I moved to Portland, Oregon, for a brief ten-month stint, before the weather, and incessant art fairs, and anarchist bike Nazi roommates drove me nuts, and I had to get out. In my short time there, I met a fellow Michigander named Dylan McConnell and quickly realized that half of the posters for shows I saw around PDX were designed by him. It was almost eerie. We started meeting up with our laptops at coffee shops to do freelance work together, and whenever I fucked something up on a design project, Dylan would graciously tell me “command Z” or some bullshit to get me out of the jam. I kind of knew what he did for a living, but I was skeptical that someone could actually live off of the art they produced for musicians and venues, so I was convinced he was moonlighting as a service tech for a call center or something. He was not; he actually lives off the art he makes for musicians.
VICE: How did you get into designing posters?
Dylan McConnell: Oh Jesus–this is going to be hard. Well the real answer is that I wanted to. I offered my services, and even though they were awful, most bands were kind enough to take some free work and use it, thereby kindling the idea that this was something useful I could do. It took a long time, but I am at the point where I can not vomit in my eyes while looking at my work. It should not have taken that long. Oh well.
What were the first posters you made? Which bands were they for?
In college? Probably Munbut–I'd enter the umlauts, but don't know how. They were a band at the same school I was attending–Northern Michigan University. Nice fellows. If I recall, I also did some posters for the coffee shop I later worked at, an anarchist place called Emma Joes. I can't believe bands would drive up (or over if you are in Canada) to play there–real long haul from what most would consider civilization.
Were you using design programs then, or were they made by hand?
Adobe Photoshop and a scanner. That's about all I could do. I can't draw for shit, which is funny because my father is a great illustrator
But you started in art as a sculptor, right?
No, ostensibly it was a college degree at the time called Electronic Imaging–it might still be. Photoshop, Dreamweaver, some 3D programs I was horrible at. But honestly I spent most of my time in the sculpture studio, where I carved out a great space graciously donated by my good friend Kara in a building I had no business being in. Those were the good days.
Also, one of your main gigs is with The Doug Fir in Portland. How did you start working with those guys?
Doug Fir? I don't remember now–probably a cold call (or whatever you call a pleading email for work). Yes, I think it was a pleading affair. Or it could have been a recommendation from a friend in town who was doing a lot of booking at the time–Chantelle from Blackbird Presents–represent!
How much artwork do you end up producing for shows and artists in a week?
Varies. No week is the same. Mainly a lot of daydreaming and staring at the mailbox, punctuated with bursts of bad ideas.
Could you give a rough estimate of how much you produce in a month, then?
Posters: maybe 15-20 regular work–Holocene, Doug Fir & McMenemins + the random three-10 posters that come from repeat clients, or just folks who have found me via the internets or via recommendation. Album covers vary from month to month–there is no system of orderly management for that. Feast or Famine.
Do you ever have periods where the work dries up?
Usually right around holidays–musicians have day jobs and families, so there is not a love of movement around the major ones. The first couple years after the bottom fell out of the economy, the spring was pretty rough–I do recall that.
Can you describe the last poster you made?
Two 60s Blue Note throwback posters for some local jazz–The Portland Composers Ensemble, and a split bill with Blue Cranes/Trio Subtonic. Love that era of design. Hopefully they do, too.
Why do you love that era of design?
It's so colorful, as well as playful, big colors, simple shapes in a vaguely op-art way, whimsical with amazing use of fonts and white space. Those Blue Note albums just kill me–Warhol absorbed all that, but later on instead of Jimmy McGriff he decided Queen E was more exciting. I don't feel that way, but whatevs. I do like his script and ink drawings on those old releases, though. The photography of those albums is ace, too.
Have you ever submitted poster or album art that someone rejected?
Oh sure, all the time. But that's part of the exercise. If I do my homework, I am usually not too far off. You just ask people what they like, and what they DON'T want it to look like, and aim for the center. Sometimes there is a lot of back and forth, sometimes it's the first take. Like most things, it's a bell curve. Posters can be more difficult if that vision can't be readily articulated. But I find the more questions I ask the easier it gets. You just try not to be too broke up about it. Or cut your losses and just try a different direction and save the previous work for something else. You can always find use for it somewhere, sometime. Well unless it's shit. But we won't talk about that.
Do you make enough to live off your art?
