Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Lost Art of Album Art

A couple years ago I was in a used clothing store, and I was happy to find a bin of old vinyl records for $0.50 each. I did not have a record player (and still don't, unfortunately), but I thought my good friend (and co-founder of People of the Future) Andrew would like them, so I picked up a few.  One of the albums in the box was Stand Up by Jethro Tull.  Stand Up was an album I had enjoyed for several years prior, but I only possessed it in digital form.  When I opened up the record I found something I did not expect:

Ok, maybe it's not that cool (it was 1969, after all), but it felt odd that I had liked the album for a while, and had been missing out on part of the experience the entire time. That's not to say that a paper pop-out of the band "standing up" is essential to enjoying the album, but I do enjoy little quirks.

It does raise a larger question about album art in general, and how important it is (or should be) to us as listeners.  Album art, is of course, is a natural and foreseeable product of the record industry.  If you need to put a record in a piece of cardboard, you might as well make it look pretty.  Musicians really went to town with this, and in some cases the artwork is just as iconic as the actual music contained on the record.

King Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson King comes to mind:

Not only does the album cover get your attention, but most people would agree when they hear the opening riff of "21st Century Schizoid Man" that the cover pretty accurately describes the character of the music.

I personally enjoy album art that relates to the music in some profound way. Consider Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here.  The two themes of the album were 1) the experience of losing someone to mental illness, and 2) the band's criticisms of the music industry.  These two themes intersected in the story of Syd Barrett, and the album's cover powerfully conveys the message of the music:

One can also take a different approach, and choose a cover that deliberately has nothing to do with the music.  This was the process behind Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother where graphic designer Storm Thorgerson was reportedly instructed to take a photograph of whatever he wanted, which ended up being a cow in a pasture:

It is my feeling that album covers featuring pictures of the artists are not as memorable, but of course, there are notable exceptions:

Well, this has certainly been fun reminiscing about the late 60s and early 70s, but now what?  I believe that in 10 to 15 years discs will largely disappear, and so what does that mean for the future of album art?  In the iTunes/Amazon MP3 age albums still have a picture associated with them, but you need to put on your reading glasses to make it out.  One could have the greatest album cover ever, and most people will only see it displayed as a 1 inch by 1 inch display on their ipods.  It's discouraging.

There are, of course, many good reasons to get rid of discs.  For one, they are terribly inefficient.  I consider myself an environmentalist, and to me it makes no sense to create plastic discs and ship them across the world when we could transmit the same information digitally. I do not have any hard numbers on this, but it stands to reason there would be considerable savings by replacing discs altogether, and markets will inevitably want to do things as cheaply as possible.  Radiohead reportedly considered releasing their album In Rainbows in a digital-only format, but ultimately rejected this idea over concerns that not all fans would have access to the material. I personally think this will become less of an issue as internet access for the general population improves, but it is definitely something to think about for the time being. Ironically, Radiohead, as far as modern bands go, tends to be quite focused on album art.  One wonders how they will react to a future that is based upon digital-only releases.

Some have noticed that MP3 files do technically have a lower quality than compact discs.  This is certainly true, but one wonders if the general public really cares that much.  I consider myself to an audio person for the most part, but I admit I cannot tell the difference between a CD audio file and an MP3 encoded at 256 kbps. That is not to say I think the distinction is unimportant.  (I'm sure I'll write about this issue soon). In any case, I think that improvements in bandwidth and increases in hard drive space will mean that in the next few years you will see a shift toward a sale of lossless audio files.

It is worth questioning why there should be such a thing as album art at all.  For most of music history it would seem that musical compositions were not generally tied to a specific piece of visual art created for the purposes of promoting the work. (I could certainly be wrong about this, and it sounds like an interesting topic for research).  Either way, we do not now usually associate classical compositions with a piece of "cover art" per se.  One could make the argument that an album with no cover is actually a restoration to what music should have been all along: an absolute statement divorced from any interpretive device.  Why should music be anything more than simply what you make of it?  Consider the line spoken by Fran Drescher's character in the spoof rock documentary This is Spinal Tap: "You think the cover is the reason an album sells?  What about the White Album?  There was nothing on that cover!"

But now the lid is off the box.  Some past albums are so associated with their cover trying to separate the two would be ridiculous.  (Leave it to xkcd to demonstrate this point).  Going forward, it is a different story. Album art came about because it was necessary.  Can we convince ourselves that it is still necessary even though we no longer have cardboard to decorate?  Even if we do not need album art, I think simply liking it is a good enough reason to keep it.  I'm willing to let the fiction go forward if you are.

And don't forget to eat a peach for peace.  Cheers.

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