Album art­work just might sur­vive in the down­load age

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion -

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

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