Shauna and Sarah Dodds are on a streak that could make Adele envious. The sisters from central Texas, whose creativity focuses on roots music, have been nominated for Grammy Awards in four of the last five years.
This year they’re once again jetting to Los Angeles for the ceremony, a trip earned for their work with country rock band Reckless Kelly for the album “Sunset Motel.”
The Dodds, however, aren’t musicians. Rather, they’ve won two trophies for their recording packages, the only Grammy category among the dozens that focuses on sight rather than sound.
Awarded to the graphic designers who wrangle invisible wave-forms and turn them into cherished art objects, the field might seem quaint in this time of on-demand streaming, when Chance the Rapper’s “Coloring Book” can earn nominations without releasing physical copies at all.
In truth, though, physical product remains a thriving part of the music business, due in large part to the revived interest in vinyl LPs and their physical heft, bigger cover-art canvas and higher profit margins.
“We feel like if we're going to do it, you gotta make it something that the fans are going to be interested in,” says Shauna on the phone from Austin, Texas, where she and her sister’s Backstage Design studios have become an Americana powerhouse.
In 2016, vinyl LP sales rose for the 11th straight year, surpassing sales of 13 million units. That’s still only about 6.5% of total album sales, but that’s still money that can help sustain artists in an industry that calculates royalties by fractions of cents.
As a result, artists are investing in packaging as a lure for fans. With devotees willing to spend $20 or more for albums they can stream for free online, musicians are increasingly teaming with designers such as the Dodds to craft fancy packages that reward attention. A side effect: compact disc packages are becoming more of an afterthought.
The Dodds say the “Sunset Motel” project was their most difficult assignment to date. It involved transforming lyrical themes into illustrations, building a narrative and creating visual cues that suggested the heyday of Route 66, says Shauna.
They’ve designed packages for artists including Kris Kristofferson, Jimmy Buffett, Willie Nelson, Guy Clark and dozens of others.
Last year they won a recording package Grammy for their work (along with Dick Reeves) on Asleep at the Wheel’s “Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.” In 2014 they earned their first Grammy for their design of Reckless Kelly’s “Long Night Moon.”
“The vinyl version was our baby,” says Shauna of their work on “Sunset Motel,” for which they created an embossed, fold-out cover that held the album, an intricate poster-lyric sheet and a red hotel key tag. When the poster is viewed through the transparent key tag, hidden images reveal themselves to tell a story.
She explains: “We wanted it to feel like a 1950s-era, Route 66-style travel brochure for the Sunset Motel. At first glance it looks like it's like a desert oasis with palm trees and grass — this beautiful new mod motel. But then when you open up and you get your little motel key tag and you look through that, you see that it's just a run-down fleabag motel in the middle of nowhere.”
Ironically, the increased demand for vinyl had a real-world effect on the Dodds’ nomination. They had planned to enter their “Sunset Motel” LP design for Grammy consideration, but the pressing plant couldn’t guarantee delivery by the nomination cut-off date. So the sisters entered the already printed CD package — a similarly designed, disc-sized replica — and got the nod anyway.
Such attention to detail is becoming the norm, says Rob Maushund of Stoughton Printing, the innovative City of Industry company whose quality packages have helped drive the renaissance. “We’re seeing more elaborate packaging, for sure. If you want to sell the vinyl, you’ve got to make it more presentable and elaborate, and make it worthwhile so people aren’t downloading it.”
The other nominees’ creations bear this out. British designer Jonathan Barnbrook earned a nod for the LP cover of David Bowie’s “Blackstar,” which features a cut-out star on an all-black sleeve, hidden images that only reveal themselves when held to the light and at least a few secrets that have yet to be cracked.
For his band Parquet Courts’ album “Human Performance,” singer, guitarist and artist Andrew Savage created a matte-finished gatefold sleeve and a multi-colored 12-page booklet with lyrics and art.
Artist Eric Timothy Carlson was nominated for experimental folk artist Bon Iver’s “22, A Million.” The gatefold sleeve, which was printed by Stoughton, features curious symbology, invented letters and odd scribbles. Inside is a printed booklet with lyrics and etchings that suggest some secret society.
Finally, designer Ciarra Pardo and pop star Rihanna got nominated for the deluxe CD edition of Rihanna’s “Anti.” With embossed cover art created by Israeli artist Roy Nachum, the three-panel sleeve features a poem written in Braille, a booklet with artful photos of Rihanna and a fold-out poster of Nachum’s work.
“Printed packaging, it's a dying art, to some extent,” says Shauna Dodds. She stresses, however that she thinks there will always be a market.
“Maybe it all switches to vinyl,” she says. “That's fine. Or maybe it's all just collector's editions. But if you're not giving them something extra, they might as well just download it on iTunes or -- even worse -- just buy one song. If you're going to invest the money in the printing and all that, let's do something special.”