Is Album Cover Art Gone For Good?

The digital music age means no more packaging.

Physical media is rapidly becoming a relic of the 20th Century. As music downloads, online gaming, and streaming video make listening, playing, and watching whatever we want whenever we want too simple and convenient, the need to own round pieces of plastic containing albums or games or movies seems ever more quaint. This sea-change in the way we consume media has upended the entertainment industry, and among the many casualties has been the art of the album cover.

Along with the advent of the compact disc came the advent of desktop publishing, another key factor in the worsening of album cover art.

In the beginning, record albums didn’t have cover art. That’s because the term “record album” didn’t refer to a single slab of vinyl, but rather a bound collection of sleeves that housed numerous records, exactly the way photo albums hold numerous photographs (or used to, before the digital age made photographs even more obsolete than record albums). But as recorded music gained popularity in the post-World-War-II era, record labels began to use album sleeves as a marketing tool. Album art not only served as an ad for the album inside, but helped shape the image of the artist.

Album cover design, with a few exceptions, remained fairly generic for much of the 1950s and 1960s. But in the psychedelic rock era, album cover art began to take on more significance, a trend pioneered by—who else—The Beatles, with their album—you guessed it—Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

That album was one of the first in which the cover design made as much of a statement as the music. It was one of the first rock albums to include printed lyrics, one of the first to have a custom inner sleeve, and its elaborate cover, composed of life-size cardboard cutouts of various artists, musicians, and celebrities, cost around $5,000. That was an astronomical sum at the time (roughly equivalent to $65,000 today), but that cover went a long way toward making Sgt. Pepper’s one of the defining albums of its generation.

Throughout the rest of the ‘60s and well into the ‘70s, album cover art was taken very seriously. Design firms made millions conceiving and designing album cover art, and artists like Peter Blake, Storm Thorgerson, and Roger Dean produced cover designs that could compel people to buy albums without even knowing the music they contained.

Then came the compact disc, and the decline of the album cover was set in motion. With only 4.75-inches on which to display cover art (versus the album’s 12-inches), designers were forced to modify cover art designs. Text had to become larger, images had to become less detailed, and designs that once could have been rendered as gatefold sleeves with die-cuts and lyric sleeve inserts were all relegated to the space allowed by a small booklet and a tray card.

Along with the advent of the compact disc came the advent of desktop publishing, another key factor in the worsening of album cover art. What once was the realm of professional graphic designers, illustrators, painters, and/or photographers soon became the playground of the amateur.

Thanks to this confluence of events, album cover design quickly went from a large-budget affair involving designers, photographers, models, sets, etc. to something someone in the band did at home on their MacBook. Design suffered, but some bandmember or their friend got to play artist and the labels got to pocket all the money formerly spent on art budgets.

And now we’re moving into the all-digital age, in which there is no artifact, and all accompanying art is screen-rendered (save for the underground music scene, in which vinyl is ascendant and even cassette covers are again designed and printed) and the only cover one sees is a 150-pixel square.

As with all things in life that change, there’s a temptation to bemoan the loss of album cover art as somehow symbolic of some great loss to civilization, another step in the ongoing decline of everything that was better when we were young. But there’s something to be said for not having all that “stuff” cluttering up ones life, even if that stuff was beautifully designed and printed.

By jettisoning the physical “product” of the record album, or the DVD, or the book, the art that was once contained within these packages has to stand on its own merits. With no nifty package to lure you into a purchase, you have to want to listen to your albums, or read your books, or watch your movies, or play your games, because there is no longer any “thing” to own, or admire, or display on a shelf.

David Merline



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