Brian Cannon is a British graphic designer, art director, photographer, and music video director. He is best known for his Microdot graphic design company and its work in the 1990s, which created the album cover for Oasis’ record breaking debut album, Definitely Maybe, in 1994.
Two of Cannon’s record sleeve designs, Definitely Maybe and “This Is Music”, were featured in Q magazine’s “The Hundred Best Record Covers Of All Time” list published in 2001. He is noted for “his grandiose, ridiculously time-consuming (photo) shoots”, and has produced a number of record sleeves for UK number one albums, including Urban Hymns (The Verve) and 1977 (Ash), along with two further Oasis albums—(What’s The Story) Morning Glory? and Be Here Now.
He has also designed record sleeves for Ruthless Rap Assassins, Suede and Super Furry Animals, and is the former manager of the now-defunct Scottish experimental rock group, The Beta Band.
Once again we have to thank Brian for taking time to do this interview especially when working with an 8 hour time difference!
Interview with Brian Cannon
How did you get involved in the music business?
Well, I made a conscious decision, before I started studying my degree, that it is specifically what I wanted to do. I’ve had a string of just incredible lucky chance meetings or breaks if you like. The first real contact and entrance I got, it’s a bizarre story this.
It was 1984, I was 18 years of age, and the hip-hop thing was just beginning to get big in England – not just the music but the dancing and the graffiti and everything. I did a big graffiti piece on the side of this warehouse wall in my hometown of Wigan…and that was noticed by a DJ who was playing in Manchester at that time, called Greg Wilson. He knew that the graffiti phenomenon would finally arrive in England someday or another but he presumed it would be in London or Manchester perhaps, but he actually saw it for the first time in Wigan, which is a small town. He was astonished and he put the word out, who did this, I want to meet this person. So I was summoned to his house at 18 and I was kind of nervous. It was through him really. He gave me the gig, the first work I did for a band called The Ruthless Rap Assassins signed at EMI. It all took off from there… so just a desire to do it and a few chance meetings, that being the main one.
Who are some of the people you’ve worked with?
Over the years? Everybody from The Rap Assassins, Oasis, The Verve, Super Furry Animals, Suede, Cast, Kym Mazelle …the list goes on, there’s loads.
What sort of projects do you enjoy working on the most?
To be with people who get what I’m doing and let me get on with it. Working with Oasis was amazing.
What format do you like to work in the most?
The best of what I did was always sleeve imagery. The sleeve imagery looked best, I think, in the old-school 12-inch vinyl format. Unfortunately you very rarely see that these days. Imagery for records – that was what my mainstay of work used to be – it’s changing. It’s still photographic based imagery, with a narrative along with it but, as I said, our canvas has shrunk because we don’t really do records anymore.
Why should a band establish a brand?
Well, a lot of them don’t. But they should establish a brand as it were because fans of the band then have a greater identity to get involved with. It’s just an extension of the music. All the great bands, like right back from the Beatles all the way to the Sex Pistols … they’ve all got a brand. There’s a finite logo. There’s a style to the work. It’s a visual signature added to the music and something the kids can relate to more.
How big of a role does image play in a band for overall success?
Well, if the music isn’t any good it doesn’t do any good whatsoever. Noel Gallagher was famous for saying “You can have all the attitude and cool you like, but if you don’t have the songs, you don’t have the songs”. I think it’s an addition but I don’t necessarily think it plays a part. It’s a funny one isn’t it? Because, if the band’s got great songs, you could put the record in a brown paper bag, it’s a bonus, if you like. It’s not essential, it’s a bonus.
If you were given creative control over a project, what would you do to enhance a band’s sales through art?
I don’t think you necessarily can. People buy the music. I have bought records because of their sleeves, but that’s what I do. The vast majority of people buy records because they like the music and these days, the majority of it is just downloads anyway. I don’t necessarily think it’s a starting point. Perhaps once the band becomes established and people start looking at the imagery and even previewing the album’s sleeve before the record comes out, that gets you coverage. But I don’t necessarily think the content of the art itself necessarily sells anything.
How do you find new clients?
Mainly, by word of mouth.
Is it something you look for in these clients that makes it easier for you to work with them?
