The Art of the Album Cover

In high school I was a huge fan of Elton John, The King of Glitter Rock, and so was my friend Tamara. Our birthdays are only a few days apart so we bought each other copies of the then-just released Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy album. It was released, by the way, on the day of my birthday in 1975, which in my teenage mind filled it with no small amount of symbolism. I played it and flipped it and played it and flipped it and played it and flipped it until my mom begged me for mercy. It was my favorite album for a long time, partly because of my love for all things Elton, but also because of all the stuff that came with the album.

This was the heyday of the concept album—the theme of Captain Fantastic being a recounting of Elton and Bernie’s struggling early days—and this album was chock-a-block with all manner of goodies: inserts, a double cover with photos of the band, a wall poster and two 16-page booklets, one of lyrics and photos and one of memorabilia of their early career, an unheard-of feast for any fan. I spent hours flipping, playing, and feasting on every piece of minutia.

For decades nothing could match the creative frontier of the vast, one-foot square piece of real estate the LP afforded. A perfect marriage of two distinct media, art and music, combined to become not only a marketing tool to sell music, but also a powerful form of social commentary. Musicians and artists used the medium to produce iconic images that captured the zeitgeist of their generation. Many readers can easily recall album covers that stir memories of a certain time in their life and that have no doubt come to symbolize that period, especially during one’s high school and college years.

In 1982 the first CD was released, which shrank the available real estate to a 4 3/4″ square, and in 2001 the iPod and digital downloads further reduced the cherished artform to a 1″ thumbnail and rendered album artwork all but irrelevant. The budget allowance for development of album artwork for a major record label also shrank from $100,000 per album at its peak to under $10,000 today. It’s not just that technology has changed cover art, it’s that the youth culture that drives all new music has changed. Music no longer functions as the only source for their self-schema. In the past, youth used musical subcultures as role models and guides to determine how they saw themselves in the world and how they differentiated themselves from their parent’s generation. If music matters less to the way youth define themselves today it’s because they have social media to do the job. This powerful new medium has replaced much of what was the only form of expression for previous generations. And with the decline of music’s preeminent role in youth culture, so declines the need for the iconic art that helped define it.

I don’t want to sound like one of those people who bemoan the passing of the telegraph or the buggy whip but I will miss my feasts.

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Enjoy a few memorable covers:

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Filed under Creativity, Graphic Design, Package Design

11 responses to “The Art of the Album Cover

  1. anita comeau

    Oh those were the days when both visual arts and music were merged into beautiful albums. We would take out the vinyl and listen the recording artist’s magnificent pieces while looking at the incredible work of the graphic designer… masterpieces of music and art!

    • Paul Sanderson

      Thanks for your comment. A physical album really does enhance the experience because it involves more than one of the senses.

  2. Tamara Preston

    It’s wonderful to think the gift and story we share has also contributed to our sense of self and personal history, which in turn, has helped to shape us as artists. Music and the art created to heighten the experience of listening to music has been replaced by the digital experience and social networking and it is a loss that should be mentioned. Thank you.

    • Paul Sanderson

      It shows that even small vignettes of the past really do contribute to who we are today. In retrospect, it was a great time to come of age, although I imagine most people feel that way about the times in which they grew up.

  3. This LP had been one of my favourite for some times, and I completely agree with the changes conveyed by the disappearance of the LP covers, pity. CD companies are trying to patch it up by selling the plastic disc inside book like covers, but the original magic is gone.

  4. Steve

    Great tribute to album covers, and to one of the great ones.

    Do you know the name of the typeface used for the lyrics on Captain Fantastic? It seemed so classy at the time and today I think it really captures something about the Seventies.

  5. I, too, received this masterpiece for my birthday, albeit my 8th, a little earlier than yourself. I almost didn’t get it due to the artwork, but a cool aunt wasn’t afraid to indulge her niece. I have written about this album SO much, and yet, just as I discover some nuance I missed in previous explorations of the music, lyrics and/or art, I find something new each time I discuss it. The entire process of getting an album, unwrapping it, placing it on the turntable, ever so gently putting needle to groove, then settling down to unfold each new treasure of a lyric, unexpected percussion, pictures, etc, is incomparable to any kind of music acquisition I have today.

    I guess the biggest difference is that the old way seared the album into our very being: today when I get free music from Google Play, I don’t even KNOW that much about most of the artists. I could like a song very much, but it’s just a song. It’s muzak, background sound with no particular connection.

    I stumbled upon your site because I was either going to blog about it myself or make a collage video for YouTube after watching American Idol with my daughter. Correlation? A brief interlude had similar notes to “Bitter Fingers” and I paused to compare at least 4 times! My daughter took piano and plays beautifully, and has an ear for the notes. She agreed with me that AI did in fact do either a blatant ripoff or something with one different note to get out of paying royalty fees or even getting permission. Unfortunately for her, it led me to a diatribe! This is one subject where I have to stop myself before I get all worked up and start sounding like an angry professor teaching “Albums 101”.

    Anyway, THANK-YOU for this lovely piece you wrote! I know many who would agree with you, and if I DO end up putting Capatain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy on my blog, I WILL put a link to this page.

    Diane Kratofil

    • paulsanderson

      Thank you so much for your insightful comments, I’m glad my article resonated with you. What occurred to me after reading your piece was that discovering missed nuances of favorite music happens because we change—I can recall music I loved in high school or college that, the meaning of which, went right over my head because I wasn’t mature enough to grasp it or hadn’t the life experience to appreciate its deeper meaning. Funny how age and circumstance can do that. It’s wonderful that you can share your love and critique of music with your daughter.

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