The decline in album craft within the changing nature of the music industry…
The music industry has changed. We all know that. With the arrival of the digital age, the music industry has been all but completely redesigned. I’m not complaining (really) – I appreciate the freedom digital downloading gives us, and I’m not here to analyse the pros and cons of the current landscape. It is what it is, so let’s get on with it.
That being said I’m a bit of a chronological anomaly. Because I grew up listening to vinyl, buried in my parents record collections through my formative years, I developed an appreciation of the album as a complete experience. When all my friends were listening to Radio 1 and the singles chart, I was lying on the living room carpet with my head buried between the speakers listening to Simon and Garfunkel and Joni Mitchel LPs. I have always felt a little out of step with the general population because of that (and possibly other oddities of my personality!:).
Coming back to the present day, one aspect of music making that I mourn, is the creation of album art. As a little girl, I dreamed of what album covers would be on my music when I grew up (and of being on Top Of The Pops), and by the time I had an album that needed album art, it was all but defunct. I enjoy going to the photo shoot for my new single release as much as the next girl, being primped by makeup artists, and leaving with my gorgeous new headshots, but the image now is to make a statement about the artist rather than the music itself. Through the necessity of social media, we have to become the pioneers of our own songs, and therefore the image has to enhance the personality rather than the music itself. I’m sure there are exceptions to this, (including my own artwork for my last album) but that`s how the general trend seems to me in any case. I’m not saying it’s wrong, it’s just the way things are at the moment.
However, being a vinyl enthusiast, I always loved it when the album art made a statement about the music as well as the band or artist. Joni Mitchell apparently hand painted all of her own album covers, Carole King embroidered the Tapestry, whereas The Beatles album cover for Revolver, designed by Klaus Voorman won a Grammy, and paved the way for the foursome to create the psychedelic Sergeant Pepper`s Lonely Heart Club Band era of music. Undeniably, the Sergeant Pepper album cover gives you a heads-up as to what to expect hear. An LP cover is large – 12″x 12″ – so to not use that space to make a statement about your music would be a wasted opportunity. There’s enough space for artwork to be much more detailed. Compare that with a thumbnail displayed on a downloads site of 150×150 pixels or smaller – the artwork clearly doesn’t perform the same function; there just isn’t room for it.
I suppose one could argue that the image of the artist nowadays is what gives you a heads-up – we can all probably tell the difference between a folk and a Hip-Hop artist from sight. Perhaps the onus is on us now to look like our sound; perhaps that thread has always been there to a greater or lesser extent. Yet if you google ‘live performance of I Feel The Earth Move’ you will find Carole King giving a full on rock and roll performance dressed like the ‘old Jewish housewife’ she claims she always felt like, even in her prime.
Whatever the reasons, consumers cannot deny that album artwork in its own right, has much less window space now. It’s even optional to download it with your purchase.
Some great artwork…
Here are some of my favourite album covers. I believe the thought-provoking nature of each of the images enhances our experience of the music as a whole.
1) The Moody Blues – ‘In Search Of The Lost Chord’ – Whilst some might argue this is not an altogether pleasant image, it is disturbing, comforting and thought-provoking all at once, leading me to believe I will hear something rich and consuming.
2) Joni Mitchell – ‘Ladies Of The Canyon’ – This simple image gives an impression of Joni’s face and upper torso in outline, holding what looks like canvas painted brightly with everyday objects, trees and a bright blue sky. This suggested to me breathability in production and songs about everyday life.
3) The Beatles – ‘Revolver’ – as mentioned earlier, this was designed by Klaus Voorman, and is a combination of photographs and hand drawn portraits in collage. My impression of this as a bit of a Beatle-maniac, was that the complexity of the image compared to earlier albums reflected a development in the complexity of the songs. Tracks on Revolver delve into more topics touching on social issues like ‘Taxman’, ‘Doctor Robert’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’, braver and riskier than the earlier sing alongs ‘Love, Love Me Do’ and ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ we all know and love.
4) Dire Straights – ‘Brothers In Arms’ – The resonator guitar floating up in the clouds always seemed to me to be a bit heavenly, almost worshipping it like a god. I concluded that the guitar would feature quite prominently on this album. I was not disappointed.
5) Bon Jovi – ‘Keep The Faith’ – whilst I did not have this on vinyl, I immediately liked the image of several male hands of different creeds and colours overlaid in a gesture of brotherhood. it gave me the impression of overcoming hardships, and potentially friction. The title track ‘Keep The Faith’ opens the second verse with the lyric ‘Father, father, please believe me, I am laying down my guns’, the chorus carrying the message ‘don’t let your love turn to hate’. I don’t believe the song itself is as political or explicit as preaching racial acceptance, but the album cover alludes to it in my view.
6) DiElle – ‘Fearless’ – I felt I had to include my own, most recent, interpretation of what the album art adds to an album, and what it says about the music. In this instance, I can only tell you what my intentions were – you can be the judge as to whether it says this or something else. The word ‘Fearless’ can be quite harsh, and conjure images of war and external conflict. By the use of a simple charcoal of a nude lady, lying peacefully, I hoped to make a statement that softened those edges, and also gave an impression of emotional rawness and simplicity of production. If you’re interested to hear, the US store link is here.
I have a special picture frame for displaying album art, so we can hang it on the wall in our living room and admire it all the time. There used to be a booming trade in all kids of CD racks, because we used to love to have them on display.
Vinyl is making a bit of a retro comeback, and perhaps this is why. I do not believe it is because people prefer to listen to their music on a turntable over an iPod. Even the fuddiest of duddies have to admit it’s more convenient to listen to digitally, but we’re missing that lost experience of the physical connection between us and our music that means a lot to us. Having something to hold and look at is a huge part of that identity.
So the industry has changed, bringing new and exciting ways to make music that didn’t exist before. Some of us are just celebrating (and maybe clinging to) what once was 🙂
What are your favourite album covers? Please comment below.