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You may not have heard of Kobalt before, but you probably engage with the music it oversees every day, if not almost every hour. Combining a technology platform to better track ownership rights and royalties of songs with a new approach to representing musicians in their careers, Kobalt has risen from the ashes of the 2000 dot-com bubble to become a major player in the streaming music era. It is the leading alternative to incumbent music publishers (who represent songwriters) and is building a new model record label for the growing “middle class’ of musicians around the world who are stars within niche audiences.

Having predicted music’s digital upheaval early, Kobalt has taken off as streaming music has gone mainstream across the US, Europe, and East Asia. In the final quarter of last year, it represented the artists behind 38 of the top 100 songs on U.S. radio.

Along the way, it has secured more than $200 million in venture funding from investors like GV, Balderton, and Michael Dell, and its valuation was last pegged at $800 million. It confirmed in April that it is raising another $100 million to boot. Kobalt Music Group now employs over 700 people in 14 offices, and GV partner Avid Larizadeh Duggan even left her firm to become Kobalt’s COO.

How did a Swedish saxophonist from the 1980s transform into a leading entrepreneur in music’s digital transformation? Why are top technology VCs pouring money into a company that represents a roster of musicians? And how has the rise of music streaming created an opening for Kobalt to architect a new approach to the way the industry works?

Gaining an understanding of Kobalt and its future prospects is a vehicle for understanding the massive change underway across the global music industry right now and the opportunities that is and isn’t creating for entrepreneurs.

This article is Part 1 of the Kobalt EC-1, focused on the company’s origin story and growth. Part 2 will look at the company’s journey to create a new model for representing songwriters and tracking their ownership interests through the complex world of music royalties. Part 3 will look at Kobalt’s thesis about the rise of a massive new middle class of popular musicians and the record label alternative it is scaling to serve them.

Table of Contents

Early lessons on the tough road of entrepreneurship


Image via Kobalt Music

It’s tough to imagine a worse year to launch a music company than 2000. Willard Ahdritz, a Swede living in London, left his corporate consulting job and sold his home for £200,000 to fully commit to his idea of a startup collecting royalties for musicians. In hindsight, his timing was less than impeccable: he launched Kobalt just as Napster and music piracy exploded onto the mainstream and mere months before the dot-com crash would wipe out much of the technology industry.

The situation was dire, and even his main seed investor told him he was doomed once the market crashed. “Eating an egg and ham sandwich…have you heard this saying? The chicken is contributing but the pig is committed,” Ahdritz said when we first spoke this past April (he has an endless supply of sayings). “I believe in that — to lose is not an option.”

Entrepreneurial hardship though is something that Ahdritz had early experience with. Born in Örebro, a city of 100,000 people in the middle of Sweden, Ahdritz spent a lot of time as a kid playing in the woods, which also holding dual interests in music and engineering. The intersection of those two converged in the synthesizer revolution of early electronic music, and he was fascinated by bands like Kraftwerk.

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The Ohio institution will select its 2019 cohort at a ceremony in Brooklyn next March

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has revealed the list of nominees for induction into its 2019 cohort. Def Leppard, Devo, Janet Jackson, John Prine, Kraftwerk, LL Cool J, MC5, Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine, Roxy Music, Stevie Nicks, the Cure, Todd Rundgren, Rufus and Chaka Khan and the Zombies are all in consideration for the historic honour.

Artists become eligible for selection 25 years after the release of their first record. An international voting committee of more than 1,000 artists, historians and members of the music industry will select five or six of these acts for induction into the Hall of Fame. Fans are also eligible to vote: the top five artists selected by the public will be tallied along with the committees votes.

Radiohead were among 2018s potential inductees, but declined to attend the ceremony. The bands guitarist, Ed OBrien, said at the time: As a British band, its one of those things that its very lovely to be nominated, but we dont quite culturally understand it. Its a very American thing. Us Brits are very bad at celebrating ourselves.

Def Leppard in 2017.

It is likely to be welcome news to Def Leppard. In 2017, guitarist Phil Collen said it was pathetic that the English heavy metal band had yet to be nominated for the award. Were a rock band that sold 100 million albums, most of them, actually, in America, Collen told Blabbermouth. Were a real rock band, weve been together for 30, or nearly 40 years, and the fact that thats not recognised is kind of a bit weird.

