Growing up as a music fan in the 80’s, I can tell you nothing got me more excited that running to the record shop, rummaging through bins, and finding the crispest, craziest album I could find. The thrill of buying a new record and the beauty of its design were always so special to me. Little did I know that my love for cover art was somewhat of a new phenomenon.
Before 1938, records were sold in cardboard sleeves or covered in brown paper. Sometimes they would have handwritten descriptions of the album or the producer’s name, but very little decoration adorned the sleek black vinyl. That is until 23 year old graphic designer Alex Steinweiss was hired as Columbia Records first art director and convinced the Imperial Theater to change its promotional lettering for a photo. The photo, used on the “Smash Song Hits by Rodgers & Hart” boosted record sales over 900% and started a worldwide craze for album artwork.
While the Jazz Era records focused on bright colors and bold face typography, the mid 1950’s introduced a shift into photography that changed the game. Groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones employed local artists or art school favorites to photograph them in increasingly wild, unique, and creative poses or places. These images became synonymous with the albums they released- the art as important as the music in how these records were marketed, sold, and enjoyed.
As the world turned to downloads and streaming in the 2000’s, many thought that the importance of album design would fade. If anything, it’s gotten even more creative. Now, with the advent of photoshop, the digital age has allowed artists to break an unimaginable layer and take on any sort of animated, wacky, pixelated look they want. Spotify even allow for video snippets from music videos to play on a loop and express even more of a personality behind the song.
While I sometimes miss the nostalgia of holding a singular piece of art in my hands like I did as a kid, I continue to be amazed with how these artists expand the possibilities of art and music being melded together.