Photoshop, Friday Detention, and One Direction: How a Quarantine Project Became an Overnight Sensation
Q & A with Melody Han You
Interviewer | Archelle Thelemaque, Editor-in-Chief
In this interview, Charcoal Magazine editor-in-chief, Archelle Thelemaque speaks with Melody Han You to discuss her groundbreaking Instagram account, Album Recepits, a passion project turned creative trend of the year. Melody shares about her journey, how she got here, how it’s going, and what’s next for the brilliant, Asian-American creative.
Alright Melody, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born and raised in Georgia, and I’ve always loved art and design and started getting really into it in high school when I started photoshopping my parking passes.
Why did you start photoshopping parking passes?
Oh, God. No. I was literally a criminal. My parking passes in high school cost about $200 for a semester. I was a newly licensed 17-year-old, and I was just like “there’s no way that I’m going to paying that much money to park at my own school,” so I literally Photoshopped a parking pass, made it look exactly like how the school’s official parking passes looked, and I got caught just a couple days later. I had to serve detention every Friday for the rest of the semester, but you know, I think that’s when I found my passion for graphic design [Laughs]. I taught myself how to use Photoshop - that was the very first time. Since then, I’ve just used that to my advantage, I guess.
I love it — a criminal story turned creative passion. With Album Receipts was it a similar catalyst where you started the account out of necessity? How did you begin the journey?
Since being at home, I was just trying to find something to do, and it just became a personal project of mine. I was trying to keep myself creatively occupied, so I started making a collage every day. I would browse Pinterest and see things that I liked and try to replicate it. I came across this receipt idea first on Reddit by this guy Pepe. He created this receipt concept with Frank Ocean’s blonde, and I thought it was so brilliant and cool, and I wanted to make my own version of it with my favorite albums. That’s where it started. It just happened to be my last day of college, too. I was just thinking that this was something I could do just for fun, just making a bunch of music albums into receipts and stuff. I didn’t realize how popular it would become. It was really just kind of a way for me to pass the time while being home.
With this project, it’s kind of turned into this huge trend — you’re seeing it everywhere. MTV’s picked it up. Def jam’s picked it up. I even saw that you did one for a local Boston city councilor. What does Album Receipts look like now compared to when you first started?
So much has escalated since then, and it’s been so insane. I feel really grateful because I never would have thought that this would bring so many opportunities for me. I think this started to escalate after my Instagram account got shared with Ariana Grande on the 10th day when I had launched Album Receipts. I don’t want to say it’s turned into a marketing platform because it’s definitely not. It’s still a creative quarantine project, but a lot of what I’m doing now is promoting album anniversaries and album releases for certain artists and different record labels. I’ve been super grateful to have the opportunity to partner with big music labels like Def Jam and Interscope and basically create content for their Instagrams.
So you’re working with these big labels and artists and promoting their content, but on a more personal level, what has your journey with Album Receipts looked like?
On a personal level — ugh. I don’t want to sound cheesy, but it’s going to sound cheesy: I just think that I’ve never been extremely confident in my artistic skills. I just know that I’ve always wanted to be a creator and do something creative, but I was never really that sure whether this could turn into a career for me. I would consider myself a novice in graphic design. I definitely don’t claim to be a professional in any way, and I’ve only just started teaching myself how to use these creative software tools only a couple of months ago. So I’m super new at it, and I think personally, it‘s taught me so much about the world of design and introduced me to so many people in the industry, and it’s made me feel a lot more inspired to keep working at it and try to learn and grow as much as I can artiscally. I think it’s really been a great learning experience, and for anyone that wants to pursue a career in design or whatever, you can’t possibly become good if you don’t do a shit ton of things, and you have to keep working at it. Having this Album Receipts account, there’s never going to really be an end. I’m always going to try to keep making more content. From the beginning to now, you can totally see how a lot of my designs have changed and become a little bit more customized. Each thing is a little bit different now. Before, there was one template. I’ve grown a lot, and I’ve learned so much about graphic design even though it’s only been two months, but I’m happy that it’s helped me grow.
I think we can see that with your album receipts that there’s definitely been an evolution in the receipts themselves, and it’s only been two months since you started.
Exactly. A lot of people don't realize that I haven’t been doing this for very long, so they don’t bother to scroll down, but if you scroll down, there is a huge change. I think I just got tired of seeing the plain backgrounds. There’s only so many colors in the world, and I feel like I used up every variation of pink I could find and that’s the main reason why I decided I would take the actual artists’ album covers or photos of them and use it in the background, and I think it made it a lot more colorful. It also adds to the familiarity of it because you see a Katy Perry Teenage Dream album and you’re like, “Oh my gosh. I remember that from my childhood,” so there’s definitely a nostalgic feel to it when you have the album cover in the background.
