Music Week 24 October 2014
In the 24 October 2014 issue of Music Week (pages 16-17) James Lavelle's brother Henry Lavelle and Tim Bevan discuss their business Modo, which focuses on music product packaging. Henry Lavelle used to work at Mo' Wax and touches on his time working for his brother James in this feature.
MODE TO MEASURE, by Tim Ingham
How one Brighton-based product creation company never dismisses any crazy ideas in its pursuit of making "beautiful things" - while ensuring that it clients can balance their books
Modo has created gorgeous, trinket-packed album packages for some of the UK's biggest ever artists: from Oasis to The Stone Roses, Led Zeppelin and The Smiths.
Yet when you step into the firm's Brighton office, its staffknow exactly which of the multitude of the bespoke, patiently-crafted gems on display you'll probably gravitate towards first. And it's got nothing to do with any British music icons.
"The Simpsons Movie CD case is stupidly popular," explains Modo co-MD Henry Lavelle. "It's a cartoon plastic moulding shaped like a donut, but it's the frosting on the top of it that people can't leave alone - we made it scented like strawberry so it was close as possible to something Homer would eat."
As you can probably already tell, Modo doesn't do 'computer says no' when clients present its creative team with bonkers ideas - and that it's got plenty of bonkers ideas of its own. The firm says the key to its success since opening 16 years ago has been balancing its intrepid, can-do approach with a sensible brain for economics. As Lavelle puts it: "We'll go as far as we can towards what the client wants, no matter how crazy the idea. But we're not in the business of losing people money - we want them to come back with other projects, for one thing..."
Lavelle's creative streak was nurtured during his five years working for cult trip-hop label Mo Wax - a restlessly imaginative force in its product design as much as its music. The brother of Mo Wax founder (and UNKLE star) James Lavelle, Henry was responsible for designing and project managing hugely ambitious physical releases at the label for the likes of DJ Krush, Dr. Octagon and DJ Shadow - all artists heavily influenced by graffiti culture and a belief that nothing should be offlimits.
"Ever since those days, my job's been about always trying to make something different for every release," says Lavelle. "At Mo Wax it was about, 'What can we do that's never been done before. How crazy can we go? Yeah; a sleeve that turns into a pyramid!' If something was cool, we'd do it. That was the ethos."
However, Mo Wax - which ran from 1992 until 2002 - hit its stride during one of the recorded music industry's legendarily improvident eras. As the CD revolution swept into the UK, money was plentiful, and a rush by major labels towards mass standardisation helped Lavelle's lavish, bespoke inventions stand out all-the-more.
By contrast, 2014's music industry simply can't function without tightened belts and minimised wastage. And this is where Lavelle's partner in crime at Modo, Tim Bevan, comes in. Bevan's background, including a five-year spell in the upper echelons of Arvato, is steeped in massmanufacturing and supply chain management - essentially, what costs what and in what quantity.
These two expert histories combine to create Modo's attractive USP: making clients' dreams come true within tight budgets - while also ensuring everyone involved can make a bit of cash.
And both Modo and its clients are making cash, in increasing quantities, boosted by an old-format revival which, according to the latest figures, will see more than a million vinyl albums sold in the UK this year for the first time in 18 years.
"Sadly, the music industry sometimes allows itself to be led in this day and age, and now everyone is running towards Spotify," says Bevan. "There's nothing wrong with that per se, but it's important that the alternative isn't forgotten.
"When a band releases a 12" vinyl or a special one-offedition that they've really thought about, they clearly want to communicate something to their fan - they have invested in a canvas to achieve that. Communication to a fan via a download or a stream is pointless. It's non-existent. That's why we specialise in beautiful things."
Flick through Modo's product catalogue, and it's clear how far the company will push the feasibility of an idea in the name of artistry. One of its standout recent products was a special vinyl edition of Muse's The 2nd Law LP. The band and their management wanted some kind of heat-responsive design, referencing the thermodynamics-inspired title of the LP. It's an idea that could easily have been laughed out of the offices of other production businesses - especially when issues around consumer safety, fragility in transport and, of course, crippling costs were considered.
Modo, though, liked the idea very much and simply refused to give up on it. They prototyped a huge array of ink and paper options before discovering a combination that would satisfy all criteria: being safe, not breaking the bank and looking every bit as ambitious and overblown as a Muse boxset ought to.
