Tom Vek explains Sleevenote, his new electronic music player that puts album art first
The musician and designer tells us about the pioneering device he describes as “a cross-pollination of a vinyl record and an iPod” and why artwork is “all-powerful”.
- Jenny Brewer
- 12 November 2020
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
Tom Vek believes album art and music are “utterly interlaced” and has spent several years dedicated to creating an innovative device that he believes celebrates that relationship more than anything else on the market. Six years ago, Sleevenote started as an app that allowed you to view artwork LP-style on your phone. Today, the musician and designer launches a crowdfunding campaign to produce the Sleevenote music player, a premium portable device he describes as “a cross-pollination of a vinyl record and an iPod” aimed at people who, like him, believe “album covers are an art form”.
“Album artwork has always been the handle, the grip to pin down the sort-of shapeshifting nature of music,” Vek tells It’s Nice That. “It’s like ‘that’s what it looks like, that album that has that song on it that I love’. The signifier is all-powerful, you see an album cover you like and it releases all these memories and feelings you have associated with the record, you can almost hear it.”
The device is square, almost the size of a 7” record, with a high-resolution display, designed to show covers in all their glory. It has a touch screen but also physical buttons on top, to keep the user interface away from the artwork. But the most important bit is the world of artwork it unlocks. The Sleevenote database already holds over 1,000 album covers and booklet artwork images, but Vek and his developer Chris Hipgrave have also built a platform for designers, labels and fans to upload album art. Once approved, it will automatically show up in the device and apps for everyone to enjoy. The player can also be used a “music vault” for your owned music, and supports streaming platforms Apple Music and Spotify, with more to be added on demand. It also uses Sleevenote API to source new artwork when requested.
The crux of the product harks back to music and artwork being intrinsically linked. On the Indiegogo page, Vek says that digital music is “great for discovery but not so great for an immersive album experience” and that people usually listen to music on a multi-use device, where it competes for attention with other apps. In the transition to digital, album art has been “miniaturised and compromised” he says, and Sleevenote aims to lead “the digital album artwork revolution”.
“With my bullish hat on, I’d say there’s nothing else like it,” Vek explains further. “I’m enjoying digging into what it proposes – that it being square and thick is better than a cheap tablet for playing music. Sure there’s an element of arrogance and indulgence in saying, yeah it’s basically a tablet with a very expensive screen, and you can’t check emails or Twitter on it, and that’s the point. You don’t put juice in the whisky glasses you know? The software experience side of things is designed to be all about enjoying what you’ve discovered, not staying in the shop.”
On the £533 price tag he adds that prospective customers are “people with a certain amount of cash to invest in a cool bit of digital music tech, who have nice hi-fi gear, and also a nice bluetooth speaker, a Sonos setup, people who like minimal setups, who are digital-only, or still want a great place for stuff they can’t get on vinyl. If you like the idea of having friends over and saying “put some music on” and it being from your collection, not ‘hey find something, anything on Spotify’, or having those moments where you are like ‘what music I have liked?’, and actually liked, not what an algorithm thinks you will like. It’s great seeing the rise of Bandcamp, and I think it’s the perfect device for saying ‘I want to buy that album and get stuck into it, I’m going to put it somewhere valuable’”.
Today also sees Vek release his fourth album, New Symbols, after 2005’s iconic We Have Sound, followed by Leisure Seizure and Luck. He made We Have Sound while studying graphic design at university, and has since made all the artwork for his own albums. New Symbols, he says, had the placeholder name of IV for a while, being his fourth album, and got him thinking about symbols “which I do most of the time as a designer”. In tandem with his work on Sleevenote, this spurred thoughts around music formats and “the fact that the eject button is starting to disappear, and whether there was this deep meaning to inverting it, being like, I’m going to re-focus on injecting energy to what I’m doing”. Then came the “aha!” moment when he realised it looked a bit like his initials, “so damn that was it”. “Then I was like oh, New Symbols, that sounds like an album name. I’d been feeling like we need new symbols of happiness, of compassion, etc. When the name and cover of an album come together it’s a very cool time for me, it’s like, I can visualise this album now.”
The Indiegogo campaign for Sleevenote is live now, and New Symbols is out today.
Tom Vek: Sleevenote (Copyright © Sleevenote, 2020)