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Functions of Album Artwork

Part 1 of 2 in a collaborative project with Yuhao Zheng, aka GAWS, originally developed for a seminar on fine art markets at Duke. In part 1, we trace the genealogy of album cover art in order to extract its rhetorical functions. 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.

The Velvet Underground & Nico

Early History: 1910s-'50s

Protective record sleeves first became widespread in the 1910s. Nicknamed "tombstones," early designs were fairly dry and minimalist, often featuring a hole in the center to show off the more decorative label on the inside. More aesthetically interesting alternatives made their way into the market in the form of the album box, featuring multiple vinyl records presented like a photo album, often used for longer classical pieces. Often, images of the composer were used to identify the piece. Labels like RCA experimented with more decorative covers for these album boxes starting in the ‘30s, branding their classical releases with paintings and often choosing genre- and era-appropriate works of art to communicate information about the music. While this early integration of visual art into music branding paved the way for future developments, the practice of decorating album covers with recognizable artwork offered little financial reward and failed to gain momentum.

It wasn’t until the 1940s – coinciding with the rise of self-service record stores – that American record labels began to refine their marketing tactics and consistently produce captivating record artwork. Colombia designer Alex Steinweiss pioneered a poster-like style of album artwork, designed to catch the eye and translate the music into a visual representation. Influenced by modern art movements and incorporating elements of formal design, Steinweiss thought an image of the composer would mean little to the average consumer and instead believed that the visual appearance of a record album should reflect and evoke the music (Heller, 2010). His work quickly became influential in jazz and popular music, and the artwork he created for Columbia proved to be highly profitable, with increased sales (as much as 800% or more in some cases) easily surpassing the additional costs of design and printing (White, 2014). During this era, designers like Steinweiss, Jim Flora, and S Neil Fujita, alongside adventurous record executives would establish the theoretical principles of the album art design, suggesting that it served several important marketing and artistic functions beyond the utilitarian protective function. These included catching the attention of consumers in a record store as well as communicating information about the music contained within through visual metaphors and genre conventions.

The introduction and widespread adoption of the 33rpm LP by Colombia in 1948 led to several developments in album cover design. First, the vinyl microgroove LP was much more delicate than its rough shellac 78rpm predecessor but could contain over four times as much recorded audio. This led to a new form of packaging: the folded cardboard album sleeve, developed by Steinweiss. Second, because a single record could now contain about 44 minutes of recorded audio across both sides, the album emerged as a distinct form of expression in popular music, facilitating the emergence of progressive rock.

George Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue album art
George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (1942) artwork by Alex Steinweiss

Teleological Rock: 1960s-'80s

The notion of popular music (as distinct from art music, or "serious music," like classical) emerged from the radical changes brought about by recording technology and the record as a commodity. Just as the production and distribution models of classical music (e.g. delineation between the duties of composer and performer, consumption of live music realized by professional musicians) have been shaped by the sheet music publishing industry, popular music is fundamentally entwined with the art of the recorded sound artifact (Frith, 2001). The profound impact of the record was based on its ability to capture the materiality of a performance in a physical medium and reproduce it. Instead of selling instructions which would be realized by trained musicians at a concert venue (or by skilled amateurs at home), the record industry could sell specific sounds and distinct moments in time to unprecedented masses of non-elite, non-expert consumers, able to be replayed anywhere at any time. Combined with the complementary invention of the electric microphone, this produced both a new way of consuming music and demand for a new type of music which would be designed specifically for recording, a genre characterized by careful control of a specific sonic event and previously impossible levels of intimacy in the performance, particularly in the voice. Following jazz, rock music was the darling of the popular music industry during the 1950s and ‘60s. In the ‘60s, however, the rock movement became ideologically invested in notions of authenticity and personal expression derived both from 19th-century art music and folk music (Warner, 2003; Frith, 2007). Freed from this cult of authenticity, “pop music” came to describe a cyclical movement of genres marked by artificiality and directed toward accessibility and listener effect – for this reason, pop music more closely resembles a pattern of consumption than a distinct musical tradition. Progressive movements, in contrast, saw rock as a teleological art form and drew inspiration from “art music” like classical and jazz. This involved long-form compositions and emphasis on the album as a comprehensive work, enabled by the LP record.

Intertwined with the new musical affordances of the 33rpm LP were a set of new theoretical approaches to album artwork. The psychedelic and acid rock bands of the mid-late ‘60s sought to simultaneously evoke, enhance, and capture the sublime experience of psychedelic drugs. Due in part to a growing awareness of the effects of media culture and in part due to the synesthetic effects of psychedelics like LSD, musicians and artists alike began to more seriously consider music to be a multimodal experience, highlighting an additional function of the album sleeve beyond simply protecting and marketing the record (Jones & Storger, 1999). Album artwork colors the affective tone of an album's music and, conversely, comes to signify the music.

