The Art of the Matter

The promotional schema for modern musicians has also changed, radically. As recently as two decades ago, album covers were most consumers' only visual interaction with performers, and most performers' only chance to express themselves visually. As a result, their aesthetics harmonized with the demands of the market.

The Beatles were directly involved with the conception and design of Peter Blake and Jann Haworth's Sgt. Pepper cover. Bob Dylan created the cover art for Planet Waves. Joni Mitchell has put several of her own paintings on album covers. These days, though, pop artists are part of a highly efficient starmaking machine. And in this new order, album covers are no longer primary articulations of artist identity; they are merely minor steps in the vast marketing choreography.

It would confuse consumers if Mariah Carey, Foo Fighters, or Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliot had one look on their album covers and another in their videos. So, generally speaking, they don't. Why do you think Michael Jackson donned the same faux gangwear for the "Bad" video that he sported on the Bad album cover? Because consumer psychology is all about relentless reinforcement of a few major images.

The Jackson example, focusing as it does on the single greatest beneficiary of corporate cynicism in the history of Western capitalism, is especially instructive. Since Off the Wall, Michael Jackson has been the kind of artist who seems to give something less than a tinker's damn about his album covers. Who can forget the ridiculous cover photo for Thriller, or the ridiculous cover illustration for Dangerous? Well, we all can.

What we can't forget about Jackson -- apart from the fact that he has identifying marks on his genitals -- are his videos. Where musicians used to have relationships with photographers, art directors, and artists (the Velvet Underground with Andy Warhol, Big Brother and the Holding Company with R. Crumb), they now have primary ties with video auteurs. Think of R.E.M. and Tarsem, Janet Jackson and Herb Ritts, the Beastie Boys and Spike Jonze. The Beavises and Butt-heads of 1977 sat around scrutinizing Pedro Bell's raunchy Funkadelic album covers, or Roger Dean's spacy Yes covers. Today, it's not even clear that Beavis and Butt-head know albums have covers.

This shift is reflected in the most establishment measure of all, the Grammys. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences once had an award for best album cover -- several awards, actually, one for classical albums, one for photography in design, and one for illustration in design.

The Beatles' Revolver, with its Klaus Voormann illustration, was the first rock record to win, in 1966. Over the years, awards have gone to Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band (Against the Wind), Talking Heads (Speaking in Tongues), and Miles Davis (Tutu). The all-time leader in album package Grammys? Linda Ronstadt, a three-time winner for Simple Dreams, Get Closer, and Lush Life.

But with the addition of the Best Video award in 1994, the album cover awards, now renamed "Recording Package Design," have been pushed farther into the background. Many award-winning album designers, including Nick Egan and the legendary Storm Thorgerson, have decided that only a career change will preserve the vestiges of their dignity: They've turned in their drafting tables for cameras. Video may not have killed the radio star, but it absolutely disemboweled the graphic designers and visual artists who used to work alongside the radio star.

Those who stay in the album design business find it economically cramped. To be challenged as designers, they have to work on historical reissues, special anniversary editions, and box sets. Though they're few and far between, these special products are plum assignments for art directors; meant to be collected, they offer designers, photographers, and illustrators the chance to break free of the normal promotion cycle.

But from a consumer perspective, they're yet another illustration of a founding principle of modern capitalism: The beautiful comes at a premium. The outstanding Miles Davis Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel, for example, is a beautiful set, its eight CD boxes featuring extreme closeups of bar props like pretzels, cigarettes, and shot glasses. It's hot and cool at once, head and shoulders above your average Top 40 album.

It is also a $130 investment. The same thing, give or take fifty bucks, can be said of the superbly designed Sex, America, Cheap Trick retrospective, or James Brown's Star Time, or Aretha Franklin's Queen of Soul.

Sometimes record companies even release a special edition of an album that differs from the normal perfunctory product only in that it has a superior design. Consider the metal canister for Prince's Batman Soundtrack, designed by Tom Recchion, or the set for Use Your Illusion by Guns N' Roses, designed by Jim Ladwig (the man responsible for those mid-Seventies Ohio Players covers, not to mention Rod Stewart's superb Never a Dull Moment). There's no new music on either of these, and yet in both cases the special editions cost nearly twice as much as the standard-issue albums.

You're being forced to buy the design. The depressing message, sent with increasing force, is that you get what you pay for. And that's not even the whole picture. The whole picture is this: These days, national record-store chains (Sound Warehouse, Coconuts) and huge urban superstores (Tower, HMV, Virgin) dominate the music market more than ever before. And thanks to these stores, the strategy of Cramming an Artist Down Your Throat is now practiced with more force and precision than ever before. Part and parcel of this strategy is the huge in-store display. And part and parcel of the huge in-store display, whether it's pushing the new Oasis album, the new Janet Jackson album, or the new Elton John single ("Candle in the Experimental Aircraft: A Tribute to My Dear Friend John Denver"), is the multiple cover matrix.

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