Once upon a time, getting to know an album cover was an intimate thing. Whether on CD, vinyl, or cassette, buying an album always felt like an event. After ripping off the (always impossible) cellophane wrapper and pressing play, you then sized up the cover art. When it was good (and sometimes even when it wasn’t) the art often gave more meaning to the music itself. You might have pinned favorite covers to your bedroom wall. In time, your liner notes became creased from hours spent studying lyrics. When you think about certain albums, even years later, the impression is not only of the music, but also the corresponding images. Together, these two components elevated many albums from memorable to mythical.
This special attention to art produced many indelible covers in the golden era of dance music albums, from the crab ready for combat on The Prodigy’s The Fat of the Land to Fatboy Slim’s infamous “I’m #1 Why Try Harder” kid on You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby. Now, the relationship most of us have with an album cover rarely goes deeper than clicking on a thumbnail to see a high res version. Oftentimes the entire visual component of a project is reduced to nothing more than a tracklist on a screen.
What then, is the point of cover art in the digital world? While the cover has remained an essential component for many artistically inclined musicians, album art in the digital age is often more about function than form, as such images have become marketing tools used to move units, help artists establish an online identity, and create a more unified experience for fans.
“It’s kind of a paradox, because the album cover as an art form and a vital aspect of the release is fading,” says Scott Hansen, who is more broadly known as Tycho, “but at the same time, the visual image of your brand as an artist is more important than ever.”
Indeed, modern musicians have lost a certain amount of control over their artistic identities because anyone can post photos of them online. A strong image used across all official platforms can create brand cohesiveness and help artists rise above the clutter. This is now a primary role of album art, as artists use their cover image to create a singular identity across websites, social channels, and streaming services.
“I always feel like it’s important to have that consistency during the first year of the release, where it’s a unified visual front used to represent the whole thing, and it ties into the album cover, and shirts, and everything else,” Hansen says. A former graphic designer, Hansen created the much-celebrated covers for his albums Dive and Awake.
This is not to say that the image itself no longer matters. While cover art is an afterthought for some, many artists still put in the effort to make a thoughtful visual representation of the music. The art for Porter Robinson’s Worlds was an elaborate extension of the his new musical vision. For his recently released album Occult Classic, Kill the Noise (aka Jake Stanczak) tapped Mexico-born, Vancouver-based artist Cesar Martinez to create an image that would visually represent the album’s more nuanced sounds.
“It was a very deep concept,” Martinez says of the cover, a digitally rendered image that evokes the look of an oil painting and incorporates a variety of religious iconography. “We tried to stay away from the original skull and two diamonds Kill the Noise image and do something different. The way he produced his tracks was different, more organic than before, and we used the art to portray that.”
While some covers are a labor of love, for some artists the creation process isn’t much more than printing their name and album title in big font and making sure everything is spelled correctly. Such basic images—big faces, simple text, bold color schemes—are now often the most effective, as they catch the eye of users who are digitally interfacing with the tiny versions of the art.
Such images also serve as launch pads for marketing teams. Swedish House Mafia’s three dot motif and Disclosure’s sketched Settle faces are both striking, simple images that have since become synonymous with the artists and have been used in massive marketing campaigns.
“That said, there are still beautiful covers that are made,” says Lawrence Lui, Senior Director of Marketing at Island Records. “The cover for the new Grimes album is a real piece of art; it’s a really strong image and creates another impression for fan. That’s what music is about right now, especially because there’s so much music coming out every day.”
Indeed, modern music, especially dance music, moves quickly and can often feel disposable, especially when there’s no visual component to give it more emotional resonance.
“The fact that people can see and touch it is just different,” says Martinez, who notes his excitement upon learning his Kill the Noise cover might eventually be printed. “You feel more connected to the music on a different level. I remember every single CD I used to have, while I don’t remember all the albums I’ve downloaded.”
Hansen agrees. “Once they went down to CDs and mini discs and started to diminish,” he says, “I really felt like I became disconnected from the music in some ways. The ephemeral nature of digital files and MP3s came in and made it seem more disposable.”
The desire for something lasting and tangible has led to the resurgence of vinyl and its large-scale cover art. According to CNBC, vinyl sales are currently at a 35-year high. Simultaneously, tech innovators are developing new ways to make the digital art experience more meaningful.
With his project Whitestone, Netherlands-based designer Roey Tsemah and his team are developing an online platform musicians can use to create interactive editions of albums and videos, similar to what Arcade Fire did for their video for “The Wilderness Downtown,” which used Google maps to personalize each viewing experience. Currently in development, Whitestone will allow fans to subscribe to an artist’s interactive channel and make micro-donations on content they like.
“Five or ten years from now, I don’t think music is just going to be playlists,” Tsemah says. “It doesn’t make sense. It’s like listening to the radio through television.”
Those who might bemoan the fact that cover art has seemingly been reduced to little more than a marketing tool should consider that covers have always been good for business. Graphic designer Alex Steinweiss, who is credited with creating the album cover in 1939, found that sales of vinyl singles went up by 800 percent when they were sold with cover art. Ultimately, cover art, when done well, creates value by allowing fans enjoy the project on a deeper level.
“Now more than ever it’s important to focus on the cover, what it means to the music and what it’s going to mean to people who consume the music,” Hansen says. “With everything moving so fast, if you can catch people and make a connection visually and with sound, that can be very powerful.”