While MP3s and streaming services may have changed the face of music listening beyond recognition, there are still many who place great importance on a well-designed album cover. Even if the days of records being intrinsically linked to the visuals on the large canvas that is the vinyl sleeve are perhaps long gone, there is still a certain joy in having a well-organised collection of music on your smart phone with the appropriate artwork making an appearance during your favourite tracks.
There is a proud tradition in album artwork with many of rock and pop’s most iconic albums being defined as much by the picture on the sleeve as the music within. When we think of The Beatles’ classic Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club band, the pop art image created by Peter Blake will be the first thing that comes to mind. Likewise the classic image of the swimming baby chasing the dollar bill on the front of Nirvana’s Nevermind.
Thankfully, this lineage is being continued by artists and designers around the world who are passionate about music as well as visual art. The Studio spoke to three artists who are working in the field. Scot Bendall, founder and creative director at design studio La Boca told us about the process of creating an album sleeve: ‘The process will vary depending on the artist, the management and the record label, but an essential first step will always be to listen to the music.
‘If we have access to the band we like to discuss things like their inspiration and influences, and if they have anything specific they want to communicate with the music. We just try to find out as much background information to the album as we can really.
‘The process is usually more successful if the band are fully involved, but still leave us enough space to solve the problem of creating the cover. The extreme ends of that spectrum are them being too involved, or even worse, not being involved at all, we’ve experienced both!’
Dan Hillier produced the cover for the highly successful debut album from British rock band Royal Blood, and he explained how he has moved from working a lot on album design to concentrating on working on his own work to sell directly: ‘I’ve done a few covers for bands, such as The Broken Family Band, Singing Adams and Losers over the years, but it’s not something that I’ve made any beeline for. I was especially interested in making artwork for music years ago and it’s really nice to do it from time to time now, but I mainly just make my own work to sell for the most part.’
The process of creating the cover for Royal Blood involved a collaborative process with the band who are fans of Hillier’s illustrations: ‘They actually asked me to make a new piece for the album which I did (http://www.danhillier.com/artwork/crown-screen-print), but then decided that they’d rather use one that I’d already made, called Pachamama. Mike [Kerr, Bass/Vocals] particularly liked it and I think they decided they wanted something more feminine than the one I’d made to complement the quite male sound of the music.’
While many album covers become inextricably linked to the sound of the album, it seems that not all designers believe it is important to faithfully reflect the sound of the music itself, ‘Artwork that is good and stands up on its own and doesn’t try to illustrate the music too much, that’s also intriguing or fun and doesn’t give too much away,’ said Hillier. However, artist James Lakes who has worked on a number of records and is part of the group who put together the influential blog Melt, takes a different approach: ‘I think a strong representation of the music is key. And keeping things refined. Sometimes the simpler, the better.’ Lake talked us through his process when designing an album cover, ‘It starts with a few good listens to the album. Try and get a feel for it in its entirety.
‘I then try and transmute that feeling into some kind of textural background and shape composition. It’s at this point I start listening to the album again, try to work out a colour palette. From there it’s a lot of messing around until it really works and something pops out at you.’
Bendall’s philosophy falls somewhere in between the aforementioned opinions: ‘I think a successful cover feels like it’s accompanying the music. The ultimate cover is when it really feels like an addition to the music rather than simply something which packages it. The cover should be an extension of the album, not an interpretation of the music. It’s about creating a visual form that connects the artist with an audience.’ Bendall, whose studio has worked with such artists as Muse, Bombay Bicycle Club and Simian Mobile Disco also has the following advice for aspiring designers:
‘First, very important: don’t design for music to make money, because you most often will be disappointed, and secondly, a cover designer’s job is to create a visual link between the artist and audience, never let your own creative satisfaction get in the way of that, you’re not designing for yourself.’
So different approaches to album cover design give us the wonderful range of artwork we see today. Long may the tradition of marrying these two creative outlets continue no matter what way we consume our favourite tunes.
Do you have a favourite album cover? Let me know in the comment section below.