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Features / Miscellaneous

Kevin King on five years of Secret 7”: where graphic design, art and music meet

Over the last five years Secret 7” has become something of phenomenon. Combining music, art and design, the project has, as of 2016, produced 3,500 one-of-a-kind record sleeves for 35 musicians, raised well over £130,000 for charity, and in 2015 welcomed 22,000 people to the London exhibition. Last year also saw the two-day vinyl show extended to a month-long affair in Somerset House, a model that has carried over to this year, with Sonos Studios in Shoreditch playing host to the fifth edition of Secret 7”.

Starting with seven tracks by seven artists, each pressed 100 times on 7” vinyl, Secret 7” continues to invite creatives from around the world to produce one-of-a-kind record sleeves to be sold anonymously for charity. From the outset, the artists and musicians involved have been some of the most prominent, with tracks from The Rolling Stones, The Cure, John Lennon and Elton John, and counting artwork from David Shrigley, Martin Parr, Gilbert & George, Paul Smith and Ai Weiwei. 2016 includes contributions from George Hardie, Bob & Robert Smith, Jenny Holzer, Wilfrid Wood, Juno Calypso, Julian Glander and Jean Jullien.

We spoke to co-founder Kevin King about everything in between the first and the fifth year, and where Secret 7” might be going.

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David Shrigley: Secret 7" 2012

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On the backstory…
When we started I was working at Universal Music on the research and insight team. There was a meeting for the charity committee, which I was on, about how to raise more money for Teenage Cancer Trust that year. The staff were really great with raising money but there was nothing working with the musicians. I’d been to the RCA Secret sale, and just as someone who didn’t have the money to really go and buy artworks, it appealed to me. That was where I started, to develop something similar and I worked on it as a side project but it really became my role and the intern at the time ended up taking on lots of my other work on the sly. In that first year I hooked up with Jordan Stokes, who looks after everything to do with the look and feel of Secret 7”.

On getting people on board…
Once we get people involved, they tend to stay involved. I think that’s something to do with the fact that even now it’s still very much me and Jordan running everything. Access to musicians was always there because I was working at Universal, so the first year we got The Cure, which was a massive deal for us because as soon as the project launched, Cure fans really latched on to the project. I became quite strategic and would approach illustration agencies like Handsome Frank and tried to get everyone on board.

The first year the names we took to press were Michael Spencer Jones, who shot some of Oasis’ album covers, and Richard Evans who’s done a lot of stuff for The Who and still contributes. A lot of people we asked already worked on music artwork. Then there was David Shrigley. In the first year he was our only megastar or household name artist. He did seven illustrations of Robert Smith, which ironically, Robert Smith hated. The Cure and David Shrigley was what had people queuing for the show that first year. That gave us a taste for where to take it in the future.

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Martin Parr: Secret 7" 2015

On 700…
Where 700 came from, I don’t know. I guess I looked at RCA Secret and saw it was such a mass of work. To hide secrets you need a lot of work. Sometimes I curse that the number is so large but I wouldn’t take it back. Now we could probably do twice as many.

On getting everything approved…
It probably takes as long to get everything else set up as it does to get all the artwork in. I will typically start working on the tracks approved in the summer, but first I’ll get the partnerships in place, because we can’t really approach the musicians until we know the venue. Then we reach out to musicians. Every year it’s hard – it’s never easy, even now that we’re five years in. It’s not always straightforward. A band fell through at the last minute this year and we had 24 hours to find the seventh artist. I emailed Yoko Ono’s team and just said, “Please can we use Imagine? I have 24 hours to approve this.” And it happened. That’s almost unheard of – it doesn’t really work like that usually.

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Non-Format: Secret 7" 2015

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Antony Gormley: Secret 7" 2015

On how the cover artwork has changed over the years…
Each year is a little bit different and it all depends on the tracks. For example, last year with the Rolling Stones and Dead Flowers there were a lot of literal interpretations. Or you fall on themes, like with John Lennon this year, there have been a few of his glasses. There can be a lot of recurring themes that even go across the different tracks

In the first couple of years we only sent packs out to people we invited, but now that we’re making more packs and giving them out, we get more 3D or tactile sleeves. I think every year people come to the show and they see sleeves made from glass and felt and all sorts of materials, and they want to do one like that. That side of it is definitely growing.

On curating the show…
Everything is mixed in together really. I plan it all out on InDesign, which makes the install much quicker. The physical sleeves come in and I shoot them, and lay everything out, mostly by colours or what works well together. You don’t want too many themes bunched together, and I like to keep the more unusual ones spread throughout. We don’t have time to think about it too much, though.

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Peter Blake: Secret 7" 2015

On supporting material and special projects…
The programme we made for the first time last year when we extended the show’s run from two days to a month. Last year was a big move for us, moving to Somerset House with a month-long show and 22,000 people. I guess we thought the programme was a nice addition. This year we’ve expanded it so it’s not as matter-of-fact, and introduced articles. There’s one with Thierry Noir in there, and Cheryl Dunn, George Hardie, an interview with Monotype.

Similar to the programme is the events we do. We hosted four talks and a film screening last year. This year we’ve done three sleeve-making workshops: painting, letterpress, and collage. This year we’ve also got this Max Richter sleepover happening.

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Secret 7" 2016

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On Secret 7” moving forward…
There are some things that are quite finely balanced. The fact that we sell the sleeves restricts us from touring the show. We considered running Secret 7” in two places but that would be a lot of work. A lot of people show interest in supporting with us, but I don’t think people always understand the level of time, effort and investment it needs in order to make it happen. It kind of takes over. We’ve had thoughts about how to make it smaller and more manageable, like working with one musician at a time, but really, all our efforts have just been put into improving the project as it is. When you consider where it started and where it is now, I’m proud. I think people would hate it if we stopped.

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Julian Opie: Secret 7" 2015