LL Cool J was also nominated for the 2018 list. If the New York rapper is selected for the 2019 group, he will be the seventh hip-hop act to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, following Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, NWA and Tupac Shakur.

If Stevie Nicks makes the 2019 class, it will mark her second induction to the Hall of Fame. She is a member of Fleetwood Mac, who were inducted in 1998. She would become the first woman to be inducted more than once. As of 2017, 22 male performers had been inducted twice or more, with Eric Clapton receiving three inductions as a solo artist, with Cream and with the Yardbirds.

Snubbed again? … Bjrk performing in Barcelona, May 2018. Photograph: Santiago Felipe/Getty Images

The Zombies have been nominated multiple times. In 2017, keyboardist Rod Argent told Billboard that the psychedelic band would be flattered, gratified and absolutely delighted to be inducted. I know there are some people that actually portray themselves as unaffected and dont care and, Oh, well, it would be nice, but, really I dont get it. Its not something that I particularly want. Were not those people at all.

There are likely to be complaints from the US about the Halls perceived snubs artists including Bjrk, Kate Bush, Roberta Flack, Whitney Houston, Depeche Mode, the Monkees and Chic are considered overdue for induction. The ceremony holds great significance in the American music industry, but does not command similar significance in the UK.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame organisation was established by the late Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun in 1983. The museum opened in Cleveland, Ohio in 1986. That year, Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Elvis Presley became the first inductees. Aretha Franklin became the first female inductee in 1987. In 2018, Bon Jovi, the Cars, Dire Straits, the Moody Blues and Nina Simone were selected for induction.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 2019 induction ceremony will be held at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, on 29 March.

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Kraftwerk reinvented pop music in the 1970s, but never dreamed they would one day be able to stage the multimedia spectacular of their current tour. Founding member Ralf Htter grants a rare interview

For someone with a reputation for how can we put this politely taking their time over things, Ralf Htter isnt one for hanging around tonight. Kraftwerk have just completed a mesmerising set at the Brighton Centre all laser-precise beats and visuals brought to life through Kraftwerk-branded 3D glasses and Htter has agreed to sit down for a rare face-to-face interview afterwards. Given that the show involves Htter spending more than two hours on his feet, studiously twiddling knobs and buttons to ensure that no synth line or motorik beat arrives anything less than crystal clear, you might expect him to take a while to decompress once he has left the stage. Yet the crowd have barely shuffled out of the building when he appears in our backstage interview room, a black polo shirt and puffer jacket replacing his grid-patterned Spandex bodysuit. The speed of the transformation is disorientating, as if the mind-melting, multimedia spectacular he has just put on never happened.

Hello, nice to meet you, he says, shaking hands, before glancing towards a picture on the wall of Rod Stewart, resplendent in his peacock pomp. Its you, on the left? he asks his press officer, pointing towards one of the musicians pink-clad backsides.

Htter has a reputation for being taciturn or evasive in interviews and yes, he can be those things: the stock answer for when Kraftwerk might release their first studio album since 2003s Tour De France Soundtracks remains when its finished. But Htter is also charming, a little shy he finishes answers suddenly, with an endearingly nervous smile appearing at the side of his mouth and funny in an exquisitely German way. We meet on the eve of the general election, and so, to break the ice, I tell him how, ever since the leaders debates in 2010, pictures of UK politicians stood sombrely at lecterns have come to be labelled by online wits as the worst Kraftwerk gig ever. Curious, Htter looks at a picture on my phone of a besuited Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg and David Cameron, and nods in agreement: Because theres only three of them, he says. One missing.

Computer world: Kraftwerk in 3D at the Brighton Centre on 7 June. Photograph: RMV/Rex/Shutterstock

Thankfully, shows on this current tour have considerably more substance to them than Cleggmania. In many ways, they are as close to perfect as live music can get, in part because to hear Kraftwerks seemingly limitless supply of songs played so precisely is to hear the roots of almost every subsequent major development in western pop music: from Detroit techno to hip-hop to electro even to stadium indie (Coldplays Talk famously nabbed the opening line from Computer Love). But also because these shows seem to realise one of Kraftwerks long-term dreams: to create a Gesamtkunstwerk or complete work of art that has long fascinated German artists from Wagner to the Bauhaus movement. Put on your 3D glasses and you will experience radio waves beaming towards you, or autobahn traffic passing by your side. At one point during Spacelab, the titular UFO lands right in front of the Brighton Pavilion a neat local touch they update for each venue.

