"My new album, The Orchard, started with a trip home to see my grandparents," says jazz vocalist Lizz Wright. "I took pictures of the area where I grew up, made a slideshow and set it to the Tom Waits song, 'I Hope That I Don't Fall in Love With You.' I took it to Verve and said, 'This is what I want to do.' When I showed the pictures and played the song, everyone responded in their own way, and everyone brought their own insights and sensibilities to the concept."
Wright is describing the process that's set into motion when Verve produces a new album. Her concept was the musical journey she took from rural Georgia, where she was one of three children of a minister father and a mother who sang in the church choir, to New York, where she's a rising star who, according to Times critic Stephen Holden, "stirs jazz, gospel and rhythm and blues into a reflective, flowing style that elongates songs into prayerful meditations."
A dozen people sit at the conference table at that first, big meeting with the artist: Verve's senior vice president and general manager Nate Herr; executives from the label's publicity, marketing, retail, radio promotion and creative departments; and the A/R or artist in repertoire who will be coordinating the talent-the producer, the composers and the other musicians who'll perform on the album.
For the past ten years, Hollis King—creative director, art director, graphic designer—has sat at that table. His group is responsible for producing the CD jacket, the publicity and ad photography, the posters—everything related to the artists' visual images. "We really listen to the artists," King says. "We talk about the audiences we want to reach, and how they want to present themselves and their music. We listen to the raw music. What are its bones? What is its smell? How does it make you feel? Then we create a product designed to transform an hour of music into a hit-and a work of art that can lift people's spirits or make their day."
It usually starts with a photo shoot. "We define the look, coordinate the costumes, find locations. For The Orchard, it was down-home country, and that meant a trip to Georgia, scouting locations. We drove for days," he says, "with Lizz and the photographer and assistant, the stylist, hair, makeup. When we travel on the artists' home turf, we get access, everything opens up so the setting can be authentic."
In this case, they found not an orchard, but the cotton field in which Wright is photographed for the album cover. She also posed against a huge vine-covered tree in a primeval-looking bayou for the CD liner,which is even more dramatic when blown up to 26 by 13 inches on the double-truck inside the LP jacket. Verve releases 120 CDs a year, and a dozen LPs. "It's as good a square as any square," says King of the five-inch CD format, but for him and the designers, the opportunity to work on an LP is aluxury. "Collectors still want LPs, and so do DJs who like to spin them lounge-style," he explains. "They're produced in editions of up to5,000 and sold at record stores, sent out to big clubs and used for publicity."
Founded in 1956, Verve is synonymous with jazz. The walls on the Verve floor of the Universal Music building on Broadway and 57th Street are covered with memory-invoking posters like John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, and with the gold and platinum records of its Grammy Award-winning stars including Herbie Hancock and Diana Krall. Its Impulse label brings out reissues of its catalog, the music of such legends as Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. Verve's parent,Universal Music Group, itself a subsidiary of French media giant Vivendi, is the world's largest group of recording labels. Black Escalades parked downstairs provide a clue about the clientele: Universal's other divisions are Island Def Jam, Interscope-Geffen-A&M, Decca and Universal-Motown.
The walls in King's office are covered with iconic, signed,black-and-white photographs of jazz greats-and lots of design awards.Dominating the space is a huge poster for the new Labelle: Back to Now album: Patti Labelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash in black satin with jewels and feathers under a big, hot-pink, '70s-retro logo. "Labelle's new act is cutting-edge pop, not traditional R&B," King explains. "Our challenge was to make it modern but keep it true to who they are, wild and outrageous. We looked at what's going on in fashion, designer John Varvatos,glitter and feathers." King manages every two- or three-day shoot to produce all the visuals needed to market the record. "That translates into thousands of photos and dozens of costume and hair changes, hotels, limos,security, every detail worked out," he says. "After the shoot,there's an intense, ten-day selection process with back-and-forth between me,the company executives and the artist. After key images are chosen, we get the copy and start designing the package." The Labelle designer is Sachico Asano, a School of Visual Arts (SVA) graduate who divides her time between New York and Japan, and has been with Verve for seven years, producing such trend-setting album art as Groove Hard by trumpeter Roy Hargrove.
Hollis King is an American success story himself. He was born on the island of Trinidad and Tobago to a mother who, like many Caribbean women, came to Brooklyn to work as a health aide, leaving her children with relatives. "If you had told me then, an island boy, that I would one day be working with the biggest names in the music business and winning Grammys, I would have thought you were crazy," King admits. He arrived in Brooklyn in1974 as a teenager who dreamt of being a lawyer, but spent his free time filling sketchbooks. At New York Technical College, he took an advertising class with Art Directors Club president Walter Kaprielian, who admired King's facile pencil drawings and recommended him as a "guy Friday" to a studio that served ad agencies. King soon found himself working in a 57th Street penthouse, getting coffee, pasting up mechanicals and building props for photo shoots. "I would go to the Art Directors Club and help move chairs and setup the show, and there would be Herb Lubalin," he reminisces. He switched to the SVA, taking evening classes in photography, illustration and fashion design, and studied life drawing at The Art Students League. Then he took Milton Glaser's class at SVA. "That was the toughest thing I've ever done," he recalls. "Glaser gave assignments like, 'Describe a perfect day in your life in 2012.' We discussed philosophy and creativity. Everything I learned in that class I still use every day. Certain people make a huge impact on your life and you never go back."
