3rd International Conference

Digital Culture & AudioVisual Challenges

Interdisciplinary Creativity in Arts and Technology

Online, May 28-29, 2021

Always judge a record (?) by its cover – Visual narrative and meaning in the digital age
Date and Time: 29/05/2021 (10:45-12:30)
Maria Athanasekou

The purpose of this theoretical study is to discuss some of the most emblematic album sleeves in terms of visual narrative and structure, as well as to examine whether the principles of graphic communication are still applied in digital album cover design along with the conveyance of a pictorial language.

In August 2008, album cover designer Peter Saville, famous for the emblematic artwork of Joy Division and New Order, Peter Gabriel, David Byrne, Brian Eno, also responsible for covers for Pulp, Suede and Roxy Music, declared that the album cover was dead. Music covers have been obsolete as new forms of music distribution have evolved. Bruised and battered with the advent of CDs, nevertheless still alive, the art of sleeve design suffered the coup de grâce from downloading. Album artwork is in the cabinet of curiosities for the art historians of the present to examine, analyse and put in context.
The purpose of this paper is to discuss some of the most exemplary album sleeves in terms of visual narrative and architecture, as well as to examine whether the principles of graphic design are still applied in digital album cover design along with the conveyance of a pictorial language.
Music lovers were proud owners of LPs tasting not only the music on them but also the covers and the art designs. Once upon a time, not too long ago, there were record shops and people had to actually make their way there in order to buy music. This antique way of accessing music came with the ecstasy of ripping off the wrapping paper and feeling the physical object itself, its size and shape, looking forward to listening to the music while marveling at the cover and the inside sleeve with the lyrics and whatever photography material the record company had the courtesy and magnanimity to include. These were sacred objects, now relics of the past but still make a nice tale to tell the children on a cold winter night round the fire.
The cover of the album communicated a story as well as performed the all-important role of building the band’s / artist’s identity. The artwork on the sleeve conveyed meaning and status. It went along with the history of well-known groups or solo artists and set the tone for new entries to the music industry. It was some kind of wild card for the fans. The cover worked on an inconceivably mysterious way finding the right path to the heart and sentiment of the buyer. Studied in detail by the devoted admirer, the cover itself was music to their ears even before the record was played. It was as important as the music on the LP.
The big revolution in the artwork of the cover came in the Sixties, as the Beatles took the album cover to another level – as a work of art. Usually having the picture of the band, it established the mood for the style, genre and expectations from the album. To mention but one diverse instance, Pink Floyd, 'Atom Heart Mother' (1970) featuring a cow and having no other info – no lettering on it: no title, no band name, no album title- irrational and shocking as it is, the artwork on the sleeve instigated the curiosity of the music lover for the content.
iPods and suchlike killed the artwork of the cover and destroyed the visual narrative and meaning of records as we knew them, disrupting the unity of them as Gesamtkunstwerk. Even CD covers severely injured cover designing reducing the surface of the work to the size of a tissue, let alone the digitalisation of music and its circulation on platforms with the rare cover in the size of a postage stamp.
Sir Peter Blake, who designed The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, what is widely thought of as the most iconic album sleeve in history, claimed that album art survived from the LP to the CD, but If that becomes obsolete then album art won't exist. Richard Wakeman, keyboardist of the progressive rock band Yes, also a session musician on David Bowie’s album Space Oddity, among other works, stated that unless one has 20-20 vision, it's very hard to read anything written on a CD cover.
Is visual story telling important nowadays and how can it be actually seen in the size of a thumbnail on music downloads or music streaming applications?


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