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How I Got 96 Album Cover Designs for $145 (and why I’ll never do it again)

Quality graphic design is expensive. I paid $500 just to license the cover image for my last album, plus $600 for the rest of the design. That’s fine every couple of years, but now that I’m releasing songs individually, I need a cover design every month or two. I decided to give 99designs a try, and the results far exceeded my expectations. For $145, I got 96 custom designs from 33 different designers. Sure, some were amateur, but a solid half were usable, and a handful were excellent.

Sound too good to be true? Yes, it does. In fact, I hesitated to write this article. More on that later.

99designs_main

Contrary to what you might expect, 99designs doesn’t have an in-house design team. They host a design contest on your behalf, in which anyone can participate. As with any contest, there are winners and losers. That’s right – only the winner gets paid, though you can buy extra designs by selecting multiple winners. In my case, 95 of the 96 designs were done “on spec” i.e. for free. And you thought the music industry was cutthroat.

It takes all of five minutes to launch your own contest:

  1. Choose what you want designed. Prices start at $95 for a Twitter background, all the way up to $495 for a web site. “Print & Packaging Design” starts at $195, but since I only needed one image for digital release, I selected the “Other Graphic Design” category, starting at $145.
  2. Write the design brief. This is where you spell out to the designers exactly what you’re looking for (see mine here). I made it clear that my contest wasn’t intended to be a one-off gig, but the start of a working partnership. Perhaps that’s why I got so many entries.
  3. Set your price. There are three tiers to choose from: gold, silver, and bronze ($595, $295, and $145 respectively in the “Other Graphic Design” category). You can also name your own price, as long as it’s above the bronze package minimum. Presumably, the more money you offer, the better designers you’ll attract.
  4. Choose your preferences. Several other options are available. You can make the contest blind, so that only you can view the entries. You can guarantee the contest, ensuring designers that the prize money will be awarded. If you don’t, you’re free to back out at any time for a full refund. Finally, you can pay extra for a shorter than 7-day contest, or for extra visibility on the site.

Within a few hours, the designs started rolling in. I planned to just kick back and revel in the artistic brilliance, but corresponding with 33 designers quickly turned into a full-time job. Here’s how to keep your contest running smoothly:

  1. Eliminate hopeless causes. Some designers simply aren’t up to par, and though it seems cruel, you’ll be doing them a favor by eliminating them outright. I was seriously racked with guilt over the amount of work people were putting in, and figured the least I could do was provide plenty of feedback. That only encouraged them to try harder, which was ultimately a waste of everyone’s time.
  2. Steer the process. Provide ongoing feedback for all the designers on the main contest page. Believe it or not, I had to remind everyone that album covers are perfectly square (or at least in iTunes). After receiving dozens of entries featuring hands, I declared that theme officially played out. In retrospect, I should have insisted that designers get my approval on rough designs or photos before proceeding.
  3. Check for copyright violations. I used TinEye reverse image search to see if potential contenders matched other images on the web. If you’re the least bit suspicious, ask. If you’re not happy with the answer, eliminate. The best design in the world isn’t worth a lawsuit. Stock photos are acceptable, if clearly presented as such.
  4. Screen the designers. Grab some clues from their 99designs profile and Google away. Do they have a dedicated site hosting their portfolio? Look them up on Flickr, deviantART, Facebook, even Twitter. How responsive are they to your feedback? Is this someone you’d hire again?
  5. Get outside feedback. 99designs has a slick polling feature. You can create as many polls as you want to gather opinions privately, or solicit them publicly on your blog, Facebook, or Twitter. My fans made it abundantly clear which design they wanted, and as luck would have it, I was leaning that way anyway! Even if your mind is pretty much made up, a poll builds awareness of the release and gives fans a chance to participate in the creative process.

99designs poll

Why wouldn’t I do it again?

Shortly after launching my contest, two graphic designer friends voiced their disapproval, claiming that 99designs and other crowdsourcing sites erode the basic fabric and cost structure of the industry. One thing’s for sure: the format is absurdly inefficient. I shouldn’t be able to pay $1.50 per design, should I? That’s why I hesitated to write this article.