Back when Htter was milling around the Dsseldorf art scene of the late 60s with founding member Florian Schneider (Schneider quit the band in 2008 and the pair have not really spoken since), such a show was the stuff of fantasy. In fact, the idea of an influential German pop band seemed far fetched in itself: the second world war had left Germany disconnected from its musical past while Britain and the US were busy redrawing the map.

At first, when we first discovered this, it was like a shock, says Htter. We dont have a continuous musical tradition! But then we realised it was an enormous chance, because there was nothing, there was a void. We could step into that open space.

It took some time for Kraftwerk to shape their new musical language. They made three albums of experimental art rock (Htter dislikes the term krautrock) in the early 70s before the classic line up Htter and Schneider joined by Wolfgang Flr and Karl Bartos embarked upon a seven-year run of albums so groundbreaking you could argue their influence surpasses even that of the Beatles: Autobahn, Radioactivity, Trans-Europe Express, The Man-Machine, Computer World. Each one was prophetic, gleamingly futuristic and it is sometimes overlooked behind all the plaudits for invention overflowing with melodic genius. Yet even on the forefront of such innovation, Kraftwerk were thwarted when it came to performing the kinds of live shows they desired. Early concerts relied on tapes and studio musicians too much compromise while in the 80s the band were forced to laboriously pack up their entire Kling Klang Studio in order to take the show on the road. Being a member of Kraftwerk over the past few decades seems to have at least partly involved simply waiting around for technology to catch up with their ideas.

You fantasise about it being possible, but you never know, says Htter. Has he marvelled at the speed of technology during his lifetime? No. Sometimes it has gone slow. But theres always a next step or development. Its a continuous process, more like gardening. There are certain plants that you work on, and others that grow [themselves]. Its seasonal. Thats how it feels. Its why I call Kling Klang my electronic garden.

Kraftwerk performing at the Ritz in New York in 1981. Photograph: Ebet Roberts/Redferns

What does he make of the developments that have occurred for listeners as well as creators? Is the bounty offered up by Spotify a good thing, or does so much choice reduce musics value?

Basically, nothing has changed, he decides. Its still all about composition. And for the last 50 years, it has always been like this. There have always been speakers all around radio speakers, televisions. A little more [now], but then again its about the intensity. All the rest is just noise.

What about developments away from music; how does he view, say, Twitter? Does he use it? No, no, no. We just give information about our touring. Isnt he intrigued by that side of modern life, though? I dont think so. Its basically very banal. Too much nonsense.

Such disinterest is perhaps surprising given that the technology of today has always been Kraftwerks chief concern, far more than the inventions of tomorrow. For all their visions of robots and space exploration, there has always been more lyrical focus on, say, public transport or calculators. Looking back at their 70s output, it is hard not to view it through a political lense.

Take Autobahn, their 1974 motorik reimagining of the Beach Boys that announced their arrival as electronic pioneers. Given that Germany was desperate for a new identity, were the band attempting to reclaim their countrys motorways largely built during the rise of the Nazi regime and repaint them as beautiful wonders of the world?

Robot Ralf: one of the mannequins that take over the encores on the bands current tour.

Htter says no. It was an environmental composition, a sound painting, he says. We were touring in Germany and when we played in other cities, we didnt have money to stay in hotels. So we were always driving on the autobahn, going somewhere and coming back at night all the time. I had this old grey Volkswagen, so maybe we were dreaming of having a Mercedes one day.

What about the Trans Europe Express album. Bartos once described that as being a message of European unity

Yes, interjects Htter with a smile, But he was not the composer.

So was that not the case?

