Wilco Box Set is an Ode to Joy, Connection, and the Future of Music
Leading creative Lawrence Azerrad reflects on the power of design—and the human touch—to inspire and delight music fans
Lawrence Azerrad has made a name for himself over decades of elevating and enriching artists’ brands and visions. First at Warner Bros Records and now through his own studio, LAD Design in Los Angeles, Azerrad has spent much of his career helping musical artists connect with their fans. His all-star client list includes household names like Herbie Hancock, Elvis Costello, Sting, Miles Davis, Silversun Pickups, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Beach Boys, and Esperanza Spalding.
After so many years enmeshed with the music industry, Azerrad might seem a likely candidate to turn up his nose at disruptive technology that has shifted the old models of music consumption practically overnight. Not so.
“It’s important not to frame this conversation as, ‘Remember when things were so great, with album covers?’” he said. “As our relationship with technology has changed and our relationship with the way we listen and discover and engage with music has changed, it’s also provided really wonderful areas for exceptional creative thinking.”
In fact, Azerrad embraced the connectedness of digital life wholeheartedly with the 2017 project that won him a Grammy for Best Boxed or Special Limited Editions Package: a keepsake box to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Voyager I and II spacecraft launches. The esoteric objet d’art was funded through Kickstarter.
All told, 10,768 people raised $1,363,037 to fund the production of Azerrad’s commemorative book and three translucent gold vinyl LPs, which contained all the same music, greetings, and sounds as the original Voyager Golden Record. The project was a runaway success; it broke Kickstarter’s record for their largest music release ever. Celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson presented Azerrad with his Grammy.
“I think it proves the idea that people do crave a tangible element to hold and touch and appreciate,” Azerrad said.
This is in spite of the fact that music streaming technology has changed the landscape of music in fundamental and complicated ways. Services like Spotify, SoundCloud and Bandcamp have democratized the process of discovering and connecting with musicians, allowing independent and fringe artists to find the people who most need to hear their songs. But with more choice comes more noise. Now more than ever, music consumers have an overwhelming amount of information to sort through with less context than ever before.
With an eye to the future, Azerrad has helped found multiple academic programs for advanced-degree students of design. The courses, entitled “Designing the Future of Music,” will take place at the Imperial College of London’s Global Innovation Design Program and California College of the Arts’ Graduate Graphic Design program this upcoming winter and summer, respectively.
The programs present students with the opportunity to explore how people experience and engage with music and how it can be visually translated and interpreted. They will also address the process of discovery for music fans through the lens of design and curation.
Gone are the days of visiting a music shop in person to flip through rows of vinyls, tapes, or CD’s, neatly categorized by genre with enticing art on each cover. Now, listeners are more likely to be served a single song from an artist or album in the form of an automatically-generated playlist.
As a result, Azerrad looks for new solutions to an old problem: how to best serve listeners. He has always seen his profession as a way to bring joy into others’ lives and help them connect with music, but his tactics and tools must constantly evolve.
“Because it’s different, it’s incumbent on us as creatives to approach it differently,” he said. “I don’t know what the solutions are. That’s why we want to set the stage.”
Putting theory into practice with Ode to Joy
The idea that people are longing for novel physical objects after spending years converting our music libraries into digital archives is central to Azerrad’s latest project: a box set for Wilco’s new album, Ode to Joy, which was released on October 4 of this year.
Founded in 1994 and based in Chicago, Wilco is an impressionistic rock band with a musically diverse catalog. Its experimental bent mean the six-person outfit is tough to categorize; it has been called alt rock, alt country, and roots rock, among other classifications. A messy breakup with Warner Bros. Records in 2001 earned the group credit in indie music circles, and Ode to Joy was produced entirely independently—a fact that gave the band complete authority over the box set’s direction, design and production in collaboration with Azerrad.
Despite the fact that Azerrad has been a creative partner to Wilco since 1999, designing 7 of the band’s albums in the last 20 years, this project was a singularly challenging undertaking. Wilco singer and guitarist Jeff Tweedy had a vision he needed Azerrad to help realize.
“From the very start, all he said was, ‘I want to do a pop-up book.’ Beyond that, there was no direction on themes or content,” Azerrad said. “It does take this cycle of going through options and determining what isn’t right. It requires me to be patient and trust the process.”
Uncovering the right concept for the book, then engineering its physical form, took trust and patience. Azerrad said there were hundreds of design exercises and revisions, interspersed with conceptual conversations with Tweedy. The long working relationship between the two helped them land on a solution, despite working in two different artistic languages: “When you’re a musician it’s hard to talk about something that’s not in your domain or vice versa,” he said.
The collaborators’ ideas eventually coalesced into the book’s final direction. “[Tweedy] said, I’m almost seeing the absence of anything, of nothing,” Azerrad recalled.
The result is an interactive book whose pieces spin, slide, unfold and transform—a melange of color, light, shadow, emotion and meaning, all manifesting as a pop-up book. If you’re looking for a decoder ring to spell out the album’s message, you’ll need to work for it. The book is made up of abstract collages and poetically arranged lyrics meant to encourage the listener to deepen their relationship with the music, but avoids literal representations and photorealistic imagery.
“Creating art like that is not typical and it’s not easy,” Azerrad said. “To create something that means a lot to the fans is a privilege that I don’t take lightly.
“Working with Jeff Tweedy and Wilco is, for me, as special as it can get, mostly because as a designer what’s most important for me is helping to create things that help enrich other people’s lives and spark creativity or emotion or happiness or joy,” he said. “To be able to contribute to other people’s lives, that’s my core mission—and an incredibly rewarding and fulfilling aspect of my job.”
Once a design was agreed upon, it was time to finesse and bring the book to life.
“All the materials had to be right. We wanted it all on Mohawk,” Azerrad said.
The Ode to Joy box set, in its entirety, includes a custom box, book, jacketed LP, and a lyric sheet. The book’s pages are printed on Mohawk Via Vellum in 100 Cover weight. This unusually hefty page choice stands up beautifully to complicated finishing that includes die cuts, spinners, pop-up elements, sliders, and foldouts. The LP Jacket is on protective, double-thick Superfine, and the 11-inch square lyric sheet is printed on Mohawk Via Vellum using gray and silver UV inks.
Even the box top, bottom, and insert were made from Superfine. A sturdy insert into the base of the box, built from double-thick cover, does more than provide support for the contents—all six Wilco band members signed each one in red marker.
“These decisions and that commitment matters,” the designer said of his careful material choices. “It will be appreciated by the people that matter the most: the fans.”
Azerrad hopes Wilco’s dedicated listeners will cherish the book as an illumination of the music, created with love by real humans. One page of the book, which accompanies the very last song on the album, was reworked multiple times to achieve Tweedy’s poetic vision.
“There’s a lyric in the middle of the song where [Tweedy] sings, ‘What else could go wrong?’” Azerrad said. “I typeset that one line upside-down and, to my delight, nobody enforced flipping it back right-side-up.”
It’s the kind of subtle nod—from human designer to human viewer—that no technology could provide on its own.
“This is an object that enriches the human experience and makes life a little bit better when you engage with it,” Azerrad said. “At least that’s the intention.”
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