Album cover art in the digital age
We’ve all heard of ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. But is the same true for albums? Tilly Attrill examines their meaning and importance within the industry, from vinyl to digital.
We all have favourite album covers. I am (sadly) one of those people who buy vinyl – despite not owning a record player – to display the artwork around my bedroom. Currently gracing my walls are an ABBA greatest hits collection and an extremely sun-damaged copy of Shura’s debut, Nothing’s Real. Album artwork can convey a sense of what’s to come before we even press play. But as most of us listen to music by shuffling playlists with the tap of a screen, is album artwork still a significant part of the listening experience?
Covers are, unfortunately, no longer an essential feature of albums
Most of us consume music digitally, either through downloads or using services such as Spotify, which in 2020 boasted 165 million premium subscribers. Artwork no longer acts as a form of packaging for the music we listen to, as it is hardly glimpsed at in the split-second decisions we make trying to find a tune on our phones.
Covers are, unfortunately, no longer an essential feature of albums. Despite the popularity of streaming services, however, physical music sales are still sizeable. Vinyl has had somewhat of a renaissance, as evidenced by events such as the annual ‘Record Store Day’ during which several exclusive records are pressed and sold in independent stores all over the world. Vinyl allows us to see the artwork in greater detail than we could ever imagine on a tiny phone screen. As vinyl sales have overtaken that of CDs, releasing multiple vinyl editions during an album’s era has become almost common practice. Fans of artists such as Lorde and Olivia Rodrigo can choose between colourful, translucent, and store-exclusive vinyls. I would argue that these trends highlight that album artwork is still important, if not more important than ever. Vinyls, CDs, and even cassette tapes have become items for fans to collect, enhancing their connection with the artist’s body of work.
Vinyls, CDs and even cassette tapes have become items for fans to collect, enhancing their connection with the artist’s body of work
My favourite album covers help distinguish the music I am about to listen to from the artist’s previous work without breaking the thread that marks their stylistic evolution. Whether it’s a painting, a photograph, or even just a simple text-based cover, the artwork becomes a signifier for an album’s era. The colours, fonts, and corresponding visuals released during an album run come together to represent the sonic landscape that an artist has created, adding further dimensions to the listening experience.
For me, one musician whose artwork corresponds beautifully with their albums’ sonic worlds is FKA Twigs. From EP2, M3LL155X, and LP1 to the cover of her 2019 album MAGDALENE, Twigs highlights the powerful vulnerability that exists within her sound through her slightly distorted and minimal album covers.
Magdalene, FKA Twigs (left) – how i’m feeling now, Charli XCX (right)
The cover of how i’m feeling now by Charli XCX, another favourite of mine, captures the exact context in which the album was created – a DIY project produced in self-isolation at the start of the pandemic. The cover shows Charli lying on a bed holding a camcorder, and although she looks more put together than I did at any point during the pandemic’s early stages, the artwork invokes the same sense of isolation and yearning that the album conveys. The lyrics ‘all my friends are invisible / twenty-four seven miss ‘em all’ in the song ‘Anthems’ effortlessly capture what we all felt during this time.
There have been several album releases that I have put off listening to because I didn’t click with the artwork straight away or wasn’t drawn into the world being presented to me. When I eventually press play, however, I realise that I probably shouldn’t have judged the album by its cover. Even though I, like many people, stream almost all of my music, album art remains an integral part of my listening experience. The artwork acts as a first glimpse into the album’s world and the artist’s consciousness. Often, covers become synonymous with the album itself – who hasn’t listened to Melodrama by Lorde in a moody and theatrical fashion similar to her depiction on the cover?