Yes. I am not buying a house or anything. I don't have a car or live alone, so my costs are pretty low. I suppose I'd have to step it up if I wanted to make a life change, but I suppose the answer is yes. Art affords me the ability to coast. There's your tip kids–art is your ticket to horizontal mobility.
But you put a fair amount of your time and resources into the tape label, Field Hymns. Do you spend more time on the artwork for your own releases than you do for other people's?
No, probably less. Probably because I have more freedom to do what I am good at instead of fulfilling a vision. There is less translation making a cover for Field Hymns–there is still the hard sell to the artist, but it's more informal. Not that I don't work hard at it mind you. It's just different.
Do you feel lucky that you're one of the few who can make a living derived from music?
Well I think most people can make as much money as I do in the music world, as it really is not that much money. A monkey that performed KISS covers on the streets of Portland could make as much as I do in a year. But I suppose that's not the question. Do I feel lucky? I feel fortunate perhaps. I could be making pizzas til three in the morning. I feel fortunate that my job lies elsewhere. I feel like an idiot sometimes for not finding the cush job that does not involve sweating the first of the month. I am lucky I have job security though–I am not going to fire myself for many years.
Tell me about the tape label. Why start a tape label in this century?
It didn't really start out as a tape label. The first two releases were on CD. The goal was just to put out music from friends’ bands (like every label ever). The format was not really something I thought about. In fact the only reason tapes ever made it into the equation was that I thought it would be fun to make a tape to pass along for some of the four-track stuff I had lying around. After fucking around with self-duping (ooo–that's a great emo band name), I looked into getting it professionally done. It actually was not that expensive at the time. So I manufactured one release and then all of sudden everyone said we were a tape label.
Can you tell me what you think the most overused imagery/font is for album and poster artwork? Something you wish would just go away?
Well no offense to all who trade in such, but the National Geographic collage of Indians, mountains, and minerals has got to go. Maybe that's just part of my world in the tape scene and not the general art world, but you see a lot of it round these parts. It's like gated snare in the 80s. It's like cute visual kudzu that swallows the fucking forest. But every era has its design ebb & flow–I am old enough to remember David Carson–all the attitude of tagging without the joy of the crime
Is designing posters and album artwork something that you actually love?
Yes. I could not imagine not doing it. That's as close to a definition of love as I can get.
Who's the most interesting person you've met doing the work that you do?
There was Dell who was A&R for Columbia on the West Coast during the 50s and 60s–man he had some great stories. There are all the great labels I have had the opportunity to work with. A recent one is Digitalis out of Tulsa, such great ears. I made them work with me. Graveface is always fun and darkly humorous. I don't know, musicians are a quirky bunch. I think most people like me are fanboys at heart. Just being able to be somewhat in the industry is reward enough. You are making a permanent record–and that's not a pun. Something that will outlast you if you are lucky. Someday someone may pick up your shitty cover in thrift store and have a laugh. I mean, is that not cool or what? Visual insubordination from beyond the grave. Graffiti gets painted over but not record covers.
Would you suggest that a young visual artist interested in music should attempt to do what you do?
(Not record covers). Yes, it's as good a place to start as any. Bands are broke, but play a lot of gigs if they are on their way up. Get in at the ground floor. Do shit for free. You get on-the-job training, and if you are lucky no one will ever see your first posters
What poster/album design would be your dream gig?
Something that affords me the ability to buy a car. I miss driving.
Is the music industry dying?
Not at all. The record industry is dying but that is ok. They spent 30 years sucking money out of everyone and sticking it to the musicians–it's a death long overdue. The music industry is bigger than it has ever been, but you cannot measure that by dollars, mergers, or piles of coke.
Are musicians benefiting from the death of the record industry, or is Spotify?
I don't think anyone is profiting from the "industry" these days, at least not at the rates of return during the CD years. And certainly not from Spotify. What musicians do have, though, is access to their fans and the rights to their music–rights they can use to secure their own licensing and distribution and somewhat control their fate. There will always be people looking to hop up on the teat but it seems like whoring out has never been harder for bands than now. Then again I don't watch TV, so maybe the world is full of Maroon Cloud clones or whatever they are called. Beiber King.
Do you make any money from your label?
None. The label is just making enough now that we can manufacture the following release. But it is finally to the point where I don't have to patch the holes anymore–well for now. But that could change next month. I just heard that Hydra Head is going tits up. Everything has its season.
What’s the best perk from your job?
Waking up the next morning not covered in flour, beer, or drywall dust.