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Interview with Larry Vigon

Mike Goldstein, – Larry, I’d like you to think back and tell me how it was that you were first introduced to the notion of doing album artwork for clients in the music business. Was it something you’d set out to do, did you “fall in” to an opportunity or was it in some other way?

Larry Vigon – I have always loved music. I think I have been listening to music on the radio since I was 4 or 5 years old and I can’t think of a better way to make a living than combining my love of music with my passion for creating art. One of my instructors at The Art Center College of Design was Roland Young, the creative director at A&M records. Roland like me and my work and said that when I call on record companies, I should say that he sent me. Yes, I did set my sights on the music business and targeted the record companies and studios that did album cover design with my promo pieces. Breaking into the album cover design community was not easy, but the recommendation from Roland opened doors that would have been closed to a designer fresh out of art school.

Mike G – Sometimes, it’s not just what you know, it’s who you know, right? So, taking into account what you knew about the people involved – the musicians, label execs, etc. – and your overall knowledge of the music business at the time, did you adopt a particular approach to promoting and packaging music, or did you approach each project uniquely? Do you think you have a personal or identifiable style, when even the casual observer would know right away that you’d created a particular design?

Larry V – I would always approach each new job as a unique project. 99% of the time, I would meet the recording artist or band and discuss how they wanted to present themselves to the public. I would then listen to the music to make sure that I got a real feel for what the artist was doing. Some designers have a certain style and you know exactly what you are getting when you go to them. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, it’s just my preference to do something new and different each time. I don’t have any one style…I like to experiment.

Mike G – With each project being “an experiment” and something you wanted to make sure was unique for each client, it seems that each job would have required the input of various designers, photographers, illustrators, graphic artists, etc., so how did you choose the talent who would work with you on each project? Can you help me better understand the “who typically did what”?

Larry V – For most of the “album cover part” of my career after Vigon, Nahas, Vigon (Editor’s note – the design studio he ran from 1973 to 1980 along with partners Margo Nahas and his twin brother, Jay Vigon), I worked with one assistant, Brian Jackson. I hired Brian right out of Art Center and we worked together for 16 years. Between Brian and I, we could handle all the art direction, design and almost all the illustration. I think my portfolio has only two illustrations that I didn’t do myself. Photographers came by my studio every week and I saw lots of their work. Sometimes, there would be a standout portfolio that I would remember for upcoming projects. I had my favorites I would use regularly, but I was always open to a new discovery. It wasn’t unusual for Brian and I to be working on ten or more packages at the same time, but we always kept up with the demand and still managed to do some pretty good work. Brian has gone on to be a very successful designer in his own right and we are still in touch.

MG – Since a large number of your album covers were created in the pre-Photoshop, pre-Illustrator era, can you tell me whether any special tools were used and incorporated into your work process?  How did these help you create memorable finished products, and how did you go about adapting to and/or incorporating new technologies and tools into your work flow?

LV – Then, I was “old school”, using pencils, pens, paint, paper, air brush, French curves, circle templates, etc. Now, I always have an assistant there to do the computer work. I do a fairly accurate drawing or doodle of what I want and then scan it into the computer and go from there. I sit with my assistant and art direct as usual but I’m always looking for that happy accident I hadn’t planned on that can often be better than my original thought. The combination of my old school instincts with newer technologies can yield amazing results.

MG – I’ve heard that take from a number of designers – many are happy that they don’t have to go back to the beginning just to see how something might look with minor changes in design or color. Moving on, I wanted to ask you about the project /production coordination required for each project. Taking everything into account, can you tell me how long this process typically took – from start to finished product?

LV – I work quickly. I’ve had great assistants and a network of the best resources for things such as retouching, print making, hair, make-up and wardrobe, etc. I’d say that most projects took 2 to 4 weeks depending, on the pending release schedule. For a project like TUSK, it took much longer.

MG – While we touched on the details about some of the inspirations and, in some examples, how you collaborated on the some of the projects you described in your Featured Artist Portfolio, I’m interested in finding out just how involved the artist/artist management/the record label was typically (if there was a “typical”!!) in the day-to-day development and review process and, ultimately, who decided what you would produce? Do you feel that you usually got enough money and/or time to do what you wanted to do?

LV – Most of the time, it was left up to me to come up with several ideas based on what I had learned from interviewing the artist. With SPARKS, they would first come to me with the concept and then I would get the right team together to make it happen. Sometimes the artist had a bad idea and it was up to me to get them to come around to something better without hurting anyone’s feelings or making them feel embarrassed.
In the 1970’s and 80’s there was usually a good budget to get things done right. There were a couple of times when a project couldn’t be done because of budgetary reasons. For example, one day I received a call from Jeff Ayeroff, the creative director at Warner Bros. Jeff knew that I was friends with the photographer Helmut Newton and that we had done several jobs together. Jeff said he had a project he wanted Helmut and I to work on and would I please arrange a lunch for the three of us. A few days later, we met with Jeff at Warner Bros. to discuss a package for a newly signed artist named Madonna. Helmut and I came up with the concept of recreating a modern Pieta in the middle of a downtown L.A. street. Unfortunately, the cost for this shoot was too much for a first time, unproven artist, and so that was my “almost doing Madonna’s first album” story.
My second such story began when I was at a party where I met Tori Amos. She told me she had recently signed with a major label and that she was just putting the finishing touches on the recording. A few weeks later, I received a call from Tori asking if we could meet to discuss designs for her debut album and, that afternoon, Tori came to my studio with a demo cassette. I didn’t have a cassette player in the studio, so we sat in my car a listened to her entire album – it was great. I would have loved to do her cover, but the record company wouldn’t allow the use of an outside designer for a first time, unproven artist.  So, as you can see, sometimes the budget just wasn’t there.

