Fancy Sleeves: The Importance of Cover Art in Record Sales and History
Listening to a vinyl LP allows a person to spend time with an artist’s work. One engages in “active listening.” This includes more than merely hearing the music. You must remain present to listen to a record. You have to place the needle into the grooves. You have to flip the record over when the first side is through. There is more of a process involved with listening to a record than simply hitting play on a YouTube video. While you listen, you hold that sleeve in your hands. The more you listen, the more you start to take notice of things like lyrics, liner notes and personnel lists. But before you see any of that, before you hear so much as a note of the music inside, and before you even get the record out of the store, the first thing you notice is the front cover. Maybe it’s a painting, or a photograph, perhaps even a parody of a different album cover. For one reason or another, you chose to buy this album in part based on the first thing that caught your eye: the front cover. Yet cover art can often be an overlooked part of the creation of an album and it is my contention that it is a major reason people still buy physical music and, more specifically, why vinyl records have become so massively popular again after a decades-long absence.
You can try to explain the way a song you heard sounds to someone, and even, say, compare it to another song or artist for reference. But because music is so abstract, you run the risk of confusing the person to whom you’re describing it even more. As a musician myself, I run into this often. Someone may ask me, “what kind of music do you play?” or “what does your band sound like?” To me, it’s too vague to say “rock” or “we’re similar to the Drive By Truckers,” but it can be just as much of a challenge to be specific because it is intrinsically difficult to express what any music sounds like in words. This is also true from a commercial standpoint. An album cover gives the artist a unique opportunity to explain to the public what their music sounds like. The covers act as a visual companion to the recording contained therein.
For as integral as an album cover is to an album’s completion, it took many years for the idea of cover art to catch up to the medium. Recordings of popular songs had been commercially released as early as 1889, but it wasn’t until 1939, when Columbia Records’ staff designer Alex Steinweiss essentially invented the album cover as we know it. Steinweiss developed a new kind of graphic album cover for the brittle 78rpm shellac records that were popular at the time.
Alex Steinweiss covers showcasing his trademark “Steinweiss Scrawl.”
Before Steinweiss’ creation, single records were housed in plain brown or white paper or cloth sleeves, while full albums, spread over three or four shellacs, were packaged in dark brown hard plastic binders. Steinweiss himself likened the packaging to tombstones. “The generic plain paper wrappers were unattractive and lacked any appeal,” says Steven Heller, author of numerous graphic design-related publications (McKnight-Trontz and Steinweiss 4). Steinweiss, initially hired by Columbia to design their advertisements, recognized a hole in the record-making process and filled it. His upgrade in packaging served to not only improve the protective function of the sleeve, but also to offer a “creative representation of the music inside” with Steinweiss’ unique and recognizable designs (DeVille 14). As revolutionary as adding sound to film, Steinweiss’ new record cover design idea added a whole new dimension to the musical experience and, even more notably, to the sale of recorded music. Steinweiss covers started outselling their unadorned counterparts at an impressive rate. “Six months after Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was reissued with a Steinweiss cover, sales jumped 894 percent over a comparable six-month period when the album was packaged in plain gray cloth” (McKnight-Trontz and Steinweiss, 31).
In Steinweiss’ era, “technical limitations restricted the use of photography,” so it didn’t start getting incorporated into the cover art of popular music until the late 1940s (Jones 73). When it did take off, however, it did so aggressively. Through the 1950s and 1960s, notable jazz and blues labels like Blue Note and Chess used candid, mostly black and white photographs of their recording artists either on stage or otherwise. These iconic covers made names for talented photographers like Reid Miles and Don Bronstein among others and set a standard for the covers of each respective label.
Another trend that took root in the ‘50s and ‘60s was that of the “cheesecake cover.” These were covers with beautiful, shapely women in varying degrees of clothing posing on the cover, using sex appeal to sell the music inside. This was popular with many jazz, easy listening and exotica albums of the time. Sometimes the artist would appear with the women, sometimes the women would be alone. “Truth be told, the actual sounds coming off the vinyl were often less than spectacular,” says one Retrospace blog poster. But if there’s one thing that we’ve all been taught since we were children, it’s that sex sells. “Put a busty female on the cover (of an album), and ‘BAM!’ Instant classic,” says John Hackett, owner of Dubuque, Iowa record store CDs-4-Change. That seemed to have been the mentality of the record companies also, because the cheesecake covers continue to this day. In the 1980s in particular, glam metal groups like Ratt, Warrant and Great White were notorious for including scantily clad women on the covers of their albums.
“Cheesecake” covers, another common trend started in the 1950s, are still being used nowadays.
