Cover Stories: Beck’s Design-Your-Own Artwork for ‘The Information’
It's just a sheet of blank graph paper and some Lego letters. Does Beck's 2006 album The Information feature one of the greatest album covers ever? Or is it one of the worst? Well, that's entirely up to you.
Beck didn't invent the remix, nor did he create the "choose your own adventure" concept for an album. At least as early as 1973 (the release date of Monty Python's Matching Tie and Handkerchief), "multi-sided" albums have been issued that rendered the listener an interactive part of the experience. Unlike normal albums, with multisided records where you set the needle in the album's lead-in groove determined what you heard. It's not exactly a "remix," but these novelty records require a certain amount of audience participation, and that's really the point here.
Nor was Beck's The Information the first interactive album cover, but it took the concept to a whole new level. "Cover art and all the paraphernalia that come with albums have always been really important to me. I'm one of those people who needs a visual crutch for music," the musician told Wired prior to the album's release.
So mash-ups, remixes and interactive artwork all were well established long before 2006 when The Information was released, as was the importance Beck placed on packaging. The story behind Odelay's iconic cover is a great example, and both his mother and grandfather were established visual artists. In the Beck universe, the album cover is an essential part of the album.
In an interview with MTV News prior to The Information's release, Beck claimed that the album's cover was almost a year in the making. “It’s a pretty cool concept. It’s supposed to be a secret, but I’ll let the cat out the bag — it’s all stickers... It’s really pretty amazing. The artwork is laid out in stickers: it’s modular, the cover is blank and you get a sheet of stickers and you make your own cover.”
Think of the world of album covers as a sort of gallery system where a small group of taste makers determine what constitutes "art." Essentially what Beck was gunning for was to take cover art out of the hands of these professionals and democratize it. That's an idea that has its roots with Beck's grandfather, Al Hansen.
Hansen was a key player in Fluxus – an art movement that thrived for two decades beginning in 1959. The Art Story sums up Fluxus nicely: "Fluxus artists did not agree with the authority of museums to determine the value of art, nor did they believe that one must be educated to view and understand a piece of art. Fluxus not only wanted art to be available to the masses, they also wanted everyone to produce art all the time."
Fluxus artists sought to erase any line separating art and the audience, often incorporating humor and audience participation to do so. Another Fluxus artist whose history intersects with popular music is Yoko Ono, who met John Lennon courtesy of such a project.
Like the Ono painting referenced by Lennon, The Information sleeve presented a sort of dilemma for collectors: If one doesn't hammer a nail into Yoko's painting, is it complete? On the other hand, if one does drive the nail, has he or she damaged the original artwork? The stakes may have been dramatically lower with a mass-produced album and enclosed sticker sheet, but the problem was the same.
The solution for collectors who wanted to make their own cover was simple: buy two. Keep one "mint in box" and play with the other one. Additionally, four different sticker sets were randomly inserted, meaning the die-hard completist would need to buy five copies of the same album. (All four sheets were later included in the deluxe edition.) Officials for the U.K.'s Official Chart Company smelled a hustle. Billboard reported that the OCC "has ruled that the album contains cover art and packaging that give it an 'unfair advantage' and therefore will not be eligible to chart in the region." No such prohibition existed in the U.S., where The Information peaked at number seven on the Billboard album charts.
Few critics caught the potential connection between Beck and Al Hansen's Fluxus, and even fewer caught the relationship between The Information's content and its cover art. That may have been a byproduct of how promotional copies are distributed in the internet age. Chances are that most critics wrote their reviews based on downloads rather than hard copies, and thus missed a key piece of The Information's information. The Independent's Andy Gill got it, though:
For his new album, Beck decided to have what might be called an interactive CD cover, in that it comes packaged in a white sleeve accompanied by a sheet of stick-on symbols and images with which the listener can create their own unique sleeve design. It's an idea that echoes the way he makes the music on the CD, picking and choosing from a range of sonic images and combining them to see how agreeable a design he can make with them.
In 2009 a five LP box set of The Information was released that included 10 sticker sheets that were resized to match the larger box. Also enclosed was a "20-color fine art pen set." This version was limited to 1,000 individually numbered copies. With secondary market prices in the $300 to $500 range, it's the ultimate "participate or collect" dare for those who can afford it. The rest of us can have our own Fluxus moment for $3 to $5 if we can find a used but sticker-free copy.