"Great music, but what's up with the covers?", or: "Don't you want people to think you're a pro?" The Pale Series production philosophy.
"Art can enact its function only on its own terms. To impose upon it terms which are alien to its performance is to kill it and to cancel its performance." - John F.A. Taylor
Once upon a time, there was only one way to produce your own albums. You had them reproduced in bulk by a manufacturing house, in lots of usually no less than 1,000. The average price for this ranged from $1400 to $2200, depending on how fancy your packaging was. (This figure is just for manufacturing- not for the cost of making the original recording.) The finished product was, by most accounts, worth the money. At least, in terms of presentation and polish.
This method was never satisfactory to me. It always seemed there wasn't enough money to release all the good stuff, so you just had to pick your "best shot" and hope you sold enough copies not to be storing albums under every piece of furniture in the apartment for the next three years. And if you were really lucky, financially you'd break even and maybe be able to do it again.
For a lot of indie artists, doing this even once was tough. Doing it routinely, say multiple times a year, was out of the question. When you can't get your music out to people, it tends to squelch your creativity. Why write and record new music, why make something you can't do anything with? Many of us in the '80s bucked that logic and went the indie cassette route, which was somewhat effective; but certainly we'd have liked a better transmission medium for our music. There were always problems with diminished sound quality and especially with differences in tape speed between decks causing changes in pitch. I can only speak for myself when I say that these problems definitely lessened my enthusiasm for creating a lot of new recordings.
Enter technology to save the day: home CD burners and high quality printers became available and cheap enough for most indie artists to afford. No worries about getting burned by a label either. I decided this would be a good route to take.
The CDs would be burnt at home on an as-needed basis, but initially I was of the opinion that I should at least get the covers done professionally. Home printers weren't really at photograph quality yet when I began Phantom Airship, and I thought it was important to have something that carried my visual ideas as clearly as the CD medium carried my music. So, off to the printers. This was done for the first two PA releases at a fraction of the cost of a full scale manufacturing job. Even so, it was prohibitively expensive for me, and I found myself choosing my projects very carefully. Plans for a third printed release stalled out when I couldn't decide which recording would have the best chance for a strong financial return, which was essential if there was going to be a fourth.
In addition to this, I still had a huge backlog of recordings that I wanted to release, but certainly the money was not there to have them all done professionally. However around 2002 when I saw how good the new home printers were- these were photo quality, and the machines themselves were inexpensive- I decided I could put out my old work that way. The full story of this is covered in detail on the Pale Series page.
When eventually it came time to make new recordings, money was still tight. The same stubbornness that had made me record my early work just for the sake of it came to the fore again. Was I not going to record new work simply because of the printing budget- even though, just to look at them, the home print jobs were photo quality? The thought made me angry, and the Pale series was expanded to include new work.
It was inevitable that there would be some people who would take my work less seriously when I made this decision, many of them on the basis of a single glance. In their world view, anything that isn't professionally reproduced probably isn't good. While I imagine that for some people this is based on experience, I think for most it's either an aesthetic prejudice, or a need to have the product somehow validated- whether it's by the presence of a label's implied stamp of approval, or the assurance, via the gloss, that the artist thought enough of the music to pay to get it pressed "right".
Some may feel that the home print job is indicative of defective product. Concerns about mechanical quality of the CD itself are covered by a lifetime guarantee against defects. And while the cover paper is not glossy, it is acid free and with proper care will outlast most paperback books.
My intention with packaging is to provide all the same information you would find in a professionally pressed cover. I also take great pride in album cover art and design, and spend as much time as necessary with each one until I'm satisfied- just as I do with the music. (I seem to average about 40 versions of a cover before getting a final.) The same is true for the CD label designs. And each release is always augmented with its own full webpage on gregsegal.com, allowing more information and illustration options than any cover alone could- and it is infinitely expandable.
Once I took the leap into full home-based production, I saw clearly how limiting the old concepts of production had been to my music. I would never have recorded as much new work as I have since 2003 if I'd been thinking in terms of paying full price, or even half price, for the packaging. Now if I'm inspired to produce something, I simply do it and make it available, much as a painter or sculptor might. And because my costs are low, I can charge less. The low price of each disc (typically $6- $8) is an intentional effort to lower the risk for buyers who want to explore.
I'm not saying I'll never get another professional full color print job again- the results are certainly beautiful. I too love the gloss. But I will never again let the cost of this stop me from producing and releasing new music. For less than half the price to the consumer of a conventionally printed CD, I can offer everything but an inside panel and glossy paper. And I can produce more music that I'm passionate about than ever before. That should always be the bottom line. My hope is that this explanatory note helps bring to light for others what I see: that this approach, which might at first appear limited, actually produces the best results all around.
- Greg Segal