Part 2 of 2 in a collaborative project with Yuhao Zheng, aka GAWS, originally developed for a seminar on fine art markets at Duke. In part 2, we study the effects of collaboration between popular music artists and high-profile visual artists with a case study of Kanye West. In part 1, we developed a functional theory of album covers that serves as our analytic framework.
Collaboration between popular music artists and high-profile visual artists on album cover art has been a long-standing tradition in popular music. When a musician collaborates with a visual artist, they can create an artistic statement that is both memorable and coherent. This tradition has become an important aspect of the music industry.
Existing literature on album art has focused on the historical evolution of album artwork (e.g. Jones & Storger, 1999), as well as aesthetic or semiotic analysis of individual album art (Yudhanto & Risdianto, 2022). Quantitative studies have explored the relationship between album artwork and musical genre through computational or experimental methods, showing a connection between the two that is stronger in some genres than others (Libeks & Turnbull, 2011, Le, 2020). Since the resurgence in vinyl sales starting in 2008, authors have examined the role of album art in the value of legacy media. While no systematic research has been carried out on the exact relationship between artwork and vinyl sales, a survey by ICM Research showed that 27% of consumers who purchase vinyl records do not play them, suggesting nonmusical factors – such as conspicuous consumption, the desire to possess a material artifact of an iconic or well-loved album, or the aesthetic pleasure of the artwork – are highly relevant (Owen, 2014). BPI spokesman Gennaro Castaldo speculates:
An equal part of the appeal of vinyl, and one of the key reasons why a growing number of people are buying it again, is the cover art. Many album sleeves feature iconic designs that have become part of our pop culture. They help to transform an audio recording into an artifact that fans like to own, collect, and display (qtd. In Owen, 2014, n.p.).
While existing scholarship has detailed the histories, forms, and functions of album artwork, only passing attention has been given to the importance and effects of collaboration between popular music artists and high-profile visual artists.
Functions of Collaboration
Based on our functional analysis in pt. 1, we would assume that such collaborations serve several artistic and economic functions, including (1) to catch the eye of a potential consumer with the work of an established visual artist (2) to code an album's genre/style by reference to an established visual artist or art style (3) to color the musical experience of an album by incorporating the style of an established visual artist, and (3) to establish ethos with a particular culture or market.
1. Attentive function: Artwork by established and recognizable visual artists – both existing pieces (e.g. early classical releases by RCA, or the Stroke’s The New Abnormal , featuring the 1981 painting Bird on Money by Jean-Michel Basquiat) and commissioned work – can likewise catch the eye of a potential listener. Pop art is especially well suited to this, as it already incorporates elements of advertising into art. It should then be little surprise, then, that musicians have looked to pop artists from Andy Warhol to Takashi Murakami for album cover design.
2. Communicative function: Musicians may seek out collaboration with visual artists in order to code an album's genre/style by reference to an established visual artist or art style. This practice can also trace its conceptual origins to RCA’s classical covers, which sought to brand compositions with historically and stylistically appropriate paintings by well-known artists (Jones & Storger, 1999). More contemporary examples can be found, e.g. in metal music, a genre with strong visual coding; H. R. Giger and Mariusz Lewandowski are two established surrealist artists who have been sought out and commissioned for their dark, threatening, and sometimes disturbing artwork.
3. Affective function: Following the progressive rock movement, collaboration with visual artists offers an opportunity to incorporate an artist’s distinct visual style into the multimodal experience of an album. As a part of the shift toward a progressive, fine art approach in the late 1960s, musicians and visual artists began mingling at British art schools (Jones & Storger, 1999). The Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth (1967) is an early example of collaboration between famous musical artists and established visual artists, creating psychedelic imagery designed to prime the listener for the synesthetic experience of the album. These notions represent a paradigm shift from album covers as design toward album covers as artwork, accompanied on one hand by increased freedom on behalf of the musical artist to make decisions regarding the visual presentation of their work, and on the other hand by increased reliance on established fine artists to validate and execute musicians’ visions.
4. Reputational function: Since album art became widely appreciated as an object of both artistic value and marketing value, these high-profile collaborations have served both to draw attention and make an ethos appeal. For instance, the signed Warhol print on the cover of The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967) provides an immediate indication of the Velvet Underground’s relationship with Andy Warhol and their connection to the art world.
Additional reasons for this sort of collaboration might include access/availability (musical artists and visual artists often cluster in the same regions and social circles, e.g. Warhol's "Factory"), or perhaps the promotion of a visual artist by using their work on a widely distributed record.
