Written by Shruthi Sivakaminathan
In the mood for images that take you into the another person’s psyche, illustrations that make you think?
Pick up your phone and open your music gallery.
Music, despite being an auditory experience, has had a longstanding relationship with visual imagery. We see it now in the form of intricately put together live performances and of course, music videos. Personally, I tend to avoid music videos because for me, music should be appreciated for well, the music. I listen to music for a message that the artist is trying to convey by elegantly marrying lyrics to melody. I like to close my eyes and let a particular amalgamation of sound waves take me to an awe inspiring place full of memories from the past, thoughts from the present and dreams of the future. It’s very rare to find a music video made for the sole reason of supporting the idea, the intended meaning of the song. A video that doesn’t exist solely to stir controversy to get the artist their daily dose of attention. There is, however, one more visual aid to music. The oldest and sadly, the least appreciated.
Album covers are the most iconic supplement to music. A good album cover does three things very well: One - it visualises and sets the tone for the music. Two - it captures the personality of the artist. Three - it grabs your attention. Despite being limited to the dimensions of a square, album art can be minimalistic or imagery heavy, poetic or photographic, saturated with color or monochrome - the possibilities are endless. However, it wasn’t always this way. In the beginning, record packaging was purely utilitarian, made from brown paper or cardboard. Then everything changed when Columbia Records hired Alex Steinweiss in 1938.
As their very first Art Director, Steinweiss took a long look at the drab packaging of the records and suggested to Columbia Records that they could be made more appealing to consumers with the addition of illustrations. He decided to replace standard labelling with artistic depictions of the album title and artist’s name, accompanied by original artwork. This strategy resulted in sales increasing by over nine hundred percent. Music is a product that we consume, but it has no spatial dimension, nor is it possible to purchase the artist. Therefore album covers came to be seen as an effective marketing tool, a stand in that physically represented the music that was otherwise intangible.
Furthermore, album covers provided a platform for artists to showcase their work. It allowed for work by museum gracing fine artists and photographers - usually inaccessible to people living in less urban areas - to enter the home of the average person. It makes the experience of experiencing art a more widespread phenomenon. According to fashion photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino, “ working-class people didn’t go to museums, but they did buy records”. This is what I love so dearly about album art - it’s being able to consume fine art without having to don the pretentious characteristics of an art snob. Also, the more popular the artist, the larger the scale of consumption is and the larger the collective effect on people. We never realise it as it is happening, but album art shapes pop culture. Just by looking at the cover of Abbey Road, one is instantly transported back to the late 60s because the image of the four men crossing the street is so tied in with influential songs of the time like Come Together and Here Comes the Sun.
Speaking of the Beatles, they are credited with the revolutionising of album art through their 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club by bridging the divide between popular music and legitimate art. The cover portrays high culture icons like Karl Marx and George Bernard Shaw alongside pop icons like Marilyn Monroe and Shirley Temple, a mixture that the Beatles felt they exemplified more than any other artist. This kind of album art, the kind that makes people read in between the lines in search of a deeper meaning, caught on. In 1991, Michael Jackson’s complexly designed album cover for Dangerous spurred similar speculation about its hidden meaning. The most common interpretation of this was Jackson’s feeling that he hid beneath unfounded speculations about his life imposed upon him by outsiders looking in. This perhaps reflects his struggles in finding comfort with fame and his desire to be shaded from the intruding camera lens.
In the digital era, album covers serve the task of graphically labelling songs. However, album art is more than just that. It is a visual rendition of the artist themselves; it reflects the persona that they chose to show to the public, the persona that accompanies the music they release. Even if it’s just a portrait of themselves, it’s possible to see the message they are trying to express with their posture or facial expressions. Albums are a square shaped window into their life at the time of recording the album - a window through which we can see their fears, their aspirations for the world and for themselves. Each cover illustrates how the artist is coping with their life, which is ever changing with each album. Album covers are to an artist what photo albums are to the average person. If you place every album ever released by an artist side by side in chronological order and look hard enough, you can start to trace a line from the first cover to the last. This is their story, laid out bare for all of us to see. Each album marks a milestone or a phase of the artist, an experience that they share with the listener through their music.
So the next time you’re listening to your favorite song, bring up the album cover and look at it with the music playing in the background and think - why this picture?