Jeff Kleinsmith on the New Wave of Music Design

In the last three decades we’ve witnessed the demise of cassette tapes, the rise and fall of CDs, and the near end and now re-emergence of LPs. And through it all, Jeff Kleinsmith, creative director at Sub Pop Records, has pivoted at each turn, adapting and changing with the times.

He started at the Seattle-based record label when bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam ruled the airwaves. Not only was the music transitioning from hair bands to grunge, but the way music was played and packaged was changing dramatically, and it still is. Here, we talk to Kleinsmith about how his job has shifted and transitioned over the years, and what it’s like to work with musicians on their albums.

You’ve said that working in rock n’roll is a dream job some days and some days it’s the same as any other in-house gig. Tell me a little about that.

Well it’s funny. I do talks and I teach students, and I always get asked if this is my dream job. It is a dream job. I still feel that way after 23 years, frankly! But, I have to laugh at the notion that all we do is design album covers and go to rock shows. We’re doing a ton of behind the scenes stuff like creating very specific digital marketing tools or designing shrink wrap stickers, or editing catalog pages for a distributor. I think that’s not what these students are thinking of when they ask about the music industry. They’re thinking of Nirvana or Father John Misty covers or something. But that’s actually a pretty small part of our day-to-day job—creating the cover that is. Look, we deal with meetings, and last-minute crap, and clients not liking our mockups, just like anyone else. It’s the same stuff you would complain about if you were in a corporate job.

What has been the biggest change you’ve experienced in your line of work at Sub Pop?

In general just the internet. When I started this department 23 years ago my typical morning included turning on a hand waxer, firing up the analog xerox machine and drawing LP, CD and Cassette templates by hand with a non-repro blue pen and a T-Square. My clients (the bands) had no real access to graphic design tools beyond the ability to FedEx a few physical items (photos, scraps of writing, etc. – SEE ATTACHED PHOTO I did a whole gallery show of this stuff) so I produced a couple of art board mockups with colored tissue overlays and FedExed it to the band. Then I waited for the phone call. The band had no idea how to “do design” and generally wasn’t able to speak the language of design and thus there wasn’t much of a back and forth during the design process.

These days, kids are so savvy with computers and apps and the world is so much more connected that I can engage on every level of the design process with a band now. They know what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. Sometimes this can be annoying – especially when they spec type or ask for 26 revisions in varying colors and orientations, but for the most part, I think it works really well. The leveling of the playing field so bands can better realize their vision on a granular level. I hear designers talk a lot about how the internet has made them feel obsolete. I get that, BUT there is something really cool about how all of this has made things more collaborative than ever. I think some of my best designs have come from these kinds of collaborations with our bands.

A band’s album cover isn’t about me unless they want it to be. My job is to make sure they don’t fuck something up. To package their art into a product that people find pleasing. To make sure the process is smooth and fun. To make sure the label is happy. To get it as close to their dream cover as possible. They are the ones selling it and dragging it around every night in merch booths, so they should love it. I’ll have plenty pf opportunities to design more stuff. I can be pretty crabby about my kids being on their phones all the time, but it’s amazing what they can do! I love the punk rock nature of being self-sufficient in this way. In the very early days of Sub Pop – even before my time – we persuaded some bands to go in certain directions for their art and it never went well, as we’ve had to redesign a most of them over the years!

Most people don’t buy physical albums anymore, so how has that changed the scope of the design where people are just seeing something that’s 100 pixels wide on screen?

My thinking on that is 50,000 people are going to see that square and how many people are actually going to see the cover? That’s a battle that we deal with constantly. I want the digital representation that we make to match what’s out in the marketplace. And what happens is we’re asked to put really big type or change the design for the digital versions so that it’s more readable on the internet. And I’m so old school that I battle against that a little bit. I’m more about the end product than what goes into the banner ads and the advertising.

There’s that constant push and pull between art and commerce. What’s acceptable to leave off of the digital version, that sort of thing. That’s probably always been going on and will always continue to go on in some form or another. I think the biggest thing is that the artists are more involved in every aspect of the music business. It’s kind of punk rock, which is cool. Every single aspect, I bet you could get any other department head on the phone and that would be one of the things they would have noticed. Just more of submitting music and maybe some art back in the late 80’s to now they’re involved in tour routing and all of the aspects of the music industry. It’s just much more open.

