“As the laws of physics suggest, you’ll see things before you hear them. That’s no different when it comes to listening to an album or song, as more often than not, before you press play, the first thing that will catch your attention, is the accompanying cover art.” (Shah, D. 2016.) Like lightning and thunder comes cover art and music, the art making an immidate first impression with the following rumble of the first track on the album. This is an exploration into the importance of visuals and music, how it has progressed and the graphic artists and illustrators who have kept things interesting for the people still care about producing groundbreaking and radical album art. Since Alex Steinweiss invented the album cover when he was hired as Columbia Records’ first art director in 1938, sound and aesthetic have united, enabling a somewhat magical experience for the audience. It was his undeniable passion for the subject which created the whole basis of a new graphic language when it came to record covers, “I love music so much and I had such ambition that I was willing to go way beyond what the hell they paid me for. I wanted people to look at the artwork and hear the music.” (Steinweiss, A., cited in Reagan, K. 2011.) Before this became an area of blossoming creativity, each piece of music would have typically been sold and packaged in a brown paper bag or blank sleeve. Once there was a new developed and specifically designed cover for a 78 rpm record, it created a whole other experience.
What goes into producing a radical piece of album artwork in the 21st Century has consequently been effected by mass production of music and consumerism. “You don’t have to be a neo-Marxist, or a street fighting, balaclava wearing No-Logo-er to know that modern consumer strategies are antithetical to experimentation and radicalism.” (Shaughnessy, A. for The Intro Corporation. 2003.) More so than ever, the mainstream record industry and the formula which goes into creating a piece of popular music meant for the Top 20, has become so exact and monotonous with each girl group and indie boy singer branded to perfection. And now, to the delight of the fame obsessed, album art has become a platform to furthermore promote celebrity culture. It is easy and familiar, and the masses adore what is familiar to them. This has quite a large connection with the theory of standardisation, “for is not Art, in its very essence, the free expression of an unfettered soul, undefiled by the rules and proscriptions of that pedantic and hamstrung exactitude which Standardisation postulates?” (Lomb, Henry. 1928.) Music holds itself so high as an art form in every single persons life, it is one of the easiest creative forces that all human beings may have a connection with. In history it is said that the five main classical forms of art were painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and poetry. But not every person likes every type of music, and so we have chart topping tunes all written by the same method, satisfying what people need or want at that moment in time. “It would be naïve to think that record companies were once benign organisations solely preoccupied with releasing high quality music and the unselfish development of talent. It’s always been a ruthless business, full of sharp operators who saw that easy money could be made from us gullible punters craving the next pop sensation.” (Shaughnessy, A., 2008.) Another factor linked with the rarity in mainstream music of progressive album artwork, is the issue of digital downloads and piracy. In this cyber age of music, things have changed. Up until the last 15 or so years, with each piece of music purchased, the packaging played a major part in customer satisfaction. Now, it is less likely that people would take such pride in visiting a store and purchasing a record or CD to hold and enjoy, “yet despite the inexorable process of conglomeration that threatens to engulf the record industry, remarkable and brilliant covers still appear under the imprint of major labels.” (Shaughnessy, A. for The Intro Corporation. 2003.) A great example of this would be that of Björk, who has collaborated with the likes of Nick Knight and Alexander McQueen, masters in their field. With every album cover Björk has managed to create beautifully thought out and delicate images, telling stories of passion, love and drama. This is a rare find in the vast space that is the mainstream music industry, but it is when you take time to dig through the channels and sift out greatness, what can be found are artists and musicians creating innovatory sounds, matched up with extremely talented artists, designers and illustrators who continue to push the boundaries for todays contemporary album art.
Whether it be an album and its cover, a music video or a graphic poster for an event or concert, visuals are so important for creating excitement. It sets the scene and creates a mood or atmosphere for the world in which the artist is trying to place their music. “Music is not just an auditory experience. It’s a multi-sensory affair which triggers all kinds of feelings and emotions. When listening to music, we want to feel a certain way, to be transported to an entirely different place, and an album’s sleeve, can help to do that.” (Shah, D. 2016.) Contemporary sleeve design is about being playful, and an interesting example of music creating its own insane environment, while aided by the artwork, is DJ and producer Sophie. As mentioned, music is a multi-sensory affair, and no one does this better than Sophie. Tracks such as Hard and Lemonade sound as though you could actually touch it. It sparkles, squelches, bubbles, bangs and seethes, like soft rubber or hard plastic. Sophie herself perfectly describes the music in an interview with Bomb Magazine, “I think it would be extremely exciting if music could take you on the same sort of high-thrill 3-minute ride as a theme park roller coaster. Where it spins you upside down, dips you in water, flashes strobe lights at you, takes you on a slow incline to the peak, and then drops you vertically down a smokey tunnel, then stops with a jerk, and your hair is all messed up, and some people feel sick, and others are laughing—then you buy a key ring.” (Russel, L., and Sophie. 2012.) The eight track debut album Product, was a compilation of singles released between 2013 and 2015. With each single release was accompanying cover art, all the images were of 3D rendered water slides, except one, the artwork for L.O.V.E., which shows a bright pink blow up pool float in the shape of a very adorable ant. Each cover signifying the trip it is about to take you on and the sensation you should experience. “To mirror the rubbery and synthetic textures of his candied electronic glitches and twitches, the producer decided to use silicon, instead of the traditional jewel case, to package the discs.” (Shah, D. 2016.) This is an artist who has considered every aspect of production available while creating and packaging music.
