Upcoming presentation: ‘The Lure of Ephemera’

I will be presenting a paper at the upcoming conference One Century of Record Labels (Newcastle University, 6-7 November 2014). My paper is entitled ‘The Lure of Ephemera: ‘Record Labels as Visual and Textual Icons’ and the abstract is below.


While there is a growing body of work focussed on record labels, much of it tends to equate ‘label’ with ‘company’ and to focus on the history of particular companies, the musicians, producers and ‘house styles’ associated with them, or the relationship between different companies. Other work has highlighted the design aesthetics associated with particular companies by presenting often lavish illustrated books that dwell on design classics (Blue Note album covers, for example). Work aimed at the record collecting market has, meanwhile, provided detailed accounts of changes in sleeve and label design to aid identification of original pressings, regional versions, reissues, and so on. My interest in this paper is to tap into all of these areas of work but in particular to explore the role of the record label as visual icon in a way that goes beyond specific label history, house style or collector authentication by emphasising the aura of labels and logos as a more general aspect of the representation of past musics.

My focus is on the visual iconicity of record labels and the lure of label ephemera. I equate the fascination with the sight of late musicians to an equal fascination with the haunting of musical objects such as the label. My case studies include reissue companies such as Yazoo, Dust-to-Digital and Mississippi, as well as histories of vernacular music such as the Blues Paperbacks series of the 1970s. I highlight the explicit use of actual labels as ways of presenting the past, using label iconography as a way of narrating the story of ‘old’ musics, where the portraiture of the record (the label shot) becomes as ubiquitous as that of the musician (the portrait). Like the photographic portrait, the label shot gives us more than facts; it has aura and hints at untold or half-known stories. Recordings themselves are sonic snapshots of a time, but the objects that accompany them become visual snapshots, invitations to a mysterious past. They also invite simulation, another aspect that I will reflect on in my paper.