Daniel Edlen makes art out of vinyl LPs. Yup, I’m talking about the shiny black LPs that defined how we experienced music in the pre-digital era, which have become in vogue again more than 60 years after vinyl was introduced. Daniel’s business, Vinyl Art, offers stunning images of iconic musicians via portraits hand painted with white acrylic on vinyl.
His website offers a compelling challenge: “Gone digital? Get back to what you lost” by exploring the tactile world of vinyl as experienced through Daniel’s portraits of musicians ranging from Eminem to Elvis. For $350, you can bring Johnny Cash’s brooding face or Aretha Franklin’s soulful gaze to your home — or have a piece of your own commissioned.
By celebrating the joy of the physical musical experience in a digital world, Vinyl Art is succeeding. His work has been exhibited in locations such as the VH1 Corporate Gallery, commissioned by the David Lynch Foundation, and owned by the likes of Lou Reed.
According to Electric Moustache, “Vinyl Art is badass,” and I agree. I recently interviewed Daniel to find out more about Vinyl Art — what inspires him to do what he does and how he uses digital to build his business. He also discusses a brand new Andy Warhol triptych he created to celebrate Warhol’s iconic album designs for The Velvet Underground & Nico, Sticky Fingers, and John Lennon’s Menlove Ave. In the interview, Daniel shares not only a passion for music and art but for giving, as well. To view more Vinyl Art, check out a free eBook of his work here.
Why vinyl art? What inspires you to do what you do?
Giving inspires me. Not giving to get but giving to contribute. I like the question “Are you a miner or a farmer?” Miners take and don’t give back. Farmers take but then replenish, remix, restore. Throughout my earlier years I took from culture, incorporating sights and sounds into who I am today. The opportunity to create my Vinyl Art is an opportunity to give back to our culture in my way.
Vinyl is such a tangible medium and yet fragile. What’s it like to create art with vinyl?
It’s rather meditative. I like to think about the music on which I’m painting, the people who came together to produce the object. It’s a remarkable thing to feel somehow connected to all that creativity. It makes me value the moments of painting, the paint itself, the vitality becoming part of a cultural artifact.
You have choosen as your medium the part of the record album experience — the actual vinyl disc — people often overlook. Vinyl enthusiasts plop the album on their stereos for the sound and look at the album cover for the art. How did you latch on to vinyl itself as a medium?
I love the album covers. I hope to frame pieces as gold records are, with the record off to the side revealing the cover too, at some point. I started painting on the records because I had some multiple copies of my favorite albums that were unplayable. For whatever reason, as a teenager with a lot of time, painting on the vinyl just seemed like something fun to try. My dad valued records for the records’ sake, and I wanted to honor that for copies that wouldn’t get kept in the collection, to keep them culturally relevant and useful somehow.
What are some of your most memorable experiences creating vinyl art?
For the David Lynch Foundation charity music label, I was called on to create pieces of the initial group of musicians involved that would be autographed and auctioned to benefit the foundation. Tom Waits was one who got involved in my process, choosing the image and helping choose the album on which I painted. It was such an honor to get his approval of my concept and execution! The piece turned out great.
Another memorable moment was when I painted Lou Reed, drawing inspiration from a photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. After painting the piece I contacted Greenfield-Sanders to thank him for his photo and share my art. He ended up giving the piece to Reed as a gift from me! They both liked it a lot. It’s that opportunity to give back, to say thank you to those who’ve created the work that thrills me.
Your portrait of Amy Winehouse captures a certain sweetness about her that is hard to reconcile with the way she imploded and left us. Can you tell me more about the creation of that portrait? How did you choose that particular image?
I took the time to go through a lot of photos for that piece. A lot. There were several beautiful photo shoots with possibilities. I picked that one because it really caught that glint in her eye, that spark. I’m very sad that spark is gone.
The blood red color of the inner disc that partially stains Eminem’s face in your portrait seems to capture his air of silent menace. What’s the story behind the creation of that one?
The Eminem Show is one of the albums I listen to most often while painting. I was really excited to find a copy on vinyl. That photo was simply the best dramatic shot of him I could find with enough detail to paint.
Johnny Cash looks worried and even a little lost in his vinyl portrait — as if he was looking to score some speed. Tell me about the creation of that portrait.
That is such a furtive looking expression he’s got. The drama of his life is visible in his face. I was looking for a young shot of him and that was the best shot I found, again with enough detail to paint.
Your new Andy Warhol series is exciting. I think you captured the intersection of art and rock perfectly with those images. What’s the story behind them? It’s interesting to note Mick Jagger appearing multiple times in your work (Sticky Fingers and Some Girls), too. Does he have a singularly appealing face?
