The significance of album artwork for music

Aine O'Boyle

As the physical CD dies a death and gets replaced by streaming services and social media, does this mark the end of album artwork and its significance for music?

In the last decade, the concept of physically holding a CD in our hands and looking upon a piece of artwork representative of the contents of the disk has died a death.

Long gone are the days of spending hours in a music store, flipping through rows and rows of CD’s carefully examining the artwork on the front, waiting for one particular image to pop out and grab your attention.

Ever since music has been sold as a commercial good, the cover art on the front of a vinyl disk or a CD has been the consumers first interaction with the artist themselves, essentially meaning that the artist had to sell their music through their album cover.

Today the same consideration is not put into album artwork, it is no longer viewed as the first point of contact between a consumer and an artist, it is a mere formality that artists must adhere to when posting their music on streaming services, something to fill all the blank space on a phone screen or to screenshot onto your Instagram story to show off your amazing taste in music.

For many artists that existed and made their mark on music before entering into the sphere of streaming, their brand and image is synonymous with the album art of a particularly iconic album of theirs.

Today people will wear the album artwork on t-shirts and tote bags but very few will actually own the physical CD that the album artwork was first sold on.

Most people will be able to recognise white squiggly lines set against a black t-shirt and instantly know that it is a piece of Joy Division fan merchandise, or even just a t-shirt you wear to make people think that you know that you have a superior taste in music to them.

But the fact that people even still wear this t-shirt, with its artwork from their album, Unknown Pleasures, stands as testament to the power that album artwork once held and its longevity in representing the brand and image of an artist.

“The Yeezus album packaging was an open casket to CD’s” tweeted Kanye West back in March 2016, referring to the album cover for Yeezus that featured a small piece of red tape over a jewel CD case.

The artwork itself was fitting for a minimalistic album, but on a grander scale acknowledged the impending death of physical music and started a conversation about what the role of album artwork would be in a world where music was no longer viewed as much of a commodity as streaming services came to the forefront of the industry.

In today’s world, as our attention spans get shorter and the availability of music gets greater, its more important for album artwork to grab our attention than to make a lasting impact on the world.

“We process information a lot faster and we process music a lot faster. Making something that’s going to catch people’s eyes within seconds is important” said Mihailo Andic, cover designer for Lil Yachty, Gallant, Fetty Wap, and 6lack.

“You have to either grab their attention or you lose them right away” he continued.

It’s not to say that album artwork is dead, but instead that it has been born again as something different. A strong visual identity gives fans something tangible to grasp onto during a time when most music consumption happens digitally.

Aine O’Boyle

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