As we might remember the times of vinyl releases with its large and often beautiful cover artworks and elaborated booklets, we nowadays miss the support of visuals that completes the product presentation of music releases. Even when the CD took over from the vinyl as the main medium of the music industry, the visual component mainly remained because the jewel cases also contained booklets or the album was released as visually appealing digipack. By another industry’s revolution that introduced digital music download portals such as Apple’s iTunes, the CD was more and more eclipsed until the now omnipresent streaming services like Spotify dominate the market and trends. Thereby, the mediums that encouraged a beautiful visual presentation almost disappeared and the visuals associated with the music release significantly decreased in its relevance.
Due to the music streaming portals that seem to get more and more in the focus of the content creators, the release habits changed drastically from releasing an album - probably backed with an elaborated concept - to publish a steady stream of singles without necessarily following a particular style or narration as it would be expected from an album concept release. Album sales dropped another 17,7% in 2017 because streaming allows the consumers to create their playlists and picking their favourite tracks out of an almost unlimited pool of songs. In the Billboard article “Long Live The Album” (December 15, 2018 - Issue 28), the author Andrew Unterberger demonstrated that albums are no longer necessary to achieve mainstream success in the pop music world. A good example is the 2017s summer track “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee that celebrated international success and became the by far most-viewed video on Youtube.
Approximately 80% of the information about our environment is received with our eyes, and one-quarter of our human brains are participating in processing it. Therefore, an album or single cover artwork needs to be catchy and - most of all - unique in theory. In the following, let us examine a bit more in detail what an outstanding and good artwork makes up from our point of view.
The Dark Side Of Nowadays Visual Creation
A few decades ago, people were only able to dream of nowadays amenities. One of these amenities is the innovation and improvement of smartphone cameras. Since approximately three years, smartphone photography has reached a level of quality, which considers professional cameras as chunky and unnecessary. The motto is: Everybody can do it, everybody wants to do it, so everybody does it. As a result of this mindset, a shift in the significance and valuation of visual content appears.
The album cover of Kanye West’s 8th studio album can be seen as an example. It shows snowy mountains in the distance behind the words “I hate being Bi-Polar it's awesome”. The cover shows a photo, which was snapped by Kanye, with his iPhone, on the way to the albums listening party.
However, there was a time when the medium of the album cover was much more relevant and important. Examples of this can be found primarily in the last century. 1967 was the hour of birth of two of the most iconic and album covers of all time.
One of the most famous examples of pop art of all time is Andy Warhol’s artwork for The Velvets Underground’s debut. “Peel slowly and see” was a Warhol standard message to anyone who tried to remove the artwork, which was a sticker. By peeling off the sticker, a pink and strange looking banana appeared. Nowadays fully intact album covers are quite rare.
The most famous and British example of pop art and most expensive album cover ever made was the Sgt Pepper album cover, created by Peter Blake and his then-wife, Jann Haworth. The artwork should present a melting pot of cultures and each Beatle’s interests. For this, 58 different people were chosen and pictured on the album cover.
There is no question that the last two album covers are not current and contemporary examples. However, they point out that there is another, more profound way to approach the subject. An example from the recent past shows that iconic album covers also exist in the 21st century.
Katy Perry's Teenage Dream album from 2010 is adorned with an artwork created in collaboration with the LA-based artist Will Cotton. They created a pin-up artwork of the modern age, which shows the naked Katy lying on a pink cotton candy cloud.
5 Steps Of Creating Visual Content
It doesn't matter how easy or straightforward a task seems. Every task can be broken down into a process which may seem complex and redundant but guarantees an increase in quality and efficiency. For sure, this also applies to the creation of visual content, such as album covers.
Let's focus on the five steps of design thinking. Design thinking itself is a method which provides a solution- and user-based approach for solving problems and creating visual content. The five stages or steps are the following.
Step 1: Assess the current situation and understand the existing construct. It should clarify the task, market, clients, technologies, constraints, restrictions and optimisation criteria.
Step 2: Observing real people in real scenarios and situations to analyse their behaviours.
Step 3: Create and visualise potential approaches.
Step 4: Iterate adjustments and tests of the prototype in the real world.
Step 5: Implement the content/solution.
It should be self-evident that it isn't necessary to carry out meticulously these five steps. In the case of the development of an album cover, it would be useful to consider these steps, at least in a modified form. The first two steps create a base, which can guarantee that the target audience is correctly addressed and the task and message of the album are met. Information and findings don't need to result from iterations. They also can be gained from previous covers and projects.
We know, the music industry is principally - as its name implies - about music. However, we hold the opinion that a music release should be a coherent presentation of audio, visuals and artist’s character, whether published as streamable song online, digital download portals, on a physical data carrier like the “dying” CD or the beloved, nostalgic vinyl. Feel free to tell us in the comments, what your favourite music cover artworks are and why!