Interview with Susan Archie, principal of World of anArchie, winner of the 2015 Grammy Award for “Best Boxed Or Special Limited Edition Package” for her work on The Rise & Fall Of Paramount Records, Volume One (1917-27), released by Third Man Records/Revenant Records.
Susan Archie, Dean Blackwood & Jack White, art directors
With a thorough understanding of digital technologies being such a key driver to success in today’s music business, music fans often forget that the earliest recorded music came about as the result of an application of a new technology – i.e., those introduced by the early French and American inventors of the phonograph and the gramophone. While we take for granted the various advances in recording technology that have taken place since the late-1800s, without the energies applied – and risks taken by – music industry pioneers, there would be no archives of the performances given by the musical acts that have gone on to influence modern music and music engineering.
Like many an American industrial enterprise, the early U.S. recording business was also an attractive one to those individuals and companies looking to entice the public to buy their products, with some companies (Edison and Victor, for example) impressing consumers with the quality (sound and manufacturing) of their hardware (AKA record playing devices) and software (recorded content, in its many forms – first cylinders, then 78RPM discs, etc.) and others looking to simply “spend-a-little, make a lot” as production of devices and content quickly scaled up as the century turned.
In that second camp were the owners of the Wisconsin Chair Company who, around the start of World War 1, launched a brand called Paramount to manufacture phonographs and, to provide a broad range of recorded content to play on those phonographs, operated Paramount Records as a way to produce what would turn out to be hundreds of ground-breaking recordings “on the cheap”. By the time Paramount ceased operations in 1932, it had compiled recordings of an impressive of performers spanning early jazz, blues, gospel, the Vaudeville and operatic stages and other popular musical styles. Artists appearing on the label included Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Alberta Hunter, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jelly Roll Morton, Ma Rainey, Son House, Fats Waller and Ethel Waters, among many others. Additionally, via their unique product advertisements in city papers such as the Chicago Defender which featured hand-drawn illustrations, the label certainly influenced the styles of the many graphic artists who’d ultimately apply their craft to record packaging.
When Austin, TX-based Revenant Records co-founder Dean Blackwood and musician Jack White (who operates his own label, Third Man Records, in Nashville, TN) got together to think about Paramount and its place in musical history, they asked the question this way – “How did a Wisconsin chair company, producing records on the cheap and run by men with little knowledge of their audience or the music business, build one of the greatest musical rosters ever assembled under one roof?” Their answer came in the form of their 2013 release titled The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records 1917-1932 – a huge, ultimately two-volume, limited-edition collector’s set (priced at $400) of over 800 newly-remastered digital tracks, representing performances by 172 artists, delivered on 6 custom-made LPs and a custom-designed USB drive (with its own player app), packaged in a hand-crafted oak cabinet along with a thoroughly-researched-and-written, 250-page hardcover art book and a 360-page soft-cover reference guide (Wowee).
To create all of the elements that made up this award-winning product, the folks at Revenant and Third Man put together their “A Team” of art directors, graphic and product designers, researchers and writers, including Susan Archie, who’d won a Grammy in 2003 for another extraordinary package she’d created (as lead designer) for Revenant’s Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton. As a result of their efforts, earlier this year, the production team that built this box set was awarded with a Grammy Award for “Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package”.
As is our custom here at the ACHOF, I wanted to get to know more about Susan, her production team and the details of the work it took to create such an awe-inspiring achievement in record packaging and while, as you might expect, she’s been very busy since her Grammy win, Susan was kind enough to work with me to bring you those details, which you’ll find below in today’s interview article.
Interviewed February and March, 2015
Mike Goldstein (AlbumCoverHallofFame.com) – Susan, just let me say “congratulations” once again on your Grammy win this year. Let’s get started with some background questions – How is it that you were first introduced to your cohorts on this project – Dean Blackwood and Jack White? Had you worked with them before?
Susan Archie (World of anArchie) – I met Dean in 1996. Dean hired Table of The Elements’ Jeff Hunt to art direct for Revenant Records when Dean started the label with John Fahey. I had been working for Jeff for a couple of years, and so I worked on Revenant with Jeff. Eventually, Jeff had to concentrate on his own label, so I took over most of the graphic duties for Revenant.
I had not worked for Jack before this project. Dean met him through mutual friends. I met Jack at Third Man in Nashville when Dean and I went up for the initial pre-production meetings for Volume I in 2013. I had met some of the Third Man folks a few months before when I was in Nashville, and hoped to work with them.
Mike G – Based on your take of the people involved and knowledge of the music business, what was it that makes Third Man and Revenant Records – and by that, I mean the labels and their respective approaches to promoting/packaging music – different from other similar labels in their “category” today?
