Reede, 02 Oktoober 2020 19:00
Estonian Life No. 39 2020 - Vincent Teetsov
From the perspective of some music listeners, it would not seem that the visual presentation of a musician or ensemble is a crucial part of the listening experience. If music is revealed to us in an auditory form, what could photos, video effects, fonts, colours, and clothing have to do with it? As music industry creative director Effi Summers demonstrated in her presentation at Tallinn Music Week 2020, visual storytelling and design is crucial for musicians to communicate with us as listeners.
At this point, the mutual exclusivity of visual design and music is something long gone in many genres. The arrival of MTV in 1981 was a significant step in the direction of visuals shaping the way listeners consume music. For listeners, visual design can associate faces with music. Music has become categorized and marketed with appearances guiding individuals' selection of music. The emphasis on the visual component of music began telling artists' stories in a more thorough way to the public.
For example, for The White Stripes, singer and guitarist Jack White pushed for the duo to build their flavour of rock and roll around the number three. Red, white, and black. Guitar, drums, and singing. Tonic, subdominant, and dominant chords. This all came from White's early work as an upholsterer, where he started each job with three staples into the back of a piece of furniture.
We also can't forget David Bowie, who divided his music into eras with distinct costumes and personas; including Ziggy Stardust, Halloween Jack, and the Thin White Duke. In a 1987 interview with Joe Smith, Bowie said "I never really felt like a rock singer or a rock star. I always felt a little bit out of my element.” Drama and fashion allowed him to create characters to write songs about, arguably caricatures of his own personality traits.
So the question over visual design in music is whether it is authentically representing what a musician is about or not. That's what makes it effective.
In her Tallinn Music Week presentation, Summers spoke to viewers about the design that went into popular artists like Billie Eilish, Madonna, Katy Perry, Sia, Taylor Swift, and The 1975. Design devices used include shifts from black and white to colour videos to denote new eras, wearing wigs to cover one's face, and matching fabric patterns.
To create an “online culture” as Summers described it, cohesiveness is a primary focus. Doing one thing well is a signal to listeners that they can rely on a musician for a particular experience.
There are quite a few pertinent examples of this within Estonian music. For example, Mari Kalkun has cultivated her own folk style that draws on simple live show instrumentation and peaceful rural imagery that elicit life in Võrumaa.
Vaiko Eplik showcases an appreciation for antique objects, kitsch imagery, illustrations, and humorous photos that factor into his visual storytelling. Kerli Kõiv is also an example, with her own “BubbleGoth” aesthetic philosophy which she says “takes light and dark and puts them together.”
Design applies not only to physical album releases, but to concerts, day-to-day appearances, and the use of social media. Considering identity design as an appreciator of music is akin to finding out the secret behind a card trick: you wonder if you want it to remain a secret for the sake of your own enjoyment.
But if a musician is so inclined, design can expand their messages to us more clearly than songs alone.
Written by Vincent Teetsov