As part of artwork day, we got the co-founder of Constellation Records, Ian Ilavsky, to write us a few words on his (and the label's) outlook on artwork - past, present and future. Constellation Records is one place you can guarantee will always have high quality artwork. Given the label's consistently brilliant work with the foil stamper and that lovely feel the cardboard sleeves have, it was only sensible to get Ian to write some words.
Our love for making albums as interesting and special physical objects is the overarching reason we decided to start a record label in 1997. I doubt we would have started one a decade later, insofar as the viability of record labels nowadays seems to demand relentless internet marketing prowess and/or aggressive pursuit of cross-media licensing and/or expansion into every available domain of artist management services. Just about everything involved in the search for new forms of monetisation, as actual record sales decline, is pretty demoralising to us as music fans and as purveyors of recorded goods.
We cherish the personal relationships we've forged with our artists over the years, we love discussing the state of culture and its industry with them, and we are honoured to have the opportunity to release and champion music we find to be adventurous, heartfelt and sublime - but as soon as the label starts to feel predominantly like a marketing and promotion venture, and commercialising the music becomes a matter of putting it into the service of something else, we want to hang ourselves
And we would never promise to take the reins of 'artist development' or become responsible for 'career management'; I think musicians looking for that sort of treatment are just not the type we are drawn to (or vice versa). We have long, intensive conversations with artists on our label about their vocation, their trajectories, their options and opportunities, etc. all the time. But I suppose we just prefer approaching these issues in a spirit of friendship and unfettered advice, rather than on any tactical/contractual basis of obligation (in either direction), 'services rendered' or chargebacks.
In case this is sounding off-topic, the point is:
Having conversations about artwork ideas - expanding rather than constraining the possibilities that our artists can consider, going back and forth to get things looking as good and strong as they can, discussing and obsessing over the details - are among the most enjoyable dialogues of a specifically artist-label nature that we get to experience. It's just an incredibly satisfying way to engage with the musicians we work with and also something I suppose we think we're actually good at. Implementing these ideas is also deeply rewarding for us; interacting with small-scale printers, silk-screeners, die-cutters, etc. creates a network of local, artisanal production that feels compatible with our larger outlook on socio-political sustainability. If we were "going into business" in 2010, it would probably be baking organic bread, or making furniture from recycled materials...
Culturally speaking, the digital age mostly leaves us feeling awfully cold, notwithstanding its obvious benefits re: information sharing and accessibility. The challenge seems increasingly to be one of preserving some sort of warmth, tactility, depth and texture of experience in a context where we are largely being sold the promise of endless, immediate, effortless access/consumption and increasingly being reared on a very abstract, remote and virtual definition of friendship and social connection. I suppose contrasting 'the manual' to 'the digital' is as good a metaphor as any by which we try to address this in our own small way.
Making records is the only thing we do as a label that generates revenue and pays the bills. Blinkered and obtuse as it may make us, more than ever we find ourselves just needing to keep our heads down, rooted in our little workshop, absorbed with creating objects that contain music, for the few if not the many. I think it's obvious to this diminishing audience why artwork and packaging is important.
If you are a music listener who still believes a good heavyweight vinyl pressing or uncompressed 16-bit 44.1 kHz digital audio disc played through a decent sound system provides some appreciable advantages in overall stereophonic quality, then you are also likely to appreciate that some effort has been put into delivering said physical listening formats in a way that further enriches the overall aesthetic experience. Music can be the soundtrack to a lot of things: the workout, the bike ride, the morning commute, the party; the movies, the TV shows, the elevator ride, the shopping mall. Music can also convey its own horizon and intent and assert its own little world, its own "cultural space" of intimacy and richness and attention and absorption - an antidote to the viral, the mobile, the cross-marketed, the over-saturated? An object that helps convey this horizon and creates a bit of a clearing for the music (and the musicians' own intent, influences, ideas about context) seems more essential and valuable than ever.
So we're charging more for 'em! That's our master plan - stop giving the shit away at a $2.00 margin to the label, and stop fretting over cutting 10 cent corners here and there in the ever more futile hope of maintaining a populist price point. Our long-held populist economics have now been fully trumped by the digital culture of free - we are no longer going to fight that battle, since we don't even understand most people's terms of engagement or playing field any more. We don't expect as many people to spend 15-30 bucks (or quid or euros) for our art-intensive offerings, but for those who do, more than ever we promise to deliver.
A sincere happy 10th birthday to you DiS: a forum for true music obsessives.
Cheers, Ian / Constellation