Now King is making that kind of impact on the lives of others. He lectures at schools around the country and mentors the young designers and interns who work in his group. He teaches them about managing and budgeting, about finding and working with the best talent. Passionate about preserving the Verve legacy while moving it in new directions, he demonstrates the skills, professionalism and personal charisma needed to work successfully with everyone inside the organization as well as with the musicians. That involves rolling with the punches and making on-the-spot decisions. For example, for Herbie Hancock's Grammy-winning River: The Joni Letters, King wanted to shoot him playing a one-of-a-kind, sculptural black-and-white grand piano. The owner of the Los Angles piano showroom where the instrument was displayed refused to let it be moved, so King had all the other pianos taken out and turned the store into a studio. "You do what you can with what's possible," he says.
"The first thing you learn in this business is how many considerations go into each album, how many changes and approvals along the way," adds designer Philip Manning, a Fordham graduate who's been at Verve for four years. Manning does a lot of intricate, hand-crafted artwork, not all of which makes it through the process. It did, though, for Aqualung by English songwriter-singer Matt Hales.Manning describes the album art as modern yet beat-up, mimicking a handmade book. Another recent project was the Blues Traveler, North Hollywood Shootout album with its colorized, 1950s photographs of L.A. streets that Manning found in the Los Angeles Public Library's archives.
"Many of our jackets are portraits with typography," points out Kazumi Matsumoto, another designer who divides her time between New York and Japan,and who's designed for Verve since she graduated from Fashion Institute of Technology in 1988. She's been working on the typography for a Melanie Gardot album, seeing how Gardot looks in gothics, Romans and scripts, superimposed on a portrait of the jazz singer taken on the streets of Paris. "To be successful in this business you can't limit yourself to one style. Fans often want to see pictures of the artists on the jackets, not necessarily art you think is cool," she advises. Nevertheless, she's done a number of extremely cool packages including Brazilian Girls: Don't Stop.
Art for the Unmixed and Remixed series is some of the group's most original: sculpture. "Remixing classic jazz and blues tracks by contemporary electronic music producers and DJs is a way to introduce a whole new audience to this music," says King. His concept sketches show a series of inventions, including an Eames chair fitted with speakers and a fancifully rewired standup acoustic bass, which have been built by various sculptors and photographed by top advertising photographers. The Pure Bossa Nova series, designed by Sachico Asano, is vintage Verve: music by Brazilian composers and performers is packaged with clean sans-serif type against color bands. Each album has a friendly, graphic illustration—of boats, a young woman on a beach, tropical birds—by Clayton Junior, an artist from Curitiba, Brazil, who's now working in London.
The neatest office on the floor belongs to production manager Andy Kman. "I'm in between graphics and marketing," he says of his job—making sure the designers' concepts are brought to fruition by the vendors who print the inserts and make the jewel cases. He could talk for hours about digi-packs, thumb trays and top-spine stickers. Like almost everybody at Verve, he's a musician outside the office: While majoring in industrial psychology he started singing in rock and punk bands. "My psych background helps me not get ruffled when people get crazy with deadlines," he says. To get into the business, he took evening classes in design software and prepress at Pratt.
When an album is launched, teams set wheels in motion to drive sales. The marketing department oversees the campaign, writes the copy, makes sure everyone is working in the same direction. Publicity, headed by Regina Joskow, reaches out to magazines and newspapers for interviews and reviews. Sales works with retailers from national chains to indie record stores. Specialty marketing companies might be hired to reach out to ethnic communities or put up posters, snipes, all over town.
Lisa Hansen heads up the marketing for a number of artists. "We pride ourselves on artist development," she says. "Every campaign is different. We target different audiences for Herbie Hancock than we do for the Brazilian Girls." The Brazilian Girls, who are neither Brazilian nor all-girl, are taking up a lot of Hansen's attention right now. Marketed as New York's premier international party band, their new Brazilian Girls: New York City album art is blue graffiti and yellow taxicab,designed by freelancer Kiku Yama. Hansen coordinated release parties in Apple stores and a party bus that took the band around downtown Manhattan. There's an online ad campaign, blogs, press releases to lifestyle and fashion magazines and a "Why I Should Be on the Party Bus" contest. Thousands of business-card-size promotional cards were distributed at clubs. "These are really popular," Hansen says. "People slip them in their wallets and they get passed around."
"We give the fans the power to spread the word," adds Doug Barasch, manager of digital marketing. A film major in college, Barasch began his career as a talent agent. "Then I saw that the Internet was going to be the wild wild west and wanted to be part of it," he says. He moved to Epic Records, where he developed the live concert Webcast ("People could request a song online during the concert") and now runs a department that has three Web designers and two people who handle the artists' presence on social networking sites and YouTube. "The goal of everything is to drive traffic to a sales destination," he asserts. "That could be a big-box store or Amazon or a record store, but increasingly it's iTunes, the world's number-one music retailer."
All of a sudden, as he's talking, the office empties out. Blues Traveler is the act on Letterman that evening, and they're heading down Broadway to the theater. Clearly, it's all working: the campaign strategy, the photography, the album art, the publicity. After the show—while somebody upstairs is counting the downloads—they'll all be back the next morning to work on the next one. "When everything goes well and you see the results of your efforts, you have a momentary smile, a little internal victory," King reflects. "Then you get ready to work with another artist, who will take you in a completely different direction. That's what's really exciting about this business." ca