Susan A – A lot has changed in the last six to eight years, and there are a lot more labels doing historical/re-issue work. Archeophone, Omnivore, Numero Group, Light in the Attic – are all doing excellent stuff. In our case, I think that money is probably the differentiator. Jack has a nice revenue stream and was interested in putting out the Paramount set with Dean. He has a solid fan base, and I think he’s interested in educating his younger audience about what came before. As a young fella, he fell in love with pre-war country blues, and I think he wants everyone to feel the same way he does about those who came before him.
MG – Were you familiar at all with the artists and musical styles represented in the set? Was there a particular track – or musical style – from the list of songs included in the package that served as the inspiration for the package’s overall design?
SA – Yes, this has become my niche market. I had heard a lot of the “race” music and “hillbilly” tracks before, but there are a lot more jazz tracks on these sets and a much deeper catalog for some of the artists than I had previously heard. Papa Charlie Jackson kills me – I hadn’t heard many tracks from him. He reminds me of Jay-Z – a big fella with a lot of charm. I also love the Hokum Boys and the Pullman Porters.
The idea behind this was if our graphic team could have been behind the scenes at Paramount, packaging this work back in the mid 30s, what would we have done? I think Dean said, “If Paramount gave a shit.”
MG – How were your clients – that is, the label staffers, the records producer(s), etc. – actively involved in any or all aspects of the development of this design? What roles did they take?
SA – I acted more as Production Designer than Art Director on these projects. I was in on the concept meetings, when we decided what and how we were going to try to achieve something spectacular. Over the years I have been involved in a lot of the processes necessary to manage large projects. Dean, Jack and Bryce McCloud were involved with the visual aspect, I did a lot of work to make their vision real. Ben Blackwell at TMR managed the vinyl process, we wanted a chestnut brown album with a gold embossed label. Dean, Ben and Bryce spent a lot of testing time trying to find a suitable gold material for the label. Then we weren’t able to achieve the kind of emboss height we wanted on the label and then have the vinyl pressed (which would smash the emboss), so we had to use a blank label and then TMR hired people to hand adhere each label to each side.
One of Dean’s guiding principles is that Revenant pushes production techniques and physical expectations. We have constantly been on a quest to do things that haven’t been done before. Print shops and manufacturers often scratch their heads at our methods, but it usually works out.
MG – Can you help me better understand the “who did what” on the project?
SA – Sure, here’s the breakdown – First off, there is Dean Blackwood, who served as Creative Director, CEO and Talent Hunter-Gatherer. He was also responsible for Track Selection, Illustration, Editing and the USB Drive-based Media Player. Jack White took on the role of Executive Producer, package Art Direction and, of course, was also involved in the Track Selection efforts. Bryce McCloud (of Nashville’s Isle of Printing) handled the Gold Label Logistics, 3-D modeling, creative support, letterpress production and laser etching, while Alex van der Tuuk assembled the writing team and collected the illustrative material, record labels, ephemera, ads, fliers and photos we used.
I shared responsibility for the “Victrola wunderkammer” (Editor’s note – a “wunderkammer” is a “cabinet of curiosities”, i.e., a collection of objects – works of art, antiquities, literature, etc., mini-museums of sorts) concept development and design, file prep and pre-press production, restoration, assembling the Art Book and Field Manual included in the set, Art Direction, Design, logistics, vendor management and even international press checker. Others that contributed greatly to the visual appeal include Katie Deedy Robison, who did art book illustration – chapter dividers, heads and titling; Jeff Economy, who, with his team built the Media Player and Tony Mostrum, who did art and illustration for the Field Manual.
MG – Wow, that’s quite the talented and diverse team. The job looks like it would have required historians, writers, designers, illustrators, typographers, graphic artists, photographers, etc., so how did you choose the talent who would work with you on this effort?
SA – Dean and Alex van der Tuuk assembled the creative team. The Third Man artists did some logo and design work, but they were pretty much consumed by the TMR work. I then hired freelance production artists on an as-needed basis.
MG – What “guidance” – or specific instructions – did you get from the set’s producers that gave you direction on how to create the key parts of your main package and then any ancillary items – like the custom case(s), for example – that were needing to be worked on that were based on the same design guide?
SA – We had an agreed-upon color palette, and most of the design involved manipulating existing materials. Bryce has a letterpress in Nashville, so he was responsible for a lot of the additional promo materials. Dean oversaw that work.
MG – In addition to the custom cabinetry, one of the stand-out aspects of this special package was all of the bonus content you created – the book, the “field guide”, the special app, etc. – that provided collectors with a trove of additional info on the label and the musical acts featured in the set. Can you give us any insight into the decisions to produce some of these materials as well?