Well, because I’ve been going for quite a while, people know what to expect, what my style is. So the kinds of people who approach me have got knowledge of what I’ve done before and they obviously like it, I suppose. It’s a case of finding a working relationship. You’re building a working relationship, really. If someone likes what I’ve done and they’ve got something going on that I like, then it’s all well and good. Then it’s somewhat easier to work with because you both understand each other and you both like what each other’s doing. It’s conducive to a creative relationship.
What is the creative process behind what you do?
If I knew that and bottle it, I could sell it couldn’t I? It’s just instinctive I guess. Listen to the music, get a feel for it, then it just comes out. That’s it, I can’t really tell anything more.
How do you work with an artist? What do you need from them? What is the process that goes on?
Well, it astonishes me that people actually design record sleeves or design images for bands without ever having listened to them. Obviously, my first starting point is the music. I’d like to have the lyrics. I always ask the band if they have any ideas first, any likes or dislikes; I think it’s just about getting a rapport going. The best I’ve ever done is always with bands that I’ve really got into their heads; just lived with the project for a while. That’s the best way to do it: to totally understand where they’re coming from and, at the end of the day, visually dress their music.
How long does it take to complete a project?
Again, I’ve done stuff up in a day, and other stuff has quite literally taken 3 months. That varies wildly.
And then, who owns the designs?
Well, I don’t know about the law in Canada but certainly the law in the UK states that the creator, the author of creative work – the person who creates it owns it, unless there is something contractually written to the contrary. But what would normally happen is, if you do a design, you would grant a licence, if you like, to the band to use on the record sleeve for which you get paid for. If they have any other merchandise implications, perhaps you’d renegotiate or negotiate some sort of deal for that. Or a band could say, “What we want to do is a complete buy-out. We want to own the rights totally. So we would like to sign this contract saying that you assign all rights in the world for everything for that piece of work and we’re going to give you XYZ dollars for it.”
What kind of a budget does a band need to employ the services of a graphic designer?
Well, I’ve done sleeves, quite literally for $200, right up to $50,000. So, it all depends. I’m realistic. If the band’s unsigned or just beginning, and I’m into it, I’ll do it for … not for nothing, ‘cause I’ve got to work and I got to get paid but at a drastically reduced rate. However, in the old days, when Oasis was selling millions of albums, and signed to Sony who was paying the bill, clearly that was going to be considerably more.
How did you actually come about meeting these people?
Chance meeting of Richard Ashcroft, of the Verve, before The Verve got signed. There was a party in Wigan where we’re both from, when he was 17. Pure chance, after I didn’t see him again for a couple of years and I bumped into him at a petrol station at 6 o’clock in the morning, would you believe. He just got signed and he remembered me. And he said, “You’re that guy who designed sleeves, do you want to do our stuff?” And I said, “Yeah.” I mean, this was before they ever had a record. Noel, I met when we had our office in the same building. We just started talking about trainers, you know sneakers, in the lift one day and that’s how I met him. It was just absolutely bizarre. All the way through my career it’s been just chance meetings that have been incredibly fruitful.
As far as artistically, have any people’s work influenced your own style?
I like a lot of what you might call traditional art. I’m a big fan of Pop art, like Robert Rauschenberg, back further I like Dadaism, people like M.C. Escher, Otto Dix, Andy Warhol. A lot of my stuff although it is contemporary and mixed with modern bands, it’s taking the lead from Flemish renaissance paintings of the 15th and 14th century… they’ve got a narrative thing going on, there’s a story being told in the painting. Jan Van Eyck, the classic one is the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait, is often cited as being an influence of Definitely Maybe., although it was painted almost 600 years ago. It’s an astonishing painting. I went to a Picasso exhibition in Liverpool and that blew me away as well. I like paintings you know, just art.
Yeah, if you look at the Wonderwall cover, that is just a direct rip-off of Rene Magritte, his 3 picture frames imagery. A lot of it is subconscious, because I have looked at so many paintings, so many books over the years I guess it just comes in and then seeps out, it is hard to put my finger on it really.
For more information on Brian, his company and how to get in touch with him please visit: www.microdotcreative.co.uk