Earlier this year, Elektra Records marked its 60th anniversary. At a time when the music industry is facing an identity crisis and record labels of all sizes are closing up shop, six decades is no small feat.
The label, now a subsidiary of Warner Music Group, is commemorating the milestone by launching an extensive anniversary campaign with concerts, lectures, merchandise and a website — Elektra60.com — that chronicles its impressive time line. An imprint with Elektra’s cachet could have chosen any number of major design firms to give those materials a distinctive look. Instead, the label kept the work of branding its 60th birthday in-house. Sort of.
“I never quite seem to be able to get away from the music industry,” says Bill Harvey, 55. He and his wife and fellow designer, Lyn Severance, 57, make up Harvey|Severance, a Burlington-based boutique marketing firm. Their latest project was crafting Elektra’s anniversary artwork, including designs that adorn special-edition posters, T-shirts, booklets for digital samplers on iTunes and other merchandise. Music, Harvey says, is “in my DNA, I guess.”
That’s an understatement. Harvey’s father, William S. Harvey, was the art director at Elektra Records from 1953 to 1973. The elder Harvey was half of the Elektra brain trust that revolutionized the music industry’s concept of album packaging and created many of rock and roll’s iconic images — for example, the Doors’ logo and the Elektra butterfly.
Jac Holzman, the 79-year-old founder of Elektra Records and the other half of that team, concedes that Bill’s surname got his foot in the door.
But landing the anniversary gig was hardly a case of nepotism. Bill Harvey grew up outside New York City and apprenticed under his father in Los Angeles during college. He settled in Vermont in the 1970s and worked as the art director of Burlington alternative newsweekly the Vermont Vanguard Press from 1979 to 1982. While there, he met Severance, a Vermont native who had studied at Parsons School of Design in New York. More recently, Harvey has helmed a number of book-development projects, including a history of R&B called Heart & Soul: A Celebration of Black Music Style in America.
“I felt the continuity from father to son, if [Bill] could give us what we wanted, was a nice gesture to the history,” Elektra’s Holzman says. “But if he couldn’t do it, his name would have gotten him kicked out the door,” he adds with a chuckle.
Digging into the history of Elektra proved an emotional experience for the younger Harvey.
“This wash of my whole life fell over me,” he says. “I realized that Jac had probably known my father better than I did. He spent every day with him for 20 years.”
Indeed, Holzman gave the eulogy at Harvey senior’s funeral in 1992.
A creative antagonism drove Holzman and his father, Bill Harvey recalls. “The more conflict between two creative people, the more great stuff gets done,” he says. “In the case of Jac and my father, they had a healthy competition. My dad was the visual guy, and Jac was the ears.”
“There’s back and forth on that,” says Holzman, when asked about the typical tug-of-war between artists and executives. “With Bill and I, it was very constructive,” he continues. Though, he adds, “I’m sure he went home at night and said, ‘Jesus, he pissed me off.’”
Contentious as the collaboration may have been, the body of work it produced speaks for itself. William Harvey did every album jacket Elektra produced during his tenure, from the company’s 10th record on. (A then-little-known illustrator named Maurice Sendak did the first nine.) William Harvey’s résumé includes album jackets that helped build the foundation of rock iconography, including packages for MC5, the Stooges and Love.
“You would often hear Elektra referred to as ‘the best-dressed label in the music business,’” recalls Bill Harvey. “That refers to the visual part of the label. They made great records and were significant and eclectic and unusual. But the way those albums were presented set such a high standard, above and beyond most other labels — and consistently.”
He adds that, while other labels produced interesting album art, Elektra’s approach and mindset set it apart.
“It’s almost a bad word, ‘branding,’” Bill Harvey says. “There was a much bigger brand thinking, consideration of a visual brand, than most labels had.” But, even as the company pioneered creative branding, he adds, its designers were aware of the precarious balance between art and commerce. They didn’t let the latter subsume the former.
Severance agrees. “It wasn’t so much a visual brand consistency as a conceptual consistency,” she says. “Each album for each group was considered in a very conceptual way.”
Holzman offers a more practical assessment. “We were an independent label,” he explains. “You had to stand out in every particular way to get noticed.”
Early on, when Elektra was primarily a folk-based label, major radio largely ignored the company, Holzman says. College radio deejays, however, took to the ideas implied by Elektra’s visual aesthetic as much as they did to the label’s roster of artists. “Having packages that were more complete set us aside from the crowd,” Holzman says. “It said there was more to this than just music.”
Bill Harvey recalls the design philosophy that created that distinction. “The most significant thing my father ever told me was that ideas are the things that have value,” he says.
The idea for Elektra’s anniversary? Simple.
“It was the artists,” says Harvey.
The centerpiece of Harvey|Sever-ance’s design work for the anniversary is a deceptively plain poster that can be viewed on the Elektra60 site. It is dominated by a list of artists’ names written in Severance’s distinctive, and familiar, hand-lettered style. (Her first major design gig was as the typographer for Ben & Jerry’s.) Below that is a smaller procession of Elektra-related logos.
The names appear “roughly chronologically,” taking viewers from the beginning of Elektra (Jean Ritchie, Woody Guthrie) through the advent of Asylum (the Eagles, Tom Waits), and the merger with Warner Bros. (Mötley Crüe, Björk, Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott).
Harvey suggests the poster’s simple design inspires viewers to connect with it on a fundamental level, much like a war memorial. “You connect because you recognize the names,” he says. “Maybe not all of them. Maybe only a few. But that evokes a memory, and there’s comfort in that.”
The artist at the end of the list is undoubtedly Elektra’s least recognizable. Though he’s hardly a household name, his contributions to the label changed the face of the music industry.
That name: William S. Harvey.
“It really has all come full circle,” says his son.