SA – Alex van der Tuuk tapped the Paramount collector community and so we had a lot of source material donated by many fine collectors but, quite honestly, some of it was in pretty bad shape, so it finally came down to what looked best at print resolution. The Chicago Defender ads got blurrier as the years went on and several items were submitted as 2nd or 3rd generation copies, complete with holes. My team did a lot of restoration work and we’d go as far as we could in those efforts, with Dean making the final decisions about what we would approve and use or nix.
For the Field Manual, Alex’s team of eight Blues scholars broke up the 800 tracks (per Volume) into their specialty, that is guitar blues, gospel, jazz, etc, and then set about finding as much info as possible about the artists in those genres. We listed every track in the set by artist, and gave the disco- and biographical info, that is , who played what and how many versions there were under the Paramount umbrella. Many of the artists would take a track and give themselves a pseudonym or change the title slightly to release the track with another label.
MG – Was cost – both to you as producers and the ultimate price to the consumer – an important consideration? Did you consider offering “lite” versions of the package?
SA – Cost was, of course, always an issue. Jack wanted it to be fairly priced and we came to the number $400. On the first volume, we mocked up a cabinet that was a lot more tricked out, e.g., we were looking at including a motor crank like one that would have been on a portable machine but, ultimately, we had to nix that and some other things when the cost estimates came in. We never considered a “lite” version.
MG – Taking into account all of the project coordination, how long did this process take – from start to finished product?
SA – This was an idea in Dean’s head for years. I worked on it for a solid year, including international travel to China for press check.
MG – Were there any special tools you used or work processes followed – manual or computer-based – that helped create the finished product? Can you give me any more details of that final aspect of the process? How were you able to oversee the quality of the finished products based on your designs?
SA – We used Laser cutting and etching in some new and exciting ways. I actually went to China for press check and to oversee the printing job and the wooden box production at a large box factory. It really was a difficult job to oversee the work being done in China. It also was difficult translating what we wanted into terms the pressmen could understand. There were a lot of photographs and diagrams exchanged, and then they would send a model which Dean and I would review and comment on. The turnaround took a long time. We were lucky to have great brokers in Hong Kong for Volume I. They were able to source everything except web press for the inserts. They made their own metallic inks with shiny flecks, and even sourced and wove the forest green velvet cloth we wanted.
MG – I know that Volume 2 in the series was released late in 2013 – were you part of that design team as well and, out of curiosity, was that Volume also submitted for Grammy consideration in the same category?
SA – I was part of the Volume II team, but I mainly managed the production of the books and inserts. Dean handled the case design and development, and yes, Vol. II will be eligible for a Grammy in the category next year.
MG – Before we change gears a bit, I’d like to ask you if there is any other anecdotal info about this project you’d be willing to share…every project I’ve ever looked into seems to have something of an “a-ha moment” or an “OMG moment”, so anything you’d be willing to share would be quite a treat!
SA – Bryce McCloud at Isle of Printing does a lot of work for Third Man, including laser cutting. Dean wanted to have one of our promo pieces laser cut, so we went to meet Bryce at his studio a block from TMR. Bryce had been practicing a technique where he could laser “etch” metal and wood, and he had made this small book cover out of wood by laser cutting micro-lattice ‘X’ patterns into thin, ¼” birch planks that allowed the wood to ‘bend’ into a spine. I saw one of those and had “the a-ha moment”. I showed this to Dean and we almost jumped up and down together, except Dean doesn’t really do that kind of thing. The wood cutting appealed to Jack because it is a vintage furniture-making technique – it allows a wooden chair to “give” when someone sits in it.
We ended up using this method for the LP Folio (see image, above), and Bryce did a lot of illustration, printing and letter pressing for us, on both Volumes. He was a true force.
MG – Now, on to some of the more philosophical questions on some topics I’d like to get your opinion on – First off, when working on a package like this, do you consider your efforts to be works of self-expression, or do you take your lead from your client?
SA – While my approach is typically client-based and, therefore, not primarily self-expression, there obviously is a bit of me in every piece. I think that you can pretty much tell when you look at a package if I did it. On these two volumes, I was following Dean’s lead. I took his sketches and direction and made them real.
MG – With the electronic delivery of music products growing at a fast pace, are you noticing any more or less enthusiasm on the client’s – or artist’s – behalf to invest time and money in packaging that stands out?
SA – In my niche market, I believe that packages are art objects. $400 might stop a lot of people in their tracks, but no one is making any money here. Hopefully, it’s a “Labor of Art”. I work for several mature re-issue and archival labels, and that’s part of the purpose – to document the subject visually as well as aurally.
MG – With that being said, do you think that album cover art help us document modern human history? Personally, it is my belief that, in many ways, iconic album cover art has had a noticeable effect on Pop Culture. What’s your take on this – is the imagery and music providing the direction, or is it reflecting the culture, or ??