Steinweiss blazed a trail for a new genre of artistic endeavor: that of album cover art design. Being the first in his field, all subsequent work tended to be compared to his. Over time, however, new albums became “more than a way of remaindering singles… they were designed with a total effect in mind” (Benedict and Barton 6). For some musicians, this meant enlisting famous artists to design their covers. The most famous example of this is probably The Velvet Underground, who hired famous multimedia artist Andy Warhol to design the now iconic “Banana” cover for their 1967 debut album The Velvet Underground & Nico. The cover consisted of a single yellow banana on a pure white backdrop. On initial pressings of the album, the banana was actually a decal that peeled away from the cover itself to reveal another banana underneath without its peel. The Velvet Underground were known as an “art-rock” band, so they decided to enlist the talents of a famous person from the art world to design what would essentially become their introduction to both the music industry and the art industry. Other famous artists, such as Salvatore Dali, H.R. Giger and more recently Banksy and Shepard Fairy have been commissioned for album cover designs. World renowned and controversial American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe was hired to shoot covers for artists like Simon & Garfunkel, Peter Gabriel and Patti Smith. These were all stylistic choices, as recording artists were now placing just as much emphasis on how an album looked in addition to how it sounded. “Visual artwork is powerful, and just as a book cover grabs the attention of the reader; album artwork grabs the attention of the listener” (Cook 5).
It is common for famous artists and photographers to be commissioned to do album covers.
Possessing an aesthetic all their own, The Beatles were including innovative graphic design ideas in their album conceptions as early as 1966 when they released Revolver, which boasted a line drawing/photo collage combination design by German artist Klaus Voormann. Their album covers generally featured various portraits of the band. The obvious exception to this unmarked rule would be their 1968 self-titled album, better known as The White Album. The cover was a simple plain white cover with the name ‘The Beatles’ embossed over it, an artistic decision that has been mimicked or parodied many times over the years by recording artists as diverse as heavy metal band Metallica and rapper Jay-Z. Stylistically, The Beatles’ album covers often marked the direction in which their music was evolving. This was never more evident than with their 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Sgt. Pepper was important in the group’s career because it “marked a break with the past and heralded the hippy-psychedelic phase of the late 1960s” (Beatrice and Walker 23). The Peter Blake-designed LP cover reflected this shift and is still one of the most iconic record covers of all time. The record itself, in all of its formats, has gone on to sell over seven million physical copies (32 million including digital downloads), making it, according to Billboard, the best-selling album of the 1960s and one of the best-selling albums of all time.
The Beatles possessed a graphic aesthetic all their own with their often psychedelic album covers.
Perhaps no one’s work was more ubiquitous in the 1970s than that of the British design group Hipgnosis. Formed by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell in 1968, the London-based agency worked with many rock icons of the era, including Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Genesis and Yes. Hipgnosis’s work helped to make the album cover “more integral to a record’s artistic totality, effectively translating sonic experiences into still images and accelerating the rock album cover’s development” (Alleyne 251). The surreal imagery and psychedelic photography and design used by the collective helped them to establish an era in which “cover designs depict what the product means, not what it physically is.” This meant not only that an artist was not obliged to appear on their covers, but the designers were not required to adhere to any set formula or use any literal graphics. This sometimes meant staging elaborate events for creative inspiration (Alleyne 252). For instance, when David Gilmour of Pink Floyd approached Thorgerson about designing the cover of their 1987 album A Momentary Lapse of Reason, he gave him only a drawing of a single empty bed. According to Gilmour, it was “an image that, to me, says something.” Thorgerson replied, “great, but let’s have 500 empty beds!” Thorgerson then had rows and rows of hundreds of empty beds arranged on a beach for the intended photo shoot (Taken by Storm, 2011). Hipgnosis continued collaborating with recording artists for cover art well into the 1980s, working with hard rockers like Sammy Hagar, UFO and the Scorpions. Though they disbanded in 1983, Storm Thorgerson would continue to design album covers up until his death in 2013.
UK design group Hipgnosis are responsible for more iconic album covers than perhaps any other designers.
The approach to record cover art taken by Hipgnosis paved the way for other innovations in the medium. Not only was a graphic artist not limited to using group photos for the covers, they were not obligated to make the cover itself look like its predecessors. The “envelope” cover style or the occasional multi-panel “gatefold” style that were commonplace would often be eschewed for other unique options. Many artists would release records with attributes that had not been attempted before. Artists like Traffic and Neil Young experimented with textured covers. Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti was die-cut to look as though the cover were a building with windows you could look through, revealing various cultural icons. And still other artists tried oddly-shaped covers or covers that were made to look like other objects (i.e. Grand Funk Railroad’s coin-shaped E Pluribus Funk or the Rod Stewart compilation album Sing It Again, Rod, which was made to look like a whiskey on the rocks). Another thing artists and record companies tried at the time was including some sort of interesting or collectible bonus insert. Original copies of stoner comedy duo Cheech & Chong’s Big Bambu record from 1972 came with a comically oversized marijuana rolling paper, while Alice Cooper’s 1973 album Billion Dollar Babies came with a large two-panel fold-out billion-dollar bill.
