THE ART OF THE ALBUM COVER: CD or not CD?

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THE ART OF THE ALBUM COVER: CD or not CD?

Paul McCartney perhaps spoke for his generation when he recalled the thrill of buying a new record as a teenager and, while taking it home, sitting in the bus pouring over the cover photo and liner notes, scanning them for clues.

The covers of subsequent Beatle albums also had that effect on another generation, and their covers were emblematic of the era: their debut album Please Please Me of '63 was shot quickly in the EMI building one afternoon, four years later the artist Peter Blake was assembling the elaborate cover for Sgt. Pepper's which came in a gatefold sleeve.

The golden age of album cover art and design was the late Sixties/early Seventies when there was ambitious music – and a monied audience – which demanded complimentary packaging.

51NWispXUWL._SL500_AA300_In the wake of the Sgt. Pepper's in '67 came rock-operas (The Who's Tommy in '69 kicking off a wave), prog-rock (King Crimson's In Court of the Crimson King in '69 in a striking painting by Barry Godber) and concept albums (Rick Wakeman, the sometime keyboard player in Yes launching a concept-album career with The Six Wives of Henry VIII in '73)

Work by artists such as Storm Thorgerson (who designed for Pink Floyd) and Roger Dean (whose otherworld paintings for Yes and Greenslade are a clear influence on James Cameron's Avatar film) became as identifiable as the musicians they designed for.

61oXvcNSJoL._SL500_AA300_Labels such as Vertigo (Uriah Heep, Juicy Lucy, Gentle Giant) presented many albums in covers which opened out. The gatefold sleeve became the industry standard in the early Seventies.

Designers played with the possibilites of album covers: Jethro Tull's Stand Up ('69) had pop up figures of the band on the inside. Their Thick as a Brick ('72) took the form of a tabloid-sized newspaper and – as with the Small Faces Ogden's Nut Gone Flake ('68) which came in a round cover with foldouts and replicated a tobacco tin – was impossible to store in record shops or at home.

51lL3UHlooL._SL500_AA300_The Wailers' Catch A Fire ('73) was a cigarette lighter with a flip-top and Rod Stewart's Sing It Again Rod of the same year was, equally appropriately, shaped as a glass of Scotch on the rocks.

There were covers like school desks etched with graffiti (Alice Cooper's Schools Out in '72), wallets (Cooper again, Billion Dollar Babies, '73) and Genesis' concept album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway ('74) came in a gatefold with a narrative on the inner pages and a separate booklet of lyrics.

In New Zealand some covers by international artists were reprinted in cheaper versions (Sgt. Pepper's in the standard card envelope, no pop-up Jethro Tull, the Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request of '67 without the 3D cover photo) but local artists and labels were often ambitious and inventive within the constraints of the small market.

518M1F2MXAL._SL500_AA300_Farmyard's self-titled debut album of the early Seventies came in a plastic bag, and there were numerous gatefold sleeves (Split Enz' Mental Notes in a cover painting by Phil Judd which is now in the Te Papa collection, John Hanlon's Garden Fresh, The Rumour's concept album Land of New Vigour and Zeal among them).

As recent albums by Tim Guy, An Emerald City (their Circa Scaria which also came as gatefold vinyl was very prog-rock/Roger Dean) and Juliagrace (slightly larger than CD with a colourful booklet) have proven, the art of cover design is still very much alive.

51COOux_JNL._SL500_AA300_The 2010 Yes four-CD and DVD set Keys to Ascension comes in a sturdy six-panel fold-out cover with a booklet and, again, art by Roger Dean. Not quite the same as that Dean gatefold for their Tales from Topographic Oceans record of 73 however.

Conventional wisdom says innovative cover art and design was lost during the CD generation because of the limitations of the jewel case and the paltry size of compact discs.

Not so, says Auckland's Andrew B. White who has designed more than 600 CD covers for albums, singles, special projects and promo discs, among them covers for Greg Johnson, Tha Feelstyle, Jan Hellriegel, the Nature's Best collections (in multiple formats and sizes) and Greg Fleming.

feelWhite began his design career in the Flying Nun era of the 80s (Able Tasmans, David Kilgour) and consequently has worked in multiple formats.

“The good thing about the CD was it was just a shrink-down of an LP cover. The most difficult was converting to cassette format which stayed around a lot longer than LPs, in fact as recently as the early 2000s we would still do a major release of a cassette.

“But you had to reformat a square design to a diagonal.”

As someone who grew up with cassettes at home, White says he always felt short-changed by cassette covers so when he started designing for them he would have foldouts for liner notes and information just as on the album version.

And he argues the CD format actually offers more possibilities for design than the vinyl album.

“The booklet enabled you to do more because you had pages, as opposed to an insert which was two sided. Sometimes a booklet can feel more substantial and read more coherently than an insert.

“With a CD you can have a booklet with maybe up to five panels on each side which folds out in a long form, you can fold that out again so it is essentially an A4 poster . . . You have more options to experiment with layout.”

