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The Art of the LP Cover and the Digital Music Upheaval

Somebody pointed me at LP Cover Lover a few days ago. Go ahead and take a look. You might get stuck there for a while like I did; it’s pretty fun. There are a lot of funny oddball covers over there, but there are some shining examples of beautiful LP cover design, too. Come back when you’re done.

Okay. We listen to a lot of music at Mule. All of us have strong feelings about it, we have detailed conversations about the weirdest aspects, we understand critical differences between minor subgenres. But the thing that doesn’t get talked about much is the artwork. Which is a shame, because I remember I used to have excited conversations with my friends about a favorite band’s new album and wondering what the cover would look like. Of course, this was when albums were 12\” disks of vinyl that came in pressboard covers. Other than some indie labels that painstakingly create amazing covers for each release (Catbird Records, for example), I can’t remember the last time I gave a crap what a CD cover looked like.

I never felt a terrible sense of loss at the rise of the CD over the LP as a medium of sound transmission. I understand the arguments — it just never made that much difference to me, maybe because of the ear-shattering music I listened to for so long. No, the big loss for me was the album cover. The vast expanse of a 12\” square gives a designer a lot of room to work with, and people have done amazing and astonishing things with that room. Just browsing through the site linked above can show you that. Great album covers are not just beautiful designs: they’re art. CD packaging is almost always just that: packaging that has to be designed.

Flipping through a stack of LPs (or even 45s) is infinitely more satisfying thank trying to flip through a stack of CDs. The attempted marketing of the case by the CD manufacturers — calling it a “jewel box”, as though it held a precious gem — always seemed disingenuous. They’re hard plastic with sharp corners that shatter into ugly pieces when they break and the booklets are not a comfortable or compelling size to hold or read. They’re more like instruction manuals.

Mike and I have done a few LP/CD/CS covers. A friend of ours ran a little indie record label in the early ’90s and we did his covers to pad our portfolios and because it was fun. Most of the time the band would have a pretty clear idea of what they wanted and we just had to execute it, making sure that everything fit into the three formats (we were still doing cassettes back then) and that the negatives were correct before sending them off to the distributor who took care of the printing. I like to think that we were contientious about how the cover looked at CD size as well as LP size (we really didn’t worry much about the cassette — we’d just squeeze it in there), but when the printed covers came back, it was always the LP that looked best. I always wanted to try to figure out how to package a CD in a 12\” gatefold cover, but indie label budgets don’t allow for that kind of shenanigans.

As digital music distribution takes precedence over physical objects, are we looking at the demise of album art altogether? Liberating the music from a particular physical format is great for the music and the musicians: the focus is on the artist and his or her aural art, not on some post-post-post-post-modern designer’s font choice. But I’d like to think that that liberation could lead to renaissance in music-related art.

As much as I like the idea of the music standing on its own, I can’t deny my own love of the visual associations I have between beloved albums and their LP covers. And seminal labels like Blue Note had just as much impact on visual aesthetics as on music. I like what Radiohead did with In Rainbows: sell the digital music, but also make a really nicely packaged set of vinyl avaiable. I’m working on an EP cover right now and the band will be taking that same approach.

I don’t know if an online experience can ever take the place of those 12\” covers, but I’d love to see someone release an album (or whatever a set of music should be called now) that had a compelling visual component. Where’s that going to come from?

About Mule Design Studio

Mule creates delightful interfaces, strong identities, and clear voices for useful systems and nice people.
Also, We are funnier than all other designers.


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