Tell me your top five favourite pieces of modern art. Now, tell me your top five favourite album covers.
Let me guess, you struggled with the first one, but could easily rattle off the latter?
It’s no surprise, given how widely recognised album art has become in the last 70 years. Since the inception of the modern album sleeve, many have become (and continue to be) pieces of iconic artwork.
As the digital age continues where record stores become online services and our music diet becomes predominately digital, record artwork and their importance are being left behind.
Yet, with the amount of technologies available in the modern digital era and online space, there’s no real reason why artists and bands cannot further explore and adapt how their artwork is used in an emerging era that’s increasingly digital. After all, musicians have learned to adapt to changing formats before.
It was in the 1960s amidst the counter culture revolution that musicians began to truly realise the power of vinyl imagery beyond being a mere marketing tool.
Artists like The Beatles, Queen, and The Rolling Stones created iconic album artwork that is still remembered and revered today for their images and message.
While the 1970s featured elaborate psychedelic pictures, the 1980s was arguably the era of portraits, with Cyndi Lauper’s and Michael Jackson’s face staring back longingly at music fans from record store shelves. And who can forget Nirvana’s Nevermind?
Compared to the 1930s, when records came in plain, design-less slips, the visuals of an album have now become just as recognised as the songs themselves.
Will we see a full circle with albums returning to a lack of identity without the artwork? Already there is a move towards this as music becomes more and more virtual.
For many people, music has become just another dimension of technology, streaming becoming just one of many tabs they have open on their browsers.
This leads to an obvious detachment between the music and the artwork. There’s no denying that the rise of digital music has impacted album art, the question is how and where is this heading?
While cover art is still here (and not going away anytime soon) it is becoming less important – less of a focus of the album’s overall presentation.
Just as the shift from vinyl to CDs was a significant change for album artwork, it has undergone another ‘shrinking down’, where most people view record covers as miniscule squares on their iPod; that’s if they even bother to copy the artwork into iTunes to begin with.
Compare the iconic sleeve to The Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, with its numerous famous faces – designed to be viewed on the large scale canvas of a vinyl sleeve – to a tiny square on your mp3 player’s screen. The loss of detail is not insignificant.
The Beatles were however working with what would now be considered a particularly large canvas. What artists need to be doing today is considering the smaller size on which their cover image will be seen, adjusting in order to fit for these dimensions, or simply treat the medium in an innovative way.
There has been a tendency for artists, such as Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience or even Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, to focus on a portrait for their cover image, designed to better suit the standard CD-sized but still translates reasonably well to a smaller, digital size.
This simplistic approach to design is also worth noting in indie favourites like Beach House and The xx, who use understated, easy to digest imagery (on the likes of Bloom and Coexist respectively) that complements their stylistic aesthetic whether it’s on a large scale poster or a tiny iPod screen.
Similarly, with the migration to online streaming services like Spotify and Deezer, which are becoming more and more popular by the day, we’re seeing a shift towards people accessing music as opposed to owning it, creating a further detachment to the music’s artistic presentation.
Spotify’s 20 million worldwide users generally see the album art as just another image on the Spotify app page, squished into the corner amongst advertising, text, and search bars.
With these changes to presentation naturally comes the loss of the importance of album artwork. Cover art provides a way for the artist to visually represent their message or theme in the music. They add that extra dimension, making it richer and the message stronger.
But the connection between music and art that is so centrally inherent to music is under threat of beginning to lose its significance.
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