I’ve been really excited about doing an homage to Warhol ever since finding out he’d used Iain Macmillan’s iconic photo of Lennon to do the cover of Menlove Ave. Repeating the same portrait uniquely is something I share with Warhol in process. For some reason, I am drawn to imperfect patterns. So I enjoy his work quite a bit. Realizing he’d done the Velvet Underground & Nico cover along with the Sticky Fingers cover gave me the idea to do a triptych inspired by photos he’d taken of Lou Reed and Mick Jagger. The portrait of Warhol is inspired by a self-portrait photo taken the same year he created the Menlove Ave. cover illustration.
Jagger certainly has a great face. Both he and Keith Richards sort of embody “cool” when they were young and still do today. The Stones are one of my favorite bands so they’ve been a frequent subject for my work.
Where do you find inspiration to create?
It finds me, open.
Your website says that your interest in vinyl art goes back to childhood when your dad got you into music. How old were you? How did you experience music at that time? Which musical artists first made an impression on you?
I don’t remember my age precisely, but my dad has a wonderful vinyl collection which he treated with such respect that it made a big impression on me. The copy of Revolver he played for me was still in its shrinkwrap, carefully slitted open.
When he had music playing, we listened. It was never in the background. I kept doing that after I got my own stereo. If music was on, I was sitting on my bed listening. He listened to a lot of classical and jazz so I got exposed to the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, Stan Getz, Miles Davis, and Dave Brubeck. We saw Brubeck live once and I got to have him sign my ticket stub. That was a fun experience.
Your website also says that digital and social media have played a role in helping you sell more of your work. How do you use digital and social to build your business? Can you site a few examples of how digital and social have paid off for you?
I’d learned HTML at UCLA in the ’90s, so when I started selling my Vinyl Art I figured creating a website was a good idea. When blogs then spread in popularity I started my blogger blog. Through a couple connections from that, I learned about Twitter. Then I found Seth Godin and Brian Clark and the group of people following them. I liked the asynchronous conversational nature of social media.
Then Brian bought some pieces! That resulted in more people following me. I also had connected with Hugh MacLeod and John T. Unger, who used Twitter really well. Through them, Ryan Barton ended up finding me, and he bought some pieces as well as creating my video introduction. He subsequently created my coffee table eBook, which was a unique way of presenting my work with multimedia connections and a personal aspect.
It’s been an amazing time to be creating and selling art. The ability to reach people directly has, as noted by everybody, revolutionized how work reaches its consumers. I’ve really enjoyed being involved in that cultural conversation. I’ve connected with some of my heroes in a personal way that would’ve been extremely difficult previously. My favorite example has been getting David Lynch himself to pick a photo and sign a portrait of himself on a Blue Velvet soundtrack for auction for his charity. Seriously!
The ability to connect, to retain the integrity of a story, is what makes the digital and social media world so amazing to me. Unlike selling through a gallery, by selling directly, by offering custom work, by communicating with people around the world, I’m able to give people that visceral tie to their memories, that perfect gift for music-lovers, that “thank you” and then follow the story of the piece. I love when customers tell me how people respond to their piece or send me photos of them hanging in their homes. Also, because I’m accessible, customers enjoy sharing my work and connecting people with me online too.
Tell me about your personal collection. How big is it? What are some of your favorite albums?
It’s a good size. http://rateyourmusic.com/~vinylart has quite a bit of it. My favorites are my Beatles bootlegs and MFSL pressings. Another favorite is Utrenja by Penderecki that my high school physics teacher played for us during one lunchtime. I have a rather diverse collection, a lot of them ones I’d found during random searches for new music at local record stores growing up.
It’s interesting to see stores like Best Buy scaling back their compact disc selection while beefing up their vinyl selection. Why the interest in vinyl generally speaking? Is vinyl back for good, or are we seeing a temporary resurgence?
I’m not sure. Even as reissues are being pressed along with special editions, small record stores are downsizing and disappearing unless they turn into boutiques that seem to cater to more high priced items instead of the dusty stacks of old gems. So it might be somewhat of a fad, but fortunately I think there are enough hardcore audiophile music collectors to keep vinyl alive through the inflated popularity. CDs probably won’t be as lucky.
People are reaching for vinyl I think because of the change in the way we consume music brought on by the digital age. People are looking for that tangible object to have and to hold, to share and around which to gather. Vinyl has that cache. I think that’s why my Vinyl Art fits in today as it does.
What’s next for Vinyl Art?
Like the Warhol triptych and the Led Zeppelin I-IV grouping, I’ll be doing more series. I’ll certainly continue to do custom pieces too for those who find me as it’s the most gratifying part of doing what I do. Giving.