"The less you're given as a music fan - and music fans have been given less and less, from vinyl to a CD in a jewel case, down to a download and then a stream - the more opportunity is created to satisfy people's sense of tactile ownership," says Bevan. "The recent growth in streaming only highlights the huge difference you get from buying something that's aesthetically pleasing and rewarding."
One group of consumers who have particularly responded to the appeal that Bevan describes is Oasis fans. Earlier this year, Modo was commissioned by the band's management company Ignition to help devise and create high-end vinyl and CD reissue boxsets for the band's classic Definitely Maybe and (What's The Story) Morning Glory LPs - both part of Oasis's successful 'Chasing The Sun' campaign.
Modo's luxurious double vinyl-package of Morning Glory accommodated a hardback book, a selection of art cards and prints and even custommade Roll With It kingsize smoking papers. Both reissues were Top 10 commercial hits. More than 10,000 units of Modo's £100-plus vinyl boxsets were sold in total; rough maths tells us these items alone generated around £1 million at retail.
Bevan says that not only do projects like this demonstrate the hunger amongst 'super-fans' to buy premium products, but that, with Modo's experience of project management, the firm can help artists and their teams receive far more of a monetary return than they would from cheaper, more popular formats.
"These kind of products provide an opportunity for labels and artists to make real margin with records," comments Bevan. "Some people thought margin had disappeared forever in this business! We try to make sure you're getting value for money and the fans are getting value for money. From there, you can't really go wrong."
There's certainly no limitations on the type of project Modo are willing to work on, so long as they're allowed to make something cool. Their archive includes a Girls Aloud vinyl set harnessed within a metal box made to appear like a make-up holder; a Snoop Dogg CD set within a moulded car wheel which looks like it's been freshly jacked from a lowrider; and even a Cyberman mask impressed onto the DVD of Doctor Who's complete second series. You'll also find less novel, more beautified items, such as a Led Zeppelin II Super Deluxe Vinyl edition, complete with a glorious album-sized hardback book and an individually numbered, high quality print of the original album cover. (It will be no surprise to hear that Modo has found much commercial synergy of late with D2C luxury item specialist PledgeMusic.)
Many of Modo's more out-there items obviously require intricate cost evaluation, and this is where Bevan and Lavelle often turn to their little black books. Many of their plastic moulding work, for example, takes place at a specialist in China - a worthwhile excursion when it produces hefty saving for clients who think plastic's fantastic. However, Lavelle says the company never scrimps on quality or uniqueness; a satisfaction with the idea of making something that feels 'cheap' doesn't appear to occur within his DNA.
"If your main focus is your budget from the off, you kill the creativity straight away," he reasons. "But on the other hand, of course you can't have creativity ruling completely - no-one would make any fucking money! There's a balance to be struck, and it's a balance we've built our reputation on getting right. Just going for the cheapest vendor or the cheapest materials from the offis nearly always an out-and-out error."
Bevan and Lavelle's passion for the merchandise they devise is made all-the-more plain by their failure to hide a wince over the trend for militarily frugal 'special editions' - especially some of the more industrialised music reissues at Christmas.
Says Bevan: "There's definitely some instances where things have been standardised for 'super-fans' where it just comes offas the band saying to those people: 'You're a wanker. Here's a box with pretty bows. Take it or leave it.'
"I hate it when there's no thought like that. I completely understand the need to save costs, but you could sell it for another £10 and make something really cool. That's why I love working with Henry, he's the master of it. We both understand that if you're positioning your product as 'quality', it actually has to demonstrate quality."
Adds Lavelle: "I'd much rather take someone's amazing idea and work out how we can create 90% of it in a cost-efficient way, than stay safe and cynical and turn to templates. We never say 'no, that can't be done', but we also know it's not good enough to say: 'That can be done but it's going to cost you thousands and thousands of pounds.'
"It's always a balancing act. And, honestly, achieving that balance gives us a huge buzz."
Henry Lavelle and Tim Bevan run Modo, which was founded 16 years ago. In addition to its high-end creations, the company also offers more basic production services to partners
"When an artist releases a special oneoffedition, they have invested in a canvas to communicate with their fans. Communication via a download or a stream is pointless, non-existent" - Tim Bevan
"If your main focus is your budget, you risk killing the creativity straight away. But on the other hand, creativity can't rule completely. There's a balance to be struck, and it's a balance we've built our reputation on getting right" - Henry Lavelle
- MODE TO MEASURE, Ingham, Tim. Music Week; London (Oct 24, 2014): 16-17.