The Art and Design of NNA Tapes

Jeremy Purser

From left to right: NNA 035: Quicksails, A Fantasy in Seasons, NNA 038: Co La, Daydream Repeater, NNA 019: Synaptic Foliage, Holding Hands

Since 2008, NNA Tapes has presented documents of compelling experimental music with equally compelling packaging. The label's attitude of painstaking attention to detail translates across the seemingly endless bevy of fine musical curation to the considered art and design of each release. NNA has distinguished itself with a visual identity that maintains uniformity throughout the catalog without ever becoming rigid.

NNA 029: Golden Retriever, Emergent Layer

The artwork for tape releases lies within a circular template across the fold of the J-card, which informs the color scheme of the typography and the hand-painted cassette itself. The system has naturally extended itself to NNA's recent vinyl forays, in which the artwork lies within a square flanked by a palpable white border. The schematic has been followed since NNA 001: Sun Circle / Pregnant Moon split, and it seamlessly dresses a behemoth 8-cassette box set showcasing artists of the label's home in Burlington, Vermont. The box set features a screenprinted duotone tableau that wraps the spine. Anyone who owns a multitude NNA cassettes, 7-inches, or LPs, undoubtedly keeps them together like a cherished series of vintage trade paperbacks.

Matt Mayer, co-founder of NNA Tapes (with Toby Aronson), was kind enough to speak about the focused aesthetic of the label. They were also kind enough to give us this mix for you to download. (Some notes about the mix follow the interview.)

Has “branding” ever been a topic of discussion for NNA Tapes? Or did the voice of the label emerge more organically?

While branding in a visual sense undoubtedly had an influence from the start, the music came first when we were establishing NNA as a label. We knew we wanted to have a strong visual component to compliment the music, one that could obtain a sense of unity through design, so that was the next step in creating a strong voice for NNA. One aspect of branding that we've always been attracted to is the fact that while culture can fluctuate as time passes, a visual identity is something that for the most part remains constant, that people can rely on and trust. We like to appreciate branding in that cultural sense, as opposed to a more corporate or business angle.

How important was the visual identity when starting the label?

From the get-go, the visual aspect of NNA has been very crucial to us. It was important early on to have our visual identity fully established before proceeding on with the other facets of running a label. We wanted to achieve an openness in terms of design that could facilitate a wide range of artwork that would be able to reflect an equally diverse body of music.

NNA015: Julia Holter, Live Recordings

How intentional is the use of white space in the packaging? Does it contrast from the music? Correlate?

White space to us is the supreme neutrality. It strips the release of all excess written information, leaving behind room for the music to breathe and form it's own voice within the listener. On the outside cover, the white space leads the listener's eye to be drawn to the cover image, which acts as a window to the artist's personal voice, as most cover images are chosen by the artist and often pertain directly to the music they've created. The starkness of the white space also prevents the music from being visually tagged by any sort of pre-established style or aesthetic, which lends itself well to the wide spread of musical styles that we're tapping into with NNA as a curatorial voice.

How do the artists feel about working within the circle design for tapes or the square for vinyl?

Initially, we were honestly a bit concerned that our layout was going to be too restrictive or limiting to the artist, particularly those who already had strong, pre-established visual aesthetics associated with their music. But, after working with roughly 40 different artists in our four years as a label, we've never really run into any opposition with our artwork layout. More often than not, the artists are stoked to see how their cover image will look when it's all tied together as a final product.

What inspired the touch of hand-painting the cassettes?

When we started NNA, most of our peers in the DIY cassette underground were putting out releases that were beatifully and lovingly hand-crafted and assembled. Since our look for NNA was more stark and subdued, we wanted to retain that personal touch and sense of craft as an homage to our peers and predecessors. Since our tapes have a more classically professional or even corporate design feel to them, we feel it's as imporant as ever to continue with the painted labels to inject a sense of humanity into our releases, as each tape we make is still to this day hand-assembled. Additionally, the paint acts as a more organic counterpart to each NNA releases' unique color palette.

NNA 007: Harmonizer, s/t

Do you think packaging and design contributes to the success of your label?

While success is always relative, we think that packaging and design within a record label context works mostly to support the strength of the music contained within it. Particularly in a time when the commodity of music as a physical object is in a state of flux and is almost being questioned in terms of relevance and value, it's important to us put out releases that are of the highest quality and refinement when it comes to both music and design.

Are there other labels whose art, design, and packaging you find inspiring?

We're taking in inspiration every day from any kind of packaged music we see! Everything from glossy triple-gatefold foil-stamped LPs, to black-and-white scissor-cut xeroxes pasted onto blank sleeves… it all has its place!

Download the mixtape here!

“With NNA we are always in search of the freshest, most 'next' sounds. These five tracks are from our five newest releases… three cassettes and two LPs. They best represent the most current direction of NNA, and we feel the variety of sounds found here perfectly showcases the wide array of music we are trying to hone in on with our label. Harsh musique concrete, automated machine music, entirely-acoustic assault, exploratory lo-fi exotica, avant-pop, and soaring electronic minimalism are all represented here. This spread is a great indicator of the directions we're going in for 2012, and there's still lots more to come.”

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