The Beatles – Revolver album art
The Beatles – Revolver (1966) artwork by Klaus Voormann

Digital Distribution: 1990s-present

The original functions of the album cover are a product of the material situation of music recording and distribution. The conventions of album artwork were set during a time when the artwork was intended to be printed on 10" or 12” record sleeves, and when this image was often the first means by which a user could interface with the music therein. With the advent of cassettes, CDs, and digital distribution, the album cover has been maintained as a simulacra. While the traditions and conventions of album art have stuck, new affordances and limitations have been introduced. For example, Warhol's design for the Rolling Stones's Sticky Fingers (1971) – featuring a model in jeans with a working zipper on the sleeve – would no longer be possible with digital distribution. On the other hand, online distribution allows artists to experiment in other ways, as in the case of Childish Gambino's Because the Internet (2013), which uses an animated GIF as an album cover. In addition to the physical limitations and affordances, different marketing concerns must be addressed. With online music streaming, album artwork is no longer the first interface between a potential consumer and the music (largely replaced by algorithmic suggestions), so the importance of genre encoding and artwork as visual context are emphasized. Further, the smaller size (10-12” down to less than a centimeter in streaming libraries) introduces design constraints. In order to optimize for streaming, album artwork cannot be too informationally dense and must make sense both up close and at a distance.

Despite the paradigm shift introduced by digital streaming, legacy mediums like vinyl – both new releases and used records – continue to represent a substantial segment of the music industry. According to a user study of music database and marketplace Discogs, their 10 million users own an average of 184 recordings with an average total collection value of $3,160 (Digiacomo, 2021). In comparison, $13.4 billion of global streaming revenue was split between 414.4 million global streaming subscribers in 2020 (Musical Pursuits, 2022), for an average annual expense of $32.3. Because this is a sample of Discogs users, these statistics vastly underrepresent the total number of legacy media consumers and likely overrepresent the money spent on legacy media by the average consumer, but they begin to illustrate the significant financial investment that a specialized group of music consumers continues to put into tangible copies of music.

Functions of the Album Cover

From this genealogical analysis of the album cover, we can identify four different rhetorical-aesthetic functions of album art, and begin to theorize the effects of collaboration:

1. Attentive function.

This refers to the effect of artwork to attract consumers. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, when few labels used artwork on their records, this was the primary appeal of album art – to differentiate the product and draw the eye of the consumer. Once album art became the standard, techniques for capturing attention proliferated. Steinweiss’ simple, bold, and evocative images drew inspiration from European modernism and were effective in attracting consumers. Other tactics include minimalism, oddity, and controversy, while some music artists have distinct appearances, logos, or visual styles that draw the attention of those who recognize them.

In a digital consumption model, this function is still present but deemphasized. Record stores, where the album sleeve acts as a necessary intermediary between the listener and the music, have been largely replaced by digital streaming services and algorithmic recommendations. Despite the ease of discovering music without visual cues, attention-catching art can still serve to cut through the excess of visual information in digital settings and continue to attract the interest of vinyl consumers.

2. Communicative function

Artwork also conveys cues about the genre and style of an album. Steinweiss’ use of visual metaphors and attention to the mood of a piece of music is one way in which this occurs, as is the use of established visual genre codes. Linguistic text, including the band and album title, may also communicate information about the genre and style. Experimental research indicates that consumers are effective at predicting an album’s genre by the artwork alone (Le Vivian, 2020). Other studies suggest that some genres are more easily identified than others (e.g. metal, EDM, and classical), and that the aesthetic codes of any given genre vary based on the national market (Libeks & Turnbull, 2011; Dorochowicz & Kostek, 2019).

3. Affective function

This refers to the effect that artwork has on the affective tone of a piece of music. The exact mechanisms differ between physical distribution and digital distribution, but the principles are the same: when consuming an album, a listener comes to associate the art with the music. Artwork provides a visual backdrop for the sonic artifact, informing the listener’s interpretation of the music and coloring their perception.

While we are aware of no experimental research on the effects of album artwork on music perception, psychological studies on auditory processing more generally show that humans rely heavily on visual cues to make sense of auditory stimuli (see Opoku-Baah et al., 2021). One well-known example from speech psychology is the McGurk effect, where a spoken phoneme is heard alongside a contradictory viseme (i.e. visual of a syllable being spoken), consistently causing subjects to perceive a third, novel phoneme (McGurk & J MacDonald, 1976). There have been limited studies on the effects of video accompaniment on music perception, which show that the presence, affect, and format of a visual stimulus influence the perceived qualities of an ambiguous melody (Boltz, Ebendorf, & Field, 2009).

4. Reputational function

Album covers of artistic merit can lend credibility to an album, a phenomenon we call, following Veblen (1899/2020), conspicuous collaboration. This function can be traced to rock music’s teleological turn when bands aspiring to “fine art” status worked with established visual artists in a bid for artistic legitimacy (Jones & Storger, 1999).


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