Yellow Cans: The Ghastly Design of Budget Compilations

September 7, 2012

Writing my upcoming Generation X review got me thinking about the whole budget compilation phenomenon. It’s an aspect of music marketing I’ve always found fascinating.

Why do these Best Of packages get the equivalent of the yellow labels of No Name brand soup? Do people really buy music because it looks cheap? I feel like they don’t, yet every major label has a line of these things. I’m often baffled and  offended when I see my favourite artists getting the insultingly drab, generic budget compilation treatment.

It would really not cost the record company that much more to give these budget editions some decent and unique design. Or at least, not what appears to be intentionally shoddy design. But, as shoppers, we apparently need a visual cue that these compilations are “a steal” or we won’t even give them the time of day.

It’s like when you look at the grocery store shelf and you see those yellow No Name cans, you know they’re going to be at least 25 cents cheaper. You don’t even have to look at the price-tag. If all you want is the lowest price, you just put them in your basket and move on. This is the basic psychology behind these CD designs.

So, let’s run through some examples of Ghastly Budget Compilation Design…

When it first came out, the 20th Century Masters series by Universal was actually a step up in the design template department for budget compilations. The typography is decent enough and they generally use passable photos of the artists. Yet the drab grey borders are a tad dreary and imply a cheap, one-colour print job even though they are almost always actually printed in four-colour process (such as the Donna Summer disc shown).

This is clearly intentional to tell the shopper, from fifty paces, that this is the affordable option on the rack. Just like the yellow No Name cans.

WEA took Universal’s lead with their The Essentials series (not to be confused with Columbia‘s The Essential budget series). Though a bit flashier, there’s still the drab grey banner to tell you this Ratt compilation is a bargain item. If the drab grey and neutral sans-serif typeface doesn’t clue you in, then the truly terrible firing squad photo of the band sure does.

The design of Universal’s updated-to-the-21st-century Icon series is almost quite good. The grungy stencil font isn’t that bad in that it’s both instantly dated and also timeless because it’s instantly dated. What’s cheesy are the (often) inset photos and, just so that things don’t look too slick, the song titles are always placed on the front cover—a purely K-Tel kind of move.

Though not as bad as Ratt’s photo, Bryan Adams gets kind of pointless picture that focuses primarily on his guitar. That might make sense for B.B. King or Stevie Ray Vaughan, but Adams isn’t exactly known for his guitar playing. The photo certainly looks slick and professional, but it gives the design that all important slapped-together feel.

But Adams’ picture isn’t nearly as bad as the ones Duran Duran and the Scorpions get lumbered with. Clearly the cheapest cast-offs that could be licenced from some photographer’s archive. These are both put out by Emd Int’l Records‘ as part of their Essential Collection series (everything is “essential” nowadays). I’d almost bet these are actually unlicensed bootlegs. They just look that crap.

I have a lot of love for Duran Duran, but I just feel like the music on that “essentials” disc has got to sound as terrible as the cover looks. It probably has pretty much exactly the same tunes as their official best-of compilation, Decade, for half the price, yet I know which one I’d reach for. Even if the Decade art is intentionally hideous in it’s own way—it was released in the grunge era and more appropriate, shiny pictures of the boys lounging on a yacht wouldn’t cut it like they did in 1983.

But what really sinks the Scorpion’s ship is the horrific typography. Why, oh my dear god  why, would you obscure the official band logo with the name in a clumsy use of sans-serif type? Then the space between the word “Scorpions” and the song titles is nothing short of baffling. The blue filter on the photo, like the orange one on the Rod Stewart set, is a bit dodgy too.

Speaking of baffling, poor Bruce Spingsteen isn’t even in focus on his Columbia release. I actually have this Springsteen set and what’s even more baffling is there’s some really great shots hidden on the inside tray cards.

At least his head hasn’t been cut off by part of the template like the Mahavisnu Orchestra bassist’s (also put out by Columbia). Was there absolutely no other photo they could use?

Of course, if the designs looked better then they wouldn’t—just like the yellow No Name cans—scream “A BARGAIN!” at you. Which companies seem to think is more important that the product not looking like a complete piece of crap. They’re probably right. People won’t believe the product they’re buying is affordable unless it looks cheap and generic.

Apparently, as a culture of consumers, we really are morons.



  1. […] Rolling Reviews CDs Selected For Review Using Roleplaying Dice « Yellow Cans: The Ghastly Design of Budget Compilations Generation X: Generation X / Valley of the Dolls September 7, […]

  2. why is george michael on the cover of the the springsteen comp?

    • Little known fact: They’re the same person.

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