On the other hand, it’s a free market economy. If the risk isn’t worth the reward, don’t enter the contest! How is it different from pitching a song for a tip sheet, or entering a remix contest?

Then there’s the whole outsourcing angle. The winning designer in my contest is from Romania, where $145 is a decent week’s salary (EDIT: turns out they only receive $100, but the point remains). Should I pay four times as much to keep the money here in the US?

Tough questions for sure, but for now, I’ve got no reason to launch another contest. I’m happy to hire the winning designer, or several of the “losing” designers, first. Check out the contest entries below, and feel free to contact them directly. If you decide to launch your own contest on 99designs, please use my affiliate link.

laurent

nick

ruby

steven

jiandra

dalila

48 thoughts on “How I Got 96 Album Cover Designs for $145 (and why I’ll never do it again)”

  1. I think there's another aspect to this new market approach, it's really good to help beginners crack into the industry and gain experience. The ones whom aren't very good, have a reason to practice (which they might only do on their own in limited amounts). I think a goal is a great motivator. $145 isn't very much for a professional, hence you're not going to see many of them, but sites like these match up beginners with people who have a limited budget, I consider that a win-win. I think it's not good to focus on all the people who get nothing… I mean ultimately their design wasn't very good but practice makes perfect.

    I'm a firm believer that a site like this does NOT hurt the industry, anybody who's in the industry isn't going to waste their time with this site, too much risk/work for no payment, and even if it does pay out, not enough to be worth it. Inversely anybody with a large project with a real budget hires a professional, it's not like a client who was going to spend $1k+ is going to just resort to a $145 site. So I fail to see how this mindset hurts anybody.

    PS: In the 90s I use to be a web graphic designer.

  2. Sounds to me like you made some great contacts for $145 as you will be hiring the future winners AND losers possibly. That to me is the biggest strength of the site. Not the contest itself, but the relationships you can establish with designers directly.

    I feel no sympathy for the disapproving graphic designers. You paid $1100 for your last album artwork and how long does that take you to make it back? It's simply too expensive. This is like a better version of Taxi IMO. The graphic designers don't have to PAY to submit to the contest (like on Taxi) and they get to work DIRECTLY with you (instead of going through a music supervisor/screener). I would love a site like this, for example, for movie trailers. Indie movie film trailers will pay $145+ for a short 30 second score or whatever. Like you mentioned, it's a free market economy.

    As for the outsourcing, I think it's absolutely awesome that you are paying for a WEEKS worth of salary for a Romanian. I mean, don't you love it when you get an iTunes album sale from the UK? What if you made $40 per album sale in the UK? That's what the Romanian graphic designer feels like. It's a global economy now and I really don't feel bad for any American. The average poor American usually owns a car, tv, and refrigerator. I mean, the poverty wage in the US is $20,000 a year. A poor African (not sure what Romanian living conditions are like) would be living like a king on that in America. Ok, I'm getting off topic here…:)

    You've convinced me that it's at least worth $145 to give it a spin for my next release. I mean, even if I don't use the design it's still only $145. Well worth the gamble IMO. I'll make sure I use your affiliate link! :)

    Monty

  3. Good points Travis! Hopefully the other designers are at the very least beefing up their portfolios. It was clear that many of them were re-using designs on me, so maybe they'll re-use mine on someone else. :)

  4. But look at it from their point of view… they're getting a less than average pay rate for their work, so the only way they can make it worth their time is to rework existing material and hope it sells. Sometimes that works and they make out, sometimes it doesn't. Despite I still think the site is a great way for beginners to break in and get a little money, and while I don't know all the details of your experience, it's kind of a shame that you're not sticking with it. I hope this article doesn't sway anybody away from the service.

  5. The big reason I'm not sticking with it is that I'd prefer a consistent look across my releases. Plus the contest required a serious time investment. It pretty much killed my whole week.

  6. I was curious how that service worked and was considering experimenting myself. My girlfriend is a web/graphic designer, and she hates the service. She considers it demeaning to her skill to do something that takes time that she doesn't get compensated for. Plus, she saw how many horrid designers grope for the opportunity.

    And I never considered the artwork cost for multiple singles released over the year. Is it possible to use the same artwork for each single? Something more generic to reduce cost over the year?

