Album Art and Packaging Trends Timeline and Overview
By Mike Goldstein, Writer/Editor, AlbumCoverHallofFame.com
Music packaging was created, first and foremost, as a way to help better-sell recorded music products – it’s one of the reasons (I think) that the designs and artwork created for this purpose were not considered by many in the fine art world as proper examples of “fine art”, with album imagery more on the level of the “lowbrow art” that only recently came in to its own in the collectible fine art arena.
Every art form has a “golden age” or two. For record cover art purists, was it the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s (??).What was it exactly that the products produced during each decade or era have shown us about Pop Culture and the status of record music promotion at that time? Based on the research I’ve done, I’d propose that each major genre’s designs during a given period of time often adhered to popular “standards” that label execs and band managers felt would both best-represent their acts and also “fit in” with the more-established approaches to packaging design. Because I’m a self-taught and very-focused art historian, I am in no way fully-equipped to speak as to the merits, artistic appeal or critical nature of these trends. I’m only trying to document them and provide examples of those creators who contributed greatly to the art form – in sheer numbers, in critical acclaim and those who bucked trends to lead others down other (better?) paths.
In studying this subject, I’ve found that, as with any design area that is so closely associated with Pop Culture, there were as many great designs produced by freelance artists and others who established their reputations in other media as there were done by large/corporate design teams. An album art producer’s long-term career in the area would also grow to ultimately depend on how and whether they pushed themselves to adapt and extend their creative strengths and skills to producing successful products for emerging media and publishing platforms. Some designers were able to remain active over four or more decades based on their own “brands” and long-standing relationships with long-lasting clients (Peter Blake, Roger Dean, Dave McMacken, Ernie Cefalu, Kosh, Stanley Mouse, John Van Hamersveld, etc.) and by being able to work with their clients to successfully explore the many ways available to keep fans interested in the latest products put out by their favorite musical acts.
As I cover each period of time, I’ll work to point out a) examples of many of the better-known designers/art directors of the time, b) the design cues that would define the time and the innovations used to deliver retail recorded music products, c) popular music genres, d) milestones that would determine the kind of art needed to market/sell records and e) the details of the state-of-the-art at the time with regards to the worlds of music and art and the businesses that supplied these products to consumers and collectors.
Top Designers/Art Directors – Alex Steinweiss, Reid Miles, Jim Flora, Andy Warhol, David Stone Martin, Neil Fujita, Bob Jones, Ben Shahn, Burt Goldblatt, Saul Bass, Francis Wolff and many others
Design cues/innovations – Cool, jazzy, hip, stark, colorful, employing hand-made fonts/text, showing post-War influences, vinyl records and the paper and cardboard sleeves they were packaged in for sale.
The genres – Jazz, pop vocalists, mood music, film music, early rock & pop
Milestones – Birth of the LP and 45 RPM singles.
Notes – Early on, most every major-label LP featured an illustration on its cover, while in the 50s, there was a gradual shift over to photos, combined with period graphic design and typography. While many mainstream records featured either full-length or close-up images of the heart-throbs of the day, in America, where civil rights/equality was still an issue with many record buyers, many African-American solo acts and pop groups were not shown on their own covers. Instead, those covers often showed photos of teens dancing or standing around a juke box, with others displaying young girls in period clothing or lingerie, along with the song titles and promo text (“get ready to dance!”). Early rock & roll covers – to show off the anti-social basis of the music and tendencies of fans of the genre – often showed “hooligans” in leather standing near hot rods and motorcycles looking as though they were “ready to rumble” at a moment’s notice.
For the most part, the record labels had total control over all aspects of promotion, including record covers. Only “superstar” acts (Sinatra, Presley, etc.) had some degree of control and say over their promo imagery.
Top designers/art directors – Martin Sharp, Loring Eutemey, Andy Warhol, Milton Glaser, Gary Burden, George Hardie, Peter Blake, Robert Crumb, Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelly, Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin, Lee Conklin, Barni Wright, Phil Travers, Bob Venosa, William S. Harvey and many others
Design cues/innovations – Cultural revolutions, psychedelia, cross-over
The genres – Pop, rock, twist/dance, early hard rock, early prog rock, early “Southern” rock, jazz rock, folk rock, psychedelic rock, blues, surf music, Motown/soul
Milestones -Introduction of the micro-cassette and 8-track formats for pre-recorded music.