One of the big things we've seen with Album Receipts too is that people are taking your artwork and using it for their own economic gain. How do you feel about that whenever you come across one of your designs in an Etsy shop somewhere?
As much as it bothers me if someone is taking my work and making a store out of it or selling it, I can’t help but feel super flattered that they think that people would be willing to buy [my work]. Because for me, I haven’t sold any of my designs as merch. I haven’t really considered doing that just yet because I feel like there are so many copyright concerns I want to sort out with this before I sell anything because I want to be super careful. It kind of pisses me off, but in a way, it’s also flattering because I never would have thought to see my own designs being sold by on so many different platforms.
This is all super new and you’ve been collabing with these big names and bigger record labels, so how are you managing as a one-woman show right now?
I’m going to be honest — it’s been so hard. I think for me, I would say that I am organized when under pressure, but it can only get to one point before I feel like I’m going to collapse. Recently, it’s been so overwhelming in the best way possible. Every day is just so exciting because I have a new project to work on or someone I really admire just reached out to me on Instagram. It’s really exciting, but also, as one person, it gets kind of tricky to multi-task. This process has made me a lot smarter in time management. Working on different things, I feel like this is the best time for me to be this busy anyway because I have nothing else going on at home, and there’s nothing to do where I am. A day in the life is usually just me on my laptop working 5-8 hours designing receipts, and then spending the other half of my time answering emails, going through DMs on Instagram, having meetings and phone calls. But yes, it has been a little tough to manage as one person, but I’m always looking for new ways I can work with other people and collaborate, and that’s definitely something where there are a lot of potential collaborations coming up soon, so I’m excited about that.
You’re talking about how you’re handling all of the operations that usually a whole team of people would be doing, so do you see this project expanding to be a larger operation than just you or is this just a Melody You project that you’re going to see through as long as you can?
I’m definitely strongly considering expanding the team and maybe talking about potential opportunities to make this more of a business instead of just an Instagram account because I see it as more of a business now. I’m always looking for new ways to expand and work with different kinds of creative people. I’m super open to it.
I can’t wait for Charcoal to put an internship or job posting up for Album Receipts.
Honestly, I would love that, but I don’t believe in unpaid internships. When it gets to the point where I can do paid internships, I definitely will.
This is insane hearing you talk right now. Even though it’s kind of tongue-in-cheek, hearing you talk about interns and expanding the whole operation is wild because this is something that was born out of a global crisis. So when you’re thinking about all of your success and the time that it’s happening in, how do you feel about that?
It’s super serendipitous, and it just feels really surreal to me. You know, I did this out of boredom, and I was joking with my mom, and told her “Watch me go viral with this,” but I wasn’t being really serious about it. So thinking back to when I started and joking about going viral and then literally going viral after my fifth day, it really is so crazy to me. I feel so thankful to all the One Direction fandoms because quite honestly, they are the reason why Album Receipts is successful. Because had it not been for one of my friends requesting for me to do Harry Styles’ Fine Line album, I don’t think I’d be where I am today. This is all because of how loyal the fandoms are, truly, because it just started circulating among the One Direction fans on Twitter, and all of a sudden, I started noticing that my posts were picking up a lot of traction.
See, not everyone can say that they owe their career or success to a One Direction fanpage, so that’s absolutely a phenomenal accomplishment.
Right! It’s so crazy. Also it’s ironic because I never listened to One Direction myself, so I never knew anything about them. And this is kind of off topic, but I’ve learned so much about One Direction since starting this account. I’ve learned so much tea from the fanpages in the last two months than I have in a lifetime. It’s great. It’s like a “Pop Culture 101” because apparently, I’m out of the loop with a lot of the things the kids like nowadays.
I appreciate the One Direction fans because they got you here today, but shifting gears just a bit and thinking about your background, as woman, and as an Asian woman in the creative space, what’s your experience been like in the last few months?
I think for me, with this project, I’m grateful to have this platform. Early on, one of my first collaborations was done to honor Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage month in May. I knew before I even started that I wanted to work with other Asian-American and Asian artists in general. I also wanted to have this be a way to celebrate a lot of Asian music artists that I think are super talented, super amazing, and I feel deserve a lot more attention. So with that project, I think it was really great for me because I felt proud to be able to work with three different Asian artists who I really admire and also honor artists who I also really admire. We started with BTS. We did Rich Brian, Black Pink. It was really, really cool. I also made a couple of designs that actually got the artists’ attention which I thought was also super amazing. Steve Aoki really liked what Karen (the collaborating artist) and I did for him. He follows me now. Same with Jai Wolf. It’s been an honor to be able to have that platform to basically show what Asian representation is all about and honor Asian representation in music and also in art.
In what other ways do you use your Album Receipts platform?
