THE ART OF MUSIC
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.”