Music Packaging Today: An Interview with Sarah Robertson and Scott Pollack of A to Z Media

A to Z Media is a small New York City-based company that’s facilitating some of the best music packaging and manufacturing in the world today. I recently sat down with A to Z’s Sarah Robertson and Scott Pollack to discuss the state of physical media in 2011.

James: Tell me a little about the company.

Sarah: I came over from England in May of 1994 and set up the business. There was a need to serve as the conduit between large and impersonal printing and optical media plants, and small-to-medium size music companies.

Scott: That’s very much why brokers exist, to fill that gap.

Packaging for High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project by Loudon Wainwright III

Sarah: I worked from my apartment for the first year or so, and since then we’ve been in this NoHo neighborhood for the entire time, and in our current space for five years. A lot of the clients we have now are people we’ve had relationships with for many years. They may now work for different record labels, or have set up their own labels, but it’s very much been an organic growth. There was Michael Dorf from the Knitting Factory, who introduced me to John Zorn, and we still work with John’s label Tzadik today. We’ve done close to six hundred releases with them. It’s all been word of mouth.

James: As we all know, physical media is said to be in its “death throes,” despite the fact that people are still buying a good deal of CDs and records. What’s good about physical media? Why should we stick with it?

Sarah: Well it gives you the whole story. With a CD or an LP you don’t just get the music, you get the whole vision and story of the artist behind it.

Scott: The thing is, you’ve got to give people a compelling reason to want to purchase a tangible music item today. How are you going to make it compelling?

Multi-colored Baroness 45s.

Sarah: It doesn’t have to cost a ton of money to make something compelling. I mean, when you’re talking about something really out there — if you’re printing stuff on plastic, things like that — it’s going to be expensive. But we’ve been able to do smaller, hard-bound books that are four color — really beautiful hard bound books — in a run of 3,000. This is something we’re going to be sourcing in China. We’re trying to meet two needs. People want to have beautiful packaging, but some of it, made domestically, is very, very expensive. You just can’t do it. But there are other options, and I think that’s where we see the market moving. So we’re trying to be positioned to be the resource whether you want to run 1,000 or you want to run 300,0000.

James: What would you say are the main things that people can do to improve their music packaging?

Scott: As many great packaging options as there are, there’s no substitute for good designers. We help source out the packaging materials, configurations, how it works, how it fits together. But honestly we’ve never really gotten involved in the graphic design. Packaging design, yes. But graphics no. Art direction is really important.

Sarah: It’s good for a label to have a go-to designer.

Scott: Like Tzadik. John [Zorn] was very visionary in how he wanted the music packaged, and he’s been able to maintain it.

Sarah: And he does very different things. Like in the Archival series (which is his own stuff) he’ll come up with ideas where I say “how on earth do you come up with that?” It’s taking something that is simple, and making it beautiful. Some packages are “template” but some of them are completely out there.

James: I’m always impressed with the quality of the printing of the Tzadik releases — some of the lines are so fine, yet they don’t look jaggy.

Sarah: Especially now, some of Heung-Heung’s [Tzadik house designer] things are very very fine. Did you see the Interzone release they just did? It’s really cool: a very simple black image printed on a foil stock. And embossing and debossing — it’s a very clever thought process.

Packaging for John Zorn's Interzone CD
Detail of Interzone package.

Scott: Heung-Heung is getting more and more intricate.

Sarah: I’ll always say to them, honestly, that’s not going to work, you’re going too small. And John will say “trust me, it’ll work.” And then it works, miraculously. They did a tip-on wallet — an old school jacket, but a little one — and he was doing very thin type on the spine. All hand assembled. I was concerned that it wouldn’t work — and it did.

James: We just started doing vinyl with Tzadik at Masterdisk.

Sarah: Yes, we have it right here.

Scott: The artwork is absolutely beautiful. this is an old style tip-on jacket. There’s literally only a few folks who can print those. And it’s a picture disc, and it sounds really good. Beacuase picture discs don’t always sound that great.

Dreamers picture disc.
Dreamers packaging including insert.

