At the end of each year, I like to play a game.
I call it ‘Do I Feel Old Yet?’. The rules are simple: look at a list of the top movies, songs, albums, or news stories from ten years ago. Do they feel like they happened a long time ago? If so, you’re doing well! You’re keeping up, staying current. However, when the top song list starts feeling your favourite Spotify daily mix, and the news stories feel like current events, you know you’re slipping. For me, last year was one of the first times I felt old, or at least like my generation was shifting roles, from the hip kids to the capital ‘A’ Adults. The White Stripes’ last album came out in 2007. Radiohead’s best since 1997’s Ok Computer (actually, it’s their best album ever — this is a hill I’m willing to die on), In Rainbows, was released to much hype and fanfare as the first ‘pay what you want’ album ever. Middle-school aged me downloaded it for $0.00, not realizing it would be my coming-of-age soundtrack.
Older readers are already scoffing, because nobody is allowed to feel like time is passing quickly unless they’re older than you, but the fact is that I was a teen during the tail-end of one decade, and now another decade is coming to a close. Sure, you remember wearing out a Whitesnake cassette in your 1986 Acura Integra. I get it, you saw the Berlin Wall fall. But we all need to start feeling old somewhere.
In the music industry, the strongest signal that the mainstream has moved on from your favourite artist is the reissue and the compilation.
Reissued albums, usually including bonus content for the collectors, are a smart way to convince you to re-invest in albums you’ve owned for years.
These expanded, often expensive editions of popular albums need to do something extra to recapture consumer interest. They remaster the songs, add a bonus disk (or LP or… playlist I guess? There aren’t as many disks and b-sides in the Spotify age), or maybe toss in a special lyric book or artist commentary or whatever. One of the most obvious changes is the album artwork. Many artists (or their labels) choose to update or change the artwork to really push that ‘collector’s edition’ thing. Reissues, greatest hits, and compilation albums are like a miniature rebrand – an opportunity to re-engage with long-dormant fans or galvanize current followers. There are different philosophies on how a reissue ought to look. Many of them mirror business rebranding philosophies. Today I want to compare several reissued albums to their rebranding equivalent. Without further ado, an exploration of music, design, and branding in four parts:
The ‘Same as it Ever Was’
The Album: Talking Heads’ ‘Remain in Light’ (1980)
I feel like there are three, equally well-represented positions regarding Talking Heads: you might like them, you might hate them, or you might be asking ‘who are Talking Heads?’. You can move between these positions (at least liking and hating them – I doubt many who have an opinion on them forget who they are) as I did, gradually shifting from ‘hate’ to ‘love’, or ‘like’, anyway. In any case, Talking Heads fans are big fans, and their detractors seem to feel pretty strongly about them, as well. What I’m trying to convey is that Talking Heads mean something to a lot of people.
Remain in Light is arguably their best album. A couple of their most oddball yet endearing tracks come from this 1980 monolith. Some critics surely see it as a landmark moment in music, a representation of the shift from the overblown 70s aesthetic to the experimental and relatively sparse 80s sound. In any case, it’s an iconic album. Why mess with it? The weird, Microsoft Paint style red blobs covering duotone headshots look like what the Beatles’ Revolver album might have been had it been made two decades later. It captures the album’s aesthetic perfectly. So why change it? No need to reinvent the wheel, right?
The Brand: Hudson’s Bay Company
While times are a-changing for the Bay, their history is arguably their biggest selling feature. Canadians know their colours. They know their woolen blankets and crest of arms logo. In an era where department stories are retail dinosaurs, the Bay is the T-Rex. It’s the great-great-granddaddy of retail brands, one of the last holdouts in a shrinking market.
Strictly speaking, the Bay’s logo has changed over the decades. But brands do not equal logos. At its core, the Bay promotes itself as a nostalgic, gently patriotic component of Canadian culture. In fact, the Bay’s Google search listing calls it ‘Canada’s Iconic Department Store’.
The Bay understands that it’s too entrenched in its position to change. It’s weathered the storm surprisingly well, gently pivoting into an increasingly narrow niche. Will it ever die? Yeah, definitely. Probably soon. But at this point, its greatest strength is its cultural importance. You don’t mess with what works.
The Hero Worship
The Album: Nirvana’s ‘With the Lights Out’ Box Set
Nirvana was the 90s grunge band, and Kurt Cobain was Nirvana. Cobain was the loudest voice of the first generation of what came to be known as alternative rock. He was grimy but sexy, weird but somehow relatable. His music has remained popular among angsty teens for 25+ years (now do you feel old?) and his death by suicide rocked the music world like few others have 1.
As often happens when artists die untimely death, Kurt Cobain became a martyr of sorts. To this day, the Cult of Kurt remains. Voice of His Generation, the People’s Poet, the Last Renaissance Man — people really see Cobain as something special, and you can’t argue that he wasn’t a huge influence on rock music. So, how do you brand an expansive box set of rarities and live tracks? How about with a black and white photo of the band, a disheveled Cobain front and centre, smirking slightly in a suit and tie?