“So what is this role of the contemporary radical album cover? A playground for the super indulgent graphic designers or an experimental terrain for mapping out the future shape of graphic design.” (Shaughnessy, A. for The Intro Corporation. 2003.) Graphic designer and illustrator, Bráulio Amado has produced a vast number of incredibly creative outcomes due to his rule of being as spontaneous as possible while working. He had studied and been interested in designing, but it was after receiving a scholarship at School of Visual Arts that he moved his learning to New York, which is when things began to blossom. While living and working he began producing event posters for different clubs and music events across the city. He quickly discovered he had a passion for it, due to the fact the work could be as free as he wanted it to be, “he has doused the place with kerosene and gone to work with a blowtorch. Everything you shouldn’t do is here. Type stretched barely, then distorted beyond recognition, amorphous shapes airbrushed into dimension, and freak-ish cartoon characters promoting jazz. It’s DIY punk with a sumptuos colour palette.” (Gall, J. for Amado, B.) After some time, he was hired to design each poster for the upcoming house and techno nights in the club Good Room in Brooklyn.
His book 2016, reveals a vast collection of every event poster he had done that year in chronlogical order. In an interview with Design Boom, Amado further explains why he loves creating these posters and how it can add to the overall feeling of anticipation when attending a show, “I like to feel that the poster sets the tone for what you are about to experience and makes you even more excited to see a performance from a band or someone you already felt excited about.” (Butler, A., and Amado, B. 2015.) Along with the ongoing development of gig posters, today Amado has produced over thirty record covers for varying artists. He has a totally fresh perspective on design and it is hard not to get lost in the untamed typography, colours and illustrations. Music clearly has a major influence in his life and on his career, making him one of many considered radical record cover designers. Below are the two covers for Frank Ocean’s singles, Lens and Provider. They are undeniably bold, while maintaining that key element of playfulness. “Carrying through Ocean’s request to reference the Kerry James Marshall painting A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, also allows the final product to exist on multiple levels of joy and discovery.” (McLaughlin, A., 2018.)
Another way for artistic creativity to blossom in the music industry is through smaller and independent record labels, “visual artists’ record labels, simulate real commercial enterprises, starting with their visual identity. Design plays a major role.” (Spampinato, F. 2015.) Morr Music is an independent record label based in Berlin and was set up by Thomas Morr. The majority of the artists who have joined the label can be linked with the interesting genres that are, ‘intelligent dance music’, dreampop and electronica. With independent record labels, it seems important to maintain a strong visual identity, “in some cases, the graphics immmediately recall the musical genre of the label.” (Spampinato, F. 2015.) With each release at Morr Music, is a piece of artwork which reflects the label and its artists, resulting in the admirable unity of sound and visuals.
Another notable independent record label is Gold Standard Laboratories which sadly came to an end in 2007 while based in Los Angeles. The Locust, a band who were signed with them at the time, produced several interesting vinyls with accompanying cover art, but it was the thought gone into the actual design of the pressed record which shows true artistic radicalism. Below are two different productions by The Locust, cleverly put together, the image on the right features “colours which represent human bodily fluids: blood, feces, milk, mucus and urine.” (Roettinger, B., 2010.)
Although people are purchasing less physical records and CDs in the modern day, the undeniable significance of the link between music and its artwork is still being kept alive by so many artists who continue to map out the growth of underground production for sleeve design, event posters and within independent labels. The artwork is there to help bring across a new meaning or enhance the sound of the music being played. It is all about discovery into the artists headspace and where their head may have been at while producing an album or single, but most of all it is fun. “Contemporary sleeve design is not only about brick throwing and rebellion. It is also about playfulness. And playfulness is one of the primary reasons why graphic designers are drawn to working with small labels and radical musicians. After all we are talking about music packaging here, not the life-or-death realities of road signage, medicine packaging or airline safety instruction cards.” (Shaughnessy, A. for The Intro Corporation. 2003.)
♥ Amado, Bráulio. 2017. 2016. Portugal. Stolen Books.
♥ Lomb, Henry. 1928. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science
Vol. 137. Standards in Industry. pp. 176-180.
♥ Reagen, Kevin. 2011. Alex Steinweiss: The Inventor of the Modern Album Cover. Köln. Taschen.
♥ Roettinger, Brian. 2010. Touchable Sound: A Collection of 7-Inch Records from the USA. New York. Soundscreen Design.
♥ Shaughnessy, Adrian. 2008. Cover Art by: New Music Graphics. London. Laurence King Publishers.
♥ Spampinato, Francesco. 2015. Can You Hear Me? Music Labels by Visual Artists. Eindhoven. Onomatopee.
♥ The Intro Corporation, Introductory essay by Shaughnessy, Adrian. 2003. Radical Album Cover Art. Sampler 3. London. Lawrence King Publishing.