Written by Amilcar 'PRO' Welton / Executive Director / CREATE.Digital Music
Whatever happened to album cover "artwork"? This would include single covers, E.P. covers and even recent quality mixtape covers. Since day one of retail music consumption, covers have been one of the major attractions during the consumer music purchasing experience. Photographers, artists, and graphic designers were commissioned to make music lovers buy and cherish their physical units.
The perfect artwork along with popular music made for a complete music experience, especially before the invention of television. When entering a record store, potential buyers use to graze shelves and crates of releases for hours searching for music that they knew and music that they were willing to take a chance on. Eye catching covers helped you make that decision...a creative logo...an attractive man or woman...a tricked out car....big guns....partial nudity....all forced buyers into unexpected decisions. When the "music made easy" explosion in the late 1990's and early 2000's started, there was a substantial amount of people creating music for consumption by way of digital music production equipment and independent distribution outlets. In my opinion, this is when cover art was at its highest value. Just ask Percy "Master P" Miller and No Limit Records. Ask Sean "Diddy" Combs and Bad Boy Records. Their cover art helped propel their artists and constant flood of music releases above others. As an independent label during that time, your cover art had to jump off the shelves visually in order to even have a slight chance to sway a consumer's decision. Even as online music outlets were introduced, you needed to visually differentiate yourself from the millions of releases available as consumers "surfed" the internet.
I believe that the decline of the business and creative value of cover art began in the 1990's. Music creators, both independent and major, began to shift budgets into multi-million dollar music videos, extravagant tour sets, and exaggerated lifestyles for their artists. That along with the high volume of projects being released, adversely affected the dedication, creativity, and quality of on staff and outsourced graphic designers. Ask yourself, how can you have an artist post new photos from multiple photo shoots every other day yet they still end up with subpar cover art? I agree with the fact that music videos became the visual focus but cover art was not suppose to be written off like audio cassettes when the CD was introduced. I'm also not saying that the graphic designers didn't do their job but most did exactly that..."their job" and nothing more. They stopped believing in the impact of their creativity and influence on the music. They simply focused on being just another gear in the machine. For outsourced graphic designers it may also have been the fact that it took approximately 6 months to get their checks from the record labels, if they got them at all.
Please don't take this organized rant as a blanket statement regarding all cover artwork, all record labels, all graphic designers, etc. I just wanted to express my disappointment in what I see on average and I see tons of music releases both independent and major. Just as people complain about a lack of feeling, effort, and creativity in music, the same goes for cover art.
What is the resolution? Well, it starts with the artists. It requires that independent attitude that has propelled music in recent years. The creators of music must hold themselves to a higher standard and include cover art in their musical revolution. Don't settle. Just as you would correct a bad note, an average mix, a dull lyric, challenge yourself to want more from your artwork. Challenge your team, management, graphic designer, and label. If you take a moment to think back to your favorite albums, I guarantee at least one of them had classic artwork.
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