We recently published a light-hearted look at 10 of the craziest album covers in history – but near the top of that article, there was a serious point that deserves some elaboration. The general gist of it was this: in an era of ever-increasing digital sales and an ongoing slump in the physical format trade, is the notion of the ‘album cover’ even relevant anymore?
Factory Records co-founder and legendary designer Peter Saville is soon to launch a retrospective entitled ‘Total’, which comprises of his hugely influential Joy Division and New Order cover artwork. It’s pretty much set in stone that the cover for Unknown Pleasures – which represents the radio transmission of a dying star – is a modern classic, perfectly encapsulating the tone and feel of the music within, as well as standing as an impressive construct in its own right. Did this cover inspire people to pick up the album without prior familiarity as to its contents? Very probably.
There are hundreds of other classic album covers – we don’t need to list them here, but let’s assume that your collection contains several of them. A quick scan of the overall cultural consensus, however, reveals that the ‘golden age’ for such iconic covers lies in a twenty-year stretch between 1965 and 1985. Sure, there are more ‘recent’ cultural staples like Nevermind or Is This It, but the era of gatefold vinyl seems to have the artistic edge.
So: what exactly constitutes ‘album artwork’ these days? There’s the traditional CD cover, but even the best specimens from last year hardly merit ‘legendary’ status. If artwork now simply consists of a tiny image on an iPod screen, for example, then its cutural influence must surely be on the wane.
Perhaps what needs to be examined is how artwork can progress. It’s part of the new remit of the physical format: it must offer something that the download/streaming version of an album simply can’t. Box-sets have this covered to some extent – they’re almost like museum exhibits, great little conversation pieces that can be propped up by the stereo. But how can the single album fare?
As mentioned, in purely physical terms it boils down to the ‘must-have’ factor … but even that narrows down album artwork to a more specialised, hardcore fanbase who would will be willing to put up with the hassle of a physical format if it offered them something unique. This, however, is working on the assumption that the ‘artwork’ must be physical. Who knows – in ten years time, the average home stereo set-up could project holographic sleeve notes into the air, and surely it’s a matter of months before a major artist releases a ‘new’ variant of artwork for a portable device (say, a randomised algorithym which creates a different image every time the album is accessed, thereby making each and every listen a truly unique experience).
The correlation between music and visual artwork is long-entrenched, and – much to the benefit of popular culture – is here to stay for a long time yet. The interesting question is: what form will it take next, now that the dominant method of distribution is on its last legs?