Sleeves Our Music Wears

The relationship between art and music is a love-hate patch. At any one period, they sing along the same tune; while in the other, you find them tearing each other’s hairs out. The very fact that our music needs to wear clothes designed by some of the finest graphics gurus that this world has to offer may seem like an inconspicuous detail we all like to overlook. But the truth remains that album art, in itself is an industry without which our music may have lacked that kick of art that flirts with our eyes.

History of Album Art
Although Alex Steinweiss is often hailed for pioneering the very concept of album art, its origin dates back to 1910 when 78 rpm records replaced phonograph cylinder as the medium for recorded sound. The 78 rpm records were issued in both 10 and 12 inches diameter sizes and were usually sold separately in brown paper or cardboard sleeves that were sometimes plain and sometimes printed to show the producer or the retailer’s name. German record company Odeon pioneered the ‘album’ in 1909 when it released the “Nutcracker Suite” by Tchaikovsky on 4 double-sided discs in a specially-designed package.

Beginning in the 1920s, bound collections of empty sleeves with a plain cardboard or leather cover, similar to a photograph album, were sold as ‘record albums’ that customers could use to store their records. In 1938, Columbia records hired Steinweiss as its first art director. After his initial efforts at Columbia, other record companies followed his lead.  By the late 1940s, record albums for all the major companies featured their own colorful paper covers in both 10-inch and 12-inch sizes. Some featured reproductions of classic art while others utilized original designs.

In today’s world, album art consumes of an important ritual in music culture. As a marketing tool and an expression of artistic intent, gatefold covers and inserts (often with lyrics) have made the album cover a desirable artifact in its own right.

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When the Brush Strokes Cash
It is no jaw-dropping surprise when one hears of names of famous artists who have gained international accolade through designing album sleeves. The designer company, ‘Hipgnosis’ with its sleeve genius Storm Thorgerson is a brand amongst many. Designing album covers for Pink Floyd, AC/DC and other ‘gods of music’, Thorgerson has been on the field for nearly three decades. Bands don’t always agree with his ideas. Notably, Pink Floyd picked the prism design for “Dark Side of The Moon” over a much more ambitious concept involving a silver surfer riding the tube of a huge wave. The album has sold more than 40 million copies, so the band must have had a point. Thorgerson was paid a flat fee of 600 pounds, but insists he has no regrets. At an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald, the 64-year old designer says, “Being a graphic designer is not exactly a passport to financial riches. My satisfaction is from working with bands and the fans when I meet them.”

While many may conclude his words as a flattering modesty with references from the likes of Roger Dean (famous for his Yes and Greenslade covers) and Cal Schenkel (known for Captain Beefheart’s “Trout Mask Replica” and Frank Zappa’s “We’re only in it for the Money”), one cannot help but wonder whether making music look good as opposed to sounding good is indeed an understated art. Whether listeners and customers truly look at the sleeves before picking out a record or whether it’s just another bonus that comes unappreciated.

The debate is often left to the music buffs, but international media and orthodox masses have often reacted violently to many album sleeve designs. The noted few would be Jimi Hendrix’s “Electric Ladyland”, Scorpions’ “Lovedrive”, Guns N Roses’ “Appetite for Destruction”, Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and Aerosmith’s ‘Nine Lives”.  Many designs have often been replaced by plain white paper to avoid controversies and Matchbox Twenty was even sued by Frank Torres for using his photo on their album cover. Surprisingly, labels and bands are also accused of promoting the wrong message through offensive portrayals of different things through album art.

Album Art in Bangladesh
While raising hailstorms in first-world countries across the globe, album art has also raised eyebrows within our local masses over the past decade. After the multifaceted musician Ornob designed the sleeve of his second release, “Hok Kolorob” himself, album art has held an esteemed proportion of thought amongst ardent listeners and new age artists. Be it a classy portrait of the voice inside, random group photos spaced out irregularly or a simple artwork in vibrant orange; album sleeves do catch attention amongst critics and buyers equally. Whether it influences them on picking a particular album from many is undecided, but it certainly creates a buzz amongst the fans.

“It feels good when you see an album that comes with a design you want to keep on your desk,” says 19-year old Ekram. “The fact that the band has put attention to details like creating a sleeve that catches eyes shows that the band has also put a decent effort in its music. The album is then definitely worth a few minutes of play time!”

So, what is it about a cover that makes it memorable? The Watson Brothers’ debut release “Ohom” came with a simple design on a light brown background. Yet, it is hailed as one of the classics of sleeve designing by youths who think more about music that just letting it beat their eardrums. Notably, the most anticipated releases of 2008, Black’s “Abar” and Authorhin’s “Aushampto” have both come with unique art on their cover. “Abar” came with a sleek red-and-black layout with awareness against music piracy while the latter took a chalkboard formula, haphazardly arranged in style.

“If I’m a fan as such, I will purchase that artist’s releases, even if it comes with a poor album art,” argues out 21-year old Ayesha. “However, the good design does work like a bonus. It doesn’t decide what I’m going to buy, but if it’s from a new artist I’ve not heard before with a fancy album art, I think I will be influenced enough to give that guy a shot! In a way, it tells me the artist comes with a taste!”

Thus, whether it’s the design that at all helps an artist make his or her way to your play list is a 360 degree debate that will eat up an entire issue of RS. It perhaps doesn’t help one decide, but it certainly plays a role when it comes to newbie in the music field. One of my personal favorites in sleeve designing comes from Sayan’s pitch-black album cover. Its simplicity was so striking that I picked it up from the many records that were in front of me and gave it a shot. I have not been disappointed by her soulful voice either. Endorsing Ayesha’s remark, a good album cover indicates an artist who has an equal understanding of music as well as art, and will leave our heart thumping to the beats of both.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Sydney Morning Herald

  1. #1 by James on June 19, 2009 - 2:29 am

    Thanks for the information, I’m an avid phonograph fan and have been researching (and buying) them for over 10 years now!

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