara, that has nearly 300 releases that use pictures of cats. With so many iconic album covers, with some people even purchasing music purely for the artwork, it seems a little ‘easy’ to use a series of very similar images that do not even relate to the music… well that’s what I thought until I looked into it.

Released back in 2008, the below image is the first piece of artwork from the label in question. Yes, it’s not a cat, it’s a ball of wool, scanned then inverted. It’s simple, black and white and slightly ambiguous like a lot of album artwork. The sketch and logo work well together, but whether they communicate the genre of music they are selling is another question – do they even need to though?

The logo is calligraphic which isn’t characteristic of the music released on the label. Techno and House are underground electronic genres pushing boundaries, which don’t necessarily immediately relate to calligraphy or traditional script. The design of album artwork and promotional posters for techno and house events often use bold shapes and sans-serif fonts, so in relation to the rest of the genre you may expect this logo to be more appropriate for a classical music label, but is that then too obvious? Perhaps this was the point, to break free from the status-quo (so to speak) and add a point of difference.

If we move onto release 32 from the label in 2011, the below left image, the ball of wool has become a secondary mark and the main artwork is an image of a cat that has been sketched into. This is the first release that uses the cat face aesthetic which has gone on to dominate most of the label’s 300 releases, as shown below centre and right. Coinciding with this 2011 release, and perhaps the explanation behind the use of cats, is the establishment of the Suara Foundation. This non-profit organisation is dedicated to helping cats; from rescuing homeless cats from the streets and rehoming them, to improving the image of the cat (feral and domestic) through education and awareness. So maybe the cat image has a much bigger meaning than we all first thought. The idea of the cat and the affiliation to the label had gone beyond just the sleeve design.

By release 185 in 2015, as shown below left, in a more considered design, the typography has been addressed and made legible and more contemporary, which is typical of the genre. This seemed to be a winning formula for Suara, as since this release, the design of the album artwork has stayed very similar, as shown in the below centre and right images.

When I flick through my ever-growing iTunes library and Spotify playlists, like many other people, I use artwork as a visual cue, it’s often how I choose which song to play next or to find something quickly among playlists. Suara’s consistent cat themed look makes their releases instantly recognisable and easy to find. So is this what they set out for? A formula in their design that would harness more of a brand recognition over an artistic interpretation of the album and its content.

My original point about the label was that using similar cat photos for every release seems ‘easy’. However, it seems this could have been the master plan from the get-go. The theme of cats is what has made them stand out from other labels, and not just from the same genre. Suara‘s tagline is ‘All about music and cats’ and they’ve stuck to this, unwavering in their approach to album cover design, their passion for the welfare of cats is at the heart of their brand, with their merchandise, events and branding all reflecting this. This recognition has become synonymous to the label, the genre and, therefore, the brand, giving the label a strong identity in a highly diluted market where a new artist or label can rise to prominence very quickly.

Suara shows why album artwork does matters in a different way. Rather than focussing on the design of one record release, they’ve had a view for the long-term – or at least it turned into that organically. Either way, they’ve built a successful brand and record label because of the focus on cats and good music.

So to answer the question ‘Does album artwork design matter?’ I think really it comes down to a balance between how the artist or label wants their work to be represented and what the individual consumer thinks. With music being primarily published digitally nowadays, it seems like it might not matter to some at all. For others, it matters as much as the music, and for some, it can matter the most. It’s completely subjective.

So how do you approach a record sleeve brief as a designer? You could spend a lot of time, effort and money creating a beautiful album cover that may never sell a thing, or you may design something in ten minutes that goes platinum. Suara may have a formulaic design but they also may sell more albums than a label that has spent thousands on its artwork. They have a formula that works for them. So I say whatever they might feel about how much the design matters, long may the cats continue.

Image Credits:
Cover Image:
Beatport; Image 1: The Clubbing; Image 2 & 3: Beatport ; Image 4: Soundcloud; Image 5: Ransom Note; Image 6 & 7: Bastian Bux