Studio Snapshots #4 / by Paul Pensom

Snapshot CD rack

In his latest column on life as an independent designer, Paul Pensom muses on the role that music plays in the studio, and the impact it can have on your creativity.

It’s Wednesday afternoon. I’m sitting here, poised to write this month’s column. There’s a track on in the background, as usual in our studio, and it’s got me thinking about the role music plays in creative environments.

In my experience studios have always had a musical accompaniment. I’ve sometimes found this inspirational — Oasis’s coruscating Definitely Maybe promo blasting from the i–D turntable back in ’94 — and sometimes downright irritating, but it’s seldom possible to be neutral about the selection. Muzak it most certainly is not.

This is because whenever you gather two or more creative souls in one place, one-upmanship inevitably ensues, and the eternal riposte “yeah, but I much prefer their early stuff” will be heard echoing through the halls. Pretentious? Of course, but many an affected selection has led me to the sunny grasslands of new musical discovery, so I’m not knocking it.

Much has been written of the so-called ‘Mozart effect’, whereby students have been seen to perform better in test environments whilst listening to classical music, but a creative outcome is much harder to evaluate. Would your branding project have turned out differently if you’d been listening to folk, or hip hop? Jazz or reggae? Soul or techno? I don’t have answers, merely broad brush observations that are dangerously close to truisms: a high intensity task involving the rapid generation of ideas is best suited to an upbeat soundtrack, while more considered, theoretical work is more easily tackled to the accompaniment of something more sedate. One rule I have set myself, however, is that written work, unlike its graphic counterparts, be complemented only by instrumental tracks; the last thing I need when composing sentences are lyrics floating around my head.

One thing that has changed the way creatives consume music, of course, is the delivery method, and I can date my first experience of it to early 2002, when somebody in the Getty Creative Studio eschewed the CD player for a newfangled gadget called an iPod. I must admit to being mystified by both the function and importance of the iPod on first encounter. I had no inkling of the revolution it presaged, but we soon experienced the practical implications of the digital age when we noted its effect on the album as a discrete unit of culture.

Previously, we had a simple, unwritten rule: anyone could put an album on in the studio, then afterwards wait their turn to come round again. Overnight, the new machine destroyed this system, for an iPod loaded with tracks and set to shuffle was effectively the ancestor of streaming; it carried on as long as its batteries lasted, or until somebody switched it off. Goodbye to a series of curated packages with associated artwork, hello to omnipresent aural wallpaper, shading from mood to mood like the skin of a chameleon, a gift to the passive-aggressive control freak, who could now only be prised from the sound system with a crowbar.

I’m aware that we’re talking about a generational divide here, in which I’m firmly on the side of the covetous old farts, whilst over the fence sit the millennial children of Diogenes, staring with frank amazement at my ardent attachment to squares of cardboard and discs of plastic.

In truth I sometimes envy the simplicity of their lives. To be freed from stuff must be quite liberating, but a leopard can’t change its spots, and my experience of music was always tallied on a sliding scale, which ran thus:

1. Taped from the radio (have the track in my possession but certainly don’t own it)
2. Own a shop-bought cassette (have the track in my possession but only semi own it)
3. Own the record (indisputably and inarguably own it)

This scale was predicated on an understanding that, like a Tardis, a piece of music existed in two states simultaneously: across the ribbon of time, but also physically, in the form of disc, sleeve and sleevenotes.

Here I must declare an interest, for as a designer with music industry experience I have a dog in the fight, so to speak. A love of the record as an object led me to take up their design as a professional, and perhaps the fact that I am still doing it means there are enough like-minded people around to secure the future of the medium. Certainly the stats seem to bear this out, with vinyl outliving its many obituaries and now regularly doubling its sales year-on-year.

I have little doubt that design has played a large part in keeping the format alive. Download codes are standard with new releases nowadays, and the next generation will often listen only to the digital version, keeping the vinyl pristine and mounting the sleeve art on the wall.

What, I wonder, is the streaming etiquette in your studio? Are people time limited, or is it a more casual arrangement? Site algorithms are getting better all the time at anticipating your mood and delivering exactly what you want, or didn’t know you wanted. Even so, most of the time I still find myself reaching for that grandfather of mediums, the album. We have both a turntable and a CD player in the studio, and both see plenty of use.

Paul Pensom is Art Director of Creative Review and runs Studio Pensom, a graphic design studio serving the publishing and music industries