Debate still rages over whether vinyl actually sounds better, but one thing’s for sure: it definitely looks better.
At vinyl’s peak, 12” album covers used to line the walls of listeners’ rooms like paintings. And some of them actually were paintings. But it wasn’t just the front covers that would bring the listening experience to life, it was the back covers too. And sometimes the bits in the middle.
These elements of design were intended to complement the music and add another level to the overall album experience. No matter how good album artwork is in the digital era, it just isn’t the same when all of this elaborate artwork is replaced by a tiny thumbnail.
So with vinyl making a big comeback, will album art become more integral to music once again?
Just how important was album artwork in the ‘golden age’ of vinyl?
From the elaborate nature of some album packages in the 60s and 70s, it seems that occasionally an album’s artwork was just as important as the music it came with.
Take the cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for example. There’s iconic image on the front, in which the Beatles stand in front of a Peter Blake collage of influential figures. But pull out the insert and you’ll find a cutouts of the band, Sgt Pepper himself, and a life-size moustache so you can dress up and play along yourself. Fifty years on, while Peter Blake artwork continues to fill galleries, former Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr have worked with other artists on decidedly less iconic album covers.
Other overblown album covers from vinyl’s heyday include Isaac Hayes’ Black Moses, which folds out into an almost-life-sized, cross-shaped image of Hayes, arms outstretched, in full Moses garb and aviators.
Did digital downloads kill artwork?
In contrast to these album packages, digital music only comes with one small thumbnail image. Despite this, many musicians have strived to give their albums high quality covers.
James Blake enlisted Quentin Blake (no relation, sadly) to draw the cover for The Colour in Anything. Lady Gaga worked with Jeff Koons for her ARTPOP album cover, which follows up her Heat Vision and Jack-inspired Born This Way cover. Outside of the mainstream, several Heavy Metal bands have used Sebastian Kruger artwork as their album covers, with the veteran Rock portraitist drawing on his knowledge of Rock ‘n’ Roll imagery.
These are admirable efforts to create great cover art, but album art is still nowhere near as prominent it was. Like many things (including rapping, tweeting, and naming children) perhaps Kanye West did it best. The non-existent artwork for Yeezus served as an “open casket” to the CD format. But perhaps it also served as an open casket for the importance of album artwork.
Has the return of records brought album art back?
Now we are buying more records than we were in the 90s, is album artwork finally making the comeback that fans of both looking and listening have been dreaming of?
There are some signs that it is. David Bowie’s final humous album Blackstar had a simple-enough cover design, but if you take it outside you will see it transformed by the sunlight. Jack White has released a string of delightfully gimmicky LPs, such as Lazaretto, which creates the image of a spinning angel in the middle when you play it. The music-buying public were clearly receptive to this: Lazaretto was the biggest-selling record since 1991.
But despite the huge increase in vinyl sales, most people still prefer streaming. No matter how much artistry musicians put into their LP covers, most listeners will only see the tiny thumbnail of the front cover as they listen on Spotify. Perhaps for artwork to return to its central place in music, a different approach is needed.
Maybe we don’t need large wax discs to put the art back into music. Since streaming services don’t seem to be going away anytime soon, perhaps there is a way they can be involved in extended album artwork’s comeback.
Spotify recently made headlines for hosting a Selena Gomez video in vertical format, only viewable via the Spotify mobile app. This shows that Spotify is interested in exploring the visual capabilities of its app. Maybe, then, instead of the simple dull backgrounds and album front covers, streaming apps could incorporate extra artwork that would normally be found on the back or inside cover of an LP into the listening experience on the app.
iTunes tried it once with digital booklets, but this was a failed experiment. Album visuals need catch up with the way we listen to music today. This way, artwork could rise again, but in an entirely new way, alongside the return of our beloved vinyl.