It was past 11 in the morning when Xiao Qing-yang (蕭青陽) opened the door of his Taipei studio dressed in a hooded black T-shirt, jeans and a white cap.
“I didn’t expect visitors at such an early hour,” said Xiao, a record packaging designer, said in an interview early last month.
“Designers work at night and sleep in the morning,” he joked, as he led the visitors into his studio.
Hundreds of CDs lie all over the place — against the wall, on shelves and piled up at the back of the room. Some are tracks Xiao picked up on his own, but most were given to him because he designed their covers.
The 45-year-old Xiao, known as a leading proponent of “Taiwan’s indie music ethos,” has created nearly 1,000 record covers since graduating at 19 from Fu-hsing Trade and Arts School, the nation’s first vocational high school for the arts.
Working outside the mainstream music business, Xiao has focused his efforts over the past 26 years on alternative, independent or indigenous music artists and labels — the “commercial misfits” as he calls them.
“I don’t like the way local pop singers are portrayed on their album covers. Designers in Taiwan are always told to make a perfect-looking big face, without showing any other artistic details,” he said.
Xiao prefers to spend his time with independent labels, because they allow him to use his creativity, he said.
But while developing imaginative covers represents a flow of positive energy, it is not always a lucrative art, he said.
Given that independent bands often have very limited budgets and resources, Xiao generally keeps his design fee relatively low, at about NT$20,000 per sleeve. He had agreed to do a job for as little as NT$4,000, because the client had limited funds.
“I’m not that at ease with commercial communications. I’m always more interested in things being done better throughout the process, rather than thinking about making money out of each design,” he said.
However, eschewing commercial considerations has led to occasional frustrations and self-doubt.
He had quit the design business four times — once opting to help out at his friend’s noodle shop.
Each time, he returned to designing because he realized he could not stay away.
“I spend hours looking through racks of records in dingy record shops, looking for the coolest music and the most beguiling and mysterious-looking covers,” Xiao said.
“I am the kind of fan that jumps and screams at a concert. Being a record designer is the ideal job for me. I can listen to great music while doing the graphic design at the same time,” he said.
In 2005, Xiao shot to fame when his cover design for the album The Wandering Accordion (飄浮手風琴) by Taiwanese artist Wang Yan-meng (王雁盟) was nominated in the Grammy Awards for best recording package, making him the first Asian designer to be nominated at the US music awards.
His friends thought the nomination was purely luck, but Xiao took it seriously.
Three years later he was nominated again in the same category for his cover artwork on the Chun-Mei Taiwanese Opera Troupe’s White Horse (我身騎白馬), and in 2009 he received his third Grammy nomination with Poems and Songs (吳晟詩歌專輯) in the Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package category.
At this year’s Grammy Awards, his intricate 11-page paper-cut for the album Story Island (故事島) by Taiwanese independent musician Lee Cin-yun (李欣芸) will again compete with the works of four international designers in the Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package category.