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.
Will we see a full circle with albums returning to a lack of identity without the artwork?

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. Just as the shift from vinyl to CDs was a significant change for album artwork, it has undergone another ‘shrinking down’…

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.

Generally speaking, the tenants of album artwork still apply, or as Gerri Elder from Smashing Magazine put it to The Examiner,  “the most striking designs are those that capture both a buyer’s attention and the essence of the music.”

Take for example Sigur Ros’ delicate imagery for their albums Takk… and last year’s Valtari, which is both visually distinctive, and a visual representation of their dreamy tunes.

Besides its cultural purpose, album artwork in a hard copy gives music fans a tactile and sensory experience that digital can never provide. It’s something you can literally hold and run your fingers over the artwork. Anyone can vouch for the experience and connection you feel listening to an album in hard copy.

There’s a sense of exploration: opening a vinyl record for the first time to admire the record label, looking through a CD’s liner notes – what riches are hidden in the booklet? How is it all presented?

This presentation that we so take for granted is all tied into the rich physical experience of engaging with an album in a corporeal format, something that is completely lost and irrelevant when music is merely a flat square on a screen.

What we’re now seeing is album’s visuals losing their detail and purpose and being there purely for the sake of filling space.

However, in the future of album imagery lies the possibility to take advantage of new technology through more interactive means or to continue to be more innovative with hard copy cover art.

Already, there are a number of artists who are doing something new.

Take for example, last year’s Kaiser Chiefs Best Of, Souvenir: The Singles 2004-2012. The English band invested in photorealist painter, Sarah Graham, who painted an image of candy with the band’s name and album title on it.

No great innovation in and of itself despite the detail of the oil painting, but in the film clip for single “On The Run”, there is footage of the candy being made as the Kaiser Chiefs hand out lollies to fans and passers-by. What we’re now seeing is album’s visuals losing their detail and purpose and being there purely for the sake of filling space.

While not album artwork in its traditional form, it presents an interesting idea of how tangible products can be handed out as a physical form of art.

Other artists are also pushing the boundaries and going beyond the idea that album’s visuals constitute merely what can fit within the size constraints of paper.

As Mark Roberts, music label founder, argued on Music Think Tank, the digital revolution is changing album artwork for the better  “With much of our music being delivered as pure data, our artwork can now be anything we want it to be.

Roberts takes that idea to the extreme with his Brooklyn-based boutique record label Stars and Letters experimenting with the release of GPSYMTH’s debut album, Ripostes.

As the group’s bandcamp advertises, the nine-track album is placed inside a dried Madagascan  Sunset Moth in a glass vial with a handwritten download code inserted into each specimen.

With GPSYMTH’s dreamy electronic ambience, it’s clear that this is not ‘add on’ merchandise, but in fact a new form of album artwork that relates to the themes and sound of the record.

Roberts stresses the affordability of this method, at $3 each for 25 units produced, making it a cost-effective and innovative way for emerging independent acts to present a unique method of delivering their music.

It allows artists to not have to splurge on album artwork but instead create a tangible and beautiful artwork for listeners.

Perhaps as people continue to challenge the concept of what album artwork is, and pushing against the trends towards digital consumption, these pieces of art may be able to survive in the digital future and evolve.

Those embracing the digital sphere too can extend the album artwork experience with new technology, offering artists the chance to be more interactive – audio and visuals that are animated, playable, or even integrated into the music.

Bjork’s BIophilia project did just this, releasing a series of ten games related to her eighth studio album all contained within an iPad app,  allowing users to explore Biophilia through games and animations.

Bjork saw the app not as something separate to the album but as part of its overall reception.

It’s a concept that still in its formative stages, but what will new advances in technology bring? Animated artwork? Holographic projections? 3D Printed sleeves?

Whatever direction the future happens to take, it needs to take inspiration from the beauty and cultural impact of the vinyl and CD artwork that came before it. 

As iconic sleeves like Dark Side Of The Moon, Abbey Road and Thriller teach us, there’s no doubt that album artwork is crucial, the question now is whether the bands can rise to preserving it in the digital age.

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