Album artwork just might survive in the download age
ith their tinted black-andwhite photographs and sans-serif typeset, the album covers from the legendary Blue Note jazz label are the highwater point in the often neglected world of album art. In the 1950s and 1960s, album art was almost considered to be as important as the music. This was a time when even Salvador Dali did an album cover (for Jackie Gleason’s
So did a then-unknown artist named Andy Warhol.
The 12-inch-by-12-inch vinyl album was a suitably sized “canvas” for artists, and you still come across people who will buy albums from the 1950s and immediately toss the record – the artwork is a more desirable artifact in itself.
Up through the most-cited examples of iconic album artwork
album art had one last stand with the magnificent Peter Saville designs for the Factory label. But by Duran Duran’s time, when MTV was the pre-eminent marketing format, album art work came a poor second to music videos. The CD format killed off album art, although right up into the 1990s labels such as 4AD were intent on restoring album art work to something approaching its 1950s glory days (see all those Red House Painters and This Mortal Coil vinyl covers).
With the digital revolution, album art was compressed even further; now it’s just a jpeg thumbnail. And it’s not only the artwork that’s been sacrificed on the digital altar: there’s also the liner notes, the lyrics, the additional photographs and whatever else could be fitted into the physical package.
There is hope. Some music designers are reinventing album art for the digital age, and there are promising new technologies capable of giving fans all the bells and whistles in a digital package. For a Gnarls Barkley release, for example, Warners did up an electronic package that enabled digital listeners to download an Adobe program. This allowed them to scroll through lyrics, liner notes and view the full album artwork.
There was also a pioneering move by Death Cab for Cutie on the iTunes site. For the release of their album, you could pay an extra $3 (¤1.80) on the US iTunes site. As well as the digital album, you received bonus tracks, some QuickTime “making of the album” videos and a pdf “digital booklet” with the album’s artwork.
The technology for putting these digital booklets up on MP3 sites isn’t complicated, but so far the major labels have resisted its inclusion as either a standard or optional add-on. That could be because there is little consumer demand for the booklets, or simply because nobody is aware of their existence.
Digital packaging is a growing area but, as with everything new in the music industry, no one really seems to know how best to use it, how to charge for it, and how to bring it to mainstream attention.
Certainly, most musicians would favour it as a standard inclusion. Many feel that all the things that used to come free with the physical CD but are now treated as extras in the digital age add to the completeness of a release.
In Japan, where digital music is more advanced than in the West, Warner was able to launch its “Wamo” service. This allows mobile phone music downloaders to access a “mobile music bundle” (a package of audio, video, graphic and text content) that includes everything associated with a physical CD as well as exclusive videos, artist interviews, live show dates etc.
Wamo will become the industry standard for the next generation of digital albums – or at least for mobile phone downloads. But only if iTunes adapts it for the computer download sector will album art be truly rehabilitated.
Time in an album: Salvador Dali, Blue Note, Red House Painters