When the frontman is synonymous with the band itself, lean into it. The people want Kurt, so give them Kurt.
The Brand: Apple
One of Apple’s most iconic marketing campaigns revolved around their ‘Think Different’ slogan. Using black and white photos of great artists, thinkers, athletes, and philanthropists, they framed themselves as the computer brand for talented and creative.
It’s pretty bold, and pretty arrogant. But it works. Apple used historical figures to lend credibility to their own products, without really discussing what made their computers good2. Not that other brands don’t do the same thing (see: every sugary beverage, every car ever manufactured), but Apple did it well, and did it to an interesting extreme.
The Album: Ok Computer OKNOTOK (1997)
Radiohead’s second-best album (fight me) was re-released for its 20th anniversary last year. For some, this is the greatest of all time alternative album, let alone the best Radiohead album3. It’s a sweeping album that alternates between anxious, claustrophobic dirges and towering, emotive rock epics. Featuring the original album, remastered for the audiophiles, plus several new tracks curated by the band, it’s the definitive version of an iconic album.
There are two versions of the album art. The first is a carbon copy of the original, with a slight tweak: below the album name is a small block of text reading ‘OKNOTOK 1997 – 2017’. The second is the one I’m focusing on. It’s the original art with significant modifications. The right side of the cover is burnt and torn, revealing a layer beneath the artwork, a sketchbook page of clumsy diagrams and notes. The modified artwork feels the same while marking the passage of time. It communicates the reissue’s message perfectly: it’s the same album, but they’ve peeled back the layers, sharing the rough cuts, demos, and B-sides that the world never got to hear.
The Brand: Dropbox
Dropbox is among the world’s most popular cloud storage and file sharing services. The problem they faced was simple: everyone else is doing this cloud thing now, too. Why would I use Dropbox if Google Cloud or iCloud did the same thing while playing nicer with my phone and computer? In the past few years, Dropbox has addressed this by extending their services, offering online workspaces and collaboration tools that make it feel more robust and powerful than the average cloud storage service.
These new services came hand-in-hand with a rebrand. Dropbox’s brand was, for a number of years, very simple. Blue and white. An outline of a cardboard packing box. Super clean sans-serif font. It’s the kind of brand a tech company in 2016 strived for 4. But it didn’t speak to their new, expanded direction. So they tweaked it. Some of their changes were subtle. The box icon was made more geometric. It loses some of its ‘boxiness’ in favor of cleanness and simplicity. Other changes were dramatic. That sterile blue and white palette is out. It’s all about colour now! Dropbox feels a little bit like it absorbed some of Squarespace’s or Spotify’s design DNA. It’s a little funkier and more human, but undeniably still Dropbox.
The ‘Less is More’
The Album: David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ (1970)
This one is a bit of a cheat. I’m sure that I have reissued albums with updated, minimalist art somewhere in my library, but I’ll be damned if I can find it5. What I did find was that Bowie’s underrated 1970 album had several alternate covers depending on the region and year of release. The iconic album art is Bowie at his gender-bending best, draped over a chaise lounge and wearing a floral dress.
The alternate is technically a reissue, printed a year later in the US: a simplified profile of Bowie, one leg kicked up over his head while he plays guitar. Black and white, no background. Compared to the gaudy excess of the original album artwork, this is downright minimalist.
The Brand: Mastercard
Mastercard is one of those brands that everyone knows. Every store that accepts credit cards has a Mastercard logo in the front window. Ubiquitous. But even ubiquitous brands need to change with the times. As iconic as Mastercard’s logo was, it was showing its age. That drop shadow, with that italic font? At some point, it started to feel a little old-fashioned.
Enter the redesign. Equal parts radical update and staunchly traditional evolution, the new logo feels the same but looks like a credit card brand for the Instagram era. Two overlapped circles and a lower-case sans serif wordmark. When people talk about a brand refresh, this is what I think of.
There are many lenses through which we can view rebranding. The important part is telling the right story. If your brand’s strength is in its history, don’t be too quick to try and revolutionize everything. If your services or products are evolving, ask yourself if the brand must evolve as well. Most importantly, look everywhere for inspiration. Branding is half concept, half execution. Collect ideas like you collect fonts. That’s how you make something special.
- Miss me with that ridiculous ‘Courtney did it’ stuff. What’s more likely: a depressed heroin addict committing suicide or his equally addicted wife plotting and committing a perfect crime?
- Full disclosure: despite my objections to Apple’s marketing techniques, this was written on an iMac. It’s a good computer.
- Again, this is a popular opinion but not my personal view. In Rainbows is better. History will prove me right.
- Doesn’t 2016 feel like a long time ago? It was a simpler time, anyway.
- There are a ton of designers who do a great job revising old album covers. Check out a list of some great album cover edits here.