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Why Album Artwork Is Still Relevant Even in a Digital Age

ShopTalk Designer, Nathan Wilkinson, talks about the relevance of album artwork in the modern world where music listening is dominated by digital downloads and audio streaming.
We’ve all browsed through records (or CDs, remember those?) and bought an album without having heard of the band/artist or their music simply because we liked the artwork, right? Perhaps more relatable with the pre-Spotify generation or the vinyl purist. The majority of us now mainly browse through tiny squares of artwork on our phones, and we’re pushed towards “things we think you’ll like” based on our listening algorithms as opposed to eye-catching artwork. So how relevant is album art in the world of digital downloads and audio streaming?
Circa 2007, I had some time to kill while waiting for a train so made a beeline for the local music shop and came across an album (well, it’s technically classed an EP or ‘mini-album’ as it clocks in at under 20 minutes running time) by a Canadian band called Tokyo Police Club. I’d never heard of them, but the album artwork jumped out – it was intriguing, thought-provoking and just looked cool: a Noma Bar-influenced illustration of a burning city skyscraper that blurred the lines between positive and negative space complete with a robot and a Zeppelin, with red Saul Bass-style cut-out type placed next to it. Fast-forward almost fifteen years and it still makes my top five all-time album list.

 

“The album artwork jumped out – it was intriguing, thought – provoking and just looked cool.”
Album art has always been much more than just a marketing and promotional tool, at least for the band or artist anyway. It’s a visual expression of the artist and the themes and emotions expressed in their music. For the fans it’s the romance of opening and unfolding the artwork; it’s reading the printed lyrics of the songs like a book of poetry whilst trying to connect the dots between words and visuals; and it’s owning a piece of physical artwork. Portuguese design studio Degrau recently created artwork for Bicep’s 12’’ vinyl release ‘Atlas’, using abstract sculptures to signify different emotional states triggered by listening to music (Techno, specifically). The artwork was designed to work across all communications, from on screen, to packaging, to live set performances, blurring the lines between digital and physical objects. For the launch of their album, they created an immersive experience by turning their artwork into an Instagram filter through Augmented Reality, inviting the listener to interact with them.
The way the listener experiences music might have changed, but the lust for the visual realm is still very much present even in a digital age. Spotify recently launched Canvas which essentially allows artists to further express themselves and engage with their listeners by using a short loop of either video or moving artwork. Similar to Bicep, LA pop rock group Haim created an immersive experience where fans could point their Instagram camera at the album artwork, revealing an AR filter allowing the user to customise the visuals, which in turn influenced the sound played. Graphic designer turned indie beat-maker Tom Vek took a slightly different approach to merging the digital-physical world by designing a prototype called Sleevenote – a portable music player shaped and sized like a 7” record with a digital screen that displays the album cover and allows the user to view and “hold” the artwork as they listen to it.

 

“While interactive and moving artwork is on trend, it’s certainly nothing new.”

 

Whilst interactive and moving artwork is on trend, it’s certainly nothing new. In 1967 the inaugural album by The Velvet Underground featured a fully peelable banana (well, an illustration of a banana by Andy Warhol); The Rolling Stones’ album ‘Sticky Fingers’ featured a fully working zip on a picture of a pair of jeans (revealing a pair of pants when unzipped); and Explosions in the Sky’s ‘Take Care, Take Care, Take Care’ album folded out into a cardboard box house complete with front door and garden.

Album artwork has certainly lost some, if not most, of its relevance, and physical copies are now merely just merchandise for record labels. But for the vinyl purists, lovers of all things print, and the bands, artists and musicians, album art will always be relevant.
By Nathan Wilkinson