Making sense of album art

Think the art you see on the cover of an album isn’t important, especially in the digital age? Think again, some of the best in the business say.

The best album art design in Aotearoa will be recognised at the Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards in November. One of the finalists, Anns Taylor, is the artist behind Lawrence Arabia’s “Absolute Truth” album cover. With a design featuring a topographical map of his face, Taylor says the process of designing the cover made use of some of the very latest technology. “We came up with the idea [for the album cover] together,” she explains. “We ended up having to get his face 3-D scanned, a la Radiohead’s ‘House of Cards.’ Basically we made a map of his face.”

Also a 2014 VNZMA finalist for her work creating the album cover for Liam Finn’s “The Nihilist,” Taylor explains that she believes album covers are just as important as ever despite the changes in how we get our music. “Album covers are still quite important,” she says. “Often it’s the first thing you see before you even hear the music. And it still comes up on Spotify and iTunes. It’s definitely here to stay. I just think it’s getting better and better. It’s evolving.”

Based in Auckland, Taylor says she herself is a big fan of good album art design. “David Bowie’s ‘Low” is a great album cover,” she says. “I always loved Neil Young’s ‘On the Beach.’ It’s just a photo, but it’s well-styled. The Rolling Stones’ ‘Sticky Fingers’ is good. Velvet Underground is amazing [as well].”

Good album art can also help connect listeners to what they are hearing, or are about to hear, Taylor explains. “If you go onto Spotify and you don’t see any art, it’s weird,” she says. “It’s jarring.”

Another VNZMA finalist, Simon Faisandier, designed the album art for ARISE’s “Road to You.” The process, he explains, involved far more than just making a cover. “For ‘Road to You’ we spent a lot of time producing content, especially video for the web and stage design, to accompany the music and the album cover was essentially the centerpiece of that work,” he says.

It was an undertaking that Faisandier says was rewarding because of how it helped keep the tradition of album cover design alive. “Album covers still have their place,” he says. “But, I've got to be honest I feel like album covers have been diminished a fair bit since music shifted from physical copies to online and streaming.”

"Road to You" by ARISE, designed by Simon Faisandier.

Although a decidedly old-school concept, Faisandier says album art still has its place amid the cutting-edge digital landscape. “I remember back to when I first started collecting music,” he explains. “Every music purchase was a big deal and the album cover and artwork inside had huge sway on the final decision. Special packaging like box sets or cardboard overlays always made an album feel way more special.”

But the digital revolution has brought about some changes, he explains. “With streaming music we've kind of lost all of that nuance with album covers. Sometimes all you see now is a little 128-pixel square. And there's no longer any real need for commitment with music collecting as streaming has made music so much more accessible.”

"I'll Forget 17" by Lontalius, designed by Henrietta Harris and a 2016 VNZMA finalist.

Still, Faisandier believes album covers are critical for artists and listeners to bond with each other. “Even though album covers have had a rough go they are still the first chance to identify with an artist,” he says. “To me the album cover is a visual summation or glimpse of the narrative of an album. Because of the diminishing of the physical presence of music and the crazy access we now have to content on the web, I think album artwork has become more than just the album cover. It's now intertwined with the artist’s web, social media and stage presence. It’s kind of breaking out of that little box.”

With vinyl sales at a 28-year high, it seems digital hasn’t killed the physical album yet. True fans are often showing their true fandom by buying limited -edition albums and box sets with beautiful art and printing (and there’s plenty of ways to innovate in that space – as DJ QBert did in 2014).

While there’s a rise, sales are still far below the highs of the 1970s and 1980s, and it seems unlikely they will reach those lofty heights again. So perhaps it pays to look at the longer view than merely the past few years.