- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 14, 2006

If the compact disc truly is dying, it’s going to be one good-looking corpse.

Or maybe you haven’t noticed the aesthetically inspired design packages consistently wrapping CDs nowadays.

Such tangible quality is easy to miss if your interaction with album art is limited to squinting at thumbnail-size cover photographs that pop up, like an afterthought, on IPod screens.

The ongoing liquidation of Tower Records, too, has industry writers’ spell-checkers flagging the word “obsolescence.”

Yet, despite the seeming end of an era, the CD format thrives as art object.

Witness the gorgeous stamp-collection design of the Andy Partridge boxed set “Fuzzy Warbles Collector’s Album”; the customizable sticker art that accompanies Beck’s “The Information”; the copious 94 pages of liner notes inside Tom Waits’ recent “Orphans” compilation; the pulp-novel layout of Aimee Mann’s “The Forgotten Arm”; and the evocative photography found in the “special package” edition of Ben Folds’ “Songs for Silverman.”

If the future is all ones and zeroes, then these artists — and the designers whose work they commission — sure are wasting a ton of effort if not, necessarily, a ton of money.

Ironically enough, one of the reasons first-rate CD packaging has become more widespread in recent years is that computer and printing software makes it relatively cheap to pull off.

“It has to do with the sweeping digital media revolution,” says Eric Fritz, co-owner of Chicago-based CDDesign.com. “A lot of people have the talent to do it, and you don’t need to spend a lot of money for good equipment.”

Matt Strieby, who runs Newleaf Design over the Web from Battle Ground, Wash., explains that programs offered by software companies such as Adobe Systems have made it possible to manipulate photographs and other graphical elements in ways “that didn’t exist 20 years ago.”

“There has also been a smaller revolution on the manufacturing and printing front,” Mr. Strieby adds. Years ago, only high-volume commercial jobs looked professional. With the benefit of inkjet printing technology, though, today’s low-budget indie releases can be as good visually as those released on major labels.

Talk of album art inevitably calls to mind the iconic covers of the vinyl LP era, such as the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” or the Rolling Stones’ (Andy Warhol-designed) “Sticky Fingers.”

Granted, CDs don’t stack up in this regard. But cover-judging misses the point: CD art today is more holistic, more organic.

Take the increasingly popular Digipack format, introduced six years ago as a self-contained paper alternative to the unlovely plastic jewel box. Quite apart from cover photography, the bookish Digipack is a plush, tactile pleasure; it feels like art.

Practical, ad hoc adjustments to the size and shape of the medium also have contributed to the improvement of CD art, according to Hugh Brown, creative director at Rhino Records, the archival specialty division of Warner Bros. Records that recently issued the acclaimed CD-DVD “Sinatra: Vegas,” a chronicle of five Frank Sinatra performances in Las Vegas.

CD art designers gradually realized they could make artistic use of what at first seemed like dead space — the clear spine of the jewel box, the tray that houses the CD and, of course, the disc itself. In tandem with superior audio quality and first-generation tape-sourcing, such innovations were especially important for Rhino’s reissue and compilation market.

Mr. Brown’s team, which collectively has won a trunkful of Grammys, prides itself on wacky design concepts and maniacal attention to detail. Only a cramped production schedule prevented “Sinatra: Vegas” from sporting battery-powered neon lights.

The “Hot Rod & Custom Classics: Cruisin’ Songs and Highway Hits” boxed set arrived in 1999 in the shape of a model-car kit box; inside are greaser gimcracks such as fuzzy dice and a booklet that includes Tom Wolfe’s famous hot-rod essay, “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.”

“Proust had his madeleines; we had airplane-model glue,” Mr. Brown quips of Rhino’s retro obsessiveness.

Mr. Brown says he’s somewhat concerned about the demise of Tower Records — which carried a deep stock of boxed sets and sold up to 30 percent of them annually — but adds, anecdotally, that buyers seem to be migrating to outlets such as Amazon.com.

Unopened copies of Rhino’s six-CD boxed set “Beg, Scream & Shout!: The Big Ol’ Box of ‘60s Soul” are fetching more than $500 a pop.

Meanwhile, Mr. Strieby says design is a way for indie-rock bands to distinguish themselves in an ever more crowded marketplace. In this environment, a cleverly conceived CD package is a badge of professionalism. “There’s an impetus to create knock-‘em-dead packaging,” he says.

Still, it’s far from certain whether better CD packaging can slow the onslaught of digital music. Consumers have blithely sacrificed audio quality in favor of portability — why not art, too?

For now, at least, the “interactive booklet” is the tribute technology pays to tangibility. Consumers at online stores such as ITunes can print out cover art and liner notes as part of album packages that also include video interviews.

That may change, however, as young fans with no memory of the bricks-and-mortar era come to dominate the music market.

Still, CDDesign.com’s Mr. Fritz says predictions of a physical severance between art and music are as hoary as player pianos, whose paper rolls once provided the all-important tactile marriage. Likewise the dropping of the turntable needle.

“If you take it through the generations,” Mr. Fritz says, “the connection between art and music is stronger than ever.”

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