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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

The Demise of Album Cover Art

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

The organization called Strategies for Media Literacy in San Francisco reported recently that 57% of all music purchased these days is in the form of compact discs, and 40% is on cassette. You don't have to be a math whiz to realize that this means only about 3% of the music sold these days is on vinyl LP's.

While probably none of us but the most sophisticated audiophile mourns the demise of record albums (I'm told that they sound "warmer" and "truer" when played on equipment costing 8 ginzillion dollars), I am certainly going to miss the album covers.

For a while, there was a true "marriage" of two very distinct and different media -- art and music. In their heyday, LP covers were an outlet for experimentation, art, fun, social comment, and the power of the visual image to sell you the music that was contained therein.

It's over, I guess. The "cover" of a CD is about 14% of the size of a record album; the artwork on a cassette box is just 7% as big. That's barely enough space to put the name of the artist, much less some breathtaking or unusual artwork.

I've found out that most of us (those of us over 30, that is) have our favorite album covers. I'll bet that YOU do. (Quick! What's your favorite album cover? The one you choose is less important than the fact that you have one.) There are even art books dedicated to this dying art form.

When I asked one friend about her favorite album cover, she immediately suggested the Chicago cover that looked like a chocolate bar. Another said that the fold-out Ultimate Spinach sleeve which showed a huge single leaf of spinach was her favorite. (but maybe she's a vegetarian).

For probably about 20 years or so (from the mid-sixties to the mid-eighties), the covers of record albums reflected the diversity, imagination, and creativity of the times.

A quick trip through an aging (and dusty) record collection dredges up the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper, with those sixty-some people on the cover. Or the unnamed White Album which was a statement in minimalism -- just a completely white sleeve with "The Beatles" embossed in small letters in the corner.

Many album covers had striking images, nearly poster-quality artwork of flying guitars that look like spaceships, geometric designs interwoven with doves and shadows of a million other things, large black-and-white snarling tigers or extreme color close-ups of the artist which were quite nearly life-sized (My own favorite is a Judy Collins cover which reveals her eyes to be a shade a blue I have never ever seen before . . . or since).

Bob Dylan painted a self-portrait for the cover of his Self Portrait album (fitting, huh?). Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash and others painted or photographed or carefully designed their own album covers.

The Bee Gees issued Odessa in a red velvet-covered sleeve. The Rolling Stones put one album in an octagonal cover, and one of Rod Stewart's covers was in the shape of a whiskey shot glass.

Certainly, it was all about merchandising, all about catching your eye in the record store, all about using 144 square inches to get your attention, whet your appetite, get you to buy. It was also, though, this unique marriage of music and artwork.

No, art does not need music to survive, nor vice versa. Each will continue on its own way and might even team up again sometime in the future for another intensely creative (and mutually beneficial) collaboration.

While it lasted this time, though -- while it worked -- it was wonderful.

It was a kind of very early, very crude "multi-media." Pictures and sound.

So while we may not mourn the passing of those twelve inch vinyl records ("Try putting another penny on the tonearm to keep it from skipping"), I am sorry to see music covers get so small that the artwork needs to be kept simple. And often unimaginative.

Yeah, time and technology march on. And sometimes they leave something behind.

Bill Walsh is the A/V Media Specialist at Billerica High School, Billerica, MA.