Screen prints and records: Why we should be paying more for art

We don’t pay as much as we ought to. Or, the artists aren’t charging enough

It’s a beautiful, sunny autumn Saturday afternoon. So why not spend it record shopping.

Saskatoon has plenty of options that satisfy a widely diverse range of tastes. I opt for Beaumont Records, located in a cavernous stone-and-mortar building in downtown. Once there, I immediately dive headfirst into the serious business of crate digging.

Plucking nimbly through multiple rows of thin plastic sleeves with a pro’s eye, I’m only five minutes into searching when I uncover the day’s treasure, a 7” record from a band called Cold Warps.

The vinyl comes with a price tag of $7. It’s not exactly a bargain, especially considering the two songs, which collectively clock in at a zippy four minutes and nine seconds, are likely floating on for free somewhere on the internet.

That’s $3.50 a tune.

Roughly $1.75 a minute.

Or a dollar an inch.

It’s not a risky investment, but I’m relatively unfamiliar with the band – they could suck, after all.

I open the sleeve: The record itself is a beaut. Pressed on a strange, indescribable marbled vinyl, I eventually deduce the colour to be somewhere between mucus mustard and snot rocket green. Dropping it on the turntable, a sweet concoction of gravelly, jagged pop mixed with punk rumblings emits from the speakers. It’s a ferocious little gem.

Which is good, because I mostly bought it for the cover.

Wrapped in a thick card stock, the record artwork features a weird, oozing serigraph portrait that catches the eye before the credentials on the sleeve do.

Recognizing the unmistakable style, it’s the art that’s the real prize here – a screen print by YORODEO, the studio of artists Paul Hammond and Seth Smith.

The price tag, $7 is, in reality, a steal of a deal.

Cold Warps - Slimer 7"
Cold Warps – Slimer 7″

* * * * *

Get used to it: Vinyl records cost more than they used to.

As well as they should. They are expensive to make. They are expensive to mail. And despite the price tag, there are a lot of musicians lining up to buy them. So many, in fact, that pressing plants can’t keep up with the demand.

My own band is currently waiting on a 7” single before we leave for a three-week European tour at the end of the month. If the vinyl arrives before our plane does it will be a photo finish.

It’s not just costly to get them made either. I’ve amassed over 600 records in my own collection. If I were to ever eBay the whole lot I would have a nice down payment on a house in the suburbs.

No shit, these things are worth some money. But that’s not why I buy them. The simplest explanation: I genuinely enjoy listening, and looking, at them.

It’s not my only collection either.

Several years ago I began amassing screen printed gig posters. They also typically cost a significant amount of money to purchase.

As well as they should.

The art, whether hand drawn or digital, is typically intricate, bold, sassy, confrontational, rowdy and otherwise inspiring.

And once I started noticing screen printed record sleeves, I began buying those up as well. It makes for a beautiful package, and is a relatively inexpensive way to gather new music in addition to an impressive collection of DIY art.

Screen printing is also a process I completely appreciate – especially at night when my fingers start to ache.

* * * * *

Two years ago I was hired at a print studio in Saskatoon. Having recently moved back from Montreal with a newly minted graphic design diploma in town, it was a total dream job.

I was put in charge of a six colour press. Squeegee in hand, I would print and heat-set hundreds of shirts a day. Despite being drenched in sweat and ink, it was an entirely satisfying work life. I was making art, both my own and for others, and I was getting paid decently.

It was also horribly painstaking.

The colour of each print has to be prepared on a screen, which are made using a variety of equipment including a light table and various transparencies. When matching up the colours, if you are off even a fraction of a centimetre you’ve likely fudged the entire print. It’s an exact art where every detail of every process matters.

It was also painful.

I loved my job for the most part. And then the aches started. My hands muscles started to feel more and more fatigued at the end of the day. Finally, I awoke one morning at 4 a.m. to my fingers being completely numb and immobile. I was too weak to even make a fist. Eventually the feeling returned and I went in to work. The next day was even worse. I called in sick, and eventually began looking for a new job.

Screen printing - photo via Flickr user "solsken", Creative Commons
Screen printing – photo via Flickr user “solsken”, Creative Commons

* * * * *

When I purchased the Cold Warps 7” I asked Scott Gowen, owner of Beaumont Records, why the screen printed record sleeves never seem to come with an appropriate price tag. He doesn’t have an answer.

“I never really thought about it,” he said, “especially considering how expensive the deluxe packaging can get on everything else.”

It’s true. The mass-produced record sleeves – the ones not painstakingly pulled by hand – retail anywhere from $20 to $40.

But despite the rising costs of vinyl, the screen printed records are worth every penny. The ink-splayed cover art is the literal icing on the cake. It adds a nice DIY-ness to the package, and gives it a special feeling that you are one of the chosen few out there who can hold this totem in their hands and appreciate the heck out of it.

