RoadTour Exit Antwerp
Throughout history, Antwerp has been a fascinating city. From its earliest 250 AD Roman descriptions to today, the city on the banks of the Scheldt river has always been in the news because something special occurred there. And we’re not talking politics. Belgian politics are so complicated and fragile, it's is hard to fathom they have any. Need an example? How about a country of 10.5 million who talk in three official languages and are governed by six governments consisting of 49 ministers and 10 secretaries to keep things running? No, the really interesting things happen on a different platform altogether - that of the cultural arts.

We had already reported on the very nice Tune Up record store. That's not just a purveyor of great vinyl. It's also a meeting place for music and art lovers. One of its walls is dedicated to the Arts where various artists have opportunity to put up their creations and even sell some. As our homestead makes Antwerp easily accessible, we visit with some regularity whenever the pull of vinyl gets irresistible. Should we slack off, an invitation by shop owner Carlo reminds us to feed our habit.

One Sunday we visited to get our hit of NOS vinyl when Carlo invited us for a cup of premium Illy espresso and the opening of the next exhibition. That would be built around a special theme to become a unique experience in the Western world - a tempting while far from clear invitation. Asked for some more specifics, Carlo explained. Cat sleeves. Yup, cat sleeves. These cat lovers feared for the worst. However, cat sleeves turned out to be cats depicted on the sleeves of LPs, CDs and cassettes. We were thus anticipating an exhibition not unlike that of a feline philatelist – one who collects stamps with cats on 'em.

A few weeks later we attended this opening. A collection of roughly 200 LP and CD sleeves hung on the wall, with cats all over all manner of music, styles and periods The cats too varied widely from pencil drawn, photographed, realist and fantasy, all unique and full of character just like the real fluffers.

Initiator and collector of these felines was Kurt Overberg, artistic director of the Ancien Belgique in Brussels. The AB is Belgium’s N°.1 concert hall for the music of today. Many big names have performed in one of its three halls and many talents were launched performing under its historic roof. For the exhibition which in fact was the second in a series of —what else?—nine so-called MEOWs, Kurt wrote a lengthy manifesto of which we copy out the first two rules:

1. The name, origin and numbering of the MEOW exhibitions (MEOW 001, MEOW 002 etc.) derives from MEOW 001, the catalogue number of the first release on the American electronica record label Tigerbeat6 run by pioneer and cat-obsessed person Kid 606.

2. To be part of a MEOW exhibition, there are some strict rules:
a) A cat needs to be depicted on the front (!) of a record/CD/K7.
b) The image of the cat can be a photograph, a statue, animated, painted, drawn or even dotted.
c) The aesthetics of how the cat is drawn, painted, photographed etc. is very important. The antidote of this becomes clear in the category ‘An assault against the aesthetics of the meow manifesto’.
d) The music itself is not important. It’s about the sleeve. An exception to this rule is a very special category named ‘The Ultimate Cat Sleeve’ for which do apply additional rules:
+ The music in this category actually is important.
+ The songs on the album should either be:
- about or dedicated to cats
- sung from the viewpoint of a cat
- based upon cat sounds (meowing, hissing, purring, growling…)
e) The only exceptions —although they may only form a small minority of the exhibition—are:
+ Logos of independent record labels that refer to cats (cfr.: Fat Cat, Asthmatic Kitty, Pussyfoot,…)
+ Small details in inlays/booklets, on the musical carrier itself, or details on the back of the sleeve that show the love for cats from the artist.
+ Paterfranalia (buttons, catdrawings from the artists itself, flyers,…).

The complete list of rules pursues this idea to quite extensive degrees. Kurt’s passion for cats and music culminating in a cat sleeve exhibition was shared by a Japanese gentleman who has already written two books about his hobby. Moreover, collecting LP cover sleeves even without LPs inside proves to be a fairly common hobby. Look at the site for instance. Members of a whole community share their discoveries there.

At the opening, the Tune Up shop was packed with friends and invitees as is usual for any vernissage. And of course there was live music!

As Kurt makes clear in his manifest, at a MEOW exhibition the music should follow the same rules. Hence all music performed had a feline theme of sorts. In-between live performances, Carlo’s wife DJ’d old 45RPM Jazz singles wearing a cat mask, thus complying with the rules very much to the delight of the youngest attendees. For drinks, there even was a special beer called Katje (translated kitten). Belgium is a beer-lovin' country after all.

When looking at all the sleeves on the wall, many of them looked familiar and some could even be found in our own record collection. This led to musings on how a record sleeve influences the purchase decision. While the saying goes that you cannot judge a book by its cover, it does help to get attention. With records it's the same. Fingering through LP or CD bins, it's the sleeve that first attracts our attention.

An unknown artist in a boring sleeve stays in the bin. The same unknown artist’s work wrapped in a nice sleeve gets picked up and with duly inviting info on its back enjoys a fatter chance of getting a listen in the shop. Does this mean that a sleeve should somehow reflect what kind of music to expect inside?

No doubt studies have been written on the subject. The music industry is cash driven after all. Methods on how to increase sales must be studied. Next time we go through our collection, we’ll note whenever a purchase was basically made on the strength of its sleeve alone...