Its like where we live [in Dsseldorf] is the Rhineland. Its Germany, but there was a British sector, it used to be French. Its close to the Netherlands and Belgium. So we were brought up multilingual, whereas with other parts of Germany say, Bavaria its different. Ours has very multi-European connections. Its a four-hour drive to Paris, so we were always going to discotheques in France or hearing new bands in Brussels or spending the weekend in Amsterdam. Its very pan-European, so when I wrote the lyrics with Emil [Schult, their longtime visual artist collaborator] it was like a fantasy story about that.

The album was released in 1977, a few years after the UK had joined the EU. Hearing the songs message now feels like travelling back to an era of optimism and cooperation. Its hard not to listen without mourning the imminent arrival of Brexit and the potential end to such a vision. Htter is cautious to make the connection. Its not directly relating to any day-to-day politics, he says. Its more a fantasy story, or a spiritual thing. Like a film.

Despite dismissing the idea that his groups music had political undercurrents, he does agree that critics tend to overlook the songs emotional core. Far from cold, clinical robot music, with songs such as Neon Lights and Europe Endless, Kraftwerk proved themselves masters at capturing a kind of hopeful melancholy, whereas elsewhere their music contains all the conflicting emotions of modern life: joy, distraction, loneliness, paranoia.

It is emotional, agrees Htter. People a long time ago had difficulties finding the sensitivity of electronics. But when you go and see your doctor and he does a heart test, it is electronics that are very sensitive to this. Its the same with an instrument. Thats why we should use the tools of todays society to create music otherwise it is just antique.

Even back in the 70s, when Kraftwerk must have seemed more like aliens beamed down to earth than human beings, the music was always accessible, always able to connect with people, always alive to the possibilities of collaboration. Did it surprise Htter when black audiences in New York and Detroit took it to their hearts and used it as a building block for hip-hop and techno?

Yes and no, he says. Because I have white and black keys on my piano. He smiles, then adds: But also the dynamics of electronic rhythm machines is a very strong element in what is called funk music or urban music. Electronics is very connecting.

Did he recognise electronic musics potential to bring people together from the first time he touched a synthesiser.

Yes, yes, he says, pretending to play the air with his fingers. You can feel it.

Such connections flowed in both directions as Afrika Bambaataa melded Numbers and Trans-Europe Express to create Planet Rock, and Cybotrons Clear laid the foundations for techno by looping Hall of Mirrors, so too did Htter and his band absorb the burgeoning dance music scene when the Belleville Three started taking them out to club nights. Did he let himself loose and dance? It was a long time ago now, he says, coyly. But yes, of course.

Florian Schneider Left) and Ralf Htter in 1978. Photograph: Ebet Roberts/Redferns

Htter maintains that for all the long gaps between releases, the band are still hard at it when theyre not on tour, keeping office hours at Kling Klang, tweaking tiny details, finessing artwork, performing upgrades to existing work whenever a technological advancement occurs. As for other projects, goings on inside the Dsseldorf studio remain secretive, although the group do still gather for cycling trips together at the weekend. Is being an avid cyclist a prerequisite for joining the band?

No, but it helps with the music, he says. In what way? You can only go in one direction always forward. Also, its about being independent. You use your own forces to go forward.

Htter is especially excited to play the opening of the event when it comes to Dsseldorf on 1 July. In fact, he has even designed artwork for some carbon-frame bikes that will be launched at the opening. We have to work in these other areas, because we are not allowed to ride the Tour de France, he says. We are too slow.

Kraftwerk have spent the past three decades slowing down musically, too. Despite the hours of perfectionist rigour that have gone into releasing the current 3D Catalogue box-set (if you cant make the live shows and have a 3D television its the next best thing), theres no escaping the fact that Tour de France Soundtracks has been their only album of new material since 1986s Electric Caf. The man machine is part human, after all, and Htter must surely be aware now that the years are creeping up on him. Is age something that bothers him?

Well, things will happen. Biological laws will still apply. And would Kraftwerk carry on perhaps even with the robots taking over, as happens during the encore of their live sets? Certain programmes keep running, he says. Its a spiritual thing. Musical ideas that we may have started, they enter into different cultures Detroit techno, dance music and then the energies come back to us.

So the idea that, all across the world, people are dancing to music that came from his groups startling vision, gives him strength? Yes, he concludes. Its all about feedback. Thats what keeps me going further.

Kraftwerk are currently on a UK tour. 3D The Catalogue is out now.

