UWM alum honored with his first Grammy nomination

In 2023, the band Neutral Milk Hotel re-released a boxed set of the group’s complete works, including two LPs, a live album, three 7-inch singles, two 10-inch singles, two posters and several postcards, all packed in a two-piece telescoping box.

The boxed set art was created by the group’s founder, Jeff Mangum, and its finishing touches were completed by Daniel Murphy, the art director of Merge Records. The intense project took years of careful planning and collaboration, and Murphy breathed a sigh of relief when it was complete.

Then, it got nominated for a Grammy.

“I was blown away by it,” Murphy said. “I was very surprised, and very happy.”

The road to the Grammys

This is Murphy’s first Grammy nomination. Murphy, who graduated from UWM in 2016 with his master’s in media studies, has worked as an artist in the music industry for more than 20 years. Over time, he’s come to understand the ins and outs of award season.

“It’s common practice (for record labels) to pick a few highlights and send them to the Grammys every year,” Murphy said. Of course, major recording artists vie for the well-known honors, like Album of the Year, Song of the Year and Best New Artist, but the Grammys have an extensive list of more than 90 categories of awards for a range of musical genres.

That also includes craft categories; among them, Best Boxed or Limited Edition Special Package. This year, nominees in that category included Jeri and John Heiden for “For the Birds: The Birdsong Project,” Duy Dao for “Gieo,” Bo Burnham and Daniel Calderwood for “Inside: Deluxe Box Set,” Masaki Koike for “Words & Music, May 1965 – Deluxe Edition” and of course, Jeff Mangum, Daniel Murphy and Mark Ohe for “The Collected Works of Neutral Milk Hotel.”

In February, Murphy flew to Los Angeles to attend the Grammys’ last three award ceremonies. Because of the number of awards, the Grammys are divided so that most awards are announced before the big ceremony that viewers can watch at home. Murphy was disappointed that he didn’t win (the honors went to Jeri and John Heiden), but he thoroughly enjoyed attending the final ceremony.

“It’s a fascinating spectacle, just watching the production … and the barely controlled chaos of it all, is amazing. And of course, (I was) in the room with a lot of famous people,” Murphy said.

He said that his seat happened to be next to the tunnel that major artists used to access their seats.

“It’s like, oh, that’s Ed Sheeran. That’s Taylor Swift 10 feet away from me,” Murphy joked. “It was very strange.”

A career on record

Attending the Grammys was a surreal experience for a humble Midwestern native. Murphy grew up in Indiana and earned his bachelor’s degree in 2000 at Indiana University, where he majored in journalism. Shortly after graduation, he found a job in the music industry and began learning design on the job. In 2014, he needed a break from his work, so he decided to do a master’s at UWM in media studies.

“I was looking into whether there was a book to be written on the history of the album artwork and its origins. There probably is, but I don’t think I’m the person to write it,” Murphy laughed. “But I had a great time doing the research and learning about the process.”

Neutral Milk Hotel’s boxed set took years to create. (Photo courtesy of Daniel Murphy)

As he was graduating with his master’s, the art director at Merge Records left for another job. Murphy had always loved the label and had long wanted to work there; he applied and settled right into his new role. He produces not only boxed set designs and album covers, but also designs T-shirts, promotional materials, posters and any other merchandise that a band might request.

Over the years, he’s produced art for some well-known names in the industry, including Bon Iver, the Mountain Goats, the New Pornographers, Nickel Creek and UWM’s own Trapper Schoepp.

Making album art is, well, an art. Think of some of the truly iconic album covers over the years: Pink Floyd’s triangular prism and rainbow on “The Dark Side of the Moon,” for example, or the Beatles crossing the street on “Abbey Road.”

“There’s a language to it that people have come to expect,” Murphy explained. “If a band sounds kind of like The Rolling Stones, their artwork might look a little bit like the Rolling Stones’. For me, there’s a line to walk in being a little referential … but not too obvious. I try to start fresh every time and not do the same thing twice.”

These days, Murphy is up against an added challenge: streaming.

“Fewer and fewer people who love an album will ever see the physical version of it. They’ll see the (thumbnail) version in their streaming service, like Spotify,” he said. “I want to make sure that (the thumbnail) version of the of the cover works, that it’s noticeable and eye-catching. … The way that people consume music now, the cover is the first impression that I get. It’s got to be a good first impression that intrigues people.”

If he ever lacks inspiration, Murphy can think back to his time at UWM.

“Those two years helped me understand that the work that I’m doing is valid and important and has some sort of historical perspective,” he said. “It gave me a newfound appreciation for what I’m doing.”

And if he keeps on doing it, someday, Murphy may win that Grammy.

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