In the mid-to-late 1970s, the “punk rock movement” also firmly took root, instituting values that were anti-establishment and anti-mainstream. Many of these artists denounced the major labels as nothing more than faceless corporations exploiting artists and their talents for profit. For this reason, independent labels started appearing all over both the U.S. and Great Britain, shifting the focus from monetary concerns to talent, message and the artists themselves. It suddenly became clear that one didn’t have to be a virtuoso to record and release an album. Record covers, by and large, often reflected this new credo with decidedly more minimalistic-looking designs. Greg Ginn started SST Records in 1978 so he could release material by his band Black Flag. Ginn employed artist Raymond Pettibon, his brother, to design show posters, advertisements and many of the Black Flag album covers (not to mention their ubiquitous logo). Initially, this was done to save on the cost of hiring externally. But eventually, Pettibon began designing artwork for other bands on the label, such as the Minutemen and Sonic Youth. His work, which is made to resemble comic strips and is often accompanied by ambiguous or ominous text, became closely associated with the SST label, Black Flag and the punk rock ethos in general (Beatrice and Walker 100). Around this same time, on the other side of the Atlantic, Alan Erasmus and Tony Wilson were starting Factory Records in Manchester, England. The label, which was home to such acts as Joy Division, New Order and Happy Mondays, employed creative team Peter Saville and Martin Hannett to essentially design covers and labels with the intention of establishing a specific image for the label’s roster of recording artists. Factory put such stock in artwork and design that they are the only label to actually assign catalogue numbers not just to music releases, but also to concert posters and creative projects. Touring musician and longtime record store employee Bob Bucko says that he appreciates the design work of Saville and Hannett, suggesting they “cultivated mystery through the intentionally vague representations on the jackets.” Critics, including Art Black, former editor of the now defunct Away from the Pulsebeat magazine, found their minimalist approach “drab… basically interchangeable” (Jones and Sorger 86). London punkers The Sex Pistols, who did actually sign with a major label, Virgin Records (a division of the larger Warner Brothers), developed their own utilitarian aesthetic with artist Jamie Reid. Inspired by the French art/political movement Situationism, Reid utilized bright and bold colors and cut-out, ransom note-styled lettering for the simple yet iconic cover of the band’s sole full-length album, 1977’s Never Mind the Bollocks… Here’s the Sex Pistols (Jones 80).
Punk rock and post rock covers of the 1980s.
The 1980s marked a time when many mainstream artists defaulted back to using portraits of themselves on their covers. Notable artists like Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Madonna would don the covers of their albums with their own likenesses to showcase yet another creative facet of themselves. Image seemed to be everything in the ‘80s, and what better way to show off one’s style than by using their record cover to introduce their individualism to the masses? The decade was laced not only with excess, but musically with synthesizers and electronic music sounds, and record cover art often reflected this change in the ‘80s with a lot of bright neon colors. A notable exception is the cover art for many heavy metal bands of the time, particularly the British metal group Iron Maiden. Artist and friend of the band Derek Riggs designed a sort of mascot for the band, “Eddie,” a partially decomposed zombie character. Eddie would go on to grace the cover of every one of Iron Maiden’s albums and singles, most of which were designed by Riggs himself. Eddie is still one of the most iconic figures in music history and he’s not even a real being. Other heavy metal bands, such as Saxon, Manowar and Bolt Thrower took their cues from Iron Maiden, commissioning cover art with very detailed paintings that depicted fantasy battle scenes, horror/gore scenarios and black magic or witchcraft. This was in stark contrast to the aforementioned mainstream artists, whose “face shots still dominated the album covers” (Jones and Sorger 75).
Metal bands’ album covers tended to stand out from mainstream artists’ covers for obvious reasons.
By the end of the 1980s, vinyl LP sales had died down considerably, and more people were buying cassette tapes or the latest format, the compact disc (CD). Both formats presented their own miniaturized versions of album artwork. In fact, since LPs were largely obsolete by the 1990s, many albums from this time only saw release on cassette or CD. This led to experiments being made with CD packaging as well. Most CDs were issued in clear plastic jewel cases with front and back inserts made up of the artwork. Eventually, some releases came out in digipaks and eco-paks, which were cardboard or soft plastic variations of the standard jewel cases that often folded out in unique ways. Still other artists found new and interesting ways to package their CDs. In 1998, New York’s Firewater released their second album The Ponzi Sheme, in collaboration with a catfood packaging plant, in a limited-edition CD-sized tin can case (MTV News). Perhaps some of the most original CD packaging came from progressive metal band Tool. Starting with their third album, 1996’s Ænima, each CD they released had a new, inventive cover to go along with it. Ænima featured a lenticular jewel case that made the cover art underneath appear animated, 2001’s Lateralus featured a translucent black slipcase over a jewel case painted with medical X-ray art and 2006’s 10,000 Days came in a laminated digipak with built-in magnifying viewing glasses.