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List of eligible artists, including Depeche Mode, Pearl Jam and Chaka Khan, will face a vote by fans and experts, with 2017 inductees announced in December

The rapper Tupac Shakur, pop star Janet Jackson and protest singer Joan Baez are among 19 musicians nominated on Tuesday for induction in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

The British progressive rock band Yes, American rockers Pearl Jam, metal band Steppenwolf, English electronic band Depeche Mode and funk singer Chaka Khan, were also included on the nominees list, which will be voted on by fans and music industry experts.

Artists must have released their first recording at least 25 years ago to be eligible for nomination. The names of the 2017 inductees will be announced in December once voting is complete.

Shakur was killed at age 25 in an unsolved 1996 drive-by shooting in Las Vegas. The Harlem-born rapper, who addressed social inequity and the struggles of African Americans, is regarded as one of the most influential voices in hip-hop, whose story has inspired documentaries, movies and a Broadway musical.

Shakurs nomination reflects the growing acceptance of rap as a force in mainstream music and follows the Hall of Fame induction in 2016 of the California rappers NWA as only the fifth hip-hop act ever to be voted in.

Baez, 75, became a voice of protest in the tumultuous 1960s, becoming one of the first singers to promote the songs of Bob Dylan and singing at the 1969 Woodstock festival. Her performances of the traditional song We Shall Overcome in the early 1960s became an anthem of the civil rights movement.

Jackson, 50, the youngest child of the Jackson singing family, is one of the best-known pop singers in the world but is still waiting to be inducted after first becoming eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2007.

Other artists nominated include Bad Brains, Chic, Electric Light Orchestra, J Geils Band, Janes Addiction, Joe Tex, Journey, Kraftwerk, MC5, the Cars, and the Zombies.

The inductees are chosen by fans and by an international body of some 800 artists, historians and members of the music industry who are asked to consider musical influence, innovation, and length and depth of career.

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Whats the best-designed album sleeve? The Beatles White Album or Kraftwerks Autobahn? Miles Daviss Tutu or Pixies Doolittle? Designers of modern album covers including Peter Saville, Vaughan Oliver and more pick their favourites

The Beatles The White Album (1968)

Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian

Chosen by Jonathan Barnbrook, creator of the sleeves for David Bowies Heathen, Reality, The Next Day and Blackstar

Richard Hamiltons sleeve was really radical and ahead of its time and it still looks contemporary. By contrast to Peter Blakes vivid artwork for the Beatles previous album, Sgt Peppers, it was a plain white sleeve with the band name just embossed, almost invisible. There was a stamped number, which made each one unique. My parents had it first, but I thought it looked boring until I studied art. Once you understand the context, it gets really interesting. We think of design as for the present moment, but while music doesnt change, peoples feelings and relations to it do. So the sleeve becomes a reflection of that. It placed an avant-garde idea into the mainstream the cover is a blank space on which you can project your fantasies. A few years ago, this guy had a record shop selling nothing but old copies of the White Album. People had drawn on them, made coffee cup rings on them or whatever and each one was different, because it had lived a life. On the vinyl edition of Blackstar, you can see the record and, over time, watch it decay. Its trying to say: Thats reality.

Grateful Dead Aoxomoxoa (1969)

Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian

Chosen by Roger Dean, designer of more than 100 fantastical album covers, most famously for Yes

By the end of the 60s, we had people walking on the moon and Concorde zooming across the Atlantic in three-and-a-half hours. The future seemed right around the corner. At the same time, there was this incredible psychedelic movement going on. It felt as if everything could be different. The musicians were making new worlds. I was obsessed with designing the future, but the graphic designers of the day were hardwiring it into our existing culture with their decades-old design and fonts. Thats why Rick Griffins cover had such a powerful effect on me, and is still my favourite sleeve. He had changed the use of lettering completely but it was still legible. The painting looks as if it comes from a completely other world. It seemed to be saying to me that the rules were bullshit, that we could do anything we wanted. As an art student, this was like being given the keys to a prison door. I didnt copy it, but it allowed me to do my own thing. The album is OK, but the cover is blisteringly amazing. When I look at it, I see freedom.