James: Scott [Hull] worked hard on this with the plant to make sure it would come out great.

Scott: Whatever he did it sounds really really good.

Sarah: We just did some shaped vinyl for The Sword. It’s hexagonal.

James: Do you talk to the plant and they’re like, “what?”

Scott: There was one vendor in the world that was able to do that one.

Sarah: We want the record labels and the individuals to come to us and say “I want to do this,” and we say “sure.” and we find out how to make it happen.

James: What are your thoughts about the trend of super-deluxe packaging? Releases that come with both CD and vinyl, and books, and alternate albums, and headphones…

Sarah: Well, we did that with Matador [the 21st Anniversary box set]. It was an expensive package. It’s an example of a record label giving something back to the fans.

Matador's 21st Anniversary Box

Scott: Though I think what James is talking about is the far extreme end — this uber deluxe “let’s package it with an amp” trend. We’re not really dealing with too many artists on the Springsteen and Bowie level, so our thought process tends to be how we can do something nice at a 5, 10, 20,000 piece run — and bring it in at a competitive price. If anyone can successfully do that, that’s how you’re going to be able to keep packaging relevant for the indie community. Whatever Sony’s doing for Springsteen… that’s a whole other universe.

James: OK, and what about the other end of the spectrum: indie artists starting out with a small number of fans.

Scott: I think we’re talking about runs of 1,000 or even 500. We’ll do it.

Sarah: Maybe they run a little more print on it. You get a price break as soon as you move up to 1,000 units and more on the print, so you save some money that way. But even for small runs, it’s still spot varnishes and other more expensive-looking touches.

Scott: The threshold for your basic band used to always be 1,000 pices or more. It’s now dipped to 500, and quite honestly we’re getting a lot of requests for less — people want to do 300 fully packaged items. We can do it, as can many other people in the marketplace. I think the quality is a bit iffier at that number — it’s not quite the same as the 1,000 piece run. For the price you’re going to pay per unit at 300 or 500, you might as well run 1,000. But people are saying, “I know it’s more expensive, I know the quality is not quite on par with 1,000, but I just don’t need 1,000 pieces sitting around my apartment.”

Sarah: They’re moving away from jewel boxes too. It’s much better to take wallets or digipacks on the road instead of schlepping jewel boxes.

Digipack packaging for Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music.

James: So how is the CD doing in general?

Sarah: I’ve been doing optical media for probably over 20 years now. When I started, you were selling just the CD for over $1.60. Now it’s a fraction of that. The market has changed enormously. The question is how to sustain the CD as a relevant product in the marketplace. Our clients are people that still embrace a finished product.

Record labels are still getting product in the stores, even though we’ve been hit by the changes. In a way, I think it’s been a good thing. People re-evaluate how they’re going to package; how they’re going to reach the consumer. A lot of companies are stronger financially through digital sales, and any money coming in helps. I’m happy for somebody to make 3,000 CDs instead of 5,000 and be able to pay their bill because they’re doing 2,000 units in digital sales. It’s changing, and you change with it.

Scott: If digital music makes the companies that we’re working with healthier, that’s a good step for everybody. Even if they’re ultimately going to be running less physical product.

James: It seems to me that physical releases won’t go away if for no other reason than to have something to sell at shows.

Scott: Though we’ve done download cards for that purpose, too.

Sarah: Almost everyone’s putting download cards in with their vinyl. I think that’s fair enough. You’ve bought the product, you should be able to have it. You can’t ignore the digital marketplace, you’ve got to embrace it. Many of our clients are smaller companies, and, being small, they’re a bit more sprightly on their feet. The independent community are much better big-picture thinkers — they adapt, because they’ve always had to be scrappy. It’s been the same way with us. We need to think of the next thing we can do for our clients. And we do lots of different things.

Young Prisms cassette.

Scott: We just did our first cassette in many years. It was only for 150 cassettes but it was cool. We can do 8-track, and flexi-discs are coming back. People have been clamoring for flexies for a while. I think they’re kind of expensive at the smaller run, so i don’t know if a band’s gonna sell them but they’re great for a magazine.