Even with new innovations in cover art, music sales started to take a drastic nosedive in the late 1990s when MP3 file sharing and downloading became a popular new way of acquiring music. Napster, a free online file-sharing service, made its debut in 1999 allowing users to download popular music for free. Suddenly, people could get their music with one mouse click without ever having to leave their bedrooms. “Not only did Napster help change the way most people got music, it also lowered the price point from $14 to free” (Goldman). Even though Napster was sued for copyright infringement and eventually had to shut down, the damage was done. By then, users had found other means to obtain music for free online. In 2003, iTunes was launched and with it a legitimate way for people to buy music online. iTunes, along with Windows Media Player, Winamp and other music playing software allowed users the option of adding cover art to their files. This means that even in a new digital era where people were barely even paying for the music they obtained, cover art was still important to them.
Digital downloading is still one of the leading formats in music sales today, only recently surpassed by the newer music streaming technology. With streaming services, such as Spotify, Amazon Music or Google Play, users can pay a monthly subscription fee and have unlimited access to nearly any music they want, not to mention its cover art. In recent years, however, the vinyl LP has made the largest comeback of any format in history. Even though vinyl never actually went away completely, starting in the mid-2000s, vinyl record sales have seen a steady increase each year. I myself have seen this trend firsthand, having worked in music retail since 2001. According to Paul Epstein, owner of Twist & Shout Records in Denver, Colorado, vinyl has been outselling CDs by an increasingly wider margin each year since 2008. “Nowadays, vinyl is about 45% of our business,” Epstein says. This is actually a very large percentage, considering that the shop also sells apparel, toys and collectibles, concert tickets and books in addition to CDs and other non-vinyl formats. Bob Bucko reflects on the vinyl resurgence, saying “I worked at a record store in the late ‘90s and again in 2017. Vinyl (now) is our biggest selling format by an enormous margin.”
Many people that I’ve spoken to over the years that started collecting vinyl this time around don’t even have turntables to play the records on. “Eventually, I’ll get one,” one regular customer said. “I just like the way they look.” Pop singer Tony Bennett said of LPs that “they were large enough to make you feel like you were taking home your very own work of art” (Kohler 7). Jeremy Brashaw, former manager of the music store The Record Collector in Iowa City, Iowa agrees with Mr. Bennett’s assertion: “I do believe LPs are art.” Brashaw recalled an anecdote to me about a record store he was visiting in Santa Monica: “the guy in front of me was buying a bunch of old Beatles records. The clerk complimented him on his picks, to which the guy replied, ‘yeah, they are going to look great in my office’.” Records are thus far the only format to make this comeback and I believe that much of this fact boils down to cover art. LPs are heavy and cumbersome and, as I mentioned earlier, not the most efficient format to listen to. But what makes them stand out from all other formats before and after them is their gorgeous cover art. “The 12” larger size benefits the visual aspects of the object, allowing more space for artwork” says Bucko.
Since the vinyl revival began, many artists from the late 1980s and the 1990s, or the “era of no vinyl,” as Mr. Epstein calls it, are seeing proper vinyl releases with gorgeous full cover art. Even long forgotten privately pressed records from the ‘60s and 70’s get the reissue treatment thanks to more pressing plants opening all over the country and reputable reissue labels like Four Men with Beards, Light in the Attic and the Numero Group. Jack White, owner of Third Man Records and singer/guitarist of the band The White Stripes is also a champion of vinyl, reissuing obscure blues albums and indie rock albums alike and utilizing new technology to do things with vinyl that has not been done before. Many vinyl releases come with a free download or CD version of the album, as well. “People like that aspect,” Hackett says. Between that and the thousands of limited-edition picture disc or colored vinyl pressings of different releases and the large beautiful sleeves, “people that don’t even listen to vinyl are buying more of it.”
“I could see CDs possibly making a comeback, but never to the extent that vinyl has,” Brashaw says, as he pulls loose another LP from his collection. This is because LPs more than just albums. They are collectible, interactive pieces of artwork. I’ve collected several different formats for basically all my life and there just isn’t any feeling like the one I have when I stare at an LP’s cover as I listen to the record. It hooked me as a toddler and it still has me. Perhaps one day, all music will be accessed via a chip in our skulls and cover art won’t matter anymore. But for now, vinyl LPs are here to stay, and we largely have their fancy sleeves to thank for that.
– Jon Eagle