SA – I think it’s the other way around as you said it – reflecting the culture. I was a teenager in the ‘70s, and I think that that was perhaps the pinnacle of album art. I stared at album covers while listening to the music. Long-haired hippies and trippy acid covers, total boho. Elton John and Pink Floyd, Led Zep, the Brits were really into it. A lot of money was spent on packages back then. That was what got you to buy an album if you were just browsing.
MG – Last question – where do you keep your new Grammy trophy?
SA – We put an addition on our house 15 years ago, and there was this small vertical space that needed to be filled, so we put a little niche in, because we collect art and my girlfriend loves big flower arrangements. I had a figure of Timmy from South Park in there with the Grammy for a long time. I have some other music industry mementos and awards, along with a nice Tiffany heart from the Atlanta NARAS Chapter. Guests love to hold the Grammy®. It’s heavy.
About the subject of today’s interview, designer Susan Archie –
Susan was born in 1959 in West Palm Beach, Florida and grew up in Boynton Beach, about 20 minutes south of West Palm.
“My parents moved there from the New York metropolitan area in 1954. I was lucky to have a full-fledged humanities-based primary school education, where I was in band, orchestra and art. I went to college at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where I studied Photography, Art History, Film Theory and History and Mass Communications, and also spent six months in Florence, Italy on a foreign study program for Italian Art History and Film Study (Italian Neo-Realism, French New Wave, and Soviet Structuralism). We were really fortunate to have a professor from NYU, who gave us a copy of Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ which changed my outlook and understanding of society and art.”
She would also take a lot of side trips to Atlanta, where she was able to be on hand for the rapid rise of the local punk and New Wave music scene, watching shows by local bands such as R.E.M. and The B-52s and touring acts including Elvis Costello and Talking Heads when they came through.
After graduating with a B.A. in Visual Arts in 1981 and, wanting to integrate herself into the music and art scene there, Susan moved back to Manhattan and got work helping Fortune 500 companies integrate PC-based desktop publishing into their day-to-day promotion and other information/graphics-related needs.
In 1986, she took all the experience she’d gained in early computer graphics and joined a boutique design firm to manage their transition from mechanical to digital production. After moving back South to Atlanta in 1989, in 1994, after a friend’s introduction, she began a multi-year creative relationship with an Atlanta-based art and music enthusiast named Jeff Hunt who, the previous year, had launched an independent “art music” record label called Table of the Elements after which, in 1996, she expanded her client list to create package graphics for John Fahey and Dean Blackwood’s Austin, TX-based label, Revenant Records.
Since then, Susan has been involved in a steady stream of music industry-related projects with one, Screamin’ and Hollerin’ The Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton on Revenant, winning her her first Grammy packaging award in 2003. Three more Grammy nominations would follow in 2005, 2006 and 2007, with this year’s trophy adding to her already-impressive list of honors and awards. Other clients include Tompkins Square, Long Gone Sounds (Chris King), Dust-to-Digital (2003-2012), The Woody Guthrie Archives (2007), keyboardist Chuck Leavell (2012) and jazz bassist Dave Holland.
Her work has been featured in Stephen Heller and Lita Talarico’s 2011 book about the best in visual communications/graphic design called Typography Sketchbooks and was featured in a 2010 exhibition on album art (over 400 covers were on display) called “Run For Cover” in the gallery at the Spruill Center for the Arts in Dunwoody, GA.
To see and read more about Susan and her work, please visit her web site at http://www.worldofanarchie.com/
To learn more about the products featured in this interview, please click on over to the Third Man Store site at http://thirdmanstore.com/the-rise-and-fall-of-paramount-records-1917-1932-volume-1 (to see more about the 2nd volume – http://thirdmanstore.com/the-rise-and-fall-of-paramount-records-volume-2)
About this AlbumCoverHallofFame.com interview –
Our ongoing series of interviews will give you, the music and art fan, a look at “the making of” the illustrations, photographs and designs of many of the most-recognized and influential images that have served to package and promote your all-time-favorite recordings.
In each interview feature, we’ll meet the artists, designers and photographers who produced these works of art and learn what motivated them, what processes they used, how they collaborated (or fought) with the musical acts, their management, their labels, etc. – all of the things that influenced the final product you saw then and still see today.
We hope that you enjoy these looks behind the scenes of the music-related art business and that you’ll share your stories with us and fellow fans about what role these works of art, the music they packaged and the people that created them – played in your lives.
All images featured in this story are Copyright 2013 – 2015 Third Man Records, Revenant Records and Susan Archie/World of anArchie – All rights reserved – and are used by permission. Grammy® is a trademark of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences. Except as noted, all other text Copyright 2015 – Mike Goldstein, AlbumCoverHallofFame.com (www.albumcoverhalloffame.com) & RockPoP Productions – All rights reserved.