Album Art in the Digital Age - Digital vs. Analog Week on BTR

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Feature photo by Jem Stone. Article photo by abrinsky. Photo illustrations by Rachel Steinhauser.

“The album cover — once a crucial part of any band’s identity — has been dying a slow death for decades,” opens Eliot Van Buskirk of Wired Magazine in an article written in April 2007. This premonition is now four years old. Was Van Buskirk right, or has the album cover rebounded?

The rise and fall of album art, if graphed, would look more like a calm, gradual rising and falling slope than it would a steep spike and decline. Packaged music didn’t always include some display of sexual prowess or psychedelic entrancement, and it is not like one year teenagers were goggling at creative album art and a year later it ceased to exist. From the old 78s sold as accessories to furniture (more on this in a second) to 21st century interactive album covers downloaded for free, the ‘art’ of marketing an album has always been a marketable art.

Traditionally, record players were a new accessory to the all-important radio player that one needed to have in the home in order that they: a) keep up with the Joneses, b) be informed on up-to-the-minute worldly news (especially important during the war years), and c) have some form of home entertainment. When record players began to become a staple addition to the family entertainment unit, furniture salesmen would entice buyers to the latest state-of-the-art equipment by throwing in two or three free records if they were only willing to purchase the item that day. Pretty soon, record labels began sending more and more records to furniture stores in the hopes of pushing their artists on the consumer. Before 1938 however, all albums were sold in a generic, brown paper bag-like wrapper. Alex Steinweiss, then a 23-year-old designer, was the first to come up with the idea and began designing album covers for Columbia Records. As a result, the album pictured below, Smash Song Hits by Rodgers and Hart was the very first album cover in the world.

The cover of Smash Song Hits by Rodgers and Hart, designed by Alex Steinweiss.

Now, these record label executives and marketers alike were not stupid men (and yes, back then, they were all men). Pretty soon came the idea of packaging a musician’s sound in a way that attracted Mr. and Mrs. Consumer. The phenomenon quickly grew and its immediate success was not lost on the company’s researchers. From furniture stores to independent record label companies who opened their own shops (HMV, Columbia, Atlantic) to individually owned record stores (Bleecker Bob’s, Sam the Record Man), it was the label’s marketing and advertising team who saw the importance of enticing album art.

At first, album art consisted mainly of musician portraiture or shots of venues. One has to wonder how much of this had to do with race and identity (was Elvis white or black? What about Chuck Berry?), but that is an entirely different article someone else can take up. The point being, up until the baby boom-success of 1960s Rock n’ Roll, album art reflected more of celebrity photography than any sort of famous, identifiable, artwork. Every single one of Elvis Presley’s album covers features his face (if you don’t believe me, click here), and even early Beatles and Bob Dylan albums consisted mainly of the musicians’ image.

Arguably, the album that changed the importance of album artwork forever was the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The album packaging featured a colorful collage of life-sized cardboard models of famous people on the front and lyrics printed on the back cover (as if you didn’t already know); but more importantly, this was the first time this had been done on a British LP. The floodgates were opened, and bands throughout the ’60s began an unconscious competition for the most bizarre, artistic comedic or downright shocking album artwork out there. For anyone who thinks deeming album covers as ‘art’ is too pretentious, lest we forget Warhol’s work with both the Rolling Stones and Velvet Underground. In my opinion, these records, these pieces of art, represent the apex of album cover artwork.

Technological advances in sound production pushed the LP to the wayside to make way for 8-tracks and then cassette tapes. Artwork, while still significant to the band themselves and to fewer and fewer ardent music fans, suffered significantly. For the most part, 8-track cassettes did not come with an outer casing, limiting the space and creativity that bands had to play with. While one was able to slide the jacket out of the plastic tape case and unfold it like a map, any fantastic art display had already lost most of its magic (not to mention, that most people lost the case within days of owning the tape, anyhow; at least, this was the case from my own personal memory). Furthermore, the genius about the cassette tape was that one could make the now-retro-termed “mix tape.” The effect on the cover (aka, the tape’s ‘artwork’) was both debilitating and self-empowering. On the one hand, no longer was the listener presented with a significant visual accompaniment to the mood of the album; but on the other hand, the author of the new mix tape had a space with which they could fill as to make their own masterpiece.

Much of the same can be said of CDs.

Which brings us to where we are now—the age of the digital album cover. One thing is for certain; the transition from LP cover to iTunes album artwork has been a continuous stream of shrinkage—from the 12.5” x 12.5” hard copy, to the thumbnail-sized image on your screen. Many companies (including industry leader, Apple Inc.) have been think-tanking ideas and strategies that will help reinvent and rediscover this very important art form. George White, Warner Music Group’s senior VP of strategy and product development, put together a digital packaging demo for Apple to re-imagine album artwork as more than a JPEG on an iPod.

“We’ve been looking at a few technologies (for digital album art), and have been trying to bring these to Apple, to encourage them to bring that level of experience to the iPod,” says White. “A very simple demonstration that we’ve done takes the Gnarls Barkley liner notes and does a fly-through (using Adobe Flash Lite). You’re actually moving through the lyrics and artwork. It’s sort of like a theme park ride through the album. It’s really, really cool-looking on an iPod.”

The future possibilities that exist in the marriage between technology and art are pretty close to endless. Album covers are not limited to finite images in a finite space (although, attempts to stretch the borders of have been played upon in the past—Led Zeppelin III and Physical Graffiti come to mind, with their double-layered prints, and the holographic images of David Bowie’s Hours). Perhaps the success of digital album artwork lies in our ability to completely rethink the form. This will be especially difficult to do because of the fact it’s hard to believe that established artists will ever remake their old album covers. Nirvana’s Nevermind would never be the same album without that iconic “baby blue” cover, just as The Ramones self-titled wouldn’t be and nor would Born In the USA. Fifty years from now, when some kid downloads any one of these American masterpieces of sound (assuming downloading is to be the continued method), the very flat and non-interactive image will have to accompany it, as is. But for bands and musicians making music fifty years for now, their “album artwork” could be something unthinkable—perhaps an interactive, online platform, where each person who downloads the album can add their own image, contributing to a larger mosaic of the band’s logo.

Who knows?

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