ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music) is a German record label best-known for its extensive catalogue of Jazz, World, and Classical music dating back to the late 60s. Over the last fifty years, the label has produced definitive recordings for Jazz heroes such as Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, and Lester Bowie, and ECM recordings have been sampled by everyone from J Dilla, Madlib, and Kendrick Lamar, to Boards of Canada, Bonobo & Jamie XX. The label’s distinctive sleeve designs hook most people in, for others it’s the music, and when the two combine it’s powerful stuff.

ECM Records John Abercrombie 39 steps cd - Adsum
Sleeve artwork for the John Abercrombie Quartet '39 Steps' CD, designed by Sascha Kleis (2013).

Record producer Manfred Eicher founded ECM Records in Munich in 1969, with a unique vision that placed equal emphasis on sound, art and design. Eicher’s productions had ‘distinctly European sound’ from the offset - cold, yet warm, rich in tone, and recorded with trademark German precision. Prolific in his work, by the mid-70s Eicher had self-produced almost two hundred recordings, and was working with some of the biggest names in Jazz, including Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Steve Reich, Don Cherry, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Musicians liked working with ECM, knowing that the label had little interest in commercial success, which freed them of their usual creative constraints.

Don Cherry ECM Records - Adsum
The trumpet player Don Cherry (Stepfather of Neneh Cherry) with Manfred Eicher in the early seventies. Photo: Roberto Masotti / ECM Records .

ECM had also developed its own visual identity, common at the time for book publishers, but not record labels. Barbara Wojirsch handled design duties from the very beginning, and Dieter Rehm was later employed as photographer and designer, but each working under Eicher’s direction. The label did work with other designers, photographers and contributors over the years, but Wojirsch and Rehm were the design duo behind most of the label's output.

In a 1995 interview with Eye Magazine, Eicher denies any conscious effort to create an ECM look. ‘I have never thought of a visual identity for ECM. What I try to express with the people I work with is a reflection of my inner state of being. This is very often in a stark and sparse way; a landscape without people… something that speaks to you in the image, usually things that are enigmatic, or dry, or weird, dark or cold, images that go well with the music. What I try to achieve is to get people who don’t know the name of the musician to want to find out what the music is like. If this happens then I’m lucky.’ In the same interview, Wojirsch acknowledges the influence of Jan Tschichold in her work (the man responsible for the identity of Penguin Books), and Rehm admits to a brief infatuation during the 70s with Hipgnosis (the London design group behind Pink Floyd’s classic albums), he explains simply: ‘You have a picture, which is a cut-out piece of the world, then you have a title which may have many associations, and thirdly you have the music.’

ECM graphic design - Adsum
ECM Logo design (left) and artwork typical of later CD releases (right).

There’s no shortage of music. With more than 1,500 releases to date, it’s not easy knowing where to start. If you’re looking for an introduction, we've put together a ten track playlist with a few of our favorites.

To dig a little deeper on ECM design, there are a couple of good books dedicated to the subject, both by Lars Müller Publishers, sadly out of print and fetching big money online. Sleeves of Desire (1996) offers 360 pages devoted to LP artwork, and Windfall Light (2005) packs in 448 pages on CD artwork exclusively. Worth keeping an eye out for.