One distinction that should be addressed before we can move on is that between art and design. Our interest here is in distinguishing the two in terms of public perception and the significance of choosing one or another to provide album artwork. We then adopt a tautological distinction between visual artist and designer: visual artists create work that is described as visual art, while designers create work that is described as design. In the case studies that follow, we define high-profile visual artists using Artsy’s “25 Most Sought-After Artists” (Lesser, 2022) (listed in Table 1 in the Appendix).
Kanye West, known for his innovative and experimental approach to music, has become one of the most popular musicians since the 2000s. Kanye has had a significant impact on popular culture, particularly in the realms of music, fashion, and art. He has collaborated with many famous visual artists throughout his career. In this study, we conduct a case study to investigate how collaborations on album covers influenced the album-selling performance of Kanye West and the career development of collaborating visual artists. In addition to the study around Kanye West, we also analyze the album-selling performance of the English rock band Blur using a similar methodology. We expect to see that collaborations benefited both the musicians and the collaborating visual artists.
The Album Performances of Kanye West and Collaborations with Visual Artists
Since the release of his debut album "The College Dropout" in 2004, Kanye West has released 11 albums featuring cover art collaborations with various visual artists. The cover art has taken two forms: eight of them are illustrations and the rest are photographs. In this study, we aim to investigate whether there is a correlation between physical album sales performance and the influence of collaborating visual artists. Our assumption is that albums with cover art collaborations with famous visual artists would sell more physical copies, after adjusting for streaming data.
Kanye West has released twelve albums: The College Dropout (2004), Late Registration (2005), Graduation (2007), 808s & Heartbreak (2008), My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010), Watch The Throne (2011), Yeezus (2013), The Life Of Pablo (2016), ye (2018), KIDS SEE GHOSTS (2018) - which is an EP, not a full album - and JESUS IS KING (2019) and Donda (2021). However, we exclude KIDS SEE GHOSTS from our study, even though the cover art was created by Takashi Murakami, a famous Japanese artist who also made the cover art for Kanye West's Graduation album in 2007. Furthermore, we also exclude JESUS IS KING and Donda from the study due to the lack of streaming data.
To account for factors such as time and the general performance of the album, we normalize the physical album sales data from BestSellingAlbums.org by dividing it by the equivalent album sold (EAS). EAS is a weighted sum of the album's streaming data on Spotify and YouTube. Spotify has 157 million of the 272 million users of streaming platforms, and YouTube is the only revenue-generating video platform for the music industry. Based on the calculation method mentioned in CSPC: Sales & Formulas Fixing Log - Updated Audio Streaming Numbers, 1,500 audio streams are equal to 1 album unit, and 11,750 video views are equal to 1 album unit. Therefore, the EAS is calculated as follows: EAS = (272/157) * (Spotify streams / 1500) + (YouTube views / 11750) as shown in Table 2.
The album covers were created by various artists. In this study, we divide albums into two groups: "covers made by the top 25 most sought-after artists and then-popular designers" and "the others." In the first category, we include the artworks by the top 25 most sought-after artists and already-influential designers at the time of album release, which are Graduation, 808s & Heartbreak, My Beautiful Dark Fantasy, and Watch The Throne. Graduation, one of the most famous collaborations between the two industries, was made by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, and My Beautiful Dark Fantasy was made by George Condo. Watch The Throne was made by Riccardo Tisci, who was the designer of the French luxury brand Givenchy. Although the original version of 808s & Heartbreak was created by the in-house designer of Def Jam Records, Kris Yiengst, famous American artist KAWS created a special version of the album cover. As a result, we categorize 808s & Heartbreak into "covers made by the top 25 most sought-after artists and then-popular designers." While the album cover of Yeezus was designed by famous designer Virgil Abloh, who later became the executive designer of the French luxury brand Louis Vuitton, the artist was not influential when the album was released.
After comparing the "Copies Sold / EAS" ratio, we found that all of the top six "Copies Sold / EAS" albums, except for The College Dropout and Late Registration, are in the category "cover made by the top 25 most sought-after artists and then-popular designers," and the last four are all from "the others," as shown in Graph 1. The exceptional album-selling performances of The College Dropout and Late Registration could be explained by two reasons. First, those were the first two albums by Kanye West, so many fans purchased the physical copies as collections. Second, since those two albums were released before 2005, their practical album-selling performance is better than the albums released after streaming became the major way of music consumption, as the historical data from RIAA shows.