    99Designs definitely doesn't sound "passive"! :)

  7. It's passive compared to doing the design yourself!

    Sure, you could use the same artwork for each single. Or just a big white square. Or white noise, coupled with a white square. I think I'm onto something here! ;)

  8. I confess I strongly considered just using my logo. A QR code would be better, though then again it might violate iTunes terms of service, since it's essentially a link.

  9. My opinion is that 3 of the designs above look like they are stock with text slapped on and shouldn't take more than an hour. The other three, perhaps longer with a bit more 'shopping. This reminds me of a custom greeting card designed on the machine at Hallmark more than album art. You might be paying the winner, but how many hours did they spend on other 'contests' to earn your $145? Having not heard your music, how can these complete strangers represent your sound? Also, do you write songs on the weekend for commercial jingles for a format like 99design? What rate would be worth creating an entire album for, IF you were the "winner"? I'm an experienced designer and find that this concept says that my time is not valuable.

  10. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Julie! I don't feel so bad about the designers' time investment if three of the six best designs took less than an hour. ;)

    Of course, I hope that the designers took the time to read the lyrics, listen to my music, and look at my previous album covers, as I asked them to in the brief. Clearly, some didn't, and I don't plan to hire those particular designers again.

    I've spent many hours over the past two decades pitching songs to Taxi, Music Dealers, Tracks and Fields, and similar sites. I've had fewer "wins" than hoped, but I never saw it as a waste of time, even though I have to pay for submissions, and usually don't get any feedback. The 99designs model would be a definite improvement.

  11. I guess the question is how to improve the value of original music. If you didn't create new music specifically for those pitches and retain your rights to use it again, you can resell it or beef up your "portfolio" but that probably won't make others see more value in art.

  12. I totally agree with Monty and Travis comments. Why would you be ashamed not to pay more than a 1000 dollars for an artcover whereas it might not even be your net income for a single song? Come on, it's not about a big brand trying to outsouce design work in order to get more money.

    I don't even understand why some complain in that specific situation.

    Now from an "amateur designer" point of view : I entered this contest because I know Brian for a while and found it fun to help and do it. I even noticed there was a prize after I submitted my artwork! I'm mainly an aspiring musician who began photography for artwork needs, and it happens it became a strong hobby that complement what I'm doing into music.

    Should I be ashamed of doing my own artwork and trying to help close friends? Should I be ashamed of recording my music at home instead of paying for a recording studio? It's only DIY.

  13. With these singles, I could easily pay more for design than I make back. Well, especially considering I'm giving it away for free the first week!

    In your case, you are very skilled at photography even if you only consider it a hobby (2nd place out of 96 entries!), and your style compliments your music perfectly. I can't see how hiring an outside designer would make for an improvement.

  14. Just a small comment about "(…)crowdsourcing sites erode the basic fabric and cost structure of the industry. "
    I often hear about that "it harms the economy" or "it harms the <insert name here> industry", which is the wrong way to see things as they are.
    You have to realise that the "industry" (in all it's aspects) it's a by-product, a secondary effect created by the commercial activity of people. The "industry" doesn't exist first, so that people can make commercial trades, the "industry" exists because people DO commercial trade. And as a side-effect, when people change the way they trade things, the industry changes because the industry IS IN FACT commercial trading done by people.
    The industry/economy just reflects what people are doing! What and how they are living their lives!

  15. yes it doesn't make sense to hire somebody for a price you can't accordingly afford.
    guess you almost found the limit of that service : going to meet people like me who might do something "correct" but almost unable to do something that relate to your specific needs… a question of experience ? ;)
    Of course when I say that I mean I don't need and expect having such deals… already have a (boring) dayjob, I should spend most of my time on my;own music, even if I'm glad to be part of such a contest… I actually chose to do it and it was a pleasure… I even learnt a lot I didn't expect !

  16. I totally get what you're saying, but isn't that just semantics? I think it's fair to say that piracy eroded the cost structure of the music industry to a certain degree. Well, I suppose that's a little different since piracy is outside of commercial trade. Anyhoo…

  17. Ah~ thank you Si Brian for this article! I didn't know you were having these thoughts until recently. I did hear some… comments about this kind of contest – both good and bad.