I’m really glad that I have this large following, especially in light of everything that’s going on. What I’m most grateful for is the fact that I can actually use the ‘Swipe Link’ feature of Instagram [Laughs]. I wish all Instagram accounts had that, but unfortunately not. With everything going on, I like to share a lot of the relevant news, and I like to to share not just what I’m doing with music-related things, but I want to share fundraisers and news that’s important and different educational tools because I think having a large platform gives you the chance to share a lot about what’s going on in the world. I’m trying to think of more ways to not just do music albums, but create more graphics that have to do with social or political issues because I feel like the concept of using receipts is such a refreshing way to capture different kinds of subject-matter. That’s why I did the collaboration with the council woman in Boston and that’s why I’m working on another receipt honoring John Lewis and his speeches for Charcoal. I think there are so many extensions of [Album Receipts] that I can definitely do, and I’m always actively looking for new ways to create different kinds of things. I want to continue honoring really impactful political leaders in our country - that could be a cool way to show what kinds of things they’ve done to shape society as a whole. There’s just so many things you can do.
Sometimes creatives in the corporate or entertainment space try to stay away from the political issues. Why are you taking a stance and actively trying to engage what’s happening around the world politically?
I think to not take a stance when you have a platform is irresponsible. I’ve always been super vocal about social issues. Before I came to college, I thought I wanted to be a journalism major because I just lived and breathed CNN, The New York Times, and The Boston Globe. I feel like to be apolitical at this time is just unethical. It doesn’t feel right. I think you can see in a lot of people nowadays this sudden growth and enthusiasm for sharing educational tools and spreading information, and it’s good. I’m glad that now, in a way, people feel more uplifted to be vocal about fighting for what’s right and I want it to stay that way, and I hope this enthusiasm continues and that it’s not just a trendy thing to do on social media, but rather an ongoing conversation we need to have.
You’re doing the work, and you’re sharing resources and using your platform in this empowering way — what do you want to see from other accounts who do things that are similar to you?
A lot of the creators that I follow and creative Instagram accounts that I’ve seen so far have been doing a great job and using their platforms to share important issues and bring them to light. I hope that more creators do that. What I’ve seen from accounts like futurafreedesign have been creating beautiful artwork and designs to condense information so that it’s readable and sharebale for people to see it, like it , and understand it. I think there’s a huge opportunity to mesh design and art and social and political issues. I’d like to see more content like that. With design there’s that unique way of condensing information so that it's shareable on social media, and it’s also easy for people to access. Unfortunately, I feel like a lot of people our age don’t like to read newspapers anymore. They don’t like to seek out long articles. But if they were to see something that’s eye-catching and also educational, I see that as a great opportunity to share important information.
I think that’s a good point that you raise about people our age not seeking out newspapers and that a lot of people our age do get their news from social media, so condensing that information to one Instagram post is sometimes more vital than a long- form traditional media.
Yeah, it’s kind of sad though, right? Sometimes I find myself too just reading headlines, but not actually digging into the actual article. It’s just a horrible habit, but we as humans don’t have long attention spans, and we just want to see something that’s quick and concise and that gets the idea across. I think creative accounts have the opportunity to do that.
You’ve had a cool journey with music, art, and all of that coming together, so when you’re thinking about what’s next, what do you see in the future for yourself?
I feel like I get that question a lot, and it’s kind of hard to answer. But I would love to become a creative director one day. That’s always been my dream. Ever since Mad Men came out, I knew I wanted to be a creative director like Dawn Chambers in the show. I’m not sure what industry that would be in, but hopefully, it would be in something that I love like fashion, music, and entertainment in general. With the future of Album Receipts, this just somehow turned out to be my passion-project-turned-full time-job, and for that, I hope that Album Receipts becomes a lot bigger than I could have have ever imagined. It already has, but I hope that it continues on with this momentum. I’m also hoping that, maybe, I’d be able to see an extension of this brand beyond albums and music.
If you had something to say to your high school self who was printing fake parking passes and selling them, what would you say to her?
Friday school sucks, but you could not have done a better thing for yourself. As an Asian-American creator, it’s hard to break out into this field because my parents never really expected me to go into this field like a lot of Asian-Americans I would say. We’re kind of expected to be in the STEM field or business but not so much in creative spaces. I’ve always loved art, but never wanted to pursue it because I know this is a space that I love, but also it can be incredibly hard and very competitive. I never thought I could be in this kind of work. I never thought that I was good enough. I’d say to my past self, just believe in yourself. Do what you want to do. Who cares about what people think. You should ultimately try to pursue your own passions, and even if they do suck, keep going at it until you become good.
I love that you said believe in yourself! It’s the perfect ending.
[Laughs] Ah, it’s so corny. But it’s a fact. What else could you really say. You should believe in yourself - everyone should believe in themselves.