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Q&A: Stefan Sagmeister

The award-winning graphic designer on big-breasted female astronauts being a favorite cover art motif with bands and musicians continuing to struggle to make a living


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Stefan Sagmeister Photo: Elias Wessel

Stefan Sagmeister Photo: Elias Wessel

 

How does award-winning graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister soup up a lecture on design? He gets an intern to knife him. To be specific, he had lines from his speech carved onto his skin with an X-acto knife. Known for his radical design, Sagmeister has worked with the likes of The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed and some of the biggest names in rock ’n roll history. The Austrian-born New York-based designer, who won two Grammys [check slideshow below: the first for Talking Heads’ Once In A Lifetime and the second for David Byrne and Brian Eno’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today] was in India recently on the panel of a design convention. Sagmeister discussed design and the state of the music industry with ROLLING STONE India. Excerpts from the interview:

 

What are the aspects that drew you to create album artwork and packaging for the music industry?

Music is one of the biggest interests in my life. It’s so much more interesting to go to meetings with Lou Reed than with a marketing manager.

What’s the process like?

We have an initial meeting with the band in which I refrain from talking about the cover itself. I try to focus on the music, the band’s inspiration for it, the lyrics, where the idea came from, and so on. We also listen to the music while designing the CD packaging.

Do record companies hold the reins when it comes to CD design?

It completely depends on the label and the artist. Warner, for instance, gives us total free reign if the artist likes the cover, whereas Sony is rather difficult. But that has just been my experience. It might be different for other designers.

Do musicians have a fixed idea of what they want before you receive the brief?

We aren’t really good as executioners of other people’s ideas. If recording artists already have a fixed idea, we generally don’t take them on. Except for David Byrne. David Byrne is visually literate, which made it very easy to work with him. We seem to go in the same visual direction. Many musicians have unsophisticated visual vocabularies. Most often, ideas take the shape of big-titted female astronauts.

What would make you refrain from creating a particular musician’s CD cover?

  1. Bad music definitely would. There is an old but true adage that your cover is only as good as the music it packages.
  2. The need for a big-breasted female astronaut having to play a major role on your cover. This was an actual request!
  3. People who are nasty.

Have there been any raging conflicts?

Not always. When I worked with the Rolling Stones for Bridges to Babylon, it went really well, mostly because I worked directly with Mick Jagger, who was not only wonderful to work with, but also one who was very much in charge of things. There was very little interference from the record company and management. When you have to deal with a single client, things become quite easy. By far, the most difficult job I’ve ever done in my life was Aerosmith for their album Nine Lives. It had nothing to do with the band. The record company played a gigantic role, making it obscure as to who our client really was. It was a problematic to work on.

How important is it to own CDs today in the age of the iPod?

I do own CDs but I have to admit that I took them out of the covers because I have too many. In Manhattan, they just take up too much space. And I’m not really a nostalgic person. We stopped doing CD design a long time ago because I feel that the design of the fifth CD was not as interesting as the first CD. We just moved on and then a couple of years later, the record label industry just crashed.

What are your thoughts on the current music scene?

I think that it’s unbelievably difficult to be a musician right now. And I do think that for musicians, the fact that music is not being packaged is a big disadvantage because so much of the listening experience now is a playlist that somebody else has put together. Listeners don’t pay for the music or the download. Even though someone might like your song, it is very likely that they don’t know your name. There was an article in a New York magazine about Grizzly Bear, one of the most successful younger bands with a hit record. But they barely make any money. It’s crazy because the members of Grizzly Bear don’t even have health insurance.

I think it’s incredibly irresponsible of society to underpay musicians. The only people who step in to pay musicians are brands, and now, of course, this leads to some bands becoming famous because their song is played in a commercial. This is stupid. I’d much rather pay for something and have it pure than pay for something and have a product placement in it.  I think it’s a stupid development. This is not the way we should be. And I’m not even talking from a design perspective at all. A musician not getting his or her rightful pay is not a good sign.

What’s your take on working for mainstream labels and independent ones?

In the beginning, I only wanted to work with independent labels. Along the way, I met many people running small labels for the love of music. Those same people then understood the pressures of the market place, and then later, responded to those pressures by turning into crooks. So you can say that we were lied to, abandoned and sometimes, cheated – just like many musicians.

 

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