    Still, thank you. Good luck with your music career! Make those awesome tracks!

  18. I'm trying Jango (thanks for the 100 free plays) but don't see the "Focus Group" feature you mention in your post last year.

  19. Hey Brian. This was a fantastic and interesting experiment, so thanks for sharing! I'm curious: Prior to the search for album art, how did you design/develop your actual Color Theory LOGO?

  20. Y'know, I've been getting a lot of grief about the logo lately! Apparently it is "unprofessional," though it was designed by a professional at Disc Makers when I released my second album in 1997. I've used it ever since, and even included the logo as part of my trademark registration.

  21. As a design student this is more than frustrating I would have jumped at the chance to get that kind of exposure payment or not people with photoshop do not count as designers there is so much more to consider than that but thanks for posting this article was well worth the read!

  22. As both a musician and a graphic designer specializing in the music industry (everything from album art to logos, merch, posters, etc), I can see both sides of the issue. The number of available designers out there, as well as the amount of music out there, has vastly expanded. Designers and musicians both must make huge sacrifices and investments to get ahead. What you have to remember regardless of which side you're on is that you're building momentum. Hopefully, you retain fans as a musician which begins to grow organically, and as a designer you should retain clients who refer future clients. Often, the confusion and clunkiness comes about in the initial connection with your audience. Something like 99designs (which as a designer, I've participated in from time to time), isn't a bad deal for either end as long as you realize exactly what you'll get. Most likely, you'll find a designer you keep coming back to, who gets your vision and charges a reasonable rate. (Side note, if you're a designer expecting $500 for album art from a non-major act these days, get real. I charge less than half that and have a money-back guarantee!–largely, like the music industry, we're doing this to ourselves by not adapting…)

  23. Why don't you go to your local colleges graphic design program and ask if the Senior design student would like a project. This help give them experience and exposure and helps you get the design you need at a cheaper price. When I was in school I love it when we got an assignment from a real company. We would present the idea to the company just like we would have to do after we graduated. It is a Win Win for everyone.

  24. The problem of eroding the business model is, as you said, a free market issue and only relevant to designers (which I am, and I feel their pain). The issue is trust and intellectual property. Your advice in Tineye is good, but, having bought an image from a stockphoto company, then running it through Tineye to see if any competitor was using it, I found that Tineye gave no results, despite the fact that it was publicly visible on the stockphoto site.

    For the image of the blindfolded girl, did she sign a model release form? What happens when she discovers a picture of herself selling your album and sues you for damages AND requires you to remove and destroy all copies of the artwork?
    For the image with the hand and butterfly, what would you say if I told you that the image in question is a work my the renowned artist Dave McKean that has been manipulated. Did you get his permission?
    You see the middle bottom image of the field? That's an image from Getty that has been manipulated in Photoshop. Do you own the license to use that image? Does the artist?
    Do any of the artists above have licenses for the fonts they used?

    If you look at the details of the terms of use from 99designs you'll see that they position themselves as blameless when it comes to intellectual property theft. Ultimately you and the artist are held responsible for intellectual property theft, but guess what? They're in Romania outside the reach of US law. Guess who isn't, that's right, you are.

    Now, I didn't research all of the images and rights for the artwork above, and I'm guessing you didn't either. But, what you don't know can hurt you. Because you may have a cease and desist letter, along with a $1000 bill for using the image you chose. Your album art may soon be costing you $1,145, or more, because you'll have to do it all over again.

    BTW, there are sites similar to 99designs for music too, which means that musicians can be just as easily commoditized, as long as the person who hires them doesn't care if they stole a lick or melody.

  25. Great points Michael! That's a whole lot of trust to invest in strangers working for next to nothing.

    I can't find the Dave McKean image you're referring to, but that could explain why my designer was so hard to reach and eventually disappeared! Fortunately, I didn't end up going the singles route, and the cover art was pulled when I released my last EP, which features the song in question.

    The cover art for that and my next couple EPs was done from scratch by Dave Pascicuto, as he describes here: davpunk.com/ color-theory-adjustments. No more 99designs for me!

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