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Getting a Radio DJ's Attention, Part 1: Album Design

Brendan's picture

If you are part of an a cappella group (or other band) with a new album, you've not doubt faced the question, "Now how do we get our baby out into the world of opportunity that awaits?"

Alright, so maybe those were not your exact words, but I hope I've captured your general intent. Regardless of who you are- collegiate a cappella group, professional musician, part-time gigger, or do-it-yourself soloist- that new collection of auditory masterpieces deserves a fighting chance at reaching the ears of the many individuals sure to be interested. And don't be fooled; these potential fans are not all waiting at your door, at big local gigs, at the record store or even online to find what you have to offer them. No, they often don't even know they are waiting for you. But they are, if only you can manage to find them.

Radio is one method of delivering your tunes into the lives of unsuspecting fans. Bands with instruments seem to know this, and some even fixate on making sure their recordings find their way into the hands of a radio DJ as if that alone defined success. However, vocal groups seem to pass on this opportunity. This is likely because of the style's roots in streetcorner performing, which leads groups to focus on live performance as their sole means of spreading their name. Nonetheless, with local appeal and- especially for collegiate groups- easy access to independent radio stations, many groups are well-positioned to get airplay. Having your music in a station's collection means that you are available full-time to DJs who can spin you into any playlist that they see fit, broadcasting your voices out to a significant audience.

SO... let's get down to business. How do you, a vocal group with great ambitions, create that album that DJs heap public adoration upon?

Visual presentation

This week, let's start with a functional approach to album design. When a radio station's music director, show producer or target DJ gets your work, this visual presentation is the first thing they see. Viewers will assume that the design budget was proportional to the audio production budget, so make sure your cover reflects that! You have to convince them that your album is going to be high quality enough to sound seamless alongside the rest of the music in the playlist. Let's use my own former group's debut album as an embarrassment-free example...

Quick album design Good album design

On the left, Not Too Sharp's debut On Our Way (2004). While not ugly, per se, it reflects an album from a young group doing it all themselves. On the right, CoCo Beaux's Sundial (2008). Coco Beaux's creative, crisp looking design does a great job of putting forth a professional face that is going to get them more serious consideration from anyone who picks up the album. Interestingly, the content is similar, as both albums have something of a 'live in-studio' sound to them.

Common issues: Pixelation. Text that doesn't match the plane of the surface it is intended to be written on. Photos with questionable white balance (see how, below, the lighting in the original photo makes skin look yellow and zombie-like). Even the color in Cee Lo Green's The Lady Killer could use more rich color balance (though I love the music).

Brendan demonstrating color balances The Lady Killer

A couple quick fixes: Fades or vignettes add a dynamic look to otherwise straightforward photos, as any good Instagram addict will attest (below, left). There are innumerable fonts out there; choose yours carefully, even obsessively (but pay attention to licensing!) Be sure that all writing has good contrast with anything behind it. Give depth by using shadows behind elements, or by embossing text or adding an outer glow (below, right). And never be afraid to look outside your group for ideas; often hiring a professional really is the most economical option.

Vignette exampleEffects to have you feeling textual

But you could spend four years learning about effective ways to design the best album cover, and we are just concerned with pragmatic elements, so let's talk about the information that makes your album easy to navigate and informationally friendly to DJs, reviewers, and others.

All the information

It is common practice to include a track listing on the back cover. Perhaps my favorite element that is completely unrequired by visual design standards, legal issues or any other possible reason is numbering for that track listing. How is such a simple inclusion helpful? For buyers, it makes checking the number of tracks instantaneous. For those listening on car CD players or other systems without an intelligent display, it is a quick way to check what track is playing. For DJs like myself, it means that while I am operating an on-air mic, computer and sound board, I have a quick means of checking which track I want to queue up, a massive help. This does not have to create a blatant numbered list; instead try incorporating the numbers into your design creatively, perhaps as a faded, larger font set slightly behind the track name.

Then there are other tidbits of information that you simply want people to know. The year of release gives a cappella insiders a standard by which to judge the music. Try listening to different BOCA (Best of College Acappella) collections. You'll note that a good recording from 2004 is a world apart from what is considered a top recording in 2012. Even professional groups like Rockapella- who have always had a good production budget- have a very different sound now from in the past.

Especially for those unfamiliar with your music, performing group details are essential. What country, state, town, or school does your group consider homebase? Are we listening to 5 voices or 15? Male, female, or mixed? What is the best website or email address to learn more about you? These may seem like basic details, but they are more frequently overlooked than you might expect.

And here is a way to give back to those who have contributed so much to the success of your recording... let people know who produced your album. All steps are significant- recording, editing, mixing, mastering, and production oversight. Let us know the individual or company who did it, where they are located, and an email or website to find out more. Producers appreciate this contribution to their reputation; if other groups like what they hear, then your album practically serves as advertising for whoever created it. This goes even more if you have done all or some of the work yourself!

Copyright elements

Finally, there are some credits that are necessary for your album even to be legal. Including any covers of songs from other artists? Yeah, I thought you might. If you read through the contract that you signed upon purchasing licensing for those tracks, you'll notice that the copyright owners must be stated in the liner notes or your license may be considered invalid (see item D in this example license agreement from Harry Fox Agency). Typically you can find this information published on an inner fold of the liner notes, as in the example from Straight No Chaser's Holiday Spirits (below left).

Example track credits from SNC Credit where credit is due. Everywhere.

Also Included here are other great tidbits, like the arranger and soloist. If yours changes from song to song, you might also include the VP (vocal percussionist) here. For curiosity's sake, you may even include the original performing artist that your arrangment is based upon, often using the abbreviation OPB for "originally performed by." And if you think this is a lot of information to include, just take a look at what is included for SNC's famous "12 Days of Christmas" medley (above right, click to enlarge).

If you have managed to include all of the elements here, you have quite a nice package. Visually and informationally you will be prepared to roll out an attractive, helpful, legal piece of art. I recently attended a workshop on designing curriculae for students with special needs, and one of the core concepts was that designing something that is accessible to those with the most specific requirements (in this case DJs, reviewers, etc.) will lead to a product that is maximally useful to all audiences.

Album design is just one part of creating your most easily marketable music, though! Check back in two weeks for ideas on how to present the latest iteration of your group with detail and charisma.

> Go to Part 2: Tell Your Story
> Go to Part 3: Plan Your Sound

Brendan McCann is the producer of the all-a cappella radio show The Voice Box on WUNH, which he created with the intent of playing and publicizing the work of vocal bands everywhere, while also giving insight into the creative process behind the music through interviews with artists, producers and others. His a cappella habit formed as a member of the all-male University of New Hampshire a cappella group Not Too Sharp, where he served as the webmaster and publicity coordinator for four years. He has been a show host and WUNH member since 2009. Contact him here with feedback, discussion, questions or requests.