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Master of Packaging (Metallica)

When it comes to getting the latest album from a heavy metal band into the clutches of head-banging fans everywhere, surely you just throw up the ol’ devil-horns sign and the leather-jacketed hordes come a runnin’, right?

  • Logo design
  • album packaging
  • posters
  • movie tickets

That depends on the band, really. And it depends on whether your big-name metal band happens to encounter the head of a big-name branding firm that specializes in seeing the big picture.

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When Grammy-winning metal pioneers Metallica were hashing out the details of their 2008 release Death Magnetic, they’d narrowed the album title down to a list of just four names, and hadn’t yet moved on to the actual packaging of the thing. One day drummer Lars Ulrich brought his friend David Turner by; immediately the band’s manager presented him with the names and asked him to choose one.

“I said ‘Well, the way it works in branding is you try to understand what something’s all about, and you find the best way to communicate that.’ ”

Turner happens to be the co-founder of branding powerhouse Turner Duckworth, which counts Coke and Levi’s among its clients, and gave Amazon boxes their trademark “smile.” Not the first person you’d think of to name a Metallica album necessarily, but if you’re going to get someone’s input, his is the input to get.

A brief rundown of the playlist revealed to Turner that “a lot of these songs are either about the attraction or repulsion of death.” Which led to an obvious title choice.

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Depicting ‘Death Magnetic’
At this point the first iPhone wasn’t even a year old and the iPad wouldn’t be introduced for another two or three years. Branding an album with “cross-media” in mind at that time meant creating images that could easily translate to CD packaging, websites, posters and T-shirts.

Turner Duckworth immediately subverted metal norms by going for a white cover rather than the traditional dark one, and made two choices that quickly became iconic.

The first – acting on a suggestion from Ulrich – was refurbishing the band’s original logo, the first letter in particular. “In our world we talk about equity,” says Turner. “And it had a lot of equity in it. It’s still something that the fans recognized.”

It was also subtly in keeping with the band’s choice of Rick Rubin to produce the record; Rubin has a reputation for helping acts such as Johnny Cash return to their musical roots.

The second choice was to use a white coffin as the central theme for the album cover. “That one was a pretty literal expression of the idea of death and magnetism brought together, being a grave with the dirt arranged in this sort of magnetic field pattern around it.”

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They made a coffin about 1/3rd normal scale, dug a hole, arranged the dirt, and had a London photographer capture the image. That coffin shape was then die cut through the entire center of the Digipak like an open grave.

Not only was the coffin used on the cover, it graced T-shirts (arranged with the lightning-bolt M of the logo emanating from it), became the theme for a special boxed edition, as well as for something much, much larger.

“Lars had not told me but they’d actually built an entire stage set around the idea,” recalls Turner. “About 15 of us from the studio went to a Metallica concert – we had great front-row seats. And we look up and there is this vast articulated lighting rig made entirely out of the coffins from our design – it was really a cool moment!”

Death Magnetic won a Grammy award in 2009 for “Best Recording Package.”

Metallica Goes Hollywood
When it came time to create the central image for the band’s 2013 IMAX 3D music concept film Metallica Through the Never, smartphones and iPads had come into their own. Yet Turner Duckworth again began with the idea of creating another strong central image – something even more important in an age of screens that are much smaller than those of desktop PCs.

For the poster, they concentrated on one of the film’s characters who wears a kerchief over his nose and mouth. The cloth was morphed into a monochrome Metallica concert scene, complete with the coffin-shaped light rigs inspired by Death Magnetic. Whether used on ticket stubs, lobby cards or enormous venue barriers, the image had the same strong impact.

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It was with the movie soundtrack branding, however, that Turner Duckworth truly hit it out of the park With only the real estate on a standard CD Digipak to work with, they laid “Never” in white letters over the black case, and then superimposed a slash-in-circle sign over the word. If you look closely you’ll see that the end of the slash is the Metallica “M” from the Death Magnetic cover, and the whole thing looks like it was stenciled on. In other words Metallica through the Never.

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The packaging gets more intricate still. A die-cut card that looks like it’s been freshly slathered with red paint was placed over the actual album cover. “And in the sort of drips and splatters and extraneous bits of paint everywhere, you can actually find visual references to every other Metallica album cover art,” says Turner. “And a lot of them are really subtle; probably only the designer who did it could point them out to you.”

One of the least hidden: the entire package unfolds into the shape of an enormous white cross, evoking the field of white crosses on the cover of the band’s most famous album, Master of Puppets. Really?

“Well,” says Turner with a chuckle, “we’re pretty obsessive over here.”

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Author: Aaron Berman

A former writer and editor for USA Today, Aaron Berman is also the editor of PaperSpecs, and covered the newspaper industry for the Newspaper Association of America’s monthly magazine, Presstime.

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