The Invisible Man: Michael Carney & Today’s Album Artists
By: Patrick Gipson
Michael Carney might be one of the most forgettable artists today. Esteemed accomplishments line the last few years of his career, yet his name is as recognizable as a top selling brand of toothpicks. The man is a walking ghost of an artist.
It’s February 13, 2011. Carney is seated within the dark rows of chairs arranged inside the Staples Center in Los Angeles. His thick rimmed glasses and boyish comb over might lead you to believe he was somebody’s date. Nobody else. He waits patiently as names are called off during the 53rd annual Grammy Awards pre-telecast presentation. Few people are aware that the Grammy’s has a pre-telecast awards ceremony. Even fewer people know who Michael Carney is. Even for the Carney family, it’s not just Michael’s big night. His older brother Patrick will walk away with two golden gramophone awards on the same night Michael will be awarded his first.
When Michael is announced as the winner of the 2011 Grammy for Best Packaging, he swiftly walks towards the stage, only to have the host impatiently interject, ‘we would like to accept this award on behalf of…’ Carney’s tall frame ascends the stage stairs and approaches the microphone just in time to silence the impatient ceremony. As he reaches for the trophy, the host surrenders the award with a look of estrangement. ‘Oh wait, we have someone here to accept this award.’
Like I said. He is a forgettable man. But then again, Carney dabbles in a forgettable music industry, where digital musicians come and go faster than pre-teen fads. But Carney is not a musician. He is an album artist. The man who puts a face to records that could transcend a generation. Faces that are not so forgettable.
And so is the beauty of album artwork. To give birth to a visual world associated with an invisible art. We all can name our favorite album covers. Pink Floyd, Velvet Underground, U2, etc…but can we name those behind their design? Carney has contributed artwork to the likes of RJD2, The Black Keys, Blakroc, Dr. John and even Birdhouse skateboards. Take off your headphones and pick up that album (or enlarge that .pdf). Mr. Carney wants to tell you some things about album artwork’s place in this world.
When did you first realize that you loved creating visual arts associated with music or musical acts?
Honestly creating artwork to accompany music is something I sort of fell into. I worked on the artwork for a record for the first time when I was 19 years old and by the time I was 22, I had done something like five different album packages. I looked at it as a hobby or something all through school and around the end of my schooling I started to toy with the idea of taking it more seriously. It took me a long time to realize that a huge part of my creative process was interpreting music or at least attempting to do that.
I learned how to hit a deadline and that with enough coffee you can put in forty hours of work in two days. To me, being an artist is a balancing act of being technically skilled at something and being able to solve problems creatively and CCA&D helped me nurture the technical side of things.
How do you feel Columbus and the greater state of Ohio inspired your art growing up?
My experience living in Ohio is probably really similar to anyone who grew up in a city that was not New York or L.A. or Chicago. The cost of living is cheap and it tends to be harder to be exposed to cultural stuff, whether that is music or art or even non-blockbuster movies…that kind of stuff is there, but you have to work hard to find it. I got into skateboarding when I was in middle school and that was kind of how I found out about punk rock and indie rock and other stuff like that. I was exposed to tons of different kinds of art and design through reading Thrasher and loitering at record stores. I could talk for days about all the different important cultural figures who came from Ohio or places like Ohio. In a nutshell there is not a ton of stuff to do in Ohio unless you go out and make it happen, whether that is starting a band or making a magazine. As a result I think there is a really big [do-it-yourself] culture in places like Ohio because people are bored and want to do something cool or interesting and they have to make it happen for themselves.
Music is becoming an increasingly digital commodity. How would you
encourage someone to buy a physical copy of an album?
I grew up going to record stores. I remember in middle school and high school saving up money to go buy CDs or LPs that I wanted; walking to the record store, being scared to ask stupid questions to the record store clerks. In college I went to Used Kids Records in Columbus almost everyday. That is an experience that is hard to explain and hard to fully understand with out doing it. So if someone’s only goal is hearing the music then that whole process does not matter. If the goal is having a tangible collection of music, then going to a record store makes sense. Frequenting a record store gives you a chance to build a relationship with the people who work there. Before I moved to New York, certain people at the record store I went to would put records aside for me that came in that they knew I would like. I knew if I asked this guy about a garage rock record he could tell me everything about it and the other guy could tell me if the new record by whatever band was worth listening to. Digital record stores will never be able to mimic this experience and as a result it is harder to sift through the crap and find music that speaks to you. Aside from that part of the record store experience, I think it is stopping to look at owning physical records as owning an object rather than data. I think beautiful packaging helps encourage people to buy the physical record rather than digital, but not everyone who likes music wants the whole experience of opening a record and holding it in their hands.
Why is album artwork and unique packaging so important? Is it more
important these days than before?
It is a chance to set the tone for the music, to tell a story in a very abstract way that relates to the music. Whether it is more important now than before is hard to say. I think in order to sell physical records these days, you have to work harder since people could buy it digitally.
What are some of your favorite album covers of all time?
The list changes every day but right now I am into these: Atom Heart Mother by Pink Floyd, Wire by Pink Flag, 20 Jazz Funk Greats by Throbbing Gristle, the first Suicide [self-titled] album.
One of my friends works as a screen printer for a t-shirt factory and he was telling me about all these weird inks that one of their suppliers made. That got me thinking about what kind of inks were available for printing on compact discs. Then we went on a search for something different and found the heat sensitive ink.
What’s is the best record you’ve heard that got the cover and/or packaging all wrong?
I can’t really answer that. I get really bummed out when I read or hear about someone saying negative stuff about my work so I would not want to publicly criticize someone else’s work. That being said, there are tons of amazing records that have terrible covers, and terrible records that have amazing covers.
You won a Grammy for your packaging work for “Brothers,” but what is another moment in your visual arts career that you are particularly proud of?
I am just happy to be in a position to do the kind of work that I do. I never expected to do a second record cover after my first one, or to be doing record packaging 10 years later…let alone win a Grammy.
You’re a musician yourself (Deathly Fighter). What inspired you to take up music?
I was struggling creatively about five years ago. I felt confused as to whether I had a voice of my own visually, or whether I was just a technician who created custom artwork for other people. That is an issue that I still struggle with, when someone says “you can do whatever you want.” I am always like, I need some rules, I need some challenges, I need to know what you are looking for. That is a result of the way that I learned to make art. It was always: “make something to accompany this music” not “make something”. At the time I did not feel like making visual art was creatively fulfilling. So my friend and I started a band as a creative outlet. The band ended up being really weird because we needed it to be something that we could do whatever we wanted with, no rules or restrictions. I actually have not made music in almost a year, and now spend the time that I used to spend making music, making paintings and stuff for myself. So the band kind of served its purpose of helping me work through a creative block of sorts. Although I am sure I will play music in some way in the future, right now. I don’t feel the need to.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to work in album artwork?
That is something I get asked very often. I get emails from young artists and designers wanting to know how I got from point A to point B. To be honest, I don’t know what to tell them. In most situations, it is similar to mine where a close friend starts a band and asks you to make shirts or flyers or record covers for them. Another option is start a record label and do all the art. Your work is going to do the talking, so you have to make work and get it in front of people and there are tons of ways to do that. This is something I am still trying to figure out and I bet I will still be trying to figure it out when I am 90.