Notes – Sales of recorded music exploded, with some labels growing so quickly that their own in-house design staffs were overloaded, leading them to cede creative decisions to the acts or to freelance designers (sometimes, to the detriment of the final products – see note below re: Axis: Bold As Love for Jimi Hendrix) and/or, in an effort to minimize this possibility, relying on “proven” design templates for their products in order to keep up with their release schedules. This resulted in a lot of duplication of design, with basic products that would include quickly-posed photos of band members along with song titles and some promo text.
Throughout the decade, though, it became clear that impactful designs could greatly aid sales, with some labels responding by providing larger budgets for packages and promos based on “big ideas”. A quick survey of some of the better-known covers of the day helps to illustrate this trend:
– 1967 saw the release of Cream’s Disraeli Gears (featuring a psychedelic design by Martin Sharp incorporating photos by Bob Whitaker, who’d taken the cover shots for the banned “Butcher Cover” for The Beatles’ Yesterday & Today record released the previous year);
– The Rolling Stones’ originally produced Their Satanic Majesty’s Request with a moving, 3-D lenticular cover image taken by Michael Cooper, who’d previously shot the fascinating cover collage orchestrated by Sir Peter Blake and Jann Haworth for The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released several months earlier;
– The Doors’ second record, titled Strange Days, featured an intriguing photograph of a band of circus performers on the streets of New York City taken by Joel Brodsky, who’d later provide the photos used on the arresting cover collage for Detroit rockers the MC5’s debut 1969 record Kick Out The Jams;
– Underground cartoonist Robert Crumb was originally enlisted to provide the back cover graphics for Janis Joplin/Big Brother & The Holding Company’s major label debut Cheap Thrills; one that was to feature an illustrated list of song titles and credits. Instead, the record label chose to use Crumb’s cartoon image on the front cover when they were unhappy with the band’s original suggestion for the front photo, which showed all of the band members naked in a bed;
– For the debut record for the band he managed – the Velvet Underground – artist/agent provocateur Andy Warhol chose to package the record with a cover of his own creation that featured a painting/sticker of a yellow banana that, when consumers peeled back the sticker after being prompted by the text “peel slowly and see”, displayed a flesh-colored version of the fruit;
– The Grateful Dead’s self-titled debut record sported a design by Bay-area poster artist Stanley Mouse that included small photos of the band members, a huge fireball and a wonderful example of the use of psychedelic lettering that was in vogue at the time. The original version of the cover included text near the top (in the aforementioned psychedelic lettering) that read “In the land of the dark, the ship of the sun is driven by the Grateful Dead” (supposedly a quote from an ancient Egyptian text) but, prior to release, the band had Mouse work to make all the text except for the band’s name illegible.
In the early 60s, more acts took control of their imagery, with some staring their own labels (e.g., Sinatra launching Reprise) and often working with different labels in different countries, producing different versions of a new album, with variations in song lists and album graphics. Later in the decade, some bigger acts brought in their own preferred designers – e.g., Paul McCartney enlisted pop artist Richard Hamilton to guide the design for his band’s 1968 “limited-edition” (i.e., serially-numbered) record known as The Beatles “White Album” – while Jimi Hendrix was twice-disappointed by the original designs adopted by his record companies, deciding then to ask photographer Karl Ferris to provide his U.S. record label with a more-representative image than he was given in the U.K. for his Are You Experienced? debut record with The Experience and then disavowing himself from the Roger Law-produced painting used on the original cover of the Axis: Bold As Love album (also built around an excerpt from a Ferris-supplied photo of the trio) that was then incorporated into an overall design based on a colorful religious poster featuring the Hindu god Vishnu the designer had found. Hendrix, part American Indian, had hoped for a design that referenced his own personal heritage… As you can see, once musical acts and their labels realized the promotional value of a great record sleeve, much more thought and expense went in to giving record buyers a lot to look at while flipping through the racks at their local record retailer.
