The Lost Art of Album Art

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/dielle/id277996689

Viewing artwork…

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.

@diellemusicuk

www.diellemusic.com

www.facebook.com/diellemusicuk

  • TRK

    Very thought-focusing post, thanks! I am currently working on graphics for my band’s new album, this was helpful in considering several elements.

  • Barbara Malteze

    Can you guess what type of music we play? Here’s the CD art for our newest project. My musical partner/husband shot the images. We did a contest with our fans to see who could place the location of the bridge. Hope you like it! http://www.ghostsoftheamericanroad.com

  • NigelMusicNZ

    I’m a lucky person. My daughter is a whizz at design. This album artwork was based on an image then changed to add the atmosphere and visually link with the title track; Row out to your ship of dreams, time to leave the shore….

  • Shoe

    I’m curious as to what the initial interpretation for this album would be, based on the cover.

    • Nice !!

    • Juan Borjas

      It obviously shows that you are in a metal band. If I would have to guess more specifically I would say Blackened Thrash Metal. Also, that your logo looks extremely similar to the turk st demo Exodus logo. I would suggest changing your logo, giving some gray shading in different tones instead of leaving all white and use this design for t-shirts instead of album art, for the album art you should take the center image and expand it, thus having the band logo and album title in it and eliminating the black part. I hope I was helpful.

      • Shoe

        Good call on the Thrash Metal… I think our sound is something of a grooved approach to crossover (think Exhorder covering the Misfits, fronted by Zetro).

        The border or “black part,” was used to keep the text from the image and allowing the image to be the focal point, whilst allowing the band name and album title to be completely visible and unobscured. Nor would it be “stepping over” the image, so that the image is the image and the text is the text. However, if you wander over to metal archives you’ll see our Demo with the same image with Text in the upper blackened region of the picture. I like the way we used it on the actual album we put out, maybe because it looks like a T-shirt metal heads would be seen wearing; like a seamless transition between album cover and shirt.

        I went for the decaying texture approach to the lettering as opposed to shading (not to neglect, the background has plenty of both texture and shading). Look at the larger image you’ll see it is not all white.

        There are things about the cover I wish were different, but overall I’m pretty pleased with the visual representation of the album we dropped.

        All this aside, the most important thing is how the album sounds. Hope you dig listening to it m/

  • If you creative then you can send the right message

  • I really enjoy creating album art – I’ve been doing my own albums since my first album Sunday Mornin’ Hayride in 1973. Here’s a few samples. Liner notes are fun too!

    • Beautiful artwork Bill !!
      You’re a lucky guy , cause the 70’s are the Golden age off music industry .Me I was only 3 year’s old .

      • Thank You! For Hayride, it was literally cutting out and pasting on. The letters came on a sticker sheet! It’s more fun today with all the graphic stuff on line.

    • TRK

      One of my fave covers – Intense jazz fusion. Sounds just like the picture. Great article here, I am designing album art for my next release, and this was great to read.

      • Hey TRK! I find doing a whole album concept from choosing the right songs down to the album art is a most rewarding experience, creating a whole experience for your listener as well.

        • DiElle

          Absolutely!

    • DiElle

      I absolutely agree – and reading the liner notes too is another huge part of the experience 🙂

    • DiElle

      Gorgeous images Bill – I love to vintage feel, especially on Pass On The Love 😉

      • That is my mother’s wedding picture – circa 1928

  • PhilouGanJa DuB-SelecToR

    Yeah, you’re right Benedict, old album, especially vinyl , was pretty cool ; Here is some album’scover for my own stuff . I’m not Picasso, but I try to do something original.

  • Shane Lobuglio

    I love album art work! I remember sifting through yard sales and thrift stores as a young lad, and I pretty much would just pick up anything that looked cool or had a funky looking album cover. In fact I still find myself doing it to this day. Its the best way to start having any kind of feeling towards an album without the chance of hear it first. This is an album cover I’m working on for my new album. Still working on text type, and placement. Any suggestions would be great! Thanks!!

    • DiElle

      Yeah I did that too Shane.. But in the bargain bucket at record stores.. Your image is very striking – what sort of band are you?

      • Shane Lobuglio

        Those were the days… Thanks, I’m a indie rock/ dance rock band. I have a strong love for David Bowie, and a lot of other 80’s sounds like The Cars, and Billy Idol. That is kind of the feel I’m going for.(dirty/sexy) I’m doing this project solo, so having keyboard drum beats has definitely helped direct my sound into that direction.

  • Benedict Roff-Marsh

    I too came of age in the are of vinyl and still love the album as a complete thing. So much better than just random songs that make little sense in a big picture way. I still love Duran Duran’s first, self titled album. The look is great. Black Sabbath’s “Heaven & Hell” plays with you. Gary Allan’s “Smoke Ring In The Dark” as the Nudie Suit, hat and old car tell you this is real songs.

    • DiElle

      Hi Benedict – some great album artwork there – the Black Sabbath one is genius !