The best or worst years of an artist's career can be defined by a single square image. Album cover art is often the first step toward that album's reception — good or bad — and we often associate the sound with the visual. There's the Beatles' iconic White album The Beatles, famous for having nothing on the cover; Carly Simon's sensual black and white Playing Possum; and the Sex Pistol's bold yellow and pink Never Mind the Bollocks cover.
A good album cover becomes part of the cultural subconsciousness of music lovers, but a great album cover becomes intertwined with the band that created the music and those who love it. There are countless fans who have Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon cover, with its prism of light creating a rainbow, tattooed on their bodies.
But in the digital age, album covers are beginning to mean less and less. They are no longer 12 inch by 12 inch slim sleeves of cardboard that can be pulled off a shelf to be admired. They aren't even 4 inch by 4 inch inserts slipped into plastic CD cases. Album covers appear as tiny blips in the corner of the iTunes window, or on a streaming service scroll. They show up on our phones, and in the Twitter avatars of pop stars.
The digital age has changed the way album covers are created, designed, and thought about… But that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Designing an album cover, though, is more than the single square image. "What makes designing an album cover different," Greg Burke, the Creative Director for Atlantic Records tells me, "is the cohesive campaign that you put together, which is more of a campaign and a branding identity for that cycle than a single image."
Burke uses two examples in our conversation to explain how a good branding campaign might work in the digital age. The first is about color scheme: "You know those old red and white mint candies? Let’s say your single cover was this red and white mint candy. You want that first lyric video or music video to link back to this. The candy could be your opening frame for the video, for example." The second example he uses is a motif: If there's a wolf on your cover, you put one in the music video to tie everything together.
Package branding has always been a part of creating a good album campaign. An artist wants her tour merchandise to look like her album cover and for that to look like her number one video — whether she released her album in 1980 or 2014. An artist today still wants their work to create buzz the same way an artist in the 60s did, but the difference is that artists are no longer dependent on the album cover to do that for them.
Before the digital age of music, the album cover announced the tone, brand and influence a band hoped the album would have. It was — in most cases — the first glimpse of what a band's next step looked like. And that step was always a fully planned top-to-bottom album. iTunes and digital downloads have ushered in a new reality; music no longer depends on the full cohesive album the way the eras of vinyl, CDs and cassettes did. These days, it's not always the album cover announcing the branding for an artist's album.
Today it might be a first music video that announces an album's campaign. Or it might be the cover for a single that's released before the album, and has different art. Sometimes, the album cover still reigns as the defining case of branding for an album. Beyoncé's surprise-drop album Beyoncé, for example.
But more and more, the album cover is becoming just one element of a larger branding and marketing campaign, and not necessarily the image the campaign circulates around.
Think about the launch Taylor Swift's 1989 campaign, where she launched the first single "Shake it Off" in its music video form as well as the cover for her album. Her album cover was announced first, but it certainly wasn't the most popular image of the campaign — in fact a promotional shot — a photograph of her wearing sunglasses — was more heavily circulated than the Polaroid of her nose and sweatshirt, which was the cover art.
Though the album cover has become just one graphic in a series of many competing images, it still plays a very important, communicative role.
"Album cover design is commercial art, but has a slightly different role to fill than, say, the design of the label on a shampoo bottle," Jeff Kleinsmith, the art director for Sub Pop, tells me via email. "If the designer’s job is done well, then the cover gives the viewer a clue about what the musical part of the package will be like. It lends a visual element to the piece that helps explain to new listeners what this music is all about."
The first thing a good cover artist does is listen to the music."The number one thing is the music. The music is gonna sell it. The album art is a cherry on top," Burke told me.
"Some artists will have a great sense of self," Burke said, "They will come in with a fleshed-out idea and it’s just a matter of, 'let’s get a team together to work this out.'"
The music is the driving force, but Kleinsmith says: "It’s the perfect match of the right image for the right band making the right album at the right time. It’s not just a mater of setting out to make an iconic cover. A lot has to come together perfectly for it to reach iconic status."
Take Nirvana's iconic album cover for Nevermind.
"There are amazing covers for obscure bands and terrible 'iconic' covers for some of the biggest bands in the world," Kleinsmith says. "It’s hard to imagine Nirvana’s Nevermind cover reaching legendary status without the music that it was designed for."
Nevermind works for Nirvana's grunge rock, pissed-off sound. It's edgy, and a little offensive, but soft, like Kurt Cobain's flannel. Still, this album cover couldn't have been made without the backing of Nirvana's label, DGC Records. Photographing a baby underwater is the kind of thing a creative department helps make happen.
"50 years [ago] or more it wouldn’t have been at all uncommon for a band to not even see the final cover art for the first time until the album was already in the store. Over time bands began to have more say in their art," Kleinsmith explains.
Kleinsmith says the shift probably began sometime in the '70s and '80s as punk rock and DIY scenes began to converge on album art. Artists started wanting to have more of a say in what their album looked like and how it presented their work to the world. The democritization of design technology, though, also plays a huge role in how album design work is changing. "It used to be that “commercial artists” and “designers” were something akin to architects or stone masons or plumbers," Kleinsmith said. "There existed a wide chasm between us professionals and the general public (client) in terms of expertise.
Both creative directors I talked to heartily agree that though the fundamentals of design haven't changed with the rise of the digital age, some design elements certainly have. "I wouldn’t suggest a sub-par cover design just because the type is a little more readable in an iTunes library," Kleinsmith tells me. But what cover artists will suggest is certainly changing with technology.
"When we were creating something that we had a 12 inch square for, the sky was the limit. When you think about the 2 inch square, you think of things that strike you immediately," Burke says.
Burke mentions Cee Lo's "Fuck You" single. He says he's seeing a lot of bold colors and fonts that allow for an image to hit with immediate impact, instead of having to be studied. This makes sense when you think about how many images on the internet a cover has to compete with.
There are some simple rules that designers follow. If it's a new artist, for example, the 2 inch square listeners will see has to show the artist's face. That helps the artist get exposure.
"Right now, everything's looking digital. There are some artists that can do it really well but there’s also so much garbage out there," Burke says. "Right now, I think it’s a lot about simple, clean graphics. Those hold up really really well on the 2 inch square."
An example of this simple, fast, digital friendly cover is Drake's If You're Reading This, It's Too Late, from earlier this year. Hand-lettered on a stark white background, it holds up well on 2 inch squares and T-shirts alike.
Drake's album also worked because it evoked an instant response from viewers. The cover immediately became a meme — people used it as a template for jokes, helping to promote the album through their mimicry. That's a great design — one that can be copied endlessly without distorting the original.
"It really comes down to being creatively thinking in terms of what’s next," Burke says. "You want one of two things: Either you want the public to 1) really love it, or 2) aggressively hate it. That middle ground serves absolutely no purpose."
Sometimes, an artist will experiment with an extreme or hate-worthy single cover and go for a safer album cover. Nicki Minaj's "Anaconda" single cover is a great example: The eye-popping imagery for the single led to the music video, which generated public outcry — and lots of attention.
"Some of the things you do that people really hate end up being classic album covers," Burke says. "A lot of the stuff you look at you only know it because that artist is a huge legacy artist."
True: We remember the Clash's homage to Elvis Presley on London Calling. We remember Jim Morrison's distant stare on The Doors' self-titled album. We remember Marvin Gaye's passionate face and arms swinging on Let's Get it On. But we also remember the songs on these albums: The art on the cover was simply the front door, opening into music we loved, an album that resonated deeply with us.
Kleinsmith puts it this way: "I still think that at the end of the day, the album cover is a square shape that represents the music and band — and that hasn’t changed for forever."
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.