Top designers/art directors – Mick Haggerty, John Kosh, Roger Dean, Neon Park XIII, Jamie Reid, Hugh Syme, Ed Thrasher, Bob Defrin, Rod Dyer, Hipgnosis (Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell), Barney Bubbles, Cal Schenkel, John Berg, Tom Drennon, Bob Seidemann, H.R. Giger, Peter Corriston, Nick de Ville, Tom Nikosey, Paula Scher, Spencer Drate, Richard Evans, Bill Levy, Tony Wright, Wilkes & Braun, Chuck Beeson, Pacific Eye & Ear (Ernie Cefalu, Drew Stuzan, Joe Garnett, Ingrid Hanke), Philip Lloyd Smee, Roland Young, James Marsh and scores more.
Design cues/innovations – Gatefolds, concept packages (die-cuts, fold-outs, inserts, alt materials, etc.), fair amounts of sex/nudity.
The genres – Pop, rock, metal (AKA “shock rock”), Prog, folk rock, Southern rock, jazz rock, disco, punk, glam rock, funk , reggae
Milestones – Intro of higher-quality micro-cassette recordings (w/Dolby noise reduction) and Sony’s Walkman line of portable music players greatly increased the % of sales of recorded music in the cassette format.
Notes – Continuing the trend towards creating truly unique and attractive packaging in order to grab the consumer’s attention during their visits to the record store, labels forged ahead with their investments in this area. To handle the load, a number of ex-record company art department staffers would leave to form their own design firms. Hipgnosis (Thorgerson, Powell and others, Pacific Eye & Ear (Cefalu, Struzan, etc.), Wilkes & Braun (Tom W. and Craig B.), Duffy Design (Brian Duffy), Rod Dyer Inc., AGI (Jim Ladwig and Kosh), Hapshash & The Coloured Coat (Michael English and Nigel Waymouth), Bob Cato and others worked with their clients, who continued to push them to one-up the competition.
Gatefolds – single or double albums packaged in 2X (12” x 24”) sleeves – become an oft-used packaging option for LPs, with the super-sized format allowing designers to continue their work across a much-larger canvas. Inner sleeves also featured art, lyrics, additional content, etc. In one notable example, British rockers Jethro Tull convinced their record company (Chrysalis) to spend extra money on the band’s Thick As A Brick cover, which actually served as a parody of the over-the-top nature of concept covers. Packaging the record (which consisted of one long track) inside a multi-page folded fictional newspaper titled the St. Cleve Chronicle and Linwell Advertiser, the cover’s paper included articles, local news and advertisements written by several band members and was laid out by designer/ex-newspaper journalist Roy Eldridge. Another example was the package for The Who’s Live At Leeds record, which was packed with a generous supply of reproductions of the band’s tour memorabilia, correspondence, expense receipts, etc. For a while, many people who purchased the record (including yours truly) were convinced that they had received “the real thing” by accident, so life-like were the reproductions included in the sleeve’s pockets.
In order to further the strength of the argument “sex sells”, throughout the decade you’d find many examples of covers that featured varying degrees of nudity, close-ups of (mostly-female) torsos and pelvic areas, ripped clothing, wet t-shirts and dresses, risqué costumes and loads and loads of lingerie.
Top designers/art directors – Peter Saville, Neville Brody, Malcolm Garrett, Chris Morton, Central Station Design (Pat & Matt Carroll and Karen Jackson), Associated Images (Garrett, Keith Breeden and others), V23 (Vaughan Oliver), Steve Byram, Martyn Atkins, Stylorouge (Rob O’Connor), Anton Corbijn, Richard Evans, Jeri and John Heiden, Ioannis, Tommy Steele and others
Design cues/innovations – Computer-aided designs emerge. More images are created by designers and photographers who worked primarily in the worlds of commercial advertising, fashion and film/TV. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum was launched to begin to establish – and ultimately solidify – the ongoing importance of rock/pop-related music, visuals and its artifacts as part of Pop Culture.
