Album Art: Life in Digital Tinyland

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It’s 1975 and my thirteen year old peer group has just had an earth-shattering realization. After staring at the elaborately illustrated cover of Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy for most of an afternoon, pondering the question: could Elton John be gay? (news flash!) we decided en masse: of course he was! He was gay WITH Bernie Taupin! Obviously he couldn’t simply be gay on his own, and we felt very sophisticated for figuring all of this out just from studying the artwork. Worshiping the record jacket was a crucial part of the experience of listening to LPs. Album covers and liner note designs contained rich fields of information to be harvested, inviting listeners to spend hours happily searching the images to decode their meaning. Today, the visualization of music has dwindled to the size of a tiny icon in the era of the downloadable MP3. As the artwork’s dimensions shrank, becoming more like a postage stamp than a poster, its role and importance faded. Let’s face it: does anyone download songs today because they fall in love with the 240-square pixel cover on a computer screen? Very doubtful.

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Clues (correctly interpreted or not) embedded in the artwork once helped shape a listener’s own individual narratives about the music and made the album resonate on a deeply personal level. The Who’s Quadrophenia included a multiple page black and white photo essay as part of the album concept, a sort of handbook of mod vs. rocker culture for non-Brits. The pictures capture a moody, atmospheric, and evocative portrait of Brighton in the 1960’s. Most American teenagers didn’t understand the difference between a mod and a rocker, and had no idea what a GS scooter was. Still, they could immediately grasp that it was way cool the minute they saw its image. The photos filled in the blanks, adding context on an emotional level that helped decipher and translate the music.

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As existing albums were digitized for the download market, those with a simple, minimally designed cover like Elvis Costello’s Trust fared well at 0.26% of their former size; a complex cover like Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti not only lost the successive printed and die cut layers crucial to its design, its new size rendered it meaningless, so hard to see that it was impossible to care about what it really looked like. Even for new albums released after the dawn of the digital era, the art often feels somehow off. The White Stripes seem to have a handle on a strong graphic identity, largely art-directed by Jack White, at first glance: all of their album covers feature stark, idealized photos of him and Meg White, with a palette of black, white, and saturated red graphic elements or backgrounds, and all of their singles feature the same color scheme but with an object starring in the photo.

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The longer you examine the covers, though, the less interesting they become. They start to feel rote, formulaic. “Hey Meg! I know! Let’s do a Mondrian interior. Hey Meg! Want to dress up like a mariachi band?” The overall look is instantly recognizable but not very compelling; in the end they’re visual junk food because very little mystery or coherence beyond color palette is embedded in the imagery.

Clearly the entire narrative has changed irrevocably, leaving album artwork stranded uneasily at the bus stop waiting for a bus that may never arrive. Covers have quickly dematerialized, like the Cheshire Cat, in much the same way that music formats changed from tangible to ephemeral. You can still hear music, you just can’t ever see it. The process marched in an exponential progression of downsizing from 12” vinyl in a cardboard sleeve to a compact disc in a jewel box to the MP3, with its nomadic quality free of surfaces, text, and ornamentation. By making it possible for us to transport, store, and play it apart from the texts and images that accompanied it, the CD began the process of separating the music from its visual design. It was easier to carry a bunch of discs in a binder or carrier case, so people left the graphic parts of the album (jewel box, printed insert, and booklet) at home where they were quickly forgotten and lost whatever relevance they may have had. MP3’s finalized the divorce and compounded a greater social isolation; iPods and headphones meant that music was no longer shared and experienced simultaneously in a group.

The suspicion has been raised that album covers may prove to be a short digression in the long history of music. Designer Stefan Sagmeister noted, “My guess is that the entire notion of visualizing music is dead. If you look at this from a short term perspective it’s almost inconceivable. But if you look at it from the scope of the last 100 years, there never was such a thing as visual packaging. Baroque music was living happily through the Renaissance without any visualization whatsoever.”

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Designers have to hope that Sagmeister is mistaken here. A zip through the music library using the iTunes Cover Flow interface becomes a sort of hypnotic car trip on the planet of your favorite songs, through a mysterious black landscape punctuated only by roadside billboards of your albums. Covers carry a surprising amount of clout in the iTunes environment, despite their tininess.

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Albums lacking art, displaying only the generic music note icon, seem so uninteresting they’re almost not worth listening to. Only a boring song wouldn’t rate its own picture, right? Dullness by association. Seems that we need to see something colorful occupying the screen instead of that ho-hum black square with its trite little note dead center. This offhand observation is more important than it seems at first. Artwork can’t vanish from the music scene entirely because the emotionally driven, lizard part of our brains still craves an image to link with sound. The single image joined to music despite the lack of a physical artifact like a record or CD may end up being more significant than the details of packaging once were.

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The future of great album covers lies in designer’s willingness to explore and exploit the good qualities of the digital environment, and to acknowledge that size does matter, very much indeed. Design firm Big Active had a great idea for their album cover for We’ll Live and Die in These Towns by British band The Enemy: the look is based on railway arrival/departure boards, and at the start of each song the board flips over to show the song’s title and run time. This is a clever departure from current digital covers, which remain constant for all songs in the album. The Black Lips’ 200 Million Thousand has a little animation built into it; as you speed by it in Cover Flow, a face comes menacingly forward and then recedes as you pass. In both cases the digital format enhances the art instead of hindering it, treating a potential liability as an asset instead.

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I was cover-flowing through my iTunes library alone one night, on a quest to see which older album covers maintained their graphic impact despite their relocation to Tinyland. As I zoomed past the Rolling Stones’ Beggars’ Banquet suddenly something just didn’t look right. I backed up for a closer look. The cover shows a filthy bathroom that looks straight out of the movie Trainspotting, with a dingy toilet front and center, the band’s name scrawled onto the heavily graffitied wall. Hmm. I rummaged around on my record shelf and pulled out the vinyl album in its completely minimal, white cardboard cover with a gold border all around the edges, typeset front and back with stark black script to look like an engraved formal invitation. It figures, I thought, jumping headfirst into the deep pool of cynical reactions. When they bother to do anything at all, now record labels are downgrading the original art for the digital market. Instead of Tiffany’s we get Trainspotting.

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A little quick research revealed this assumption was completely ass-backward: the bathroom cover was created for the album’s release in 1968, but banned because back then you couldn’t put a toilet on something you hoped to sell to decent folks. On further consideration, it’s a matched set with the art inside that shows the band at a long table, at the end of a completely debauched evening. Clothes are askew, Ron Woods and Charlie Watts have passed out in their chairs, candles have burned low. I always assumed the elegant invitation was meant to provide visual contrast and a narrative setup: first the discreet invite on the outside, then the out-of-control feast and its aftermath on the inside. But the invitation design was essentially a fuck-you from the Stones so they could get the album distributed: You want classy? Here’s classy. In short, the digital market allowed the intended cover design to be published 30 years later in an era of relaxed social restrictions, providing an opportunity to restore something, not suppress or diminish it.

Album art may be down for the count, but it’s not out. Designers are looking at a tremendous opportunity for innovation provided by new formats; nostalgia for the golden age of record covers, while understandable, should be banished from the conversation. There’s still a need for powerful, iconic images to bond seamlessly with musical content, using today’s media as well as formats yet to be dreamed up. It’s OK to translate iconic bands and musicians into tiny digital icons, as long as they’re good ones. The lizard part of our brains demands no less.

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