Al­bum cover im­agery has mi­grated from ex­pan­sive vinyl LPs to CD jewel cases to tiny icons in Spo­tify playlists, but it still has the power to in­spire. By Jane Al­bert.


Al­bum cover im­agery has mi­grated from vinyl LPs to CD jewel cases to tiny icons in Spo­tify playlists, but it still has the power to in­spire.

In mid-2015, artist and de­signer Jonathan Zawada re­ceived a call from the man­ager of Har­ley Ed­ward Streten, aka Flume. The record pro­ducer, mu­si­cian and DJ was in Los An­ge­les work­ing on his up­com­ing al­bum and was in­ter­ested in meet­ing Zawada. Flume was aware of the artist’s di­verse body of work, span­ning New York

Times il­lus­tra­tions to Nike T-shirt de­signs and the ARIA award-win­ning cover of the Pre­sets’ sec­ond al­bum, Apoca­lypso; and was hop­ing to in­ter­est the LA-based Aus­tralian in de­sign­ing the cover art for his next re­lease. The pair met at Zawada’s stu­dio and lis­tened to some early demos while Zawada ran through a mood board he had put to­gether con­tain­ing a se­ries of dig­i­tal flower im­ages he’d re­cently ex­hib­ited. Over the next cou­ple of months, the cre­ative col­lab­o­ra­tion con­tin­ued, with Flume send­ing through mu­sic that Zawada re­sponded to vis­ually. The re­sult graces the cover of Flume’s mul­ti­ple award-win­ning 2016 al­bum Skin, and earnt Zawada the ARIA for best cover art.

Yet Zawada’s re­sponse to his ARIA wins is not what you might ex­pect. “It’s not re­ally the art, it’s peo­ple re­spond­ing to the al­bum, so I take the awards with a grain of salt. I don’t think they’re mine,” he says. “In both cases where I won they were the big­gest re­leases in Aus­tralia at the time. With the Flume award I wouldn’t have won if I did the art­work for a band that only sold a cou­ple of thou­sand al­bums. There’s been other art­work I’m so proud of that hasn’t won any­thing.” Zawada goes on to point out that when the group ex­hi­bi­tion fea­tur­ing the flower con­cept had first been dis­played, it elicited barely a re­sponse, whereas since Skin’s re­lease he’s re­ceived “hun­dreds of pho­tos” from peo­ple who have tat­tooed the cover art on their skin.

Is Zawada sim­ply be­ing hum­ble? Or does he have a point? What comes first, the mu­sic or the art? Would the Sgt. Pep­per’s Lonely Hearts Club Band al­bum have been as mem­o­rable with­out the crazy de­tail of that Grammy award-win­ning cover, with its im­ages of Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe, Karl Marx, Mar­lon Brando, Mae West and the rest? (Prob­a­bly: it is the Bea­tles, after all.) When you men­tion God Save the Queen, Born in the

USA or Nev­er­mind, is it the vinyl cover that springs to mind, or the mu­sic of the Sex Pis­tols, Bruce Spring­steen and Nir­vana? Is it both, a per­fect syn­ergy where one sense stim­u­lates the other? And if so, what role does art­work play in the dig­i­tal age, when an al­bum cover is of­ten re­duced to a mere thumb­nail on a mo­bile de­vice?

It’s true that the days of a sin­gle defin­ing al­bum im­age are largely over. But there are plenty of peo­ple who think that cover art – the phrase it­self is in need of up­dat­ing – is as rel­e­vant as ever, in an era where im­age is king.

“Al­bum art­work is still in­cred­i­bly rel­e­vant, whether that ap­pears on your vinyl cover, your CD cover, your dig­i­tal down­load or in your stream­ing ser­vices, it’s a vis­ual

rep­re­sen­ta­tion of your mu­sic,” says ARIA chief ex­ec­u­tive Dan Rosen. “The art­work per­me­ates across the cre­ative work and be­comes a very strong com­pan­ion. Flume is a great ex­am­ple where the im­age played out across not just the al­bum but also a web­site, mer­chan­dise and live shows. It has be­come the new av­enue for that art­work to get out into the world.”

Of course, col­lab­o­ra­tions be­tween high-pro­file artists and pop­u­lar mu­si­cians have been around since the mid-1960s. Think Andy Warhol and the Rolling Stones; Herb Ritts and Madonna; Hipg­no­sis and Led Zep­pelin or Pink Floyd; Roger Dean and Yes; or Pete Sav­ille and any num­ber of Fac­tory Records al­bums. The dif­fer­ence to­day is that dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy has en­abled mu­si­cians to cre­ate their own art­work (let alone pro­duce their own mu­sic). Court­ney Bar­nett, Wally De Backer (Go­tye) and An­gus and Ju­lia Stone are just some of those who have re­cently taken home the ARIA for best cover art, for Some­times I Sit and Think, and Some­times I Just Sit,

Mak­ing Mir­rors and Down the Way re­spec­tively. “What’s hap­pen­ing in the mu­sic in­dus­try in gen­eral is there’s a move to peo­ple do­ing more and more them­selves, whether it’s art­work or mak­ing videos, even pro­duc­ing their own records,” says man­ager John Wat­son, who rep­re­sents ev­ery­one from Missy Hig­gins to Birds of Tokyo. Wat­son cites one of the young artists on his ros­ter, Dustin Teb­butt, who pro­duces his own records, cre­ates his own art­work and of­ten di­rects his own videos. “Pink Floyd just had to come up with one im­age every three years when they made a new al­bum [whereas] a new artist th­ese days com­mu­ni­cates daily with an au­di­ence in a vis­ual way on so­cial me­dia. For artists who have a strong vis­ual iden­tity, this is a great op­por­tu­nity for con­nec­tion. For those who think more mu­si­cally it can feel like do­ing their home­work and eat­ing their greens.”

Chore or op­por­tu­nity, it re­mains es­sen­tial to have a vis­ual pres­ence. “Art­work is just as im­por­tant, but in a dif­fer­ent way,” says Iain Shed­den, the Aus­tralian’s mu­sic writer. “The im­age that goes out now isn’t just on the cover of a CD, it’s ev­ery­where – on so­cial me­dia, on web­sites. It’s a mar­ket­ing tool more than ever. And it’s more im­me­di­ate. So a strong im­age can still have as much im­pact as it had when you were buy­ing it in a shop; peo­ple still need some­thing to be drawn to­wards, and that’s never go­ing to change.”

What has changed is the process of cre­at­ing that im­agery. Zawada is the for­mer cre­ative di­rec­tor of indie record la­bel Mod­u­lar Record­ings, where he cre­ated cov­ers for bands in­clud­ing Tame Im­pala, Wolf­mother and Ber­tie Black­man. Now he says he has to de-clut­ter his im­agery to work in a thumb­nail-sized space. “There’s a scale to a vinyl re­lease, but also a CD, where you can hide a lot of de­tail: you have a much big­ger can­vas to work on. Now it’s a lot more on text, so from the very be­gin­ning it’s al­ready at that tiny size, but you’re still try­ing to cre­ate some­thing that feels like an al­bum. It’s def­i­nitely a chal­lenge.” As much as mu­sic is evolv­ing with the times, so too will art­work progress. What re­mains is the sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship be­tween art and mu­sic. “What artists are seek­ing to do is cre­ate a piv­otal body of work that res­onates, and hav­ing a strong iden­tity is piv­otal to that,” says Wat­son. “Be­cause if you want some­thing to re­ally con­nect with peo­ple, it has to stand for some­thing, and vi­su­als are a big part of that.”

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