When you think of homegrown music these days, the idea of a well-packaged CD release doesn’t immediately come to mind. In fact, the digital age has made the album artwork team obsolete and physical media is unsurprisingly an afterthought for many new generation artistes.
“Music packaging isn’t really a priority now. In truth, it’s come to a stage where people have forsaken physical formats, but there are pockets of music-loving artists and designers out there still wanting to be a part of the music scene. There’s no reason to give up on album cover art and eye-catching designs, some people still like to own and hold something,” says Zaid Omar, 45, the co-founder of graphic design studio Milk Design in Petaling Jaya.
Outside of corporate design projects and the studio’s commercial portfolio, Zaid and Weishein, the other half of Milk Design, have steadily – or accidentally – built up a small collection of unique CD releases through the Payola Records imprint, which was established in 2014.
“We didn’t plan on having a music label. We were more keen on album art and sleeve design. It was an outlet for us to cut loose and take our interest in music further down the road,” says Weishein, 46.
Both Weishein and Zaid are also part of the electronica project called by a duo or group, which can be considered the in-house band at Milk Design. The duo has two albums to date.
“Things started when we designed a tour CD for Mystery Tapes, a local indie rock band. They needed something to sell during a Hong Kong tour in 2014. So we designed a handmade book/CD package,” says Zaid.
The name Payola Records was coined back then, leaving Weishein and Zaid with the obvious decision to redirect all their music interests under this new imprint. Since 2014, Payola has either financed small-scale music projects, including creating album designs and sleeves, or collaborated with certain parties and distributed their products.
None of the Payola releases are presented in impersonal jewel cases. Instead, cardboard packaging – which won’t necessarily break the bank – is the preferred option. There have been art cards, booklets, multiple fold-out designs, a limited edition cassette and even a floppy disc reimagined as album artwork.
“Payola is very much a labour of love, and we are still a very small set-up. It isn’t about the volume of releases, it’s more about the satisfaction of each individual work put out,” says Weishein.
Right now, the choice format is the CD because of the affordable manufacturing cost. Cassettes will also be considered, but as for a potential vinyl release, Zaid admits it will all have to depend on the costs.
“If there is a collaboration project, say with a local label we like, I think we can keep the vinyl option open. But for now, we want to keep things affordable and unique, and the CD gets the job done.”
But Zaid doesn’t discount the idea of blister packs, elaborate CD/book packaging, wooden boxes and even some British designer Mark Farrow-inspired designs.
“Mark Farrow has done some unforgettable special collector’s editions with Spiritualized. He’s such an inspiration. But let’s not forget music design heroes like Peter Saville, Vaughan Oliver and Stanley Donwood … the list is endless, the possibilities wide open,” says Zaid.
On the actual label front, Weishein maintains that Payola will remain a weekend project. There might be pop-up stores and the occasional label gig, but expectations have to be managed.
“We don’t really have the resources to be a full-time label. We can distribute and try to promote the best we can. That’s why we have chosen to work with bands that understand where we are coming from. It’s about the music, and also about keeping album artwork and design in the big picture,” he says.
The Payola roster includes releases from Like Silver, Mystery Tapes, 8 Ears, by a duo or group, KVLTS, Rock ‘N’ Roll John. The music range is a diverse one, spanning indie, electronica and classic rock. Skits and Rock ‘N’ Roll John are the only two releases that do not have album art designed by the Payola duo.
Earlier this year, Payola reissued indie rock outfit Telebury’s 2003 release Is There Us In You?, complete with bonus tracks and new album art. In 2016, Milk Design published the Butterfingers book Untuk Seketika Ku Hilang, which documented the band’s classic Selamat Tinggal Dunia years.
A Payola Records band showcase is part Hard Graft Records’ Record Store Day 2018 celebrations in Petaling Jaya on April 21, 2pm onwards. Free admission. FB: Hard Graft Records. The label will also be releasing a limited edition box set featuring seven of its releases for RSD. FB: Payola Records. Call: 012-3858 758.