The Lost Art of Album Artwork
In an age where we have access to more music than ever before, how has the role of the album cover changed?
When I was 17, I would take a detour after school (or sometimes during) to HMV in Camden Town. I can still vividly recall the anticipation I felt upon pushing open the glass double doors. I would head straight to the Rock/Pop section and flick through rows upon rows of CDs; picking something up, looking at the cover, turning it over. Each CD presented an opportunity for a new musical obsession. If an album artwork caught my eye, I would buy it then and there. There was a certain level of risk inherent in this technique, and it has backfired on me a few times (like when I bought a Stone Temple Pilots album). However, as I was becoming obsessed with Alternative Rock from the 90s, I quickly learned the commonly used signifiers among typical record artworks from the era, and as time went on, my success rate grew and grew.
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I still remember the thrill of picking up Green Mind by Dinosaur Jr. and marvelling at the effortlessly cool black and white photograph of the young girl smoking a cigarette, combined with the bright green and purple scrawled typography. With artwork that cool, the music had to be good (and it was). Similarly, the enigmatic single candle on the cover of Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation made it stand out boldly from its neighbours in the rack, and it still remains one of my most treasured albums to this day. Album artwork provided a much more important role than simply being decorative; it gave me the ability to immediately contextualise the music before I had even heard it. The artwork was one piece of the puzzle, and the music was the other. Together they became a single entity, impossible to separate. In the streaming age, we have access to more music on-demand than ever before, but also more record artworks than ever before, and they are often displayed next to each other as thumbnails, no bigger than a postage stamp, with most of the finer details getting lost.
David Browne first wrote about the phenomenon of the ‘Incredible, Inevitable Shrinking Album Cover’ in the New York Times in 2013. He observed how the rise in digital music meant that designers were creating more simplified artworks to stand out in a smaller space. Taking a side by side comparison between albums released before and after digital music rose to prominence, it is hard to deny; album artworks today do tend to focus more on simplistic visual themes or bold typography designed to be understood in the context of a low resolution square. There are of course many examples of albums released well within the streaming age that are extremely intricate and detailed; for example, the psychedelic artwork for MGMT’s sophomore album Congratulations. Similarly, the physical era is no stranger to more simplistic artworks; take Wilco’s A Ghost Is Born for example. However, these days, it seems that artists are pushing the boat out less and less when it comes to artwork. This is partly budgetary; complex artworks may need to be designed bespoke and are therefore more expensive to create, but it is also due to the role of artwork today, which is increasingly to serve as a clickable link.
The record artwork now had a new responsibility: it not only had to reflect the content of the LP, it also had to build an aura around the artist.
Just as music has always reacted to advances in technology, as have designers. When the phonograph was first invented, album artwork served a much more utilitarian purpose. This reflected the overall role of the LP format, which hadn’t yet been used as a form of artistic expression. Albums were mainly used as a vehicle to promote and sell more singles, featuring a number of cover versions or other filler material to use up the newfound space. As such, album artworks of this era were reflective of the content. Don’t get me wrong, I love the design of record artworks from this era, but they were a far cry compared with what followed.
Artists such as The Beatles and Bob Dylan first used the album format as a way to challenge the listener and create a more substantial body of work that crafted a narrative from beginning to end. When The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, arguably the world’s first concept album, no one had heard anything like it before. The record artwork now had a new responsibility: it not only had to reflect the content of the LP, it also had to build an aura around the artist. Peter Blake did this very successfully, and he utilised the 12 inch square to great effect. Fans pored over the artwork, seeing new details every time they picked it up, just as they would hear new details every time they listened to the music. Record companies began to build design departments dedicated to crafting artworks that would stand out on the shelf and boost sales. Many of my favourite graphic designers cut their teeth in the industry by designing record covers. Paula Scher started her creative life designing record covers for CBS, notably designing the cover for Boston’s eponymous debut album. Then there was Vaughan Oliver, Peter Saville, Jamie Reid, Neville Brody… the list goes on. Designing record covers was the graphic designer’s dream.
The CD age was the first hit to the designer. Almost overnight, their canvas was reduced by over 50%. However, despite its limitations, the album artwork was still able to thrive. The 1990s brought some iconic artworks to the table. CDs presented a range of new opportunities for the designer, such as booklets, picture discs, outer sleeves, gatefolds, jewel cases and digipaks. Unlike vinyl, the album because a package in itself, and although it was smaller, it could carry more than the slimline LP was able to. More importantly, the CD retained one crucial aspect from the vinyl era: tangibility. Just like my 17-year-old self sifting through shelves at HMV, consumers could pick up a CD, turn it over, open it up, and interact with it. Tangibility provided another dimension on which to connect with music; one that we have given up in exchange for the convenience of music streaming.
Album artwork today has a comparatively minimal role. It no longer serves as the focal point of an artist’s release, instead, it is one part in a much broader visual whole. Creating consistency between an artist’s social media posts, press photos, tour posters and any other visual elements serves the same purpose that album artwork once did: to build a world around an artist and contextualise their music for the listener. However, I can’t help lamenting what we might have lost. If less people are looking at album artworks, less resources will be allocated to them, and less people will put effort into them.
Call me nostalgic (many people do), but I still hold the album artwork to the highest possible regard. Designing record artworks is one of my favourite things to do as a designer. I love building an artist’s world, and helping them transmit their message to a wider audience. When I’m not designing real record artworks, I like to reinterpret classic album covers of some of my favourite records (which you can see on my Instagram).
The rise and fall of the album artwork correlates directly with the rise and fall of the album format itself. If albums continue to fall out of favour, I fear that the artwork itself will become more and more of an afterthought. I don’t think albums are going anywhere, though. As long as albums continue to be made by musicians who seek to use it as a form of creative expression, there will always be designers like myself who want to help them deliver their message to the music-hungry 17-year-olds of the future.