There was one particular incident a few years ago that finally made me realize where things were headed:  I received a little rough jpg from a band that looked pretty cool but it was like 300K so I asked for the high-res versions or physical prints so I could recreate it “professionally.” I was told that WAS the final art. They created it on their phone in a van on tour in the middle of America. After some back and forth about quality, resolution, etc. It dawned on me that this is how images are seen? Small and lo-rez and on their phones. (It’s how many of the bands I work with view the mockups I send also!!!).

What does a timeframe typically like for an album?

By the time it gets scheduled to when I need to have a cover, is maybe a month. But then I only have a week after that to get the entire package done—CD, LP, poster, t-shirt, etc. So it’s a little funky in that way. I have to work with these bands prior to it being officially scheduled and then once I do it goes pretty fast.

It’s sort of like the whole thing has evolved so much that the music is almost secondary to the marketing and merchandise that support it.

Yeah and it’s funny. I have teenage daughters, and for example, they’ll make plans with their friends, and all of the emails and texts going back and forth, etc., is almost more time consuming than the actual event, so it reminds me of the same thing, here. There’s so many avenues to go down, and there’s so many ways to market music, and we’ve tried them all with varying degrees of success. It’s like, “Okay, we’ve got the music. Now what can we do with it?”

And it’s interesting, some of it I love, and some of it just seems like it’s not going to last.

Do you still design posters to sell records or promote events?

We still make posters, but it’s all merch now. We make retail posters for every single release and those are generally 24×24 and blow-ups of the cover and those go to all of our retail stores.

What’s it like working with bands you’ve idolized?

I’ve worked with a couple of my favorite bands of all time, and I can’t listen to their music anymore because I had such a bad experience. It’s really sad and it’s one of the downsides of this. There’s also this mysticism about musicians and music, and it enhances the listening experience, and when the curtain is pulled back, it changes things. The mystery is gone.

What is your preference, vinyl or digital?

Oh I prefer vinyl. It’s what I grew up on. I’ve kept all of it. Just holding it, seeing the cover, brings back a certain memory. I hate to say this, but if I’m designing something that I know will be digital only, I want it to look good, but I don’t give a shit about it. I need to know that somebody’s going to get a copy of it and hold it and pull it apart and look at it. That’s just really important to me, for anything that I create. So yeah, absolutely LPs are my favorite for sure.

But, vinyl has been gaining popularity the last few years. It has overtaken CD sales, at least for us. Our LP manufacturer is a sleepy little company in Los Angeles that just made little specialty things here and there, and now it is massively busy and I think they are even looking to start their own record-pressing plant next door. So it is huge, and all the existing record-pressing plants are already booked out for months.

Does that make you happy? Are you hopeful that this is going to continue?

Absolutely, yes, cause it’s the most fun thing to design. But I’ve been in this business long enough, I’ve been alive long enough that you see things come and go. I don’t know if you’re noticing all the 90’s stuff that’s back that people are wearing, you just can’t believe that it’s back. So I’ve watched LPs completely go away to the point that we didn’t even make LPs, we only made CDs. Now CDs seem more like promo items and LPs are back and there’s a huge industry.

I don’t think that anyone really loved CDs, but everyone loved LPs.

Having seen all of that come and go, I sort of worry that this could go at any time. Cassettes are back! In all seriousness, cassettes are back, so I guess after having seen all of that I wouldn’t be surprised if 8-tracks came back for some reason.

And it isn’t just old guys waxing nostalgic, buying LPs. Young people are buying and collecting them, as well.

Yeah, so that’s what makes it more difficult for a 50 year old guy like me to judge what’s happening. In some ways it’s easier to have been through all these things. But then other times it’s like where is that coming from? Why did that happen?

But, I’m not chasing trends. I’ve seen pictures of myself from different eras. My hair changes a little, but still wearing Levis and regular old shoes. I just like the classics, and I’ll probably always stick with the classics.