Sub Pop's Art Director On VW's Contra, 8-Way Santa, and Posters With Free Albums

Patent Pending Industries
In the 11 years that longtime Sub Pop art director Jeff Kleinsmith and partner and former Sub Popper Jesse LeDoux have been operating their rock poster company, Patent Pending Industries, a thing or two has changed about the music business.

Albums are increasingly transmitted digitally, not behind a beautiful album cover; and fans find out about shows more often from Facebook than postered telephone poles. Counterintuitively, the concert poster business isn't dying, it's thriving. No longer saddled with so much of the responsibility for advertising a show, posters have become collectible, sought-after pieces of art that mention concerts.

On the eve of Patent Pending's 11th Anniversary Show, opening Thursday at Design Commission Gallery, Kleinsmith talks to us about his first attempts at graphic design, CDs without CDs, and what can happen when women end up on album covers without permission, as is the case with Vampire Weekend's, whose fresh-faced, polo-clad Contra cover model is suing the band, saying she never authorized them to use the image.

When attacking a new album art project, where do you start?

We give our bands pretty much total creative freedom. I do check with the band first, and let them know that we're able to do our own designs, or maybe they have a designer they're already working with. We sort of take the cue from them.

I notice that you did the cover of Mudhoney's Since We've Become Translucent.

Yeah, Jesse and I did that together. First of all, that's the band saying, "What do you got? We're letting you come up with something." Which is great. That's really empowering. You can go as a lot of different directions as a designer. A lot of times I don't feel confident to experiment. I don't know if they really want me to do something crazy. But I felt like with Mudhoney, they were open.

Are fewer bands saying, "What have you got?" these days?

I feel like that's the case, and I will say that it's probably due to the fact that everyone has a computer. Graphic design has gone, obviously, digital, and so these programs are just easier and easier for people to figure out themselves.

Can you empathize with Vampire Weekend and the lawsuit they're going through right now?

It's very reminiscent of TAD's 8-Way Santa. Those guys found some scrapbook at a garage sale, and there was a photo of this hesher dude and his girlfriend and he was grabbing her breast, and she was in a bikini. That came out as the cover of 8-Way Santa (1991). Turns out she's like a born-again Christian singer herself, and so she sued, and (Sub Pop) had to pull it off the shelves.

People forget how small the world is. And that was me when I started doing graphic design. That's a person, and they're gonna see it.

I feel like I don't see your poster work out very often.

Sort of the dirty little secret with this poster business is that they're not used to advertise a show. They're purely merch. You might hit up Radiohead and say, "I wanna do either a tour or this single show." Can I have permission; I will give you X number of posters; I will take X number of posters. My payment is you giving me permission to sell them online. And Radiohead sells them (at their shows).

I think that the tables are turning a little bit. We're realizing these bands really want this, and make up a nice chunk of change at their shows selling these for $20 a piece every single night. Especially if you're a medium-sized band, that's a nice amount of money. We've been able to start charging what we're worth as far as design goes.

How did you get into graphic design?

I was designing stuff in my bedroom. I was doing The Doors logo or the Judas Priest logo, redoing it on graph paper, spending a lot of time grounded in my room listening to those records. Those records kind of got me interested in art.

You worried, then, that kids today aren't getting that in the switch to digital?

There's gonna be just as many graphic designers, if not more. [Inspiration is] just being fed to them in a different way. Regardless of age, there's always going to be people who prefer to touch and make stuff that's like, physical. CDs may end up being like little books. We've talked about this at work, where you might spend the time to do a cool package, it just doesn't have a disc in it. And instead of a disc, you've got a little piece of paper that says, "Go here for your download." And that could be a magazine, it could be a shirt, it could be a sticker on a banana, it could be anything, really, that has that download. It could be a poster.

So, you buy a poster ...

... and it's got a digital download on it. You could hand-stamp download codes on the back so each poster's got a different download code.

Each poster would be one-of-a-kind, too.

That's true. Absolutely. It's kind of exciting. In a way it's sort of like, I'm not worried as a graphic designer. I'm more worried that I'm 43, if anything.

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