Considering the relationship between art and music in a digital age.
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. In this article, I’ll explore the relationship between music and artwork, detailing its importance in heightening the listener’s experience, but also, how artwork has changed and will continue to change in the digital age.
Relationship between Artwork and Music
Whilst it may appear that an album is centred around the music alone, the artwork adorning its sleeve is essentially the equivalent to a book’s front cover. As a result, artwork and music go hand in hand. The artwork serves as a portal into what the listener can expect from an album, and even what kind of musician lies behind the creativity. Strong album covers make a statement, because after all, this imagery is an opportunity to make the right first impression.
Take the George Condo painted artwork for Kanye West’s magnum opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which depicts the rapper, nude, straddled by an also naked winged creature. In an interview with The New Yorker, the artist claimed that the cover was in fact designed to create controversy and that West wanted “something that will be banned”. That’s exactly what happened, because the album’s striking cover was banned in the US. Despite its outlandish look, there’s more to the artwork that meets the eye. The lurid scene (coupled with the album’s title) toys with the concept of fame - a recurring theme on the album in which West explores its darker side.
Furthermore, the use of a single colour, can be enough to trigger a certain feeling or emotion. Nowadays, with such leaps in technology record manufacturers are able to produce a kaleidoscope of vinyls of all colours and patterns. Thus, the physical vinyl itself, becomes part of the artwork and in turn, part of the collective musical experience.
Evolution of Artwork
Before the Internet, music could only be purchased on a physical format, and therefore, packaging and the presentation of an album was paramount in ensuring its commercial success. Artists had a 12 by 12 inch cardboard canvas or a 4 by 4 inch plastic jewel case to embellish albums with artwork that would entice listeners to pull off a shelf to admire and ultimately buy. Nowadays, album and single covers appear as tiny squares on our music libraries and streaming sites. Yet, despite this miniaturisation, these visual aids still hold a relevance.
Do We Still Need Album Art?
As we have suggested, 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.
The sensation of touch is also something that enhances the listening experience. Despite the recent surge in music streaming sites, vinyl sales have continued to rise over the past five years or so, which has given artists the freedom to work on a larger canvas. Regardless, there’s something special and deeply personal about placing a 12” onto a turntable and listening to an album whilst having the sleeve at hand.
On most deluxe releases, artists tend to include accompanying artwork, photographs, lyrics booklets, all of which are designed for interaction. Even though album artwork is now (mostly) reduced to a tiny tile on our screens, it’s still such an important aspect of the creative process of creating a world for a particular album. So, in order to answer the question of whether we still need album art, I’ll leave you with a thought: imagine what it would be like, if all of the CD’s, Vinyls, digital albums you own, didn’t have any artwork on them.