Based on the results of the study, we can conclude that Kanye West's albums with covers collaborated with famous visual artists sell more physical copies than the rest of Kanye's albums in general.
Career Development of Visual Artists and Collaborations with Kanye West
Other than the benefits of the performances of physical albums sold, we also want to know if collaborations with Kanye West have a positive influence on the career development of the collaborating visual artists.
The ART Power 100 is an annual ranking of the most influential people, events, and organizations in the global art world. The list includes artists, curators, collectors, museum directors, art critics, and other figures who have significantly contributed to the art industry in the past year. Among the visual artists who collaborated with Kanye West, only KAWS, Takashi Murakami, George Condo, and Virgil Abloh were previously ranked on ART Power 100.
In Graph 2, the horizontal axis shows the number of years after the collaborations. Zero on the horizontal axis is the year of the release of the collaborating album. Negative numbers are the years before the collaborations, and positive numbers are the years after the collaborations. The vertical line shows the ranking of the artists by ART Power 100.
As shown in Graph 2, although we cannot be sure if there is a causal relationship between the collaboration with Kanye West and the ranking on ART Power 100, all the collaborated artists mentioned above had a continued rise in ART Power 100 after the release of the collaborating albums.
Additional Case Study: Collaborations of Blur’s Album Cover
Using a similar methodology as earlier, we conducted a case study on one of the most famous English rock bands, Blur. However, due to limitations in the available data, we used Spotify streaming data instead of EAS in our calculations. Table 3 in the Appendix shows the results of our analysis.
Out of all the official albums released by Blur between 1991 and 2003, only THINK TANK (2003) has a "cover made by the top 25 most sought-after artists and then-popular designers," which was designed by Banksy.
From Table 2, we can observe that THINK TANK had a better performance compared to other Blur albums in the late 1990s and early 2000s. However, it is worth noting that some of the early albums from the early 1990s also had good physical-copy-selling performances since physical copies were the primary means of music consumption during that time.
From the quantitative studies above, we can learn that collaborations could benefit both physical album sales and the career development of the collaborating visual artists, even though we cannot assert if there are causal relationships.
The limitation of the quantitative case study is that we don’t have full access to the data. If we could have access to the complete album-selling data and streaming data, we would be able to improve the methodology and remove more noise from the performance index.
In Takashi Murakami’s “Super Flat Manifesto,” the artist describes an aesthetic trajectory that collapses the distinction between art and entertainment, mirroring the cultural “flattening” of postwar Japan (2000). Murakami’s work situates itself in the tradition of Japanese fine art but draws heavily from manga style for its speed, energy, and calibrated control over the viewer’s gaze as it moves through a two-dimensional space. Kanye West became a media personality during his ascent in the 2000s, engaging in provocative rhetorical tactics to control media attention (Bailey, 2014). In reimagining the “Dropout Bear” for Graduation, Murakami not only illustrates the flattening of Kanye that coincides with his “graduation” from the music industry and newfound superstardom but performatively demonstrates the attentive effects of such a flattening through the use of vibrant colors and lines of force. Murakami and West both employ the aesthetic codes of popular media and advertising to penetrate an informationally oversaturated, cutthroat media culture.
One of Kanye West’s most powerful rhetorical devices throughout his career has been controversy. Often, this has taken the form of a diatribe, or “use of shock and offensiveness in order to call attention to a larger societal issue that requires productive discussion” (Biedenharn, 2011, 21). However, because much of West’s lyrical content involves confronting controversial political and social issues, his use of shock tactics to call attention to societal issues cannot be divorced from his use of shock tactics for marketing. In collaborating with George Condo for the cover of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West was reportedly interested in a painting explicit enough to get the album banned in stores in order to generate controversy and publicity (Michaels, 2011). However, commissioning several pieces and sometimes distributing the album with alternate artwork allowed West to enjoy the attentive effects of controversy while retailers still carried and sold the album.
While making only limited appeals to genre codes, West’s collaborations do hint at the stylistic developments present in his albums. For instance, the art for MBDTF exemplifies George Condo’s style of “artificial realism,” evoking traditional portraiture and a lineage of figurative painters in order to render fantastic mirrors of reality (Weaver, 2020). The work depicts a naked harpy-like figure crouching atop West, who reclines on a couch with a beer in his hand. The debauched and distorted scene effectively foreshadows the music, which was praised by critics on release for its maximalism, its grandiosity, and its effective efforts to dismantle any existing notions of “good taste” (Gill, 2010).
