The Art of the Matter

Looking at classic-rock record covers is like going to a modern art museum. Here, next to the Rothkos, there's the iconic, prismatic cover for Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, designed by Storm Thorgerson's Hipgnosis firm. Over there, just beyond the pop art gallery, are Peter Corriston's Rolling Stones covers, ranging from Some Girls (the boys in the band as girls in wig ads) to Tattoo You (beautiful girl plus body paint equals memorable image). Then there's Andy Warhol's landmark cover for Sticky Fingers, which came complete with an actual working zipper, and Peter Berg's landmark cover for Chicago X, a delicious trompe l'oeil chocolate stamped with the logo of the insufferably jazzy and inexplicably popular Seventies band.

That doesn't even count the photo gallery, which includes the naked ladyland cover on Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland; the grim, tattered American flag on Sly and the Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On; and the bracing violence of the bass-smashing on the Clash's London Calling. These album covers, and many others -- Springsteen's Born to Run, the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols, the Who's Who's Next -- are more than simply album covers. They're works of art, and visual icons of our pop culture to boot.

And it isn't just rock albums that once delivered jaw-dropping visuals. Consider the recent publication of Blue Note and Blue Note 2, two books that collect hundreds of album covers from that venerable jazz label. With Francis Wolff's straightforward, soulful photography counterweighed by Reid Miles's playful, unorthodox designs, Blue Note set a standard for album design that has never been equaled.

That's not surprising. What's surprising is that the standard has rarely been emulated. The cover of Bob Dylan's recent Time Out of Mind had a Blue Note feel, with a simple colored strip across the top and bold font treatment announcing the name of the artist and the name of the record.

But for the most part, this kind of arresting imagery has gone the way of the Hammond organ. Fonts are blander. Images are blander. Designs are blander. And, remarkably enough, this makes for blander album covers.

Some artists have tried to keep package design a priority. Prince has made a subcareer out of launching fonts -- the dreamy Lovesexy lettering, the telltale eye that replaces the first person singular, even the symbol that for several years became his name -- and attempting package experiments, like Tom Recchion's hologram cover for the 1993 LP Diamonds and Pearls. Artists like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Bjsrk, Suzanne Vega, R.E.M., Rickie Lee Jones, and Lou Reed have consistently insisted on interesting design. In some cases -- like Pearl Jam's, the old health texts excerpted for Vitalogy and the spooky Polaroids packaged with No Code -- the art direction is more compelling than the music it embellishes. But these are the exceptions. The truth is that today's record covers suck.

There are many reasons for this suckage. First, and most obvious: Format sizes have shrunk more drastically than the American labor movement. The LP -- that's the long-playing record, kids -- was twelve inches square, significantly larger than a hardcover book. Compact discs are five inches square, smaller than a mass-market paperback. Cassettes are four inches by two and a half, only slightly larger than a credit card. Even worse, they're not square, which means that images created for the dominant square formats -- LPs and CDs chiefly, but don't forget about TVs -- have to be distorted, or cropped in a procedure that is the equivalent of creative circumcision. The wonderful cover art for Steve Earle's recent El Corazón went under the knife in its transfer to cassette. (In standard heart surgery, they don't usually just lop off the sides.)

Think of it this way: What if Brueghel or Bosch or Balthus had been forced to paint on a canvas the size of a credit card? Well, you might have a kick-ass American Express card ("Don't leave home without The Garden of Earthly Delights"), but you probably wouldn't be reading about those painters in art history books. When it comes to images, whether it's Picasso's Guernica or the cover of Interview magazine, size matters.

And things aren't going to get any better. The trend toward miniaturization in information storage is irreversible, and the new software formats (MiniDisc, DVD, and whatever supermini innovation next year's technology brings) will eventually result in CD-quality sound stored on plastic discs no larger than condoms. Some designers will no doubt try to invent a compromise solution, perhaps a nice big package that contains the tiny, potent, music-bearing spore.

Before they waste the effort, though, designers would do well to recall the fate of longboxes. Used by the record industry from 1980 until 1993, the six-by-twelve-inch cardboard CD packages were half the size of LPs -- exactly half the size, in fact, since they were designed to help record stores conserve LP display racks and bins. But longboxes wasted cardboard, and ecologically sensitive rock stars like Peter Gabriel, Sting, U2, and Don Henley joined forces with green marketers to pressure record companies to stop the madness and do away with them. The record companies complied, though their reasons were more about conforming American product to international markets than about saving a few forests. (Remember, trees don't buy records.) When the longbox went the way of the dodo bird, it set a precedent for small packaging that will never be reversed.

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.

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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