Kraftwerk Autobahn (1974)

Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian

Chosen by Peter Saville, famed for his work with New Order, Joy Division and Factory Records

Autobahn was the first album I ever bought, after I heard the single on the radio. In 1974, as a teenager who had never been abroad, listening to the full 22-minute title track while staring at the autobahn symbol on the sleeve felt like being taken on a journey. I was on a European highway, in a soundscape crafted by classically trained musicians, seeing cathedrals and power stations, villages and skyscrapers, ancient and modern, in time as well as distance. It was a continental tour from gothic to postmodern, from the dark ages to Brigitte Bardot with the pulsebeat of a speeding vehicle. All defined in a simple symbol. As a fledgling visual artist, this was my first lesson in semiotics. I realised that visual codes acted as keys to unlock the huge range of potential awareness in an audience. Four years later, when I was asked to do the poster for the first night of the Factory club, I noticed an industrial warning sign on a workshop door at art college: Use hearing protection. Id been thinking Factory … new music … industrial city and realised: Thats it! My Autobahn moment.

Hawkwind In Search of Space (1971)


Chosen by Malcolm Garratt AKA Assorted Images, designer of classic artwork for Buzzcocks, Magazine, Duran Duran and Simple Minds

At my grammar school, you displayed your allegiances via the album you carried under your arm: Deep Purple in Rock, Genesiss Nursery Cryme and so on. The longhairs were outsiders, but to be ever more apart, you carried Hawkwind. The designer, Barney Bubbles, was a genius. This wasnt just a square of card. It unfolded out to a rough hawk shape. On the front, there was this post-psychedelic, pre-electro, sci-fi mandala. On the back, there were no track titles, just a completely blurred picture of them playing live (which seemed to replicate the Hawkwind live experience) and the words: Technicians of spaceship Earth, this is your captain speaking, your captain is dead. Coming with a booklet of countercultural images and texts, it really broke convention for album packaging. It inspired me graphically, with its geometric shapes and fluorescent colours, and I became immersed in an alternative lifestyle and took psychedelic drugs. On one trip in Scotland, I was convinced I could see aliens landing, I experienced synaesthesia and distinctly remember listening to this album through my teeth. When the Sex Pistols came along, I realised this outsider attitude applied equally to another counterculture, punk.

Iggy Pop Lust for Life (1977)

Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian

Chosen by Vaughan Oliver, who defined the visual aesthetic of the 4AD label in the 80s

I wanted to design record sleeves from the moment I went to see a Roger Dean lecture in Durham when I was 15. His sleeves werent about how the band looked, but the use of imagination. In my work, Im keen on the ambiguous and the mysterious. This sleeve is the complete antithesis of my philosophy, but I like its innocence and directness. Im not a fan of the graphics, but this image given what Iggy was going through in 1977 with heroin addiction is just extraordinary. Andy Kents photograph isnt the depiction of a wasted rocknroller one might expect. Iggys a beautiful man, aged 30, but its like a high-school photograph and totally fits the words Lust for Life. I bought it when I was at Newcastle Polytechnic, probably because of David Bowies involvement. The sleeve seemed confrontational and unexpected. Iggy looks like a childrens TV presenter or someone about to present the weather forecast, but the record inside is raw and harrowing. Its the absolute opposite of everything conjured up by the sleeve. I love that.

Pixies Doolittle (1989)

Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian

Chosen by Tash Willcocks, Manchester-based illustrator behind sleeves such as Elbows Asleep in the Back

I was brought up in a house in Cornwall where no one listened to music. When I was a teenager, my friends bought this album and showed me it. In 1989, I had never seen anything like it. The combination of Simon Larbalestiers photography and Vaughan Olivers design and typography was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I thought: Whatever that is, thats what I want to do. I had always been a messy person, but suddenly everything made sense. I realised that in art and design, you can get your hands dirty, make mistakes and embrace them. Before this, to me, a record cover meant a boyband on a sleeve, which made me want to puke, but here was something I could emotionally engage with. It gave me no answers, only a million questions. Why are the letters like this? Why is the print over the top of everything? I cant even remember playing it, just staring at it and it taking over my brain. It gave me permission to be me, which has influenced everything in my life.

