Brilliant Books for Musicians

Creating my Sydney Opera House book was as much about creating a process for making books as the object itself.

The first music-merchandising book I made goes all the way back to the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds Murder Ballads album. The illustrations in the cd’s booklet, from a 19th century Grimm’s-like Cautionary Tales for Children book, made me think of mocking it up as a Children’s book. I went off to the copy place in my L.A. neighbourhood, enlarged the images and text in the booklet, hand coloured the images, and put them into a heavy card binding.

I’ve never warmed to CDs, it’s the quality of the high gloss paper, and the fact that everything has to be reduced, microscopically. It looks dead and commercial, even when it’s interesting (as it is in the little booklet, mini-cd evocation of the process Tim Noble, Sue Webster and Nick went through to make the DIG!!! LAZARUS, DIG!!! album cover.

The most aesthetically pleasing of the books wrapped around CD’s I’ve seen is this cloth bound packaging Tom Hingston did for the Bad Seeds album Push the Sky Away.


My process is uniquely suited to small runs of books. For deluxe projects it will allow for experimenting with materials and formats before taking it into a large run for a deluxe project.

But what’s most exciting to me is how this process might be useful to emerging musicians, or those among you who have regular audiences, and would like to be able to provide new things for them without needing to come up with a whole album. And it’s something tangible to sell at and sign at shows.

The frustrating (and expensive) part of this process has been figuring out how to bring all of the aspects of production into my own studio, including the printing. In the commercial world you’re only rewarded for making huge quantities of something. My printing test, which was originally to cost $75 for one book, that the printer cut down to $45, the corporate rate, but if I’d done 100 it would have been $8 a book. But I firmly believe that it’s more important that the first book cost $8. And as I’d formatted my file in a way that was different to the files that the printer usually used, the formatting looks horrible. I wasn’t able to stay and make corrections as it was being printed. I just had to leave it there and hope for the best.

I’ve spent the last few days turning my MacBook Pro back into a laptop from ten years ago, simulating the pre-iPhone print formatting features that are now no longer part of its Word Processing program. I was caught in a bind. Canva is the most brilliant online design tool, but their print services are embryonic. And the freeform type assemblies I’d done in Canva wouldn’t cut and paste into Apple’s Pages word processing program. So I went back to Pages, and a late modern, Mies van der Rohe-ish sort of design.


I deliberately didn’t want to buy expensive design software and spend time learning it (or sign up for the monthly payment systems. If I buy something I want to own it outright in most cases.) I think this is crucial for musicians for a number of reasons.

First, I want you all to be able to concentrate on your music. If the tool is simple enough, something you’re already using, you won’t waste time, and you can create freely without having to think about it. If it can come together in sketch form quickly, it’s something I can work with to take it to the next level.

Secondly, it has to be cheap. I spent ten years working part-time as a chef and came to have tremendous admiration for the musicians I met who were working as baristas and waiters to earn money to take their music to the next level. Equipment, studios, touring … everything’s expensive. If you’re making merchandise to make a little extra money it shouldn’t cost you a lot to do it.


One of the bonuses that I discovered in putting my book format into Pages was that it gave me the freedom to keep editing it. Nothing major, just mostly moving commas around. But this has allowed me to put in place two last minute elements that have elevated my book and given it a very clear conclusion.

I’ve used artists / filmmakers Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s collaborations with Arup to demonstrate how engineering is both an art and something practical. I’d asked them several questions in an email a while ago, and the reply came back a few days ago, my email had been caught in their spam filter. But their information about their project deepens my analysis immeasurably.

And I write about how creatively and artistically Ben Marshall considers the whole building when he’s programming particularly his festival events (Vivid LIVE and Graphic), and the announcement of Solange as one of the performers at Vivid LIVE this year, brings this observation weight. Her works tailored specifically for unique architectural spaces (including Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim museum and the Donald Judd compound in Marfa, Texas) take this approach to a poetic pinnacle. Just two small paragraphs were dropped into my book, not changing the formatting at all, but conceptually it’s been an important addition.


The issue that most bedevilled me was the printing. It was having to have something fixed and not being able to experiment until I got it right that was holding the project back. I’ve now been able to simulate what the printer did for me in terms of quality, and while it’s a lot of extra work to tip in the colour images, it’s easier to have them commercially printed, to get a higher quality and it doesn’t affect the rest of the project.


I’ve been working on my Opera House book for seven years. Many people have been helpful along the way and I made a couple of very flawed, early copies to show people that it existed.

It’s been thoroughly refined and corrected and made more elegant since then. But the hard part of working on anything creatively in a vacuum is to get a sense of how it might appear to others.

I’ve worked with a lot of exceptional editors over the years and so once the book (however lumpy) was something I could see as a whole thing, rather than a set of files, then I could start to refine it. The thing is, though, at each step of the way unless I mock it up fully, I can’t appreciate how it works as a whole thing. I want to be able to provide that service for musicians when I create books for them … to make it easy to make refinements.

There’s a point that must be the same in every field, but writing is where it makes sense to me, where it’s so close, but still not quite there, and you’re tempted to lose faith in it and put it aside, rather than persevere with it. Mocking something up, and making it LOOK real, is a way of restoring your faith in your project. A very small change — for me it was deciding it had to be a hardcover and not a softcover book —  brings it back to life.

The test copies have to be fast to put together and cheap.


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