With CD you can also change the colour of the plastic tray, go to the cardboard digi-pak format or the more substantial super-jewel with the rounded corners which are less prone to being damaged. It is possible to design without using plastic at all. And with the disc itself there are possibilities for colour, patterns and even textural feel.

pe_of_montreal_skeletal_lampingSome CD cover designs are exceptional: last year's album Skeletal Lamping by the Georgia band Of Montreal opens out into an elaborate multi-panel floral-style design, and American rockers Clutch offered an equally handsome fold-out with an A3 poster insert in a cut-out slip cover.

Locally CD cover designs range from the simple “exquisite corpse” multi-panel by Tono and the Finance Company on their Fragile Thing EP (black'n'white drawings on a fold-out card) through White's design for Greg Fleming's Taken (a full colour 24-page booklet) to the origami buffalo with the limited edition version of Phoenix Foundation's album of the same name.

43975705Loop's release of the CD/DVD package for Fly My Pretties' A Story was an object lesson in what is possible in packaging and design: an embossed cardboard sleeve contained the two separate digi-paks (each with an embossed cover) and the 10-page booklet of acknowledgements, a synopsis of the concept, photographs and credits.

Mikee Tucker, manager and creative director at Loop Recordings, says they have always lavished attention on their DVD and CD releases.

“I guess that comes from us being a magazine at the beginning and appreciating design, and doing books of art with New Zealand artists and designers. We've always had a soft spot for creativity, and not just music but also films, art and design, the creative culture as a whole.

“With every Loop release we believe packaging is a key aspect. Our market is discerning and Fly My Pretties' audience is a bit older and appreciates that packaging.

“For Barnaby [Weir, of Fly My Pretties] and I, Fly My Pretties is not just another release, it is a special something that comes along once every three or four years and we might as well do it right. That was as expensive as it looks.

“We did the design to emphasise the story that Dick [Weir] and Barnaby had written took it through the disc and DVD.”

Sponsorship offset some Pretties production costs but Tucker says they still took a hit on the price which others might not wear – yet the CD/DVD set, which retailed at the standard price for a double-disc set – is almost certified platinum (15000 sales).

The digital-download age has created a different era again. White recently did a survey through Facebook asking if people who bought music digitally cared if they got liner notes: 90% said no, they just wanted the music.

“If they really want to know who played on track five they will probably Google it. The other camp however absolutely wanted liner notes. They'll probably buy the vinyl version and get mp3 download and the CD as well, because the CD might have bonus tracks or a DVD.”

However even White, who is so used to designing for CD he doesn't compare to vinyl albums as much, acknowledges sometimes the difference between the two formats is obvious. Size does make a difference.

“Tha Feelstyle cover was one, the LP had a much better impact.”

The original cover painting was rather flat so it was photoshopped to bring it out the colours and was printed with an overgloss.

“The CD is okay but, side by side, the LP is streets ahead.”

White also notes when people talk nostalgically about Storm Thorgerson's Pink Floyd covers that he had the advantage of using the LP size for a powerful image which, when re-sized down, are much less striking: “His is an art form that really works in that large format. If he'd started out when it was CD-only they may not have had the same iconic impact.”

Jan_Hellriegel_medium1_300x270Bad design or art won't stop people buying if they like the music, but striking design can bring in those wavering. The small comeback of the vinyl format has also seen an interesting change says White who last year designed the limited edition vinyl version of Jan Hellriegel's All Grown Up. The seduction of a high quality album cover still works.

“You used to pay $35 for a CD and an LP was $40. But for that you get two pieces of vinyl in a gatefold sleeve and nice printing and I think, 'I'd rather have the record thanks'. You can't put your LP into iTunes but the smart people today include codes or you'll get the CD as well. It's no cost to them.

“I pick things up and think, 'That's great. Ah, what the hell, I'll buy it'.”

Want to read more about album cover art (and some very bad or hilarious examples)? The go here.

And want something about even older records? Then go here.

And musical instruments even older still? Then go here.

Andrew B White's website is here

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Your Comments

Andrew - Jan 17, 2011

Great article. I am currently looking at cover concepts for a project of mine, which has become a painstaking process as I aim to create a static image that will be effective across several mediums - so I can appreciate what Andrew B White is saying above. I feel that although cover art is essentially a packaging component and in some way removed from the musical experience, it is usually the initial point of contact with the listener. For an artist such as myself who has no momentum or reputation to speak of I think this of the upmost importance when posting music on blogs etc. "If the quality of artwork is poor, then what's the music gonna be like?" - That's the philosophy I'm working with. In that respect I think cover art is more important than it's ever been.

Blair - Jan 20, 2011

I miss the whole tactile experience with the buying process - sifting through vinyl bins and walking out with something tangible that you felt really meant something (and the packaging was a big part of that). Remember the story of Keith bumping into Mick at the train station in Dartford in the early '60s - Jagger had Chuck Berry & Howling Wolf records tucked under his arm & whats more they were imports? what would happen now - "hey man lets see whats on your iPod"?

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