The Dirt: Album Art and Band Merch

The Dirt: Album Art and Band Merch
Album art and band merch are as an important a medium as any when it comes to promoting your band. They act as a form of team branding for you, and also as something your fans can take pride in sharing, wearing and showing support for. Designers and illustrators Sonny and Biddy from We Buy Your Kids discuss creating album art that stands out, and what makes strong merch.
 
What does ‘visual branding’ actually involve?
It involves creating a consistent look and feel across a bands entire visual output, usually for the cycle of an album. So from the release of the singles, album, tour art, press ads, web ads and possibly videos related to that record. It's really important and sometimes takes a lot of work to define what the overall look is going to be that represents that album, but once it's established it can be  a lot of fun to build out a whole lot of visual art in a series based on that.
 
What are the things bands need to consider when looking at producing merchandise? 
Nice simple ideas that appeal to their audience.
 
You’ve become pretty well known for your amazing tour poster work over the years with tours like the Laneway festival, The Rubens, and opera house events, what’s the trick to grabbing people’s attention with posters?
We feel that you need to lure people in with a strong image. Something dynamic that will break through a lot of the clutter either on the streets or on screens. A great benefit of so much info being online now is that it's possible to focus on that attention grabbing graphic and the minimum info needed, then link to direct people to a website listing all the info and details.
 
You began working together creating screen-printed posters for local Popfrenzy tours – tell us about that?
We had known Chris Wu who runs Popfrenzy for a while. We met him one night at an art opening and we were discussing how at the time, there seemed to be a lack of illustrated band posters around Sydney. We were massive fans of the gig poster scene in the States and we thought we could do that kind of work here. Chris offered us the chance to do art for two massive tours he had coming up. We jumped at it, the line up was incredible. Les Savy Fav, Pretty Girls Make Graves, The Gossip and The Hold Steady. Those few posters really gave us our start in the industry and working together as WBYK.
 
You combine hand-made and digital techniques to create our work.  Can you explain that ?
It's a mix, Sonny being the hand-made and Biddy being the digital. Generally everything starts on paper, then it goes backwards and forwards between the two of us - paper, computer, paper, computer. Because of the limitations in our screen printing knowledge when we started, we tried to keep our images simple and used a bit of texture to help us get around any registration problems, or printing quality issues. That tends to make things look more hand-crafted, and those practical reasons then helped form the style we work in today. The hand-made "look" is something we’ve tried keep in our work as everything becomes more digital.
 
Can you talk us through some of the work you’ve done with bands?
When we first started it was mainly tour posters, and that slowly evolved as our work got into the public more. We then started doing album art for bands as well as the their posters, we were doing websites for club nights, or skinning Myspace pages, and also branching out into animated videos and creating more of the overall branding for a band
 
The trusty band t-shirt: what should you think about in terms of quality?

Bands should do their research, they need to make sure that whoever is making their merch uses good quality t-shirts and prints well. Checking the labels on a shirt you already have to see where it came from, asking around who's printed what etc. People are going to come to shows and buy a shirt and the last thing you want is for it to shrink after the first wash or the print cracks. You want a band t-shirt to grow old with you.

And what about album or EP artwork? Do you have some rules you try to stick to?
We like to think that band/designer relationship is symbiotic. They both need to feed off each other. What we do is niche and is not for everyone, we always like to think that bands have come to us for what we do. We are also great believers in being in contact with the band, this way its easier to communicate and everyone is on the same page.

Is it important for graphics to cross over to press releases, websites and even twitter banners?
Totally, it helps get the message across faster when the look is consistent. It can get confusing to a bands audience to change their art direction in the middle of a project.

What are some of the traps bands fall into with merch and artwork?
Perhaps a big trap to avoid is making sure you trust the person you're hiring, based on what you've seen them do already. Make sure you like their work. Approaching a designer, illustrator or artist and asking them to take on or reference someone else's visual style or identity can be problematic. 
 
What are the best merch choices you have seen over the years?
The classic band t-shirt will always be a winner, but items with a practical use are really popular -  a stubby cooler for example.
 
Biddy, you’ve done a fair bit of typography as well for artists – how much thought should a band be giving to their name or logo?
Band logos are some of the most powerful icons in our culture. The trickiness is to make something unique and identifiable that really represents the band. Legibility's handy too! It's so important. Unfortunatley over thinking it can really torture creating that logo to death, so try and keep it fun.