Rammellzee Vs K-Rob Beat Bop (1983)


Chosen by Tony Hung, artist behind Blurs The Magic Whip

Jean-Michel Basquiats artwork brought this great hip-hop 12in from 1983 to my attention in a record shop in Manchester. The cover is typically Basquiat. In the context of a record sleeve, he brings something unconventional, bold, playful, thought-provoking, raw and engaging while maintaining an unlaboured feel. All the surfaces including the record labels are something to behold, and perfectly suit the music within. Despite being 33 years old, this work feels more potent than ever, when much of our daily eyeline is bombarded with overstylised, computer-perfected, market-led noise. Armed with just a paint stick, Basquiat effortlessly cuts through it all. Its life-affirming. It reminds me I am a human being and to be a human being, to be instinctive, and that with just primitive tools, we can still make joyful and fulfilling work.

Joy Division Unknown Pleasures (1979)


Chosen by Dan Hillier, winner of the 2014 Best Art Vinyl award for the cover of Royal Bloods debut album

I was five or six when this came out in 1979, and didnt know anything about Joy Division, but its one of those images that has always been about. When I was younger, I didnt know what it was or understand it, but something about the graphic always appealed. I later found out that Peter Savilles sleeve design depicts a frequency wave from the first known pulsar, but it could equally be a landscape or depict musical frequencies. My experience of the music on records has always been influenced to some degree by the cover art, and this is dark and bleak and jagged, which is perfect for that album. After Royal Blood used my Pachamama image for their album, their manager and I agreed we would have preferred not to have words on the cover. On the front of Unknown Pleasures, theres no band name or text, so no marketing or conventional enticement. It has something akin to the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey about it, like a communication from somewhere unknown. Its mysterious, dark and self-contained.

Led Zeppelin Houses of the Holy (1973)

Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian

Chosen by Carson Ellis, award-winning illustrator and sleeve designer for the Decemberists, Weezer and Laura Veirs

This has been my favourite album cover for as long as I can remember. Hipgnosis did lots of the great 70s sleeves and this is weird, timeless and iconic. I recently did a cover for an album of Zeppelin covers called From the Land of Ice and Snow and redrew the Houses of the Holy image in my own style. So Ive spent a lot of time with it. Its a photo collage image of nymph-like, mermaid-like, naked children actually a brother and sister climbing Giants Causeway, in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Zeppelin combine blues with fantasy and JRR Tolkien, and all that is on the cover. It seems to signify otherworldliness, something primal and social taboos. Theres something vaguely sexualised about the children, but whatever sexuality its alluding to is subtle enough that you can shrug it off. On the cover of the Decemberists What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, I drew a stylised, flat depiction of a naked woman, with tiny pink dots for nipples. I was told that big stores wouldnt stock it. They were the most benign, non-sexual nipples that anyone ever had.

Miles Davis Tutu (1986)

Photograph: Irving Penn

Chosen by Cey Adams, designer of Def Jam Recordings sleeves from the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and Jay Z

This is one of Miles Daviss last recordings, in his avant-garde period its named after Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Its just a stark photograph by Irving Penn of Miles looking straight on, and the edges are faded black [the cover was designed by Eiko Ishioka]. I was taken by the fact that an artist could have a cover without his name on it, and Miles Davis was obviously so popular that he could do that. Miles always had very powerful features, and the texture and detail in his face shows the journey of his career and how much he put into it. I was drawn to the album by that intense, beautiful stare. I modelled my career on Miles in terms of wanting to push boundaries. For example, Public Enemys Fear of a Black Planet was conceptual art, which no one had done in hip-hop before. However, I was so moved by the Tutu cover that when the time came to do LL Cool Js greatest hits album, All World, I applied the same idea to an Albert Watson photograph of LL. There was type on the front, but it was on a shinkwrap that peeled off. It was my homage to Tutu.

