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The Art of the Matter

For artists of this stature, cover images have to be able to be tessellated to work at all in the market. In other words, consumers have to be able to look at an array of 100 identical CD covers, arranged in a ten-by-ten matrix and slapped on the wall next to a huge sticker that says "SALE -- $12.99!" The visual message has to be simple and loud, easily absorbed by easily distracted consumers. If each individual cover in the array requires too much visual attention, the strategy doesn't work. As a result, covers are often confined to recognizable images of the stars.

Occasionally record companies will print two different covers (as in Mariah Carey's Butterfly) or even three (the soundtrack to Howard Stern's Private Parts). The variations are no less boring, but they are different; and with a little difference at their disposal, aesthetically canny clerks at record superstores can earn their minimum wage by placing pouty Mariah next to winsome Mariah. Voilà! Variety!

But when you, the ordinary record buyer, get your CD home, you don't have the luxury of profitably juxtaposing the two Miss Careys. So perhaps in the end it's not even fair to say that you get what you pay for. You get what they pay for.

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