Sarah: I don’t think flexies are going to make some kind of big comeback though.

James: They don’t sound great.

Sarah: No, they don’t — it’s more of a novelty thing. But if magazines find that they’re able to get labels to contribute exclusive content, flexies could provide a way to introduce value back into their printed editions.

Flexi
A flexi-disc proof.

Scott: And they look pretty cool. You can do them in different colors; we spec’d one that was almost like a picture disc. But back to your question, I think the CD had a really good run. And i think it improved on the previous generations of media for the most part. You can argue about the merits of the audio — someone like Scott [Hull] would be the expert on this…

James: CDs were very convenient.

Scott: But you know what’s more convenient? The iPhone. To have a micro device that has the ability to encapsulate your entire collection and does 15 other really cool things. That’s what’s undone the CD. And it’s a natural progression. We can’t hate on that. You can’t get away from the fact that you could buy any record on iTunes at 3 o’clock in the morning from the middle of nowhere, and you can’t do that with physical media. Especially because there’s no stores. Although I have to say that I think the CD has now reached a point, price wise, that it’s on par with digital for the most part. I think labels should lower their pricing a little bit — the cost should be on par with a digital release. And if you’re introducing just a modicum of interesting packaging or content into that release, I can’t see why physical media won’t live for an indefinite period of time. It’ll keep getting smaller and smaller, but that physical pie, between CDs and vinyl, maybe cassettes, maybe a hybrid where you’re still getting the downloads — it should continue to be viable.

Sarah: I think a bigger problem is getting more people to legitimately start purchasing music again in whatever the format. I think that’s been the real shock of the last 10 to 15 years. People don’t seem to want to buy music in whatever form it’s coming. It’s partly a generational thing. When you say what’s killing the industry, digital versus finished goods, you have to look at the generational impact — how many kids are buying music? When you look at the tween to early twenties, there’s less of a frame of reference for physical media. If you appeal to a 17 year old about beautiful packaging and interesting liner notes — I don’t know if they care.

Two-color vinyl edition of After the Fall's latest album.

Scott: They’ve grown up in the era of free music. Why buy a physical something? The question is how can everyone in the industry get physical sales back up to par to sustain operations, pay the artist, and really make it so it could be a career choice for people all down the line in whatever facet of the music industry that might still exist.

Sarah: You can still be in a band and play out and make a living. It’s hard but it’s done.

Scott: Touring is not going anywhere. The live touring industry is pretty healthy. And that’s something you can’t replace.

James: So how long do you think it’ll be before we get CD nostalgia? We’ve got vinyl, and now cassettes…

Scott: I think a few more plants would have to go out of business. When you won’t be able to make a CD, people will say, “I like those CDs!” Well, there’s only 4 CD plants left, so it’ll take 2 months to get your CD. Remember you used to get it in a week? Now it’s going to take 2 months. I think we’re a few years away from that.

Sarah: I think we’re a few decades away.

Scott: I don’t know if there’s 20 years left in the CD business. We sure as hell hope there is. I think there will be some nostalgia for it, but it’s a few years off. But you’d be surprised. Everybody talks about “the death of the CD.” I gotta tell you, from our little perch, the plants that we work with are very very busy. You walk through these plants and all sorts of companies and industries are running CDs.

Sarah: You think of the CD as music — and certainly from A to Z’s point of view, 70% of our business is music. But we do corporate stuff. We do DVDs, CD-ROMS for the corporate market. But you walk around the plants and it’s things you’d never think of. They’re making loads and loads of CDs.

Scott: I think you could say that the reports of the demise of physical media have been greatly exaggerated.


Masterdisk and A to Z have worked on a lot of projects together, including the Loudon Wainwright III, Lou Reed, and Tzadik releases pictured above. They’re pretty much our number one referral when our independent clients ask us what they need to do to get their product finished, once the mastering process is complete. And the reason we refer them is because of the high quality of their work, and their personalized service; we know that our clients will have a good experience. To check out more of A to Z’s phenomenal packaging work, head over to their website.