Parliament Motor Booty Affair (1978)


Chosen by Joe Buckingham, designer of various De La Soul sleeves including De La Soul Is Dead

Ive always liked album sleeves that double as construction kits. I had a Jefferson Airplane album that you could take apart and build into a fully three-dimensional cigar box. The inner sleeve was an image of marijuana, and that sat in the box, so it looked as if it was filled with grass. In this field, though, this Parliament cover is king and is still my all-time favourite sleeve. It was a gatefold with a pop-up element. If you laid the album flat, this fantasy castle popped up along with various characters you could cut out and stand up in the castle. There were tons of illustrations, and the cover featured a giant bird coming down on the albums Sir Nose character. There was just so much to look at in Overton Loyds artwork. It really piqued my imagination. I think subconsciously the starkness and simplicity of the cover image against a white background seeped into how I designed De La Soul Is Dead.

Marvin Gaye Here, My Dear (1978)


Chosen by Scott Sandler, Grammy-nominated designer of artwork for everyone from Def Jam to Lil Wayne to the Rolling Stones

I love this because of the story behind it and the way the cover works with the music. In the mid-70s, Marvin Gaye had had two enormous albums in Whats Going On and Lets Get It On, but was going through an acrimonious divorce from Anna Gordy. They agreed a deal whereby she wouldnt get any money, but would get all the proceeds of his next album, which looked guaranteed to be the biggest record ever. Instead, he sabotaged the deal by making a wilfully uncommercial album, full of songs about their relationship, although its now seen as another classic. Gaye gave Michael Bryan, the artist, very specific instructions, so the cover features the singer looking like a Greek god. The artwork includes the words love and marriage and judgment and it unfolds to a picture of him handing her this itsy-bitsy, teeny-tiny record. Thats dark, but mostly a record just features a photo of the band. This is a total concept, a snapshot of his state of mind and an amazing art piece.

U2 Boy (1980)


Chosen by Alison Fielding, Beggars Banquet Group creative director, who has designed for the Prodigy, the Specials and the Horrors

When I was about 13, I heard I Will Follow when I was listening to the John Peel show on headphones. I thought it was amazing, and immediately went to this little local shop that sold TVs as well as records, and ordered it. At that point, I had no idea what it would look like. When I got it, I just thought it was so beautiful, I stared at it for hours. I dont care much for the graphics, but its very evocative of a time in my life that shaped my love of music, and theres something almost Mona Lisa-like about the photograph on the sleeve. Does it capture innocence, or something darker? They used the same boy two albums later for War, by which point he has a split lip. So theres a narrative developing. When I was about 13 or 14, I had this big blue Adidas bag for school, and I wrote U2 on it in really big lettering in ballpoint pen, but messily and badly. That was my first attempt at graphics.

Bjrk Homogenic (1997)


Chosen by Rochelle Nembhard, who worked on the acclaimed cover for Petite Noirs La Vie Est Belle

I like covers that relate directly to the musician, more than abstract images. I like some abstract images, but those covers could be anyone. Homogenic is a piece of art, and the fact that she used Alexander McQueen to design it was amazing. Its a fusion between African and Asian the African necklaces and the Asian dress that stands the test of time. I love all Bjrks covers for that reason they all show an aspect of her. The visual aspect of music, the album cover, is important, because it is a picture of the music, depicting the sound. It should be so much more than just a one-dimensional image it has to be the face of the music. Thats what I was trying to do with Petite Noir, working with the artist Lina Viktor. I knew she had the type of imagery that would translate into his music and stand the test of time.

Scritti Politti Work in Progress EP (1979)


Chosen by Matthew Cooper, designer for Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand, Hot Chip and many more

I love the DIY aesthetic of the first edition of Elvis Presleys first album, later homaged by Ray Lowry for the Clashs London Calling sleeve. The wonky type looks like it has been cut out and stuck on by hand. Theres another musician awkwardly cropped in the photo of Elvis. Nowadays, the record company would ask you to Photoshop him out. The immediacy of the image and graphics make a statement of intent: Here I am. Many years and genres after that was released, the same aesthetic inspired me when I came across this EP of Scritti Polittis second John Peel session in Chick-A-Boom Records in Sutton Market, some years after it came out in 1979 on Rough Trade Records. The sleeve was just a plastic bag with two bits of photocopied paper in it. One of them listed the entire costs of making the record, including 65 for 5,000 plastic covers. The other photocopy was of a bag of crisps, a badge and some sugar. It demystified the entire process and I realised that I could do something similar at the local library. So I took loads of stuff down and started photocopying it.


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