Records can be repressed. So can screen prints, but it seems less likely to happen. Unless there was actually some money to be made from it, I suppose.

* * * * *

You don’t have to look too hard for these gems. Vinyl albums featuring screen printed sleeves are found virtually in every decent record store across North America. Buried within the overflowing stacks are sleeves that range from a DIY-mess of bleeding inks to pro-produced artwork.

Many of these come from smaller bands and labels, circles that keep a cadre of fans that appreciate the efforts.

Among my own collection are a handful of hand-printed albums from Toronto label Blue Fog Records, including Eric’s Trip, Elevator and the Constantines. I also own several Melvins 7”’s from AmRep Records and, my prized piece, a rare variant cover of Converge’s “You Fail Me” with a silkscreened cover by Jacob Bannon. According to online sources, this record was limited to 101 copies, and sold out in minutes.

And, if you are from the prairies, maybe you remember Reluctant Recordings? The Edmonton-based label handmade the majority of their packaging, and brought us releases from gone-but-not-forgotten bands such as Whitey Houston (who played as recently as last year), The Wolfnote and The All Purpose Voltage Heroes.

The Wolfnote - Sacred Bodies
The Wolfnote – Sacred Bodies
All Purpose Voltage Heroes - Already Haunted
All Purpose Voltage Heroes – Already Haunted

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melvins turnermelvins turner 2

Toronto’s Paper Bag Records is another label that is producing screen printed artwork to adorn their vinyl. Brooke Morgan, who works for the label, says it’s impossible for the label to survive solely on producing screen printed records.

“It doesn’t make sense for every release we do,” she said. “We tend to choose based on the artist but also the cover artwork has to translate to a screen print, because it doesn’t always work out.”

The label typically does a run of anywhere from 300 to 500 for their vinyl pressings. Morgan, who cites The Decemberists’ Her Majesty on Jealous Butcher Records as the initial inspiration for producing screen printed covers, says the pay off comes in getting noticed amidst the hundreds, if not thousands, of albums that will be released this year in Canada alone.

“Vinyl is all about collecting, so if we create something unique it will stand out from their other records.”

Within my own collection is The Rural Alberta Advantage’s Hometowns and Yamantaka // Sonic Titan’s YT // ST and Young Galaxy’s Invisible Republic, all on vinyl. The screen printed cover artwork on these albums is stunning.

I paid $15-20 for each of them.

Yamantaka // Sonic Titan
Yamantaka // Sonic Titan

* * * * *

Everything has worked out. I’ve listened to Cold Warps several more times, and I dig everything about them.

Still, I only paid $7 for this record. It doesn’t seem like enough.

After some mild sleuthing I discover that band member Paul Hammond is also one half of screen printing concern YORODEO along with Seth Smith.

Smith, in turn, is also a member of pop drone duo Dog Day. Their album Deformer is easily one of the most interesting screen printed record covers I’ve seen – featuring an eerie portrait of a face mid-melt, the artwork also glows in the dark.

If it isn’t already sold out, you can purchase it from the band for the princely sum of $20 (I bought mine for $10 from a record store in Ottawa).

Other YORODEO prints can fetch anywhere from $20 up to $250. None of these come with a record.

It’s an odd discrepancy in price. I point this out to Smith when I finally track him down for a phone call interview.

For the most part, he agrees.

“When I’m screen printing a poster I can sell it for up to $40. But an art print can sell for more than $50. But when you are doing a record cover you are selling that art for a lot cheaper. And there’s all the work that goes into it.

“But,” he continues, “we are in a time when a lot of those mediums are being phased out so it’s nice that there are people out there who still appreciate having something physical to hold on to that has value that isn’t just a digital photo.

“It’s a good deal, and we tend to sell more records that come with a print.”

For Dog Day’s most recent album, Fade Out, Smith said that the duo anticipated selling more albums, so it didn’t make sense to do a run of printed covers. Still, he did produce a stand-alone art print inspired by the artwork, which is available (maybe) on his Etsy page. It feels appropriately priced.

Still, Smith doesn’t rule out returning to the format for future releases.

“Small runs are the way to go. And I love doing it – it’s an excuse to make something that has a certain gritty, lo-fi quality that reflects the sounds of the music,” said Smith.

“Also, to commercially print a record cover is really high. So you can actually find ways to print your own artwork for cheaper.”

It’s also a nice pay off for any of the fans that support the musicians and record labels that care enough to produce a screen printed sleeve.

I run a price check on some of the records with these covers within my own collection. Many of them are selling for as much $200 online.

As well as they should. These artists are producing some brilliant work, both in the studio and on the cardboard sleeves.

Dog Day - Deformer
Dog Day – Deformer