Are these the laziest album covers ever?
Once iconic in their own right, pored over and much loved by consumers, album covers have become collector’s items – and neither labels nor artists seem to care what’s on the cover, writes UNA MULLALLY
YOU PROBABLY haven’t listened to Smash Song Hitsby Rodgers and Hart lately. It’s a record that remains rarely heard, despite being one of the most influential albums of all time – not for the music, but for the world’s first album cover.
Alex Steinweiss was 22 when he fell into a job as art director at Columbia Records, then a new division of the Columbia Broadcasting System. He was meant to focus on advertising materials but in 1940, aged 23, he designed the cover art for Smash Song Hits,thinking music buyers would be more drawn to records if the brown paper bags they had previously been wrapped in were replaced with something a little more eyecatching. Columbia agreed and, when sales of the album jumped 900 per cent, they knew they were on to a winner. So did the rest of the industry and pretty soon every label was copying Steinweiss’ innovation. Eight years later, when Columbia introduced the LP format, Steinweiss designed a prototype for LP cover art and packaging along with “box set” cover art (33 RPM records and shellac). He came up with the simple solution of a cardboard jacket covered with paper upon which you could print a design – more or less what is used today.
But there is now a growing feeling that album covers simply don’t matter any more and, as a result, labels, and artists themselves – especially younger artists who grew up downloading music rather than unfolding album sleeves – aren’t bothering with creating iconic images – once the mainstay of classic albums.
While albums such as Nirvana’s Nevermind, Mezzanineby Massive Attack, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Bandby The Beatles or The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingersautomatically evoke images of a swimming baby, a stag beetle, the most famous group photo ever and a denim crotch shot, respectively, hands up who can describe the cover art of recent albums by Adele, Tinie Tempah, Kings Of Leon, Radiohead or whoever else has had a smash over the past 12 months?
The culprit is an obvious one. The supremacy of digital downloads is erasing the importance of album cover art, which has been relegated to an inch-wide image on a screen.
Why would labels arrange two-day long album cover photoshoots and inject tonnes of creative energy into something that is no longer noticed? For a while in the 2000s, major record labels scrambled for ways of making people buy music legally, but instead of focusing on injecting more thought and creativity into packaging and artwork, all they could come up with were short-term gimmicks: Albums on USB sticks, download codes on sunglasses and new phones coming with albums already installed. There was lots of focus on flimsy publicity devices, but little on art, as the idea of creating a brilliant cover was gradually sidelined.
Michael Roe, co-owner of the Richter Collective, Ireland’s top independent record label, believes the importance of cover art is waning, as labels use artwork and packaging as something to pitch to collectors instead of mass production of an iconic image.
Roe is also the drummer with Adebisi Shank, the band behind one of the best Irish album covers in recent times, that of their 2010 album This is the Second Album of a Band Called Adebisi Shankwhich, says Roe, features “a zebra running across a Tron landscape”.
“It’s definitely important for the artwork to reflect the music,” says Roe. “With that Adebisi record, when we first received the artwork we thought it was the most ridiculous thing we’d ever seen . . . but after a couple of minutes we knew it worked.” From a label point of view, Roe believes two things have become more important than cover art: creative packaging and a good “packshot”, the digital image you get with a download. “Packshots are essential for branding a particular release,” Roe says, “You just have to do something nice digitally. The whole artwork thing is more and more becoming something for collectors . . . I remember as a kid all my favourite albums, you’d see the front and automatically think of all the tunes, but there are a lot of albums now I couldn’t even tell you what the artwork is. It’s less and less important for a lot of people, and a lot of famous albums – stuff like The Black Album – would be slightly redundant with the packshot.”
One of the most anticipated albums of the year, Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, has fallen victim to an attempt to recreate iconography. Gaga is in love with the old school elements of the music industry, still paying special attention to epic music videos (her new one for Judas lasting seven minutes and costing $10 million airs on E! today), but made a colossal mistake in trying to “bring back artwork” with her latest album. The Nick Knight shot cover was initially perceived as a joke by many of her fans thanks to the naff chrome font and the ridiculous image of Lady Gaga as a cross between a 1980s banshee and a motorbike.
In buzzband-land there’s mystery surrounding the upcoming release of one of the most blogged about bands around, Washed Out. The debut album from Ernest Greene (aka Washed Out) features a rather sexy photo of a couple in bed. Cosmopolitanmagazine thought it was sexy too, because they printed the image as a stock photo under the headline ‘Is This the Most Satisfying Sex Position?’ So either Washed Out awaits a backlash for not even being pushed to get an original shot for his record, or Cosmo is nicking indie albums to illustrate their pages.
While cover art will always act as an arena within which an artist can create headline-grabbing controversy (as Kanye West tried by spreading a rumour that Wal-Mart banned his cover of a George Condo painting of him on a couch with a naked phoenix), the album cover and packaging are now the preserve of “collectors” – people who buy the physical product, previously known as “consumers”. In the interim, ironic artwork (Best Coast and Klaxons like cats; MGMT, Beastie Boys, The Strokes and MIA go for pixelated imagery and computer graphic-influenced gaudiness) will prevail for the cool kids; nondescript blandness works for Arctic Monkeys, whose Suck it and Seeis one of the laziest pieces of album artwork in recent memory, with a blank cover and small, plain text; there is Kings Of Leon’s back-of-a-coaster-from-a-derelict-Floridian-stripclub effort for Come Around Sundown; and soft focus staring-at-the-ground photos seem to be the only game in town for female artists. The cover is dead, long live the packshot.