Eighteenth-Century Art and the Marketing of Classical CDs

Posted in marketplace (goods & services), today in light of the 18th century by Editor on December 22, 2012

B Y  M I C H A E L  Y O N A N

The visuals that adorn classical recordings are not usually of terribly high quality. CD packaging often seems an afterthought, and when designers try to be creative, bad things sometimes happen (as demonstrated by this Pinterest collection of Worst Classical Album Covers Ever). The age of early stereo LPs probably marked the peak of production values. The famous Dario Soria series of recordings on RCA, issued in the 1960s, featured deluxe packaging with lavish booklets printed on embossed cardstock and brimming with reproductions of art works, recording session photos, and scholarly essays. They remain prized collectors’ items.

The 1970s saw packaging standards decline, and the advent of CDs in the 1980s just made things worse. The smaller format of compact discs reduces the impact of visuals, and the paper inserts are typically flimsy and poorly printed. You might be buying good music, but you typically get an ugly object.

Figure 1Why does it matter, one might ask? Isn’t the music the point? It is, but the visual aspects still work to entice buyers and, in the case of obscure classical music, to suggest what they’re buying. For many, the real item on offer is a mood. Music creates mood, and savvy music marketers know that the right packaging helps. You might even say that since handling the packaging precedes listening to the music, it inflects how one comprehends what one hears.

Recent moves to improve the physical character of classical CDs have enlisted eighteenth-century art to work its magic. Exceptionally successful in this regard is an independent publisher from Belgium, Out There Music. One of its labels, Alpha, notably pairs excellently performed music and strikingly beautiful packaging. In fact, Alpha claims to make “records that are as beautiful to look at as to listen to…”, striving to “shape each production into a unique object reflecting the centuries-old links between various forms of artistic expression.”

Figure 2Take, for example, the CD, “Le Berger poète” (Alpha 148), which features eighteenth-century French music for flute and musette de cour. On the cover is a detail of Hyacinthe Rigaud’s Portrait of Gaspard de Gueidan Playing the Musette de cour, 1738. This image on a simple level helps the buyer visualize a musette, an instrument most of us have never seen. It’s a small bagpipe that enjoyed great popularity among French nobles with rustic proclivities. Its sound is reminiscent of an oboe’s or, less charitably, a kazoo’s. Inside there is a full reproduction of Rigaud’s painting and an additional detail from Gueidan’s garments, both framed by richly colored marbling. Included is a 45-page booklet introduced by a reproduction of an eighteenth-century musical title page. If the recording aims to evoke the world out of which this music comes, then the pictures help, and as someone who loves recorded music, I can say that the combination of visual and aural together powerfully suggest a long lost ambience.

Figure 3“Le Berger poète” isn’t unique. Other Alpha CDs feature high-resolution details of images by Vigée-Lebrun, Goya, Nattier, Liotard, and Tiepolo in equally creative and often gorgeous packaging. Ramée, another label from Out There, uses a similar design principle but shifts the focus from images to objects. Ramée’s covers feature pictures of early modern textiles, metalwork, silver, furniture, architectural elements, and machines. Both labels make frequent use of cropping and details, design choices that counteract the CD’s physical limitations. I’d like to think that such choices are especially apposite for the eighteenth century, an era so fascinated by fragments, ruins, and oblique views. Ramée’s mission statement is even bolder than Alpha’s in that they seek to “create CDs as complete objets d’art,
because we believe the ear’s pleasure is intimately tied together
with that of the eye and the hand.” I agree.

Figure 4I find it interesting that as we increasingly download our music, a process that would indicate the obsolescence of the CD altogether, not only is the CD not (yet?) going away, but in fact it is becoming more and more beautiful (Out There offers recordings both as digital downloads and as CDs). Even with downloaded music, art can remain a component of the musical experience.  The new iTunes redesign continues to let you pair every song with a picture, be it the album cover or an image of one’s choice. It’s another way of doing what Soria did earlier and Alpha and Ramée do now, namely setting the tone for the ear’s experience.

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