PICTURE YOUR MUSIC: The Art & Craft of CD Design

Updated: Mar 12, 2019


OK, so a picture is supposed to be worth a thousand words. In the case of CD artwork, it needs to be worth a few thousand musical notes. Most likely, you’re going to have to spend a few hundred bucks, but ideally, the artwork that accompanies your music is going to help you get some of those dollars back.


These days, the imagery you come up with will be used in many contexts aside from your CD cover – advertisements, posters, and digital media. If people are going to be picking your image off a computer screen at roughly the size of a Chiclet, using contrast, color, and a strong concept is your best bet. Sometimes, coming up with that concept is an agonizing process of elimination between your own ideas and those of your friends, family, and band members. Sometimes happenstance combined with inspiration makes everything fall together perfectly. CD design is an art in itself, and at the end of the day you want it to look like the music sounds.


The stories behind artwork for the records I’ve done each played out in their own way, combining factors of experience, finances, and inspiration. But in each case the success or lack thereof had everything to do with the people I included – or didn’t include - in the process. Unless you are a multimedia whiz in addition to being a musical genius, you are going to need to hire people who can help you create images that will help your music sell. Over the course of the four records I’ve released, I’ve been lucky enough to work with people who were able to “jam” in a visual sense – to expand upon my ideas with their own so that we could create something better together. After all, design professionals are artists too, and the most successful collaborations are always built on the free exchange of ideas. At the same time, only you are accountable for the result, so hire people you have reason to trust, and treat them accordingly.


Professional artists (like yourself) expect and deserve to be decently paid. Oh the pain when I discovered that some photographers insist on collecting a license fee for the images I wanted, in addition to the fee for the shoot itself. Photogs may have strict guidelines for editing shots, forbid certain uses of them, and insist on being credited a certain way. Meanwhile - they may spend hours poring through your images and editing them to make you – and themselves – look good.


Photographers are just as protective of their art as you are, and may have an even harder time getting paid. I had one recently ask for 100$ per frame for unlimited use of his shots. They were great, but I couldn’t afford them. Less established photogs may be willing to make deals on your behalf, just like you do when negotiating with music presenters who can’t afford you. One talented fella allowed me free access to all 1500 of the shots he took to use at my own discretion for a mere 300 bucks. We got some good shots, but he and the artistic designer did get drunk at the shoot and almost got in a fistfight over which ones I should use, so maybe you do get what you pay for.


Meanwhile, designers can either work miracles or drive you out of your skull. You’re going to be having a lot of exchanges with this person of the course of the project, so it had better be somebody you can communicate with comfortably. If you pick one you’ve never worked with before, I recommend telling them you need the artwork about three months before you actually do, and then maybe – just maybe – you’ll get it on time. Good designers are ridiculously busy, perhaps because – like you – they can get lost in the nuances of any given creative project and spend about a million years or so getting it right. This tendency makes fair remuneration a bit tricky as well.


Most designers will give you a quote based on their hourly rate, which can be up around forty bucks an hour or more. If you already have a concept, photos, illustrations, and logo, the less it will cost you. That being said, the whole idea of using a designer is to take advantage of their talent, so you don’t want to hamstring them by telling them exactly what to do. My rule of thumb when hiring anybody is to find the most talented people I can for a price I can afford, and then trust them to do their job.


My first stab at CD imagery was god-awful because I had no money, no experience and chose to do the artwork myself even though at the time, I could barely even operate a computer. Guess what wound up on the cover? A cliché headshot of my face against a brick wall – immediately forgettable and now an embarrassment. Even if you’re already famous, you’ll do better with an image that expresses the music or feel of the record in some way. That doesn’t preclude you being in the shot, just make sure that the image is strong enough to make somebody want to look twice.


The decisions I made for my first CD cover were mostly compromises and it shows. Since then, I’ve always put the money aside for good design professionals. That doesn’t mean that I had no input on the final product, or that I wasn’t able to use my own resources. I’ve used good snaps taken by friends and my own illustrations in my CD artwork, but I made sure to run them past somebody with a professional, objective eye. Most musicians have a bit of talent or skill in design or art, and you’ll be happiest if you’re working with people who want to help you fulfill your own vision. But don’t lose the opportunity to make a good idea better by being too rigid or not taking advantage of the perspective of somebody whose job is to make you look good.


The best experiences I’ve had with CD artwork felt a lot like making music. One idea led to the next, inspired by unexpected input from sources that echoed and amplified my original concept. Together you and your team will create a visual version of what’s on the disc, and if you’re open, the process can be as enjoyable as any other creative endeavor. Ideally, the result will be a piece of visual imagery that is just as amazing as your music.



Best Bang For Your Buck:

Design / Pete Digiboy pete@petedigiboy.com

Photography / Eric Milner eric@ericmilner.com


As printed in BC Musician Magazine.

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LESLIE ALEXANDER

WRITER, MUSICIAN & NURSE.

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