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was released on the heels of several controversies, including West’s interruption of Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. The artificial realism of the album’s art suggests a degree of irony and self-awareness in West’s lyrical braggadocio, encouraging listeners to interpret the album as an introspective study of West’s controversial and confrontational behavior in the media. In addition to the effect that the art has on the experience of the music, the iconicity of the red background is noteworthy. As one critic attests, “[MBDTF] virtually changed this color red to me […] nothing needs to be on the cover for me to recognize it” (Converse With Me, 2019). The affective function of album artwork goes both ways: an image may color an album’s affective tone and inform musical perception, but an album’s music may also colonize a particular image in popular culture, as in the case of famous works like Hipgnosis’s prism design for Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon (1973).
Of the four albums for which Kanye collaborated with an established visual artist, our results show that Takashi Murakami and George Condo ranked among the 100 most influential artists in the world, while KAWS and Virgil Abloh each broke the chart within three years of the collaboration. The stylistic and subcultural diversity of these artists indicates West was not making an appeal to a specific demographic by working with established artists, but may have chosen these artists in an act of conspicuous collaboration in order to benefit from their reputation as established artists or rising stars.
Blur's collaboration with Banksy on Think Tank (2003) offers a more overt illustration of the representational function of album art. By decorating their album with a commissioned painting by a politically active graffiti artist, the collaboration represents an appeal to an activist ethos, coinciding with the political themes of the album and songwriter Damon Albarn’s public opposition to the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. Simultaneously, the presence of artwork by the famously reclusive and anti-capitalist Banksy serves as a testament to the band’s influence and the quality of the album.
Limitations & Trajectories
The main limitation that should be addressed is the non-generalizability of the study. These case studies are chart-topping musicians chosen for the high-profile nature of their collaborations. Rather, the primary contribution of this study has been to illustrate and theorize, through both qualitative and quantitative methods, a particular interdisciplinary phenomenon in the music and arts industries. With this microscopic foundation, future scholarship may formally outline and more rigorously quantify the phenomenon at a macroscopic scale.
Future research can test the hypothesis that the short-term benefits of collaboration will be more pronounced in legacy mediums (especially vinyl record sales, where the artwork is the first impression and which, today, are valued less for musical content and more as aesthetic objects) and negligible in online and streaming. Long-term benefits emerge as a result of brand building, contingent on the suitability of the artwork – e.g. Murakami's "Dropout Bear" proved to be iconic and fitting to Kanye's brand, while Metallica's two collaborations with Andres Serrano were a departure and received mixed reception.
An emerging issue that may be worth examining in the context of our economic-rhetorical understanding of album art is the phenomenon of AI album art. While there are still some limits to computational approaches to album art identification and creation, AI-generated art is gaining momentum as an accessible alternative to commissioned art. This is most relevant to genres with well-defined and computationally “easy” visual codes. For instance, computer models have little trouble identifying metal, EDM, pop, and contemporary Christian music by album cover (Libek & Turnbull, 2011). However, they struggle with categorizing country and rap music, which humans are effective at identifying. We predict that the former genres are more likely to see AI artwork proliferate in the near future.
This study demonstrates that commissioning album artwork from established visual artists can generate both economic and artistic value. In addition to simply protecting physical recordings, album artwork functions to capture the attention of consumers (attentive function), indicate the genre and style of a record (communicative function), provide visual context for the musical experience of a record (affective function), and establish credibility (reputational function). Our case studies of Kanye West and Blur show that, accounting for variables like the popularity or quality of music, albums with covers designed by well-known artists sell more physical copies than album covers designed by lesser-known artists or designers. We suggest that such collaborations generate a combination of economic and aesthetic value. Musical artists seek out collaborations with well-known visual artists in order to catch the eye of a potential listener with the work of a famous artist, to code an album's genre/style by reference to an established visual artist or art style, to color the musical experience of an album by incorporating the style of an established visual artist, and/or to signal prestige through a relationship with a reputable artist – a phenomenon we describe as conspicuous collaboration. Our methodology and results help to further an understanding of economic rhetoric, in which aesthetics and marketing are treated as inseparable movements within a persuasive ecology of attention and effect.
Table 1: 25 Most Sought-after Artists (Lesser, 2022)
Table 2: Physical Album Selling Performances of Kanye West (Bestselling Albums, 2023)
Table 3: Physical Album Selling Performances of Blur (Bestselling Albums, 2023)
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