MG – Were your clients generally happy with the results and, if so, how did they express that to you?

LV – My clients were always pleased with the results. As you can see from my portfolio, the artists, record companies and managers kept calling me, so I guess I was doing something right.

MG – I know that you’re still doing design work, so I wanted to ask you about how, these days, do you split your time – or manage your time – between “business development” and actually doing production work?

LV – I’m still taking on commercial projects, but not as many as I used to. In 2006, my wife and I moved to Italy and lived there for two and a half years, during which time I only did one project, and that was Carl Jung’s Red Book. The rest of the time I spent painting. Then, we moved to London and, for the next 10 years, I took on more work but I still had time to do my personal work and continuing to paint. I don’t really go out looking for work anymore, but I’m always excited to start a new project when it comes my way.

MG – So now, we’ve come to the part of the interview where, without betraying confidences, I’d like to ask you if there is any other anecdotal info about any of these projects 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!

LV – I have been welcomed into the inner circle of many famous recording artists and I’ve seen a lot. I think it’s important not to talk about what I’ve seen while being with people when they have let their guard down and were just being themselves. My “a-ha moments” are usually creative insights.

MG – I totally get your response and approach to respecting that “whatever happens in the studio, stays in the studio,” and so we’ll now move on to everyone’s favorite part of an ACHOF interview – the general philosophical questions I try to pose to every creative person I talk to. Let’s start with this – Are you noticing any more or less enthusiasm from your music industry clients to invest time and money in promo designs and packaging that help their products stand out from the what’s become a very crowded marketplace?

LV – Although I still love music – I can’t work without it – I’m not up on the music industry any more. Obviously, most album graphics are seen at much smaller size on iTunes, smart phones, etc. In the 1970’s and 80’s, the unveiling of a 12” LP recording was an event – you held it in your hands and poured over it while listening to a whole album for the first time. I think cover graphics these days need to be simple and bold and good for marketing. I particularly liked the series of covers done for the Ed Sheehan albums Multiply, Divide, Shape and No.6.

MG – Great examples – I was particularly fond of the illustration Kasiq Jungwoo did for ÷ (Divide) – quite arresting! To go on, can you share feelings about album artwork-related design, photography and production these days? Are there any musical acts, labels, art directors, etc. that you think are keeping the field alive or important? Do you think album art and packaging (including work for “special products”) matters anymore?
LV – Art always matters. The world would be a really dull place without it, don’t you think? Even a 1” square thumbnail image of an album cover on iTunes is more attractive than a simple listing. It reminds me of a poster I once saw that stated “Earth without art is just Eh”.

MG – Personally, it is my belief that, in many ways, iconic album cover art has had a noticeable effect on Pop Culture. Do you think that album cover art help us document modern human history? What’s your take on this – is the imagery and music providing the direction, or is it reflecting the culture, or ??

LV – Just like hearing an old song, or smelling a familiar aroma, seeing an album cover from a certain period of your life can bring memories – good and bad – rushing back.

MG – As a collector, I follow trends in the art sales/auction world regarding how album cover-related art is valued. As an artist, are you noticing any more or less enthusiasm within the fine art world – that is, from collectors, gallerists, museum curators, etc. – in their consideration for adding album cover images and packaging designs to their collections? Is the market for these works – as works of fine art and, therefore, collectible – improving, stagnant, etc. and, if so, why do you think that is?

LV – It’s a timely question since I just auctioned off all of my album cover art, original paintings, photos, sketches etc. The collection sold like hot cakes, so I guess there is a good market for music related art.

MG – I saw that auction online and had hoped to add an item or two to my own collection, but collectors with deeper pockets prevailed, so congratulations on the results. Let’s continue on with a question that always elicits a broad range of responses…So, while doing the research for my book project and for some of the bios featured on the ACHOF site, I found examples of something that made me want to work harder to make sure that credits are given where due – those being several incidents over the years where an artist’s work had been used and, on occasion, abused by labels, print publishers, licensing companies and/or other musical acts without permission or without giving proper credit for the work being used. It seems that, in an age where people seem to find it permissible to “borrow” – it sounds so much better than “steal” or “plagiarize” – an artist’s/writer’s/ photographer’s work to help them promote and sell their own products, folks that create original art have been forced to police the print and digital media outlets to do what they can to either stop this unauthorized use or, at least, receive credit for the work they’ve done.  Have you – or any of the artists you’ve worked with – been victimized in this way? Is there anything that can/should be done about it, or do you simply chalk it up to being one of the costs of doing business these days?

LV – After I designed the Eric Clapton album Behind The Sun, I went to see Eric at the Hollywood Bowl. I couldn’t help but notice all the merchandise available everywhere you looked. Tee shirts, sweat shirts, programs, etc. The next day I called Roger Forrester, Eric’s manager. I had always been paid at least as much for merchandise royalties as I was paid for the package design, so when I brought this up with Roger, he said I didn’t read the fine print in the contract. He went on to say, “I know you are right and you know you are right but I’ve got you on a technicality, so you just need to mark this up as an expensive business lesson. From that day on I always crossed out the merchandise part of every contract.

MG – A painful lesson, I’m sure, but now we’ll use it as a “teachable moment” for budding artists in the audience.

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