A world without album covers seems difficult to imagine. When many of us think of our favorite albums, one of the first things that come to mind is, in fact, the album art. But with the death of the physical distribution of music and more media available to use for advertising, one might be inclined to think that the traditional album cover is perhaps going out of style. These days, thanks to digitalization and the streaming takeover, the album artwork is mostly reduced to a small thumbnail that accompanies an artist’s music, and as such, is often relegated to the back of our minds. But no matter how well an album or a song paints a perfect picture, it still needs to define the first stroke on the canvas.
A Brief History
In the early days of music distribution, records were typically sold in brown paper or cardboard sleeves, while black vinyl was simply put into plain grey sleeves. The only intriguing part of any record was the music itself. There was no way of knowing what the record might sound or feel like except by listening to it. Research into the subject shows that the first “album” was invented by German record company Odeon, who distributed Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite on four double-sided discs and sold them packaged together. The earliest work of album art, however, came about when Columbia Records hired its first art director, Alex Steinweiss, circa 1938. Steinweiss pioneered the idea of an album having its own cover to better capture a potential listener’s attention. Taking a photographer with him, they went to New York’s Imperial Theatre to photograph letters that spelled out ‘Smash Song Hits by Rodgers & Hart’. This turned out to be the first album cover recorded in world history and began the tradition of decorated album covers that we know today.
In a world where listeners no longer need to walk into a CD or vinyl record store to sift through albums, it would seem that the album cover’s importance has been greatly diminished. But streaming culture hasn’t destroyed the need for album art. On the contrary — it has made it even more important.
Streaming Services And Dwindling Attention Spans
We all know the popular saying “never judge a book by its cover”, and many might argue that the same should apply to music. After all, listening to music is primarily an auditory experience, and as such, nothing is more important than the quality of the sound itself. Nevertheless, we also know that people do judge books by their covers, and certainly do the same with music. In fact, our cluttered, visually-dense social media timelines have created an environment in which we judge a ‘book’ by its cover several times a day.
Studies have shown that we’re living in a time when our attention spans are considerably low. And if an artist or musician wants to stand out from the crowd, they have to come up with elaborate new visual “hooks” to catch the viewer’s eye within seconds, since people only have that amount of time to be instantly attracted to what they see before scrolling on to the next thing. For decades, the cover artwork’s main purpose was to compete for attention with other albums on the same rack in the store. Now, not only does an album’s art have to compete with other covers from around the globe, it also has to stand out next to memes, innumerable selfies, TikTok challenges, animal videos, and everything else vying for attention on crowded timelines!
For upcoming artists that don’t have a big name or solid fan base yet, capturing the attention of listeners can be a daunting, but crucial task, and even the more popular artists still have to make the effort to retain the attention they have already garnered. When it comes to streaming services like Spotify (for example), the numbers are mind-boggling and go a long way in helping us understand the importance of impactful, well-considered album art. Take, for instance, the statistics that show that in 2021, United States users streamed over 900 billion songs. This means that album art popped up over 900 billion times as well, which is really where the aesthetic design takes hold: because people will almost always see something before they hear it, if an artist doesn’t make a lasting first impression with their artwork, then the connection is already lost.
More Than Just Packaging
Thus, it goes without saying that album art is more than just the picture on the front of an album — it’s part of an artist’s online brand, which will forever be associated with them and their work. The importance of album art itself cannot be overstated, since the artwork can add to (or subtract from) the overall quality of music. Depending on what kind of cover it is, it can either spark interest or put off someone who is searching for something to listen to. From a listener’s perspective, it pushes the personality of the album to the fore, giving a glimpse into the content and flavor of the album, while simultaneously providing the listener with imagery that can be twirled around in their head while they listen. On a more aesthetic level (which many of us can confirm), if an album cover gives off a certain vibe or feeling, many listeners will be interested to hear how the music presents it.
Long gone are the days when cover art was simply a form of packaging per its original function. In 2022, it serves a much broader purpose in helping to curate an overall experience. Since music is spread along with the artwork, the two are intertwined in such a way that the art can retain interest and heighten the listening experience. Just as the title sets the tone before the listener even presses play, the album cover functions in a similar way.
So while it is true that music will always be the ultimate representation of an artist’s work, cover art should not be taken for granted. Although physical packaging is no longer considered a serious part of the equation when it comes to an album’s commercial success, the presentation of the album cover plays an increasingly crucial role in attracting potential listeners and ensuring the memorability of the work.