The genres – Post-punk, New Wave, electro-pop, New Romantic, hip-hop, independent artists, early DJ and rap, techno
Milestones – The emergence of the music video as a key promotional device (the MTV television network premieres in the U.S. in 1981, with MuchMusic launching in Canada in the Spring of 1984, on-demand pioneer The Box premiering in 1985 and MTV Europe coming online in 1987), the launch of the pre-recorded Compact Disc (CD) in 1982 and the introduction of the portable CD player in 1984, the era of digitally-recorded-and-delivered music was upon us in full-swing. In 1988, CD “long boxes” were phased in at retail as way to allow store owners to use existing LP bins to display products. Computer graphics packages were promoted to designers in the late 1980s.
Notes – The record industry’s main promotional tool – the record cover – begins to shrink from a 12″ square LP cover to a 12″ high by 6″ wide rectangular “long box” and then to a <5″ square CD “jewel case” cover insert, requiring some re-consideration of how to make a cover image “pop” when the canvas became over 80% smaller. In the 1960s, musical acts and their labels often had to choose whether the covers were there to primarily promote the musicians (via their photos), their music (artistically/thematically reinterpreted via illustrations or creatively-rendered photos) or some combination of the both. With the advent of the music video, musical acts were forced to reveal more aspects of themselves and their talents – dancing, acting and other things that might help better-define (at least, visually) their personalities – for fans now had to like the way they sang and the way they looked and how their personalities were revealed through the lens of a film/video camera. Those responsible for the visual aspects of marketing an act – i.e., those record company art department employees and their sub-contractors – now had to learn about film-making and computer graphics as well. Adobe Photoshop and other computer-based graphics packages began to become a required product for graphic designers looking to be able to quickly present their clients with mock-ups and color schemes that would then be converted to real products upon approval.
Top designers/art directors – Stefan Sagmeister, Robert Fisher, Designer’s Republic, Art Chantry, Me Company (Paul White), Microdot (Brian Cannon), Tomato (John Warwicker), Kevin Reagan, Stanley Donwood, Emek, Viusal Dialogue (Fritz Klaetke), Pen & Pixel, Gail Marowitz
Design cues/innovations – CD “long boxes” phased out (1993), alternative CD packaging options, proliferation of CD box sets, introduction of MP3 music player systems from Eiger Labs, AMP, Diamond Multimedia and Creative Labs (1998). Computer-based graphics and video-editing packages proliferate.
The genres – Pop, rock, contemporary R&B, alternative rock (inc. grunge, ska, etc.), indie rock, country artists crossing over to pop, industrial, EM (electronic music) and EDM (electronic dance music and its sub-genres) , nu metal, more rap and hip-hop, thrash/industrial metal, neo soul, Adult contemporary (1st wave), Latin pop (1st wave)
Milestones – After the CD “long box” format was phased out early in the decade due to the complaints of both consumers and musical acts (the format produced a LOT of waste), record manufacturer AGI Inc. introduced the “Digipak” – a CD/DVD-sized printable wallet (recyclable!) that could also be manufactured with additional integrated, printable panels, replacing the booklets that would have to be inserted in the traditional CD jewel cases. Alternative versions allowed for the inclusion of multiple CDs/DVDs with bonus content and materials.
MP3 music player systems, using either solid-state storage or miniaturized hard disc drives, were introduced later in the decade that allowed fans to copy standardized digital music files from their personal computers and play them portably. These first players had very small displays (text and icons only), so no record art was needed. The first free downloadable music service – IUMA – was launched in 1993, with companies including EMusic.com and Ritmoteca.com offering the first major label-backed download services ($0.99 per song) and subscription services offering an early album cover art-based jukebox-style interface coming to the market in 1998. The next year, music file sharing service Napster was launched and, before it was closed down in mid-2001, it had registered over 80 million users.
Notes – Shrinkage of the album cover canvas continued with the introduction of early digital music players, with the “thumbnail” (1″ to 1-1/2″) becoming the standard visual seen on computers using music management software, forcing designers to totally re-think their designs. Graphics needed to be become more vivid and easy-to-read in these miniature formats and on low-resolution computer/device displays. They would also need to work within tight production schedules and lower (sometimes, severely so) budgets as money continued to flow towards even-bigger music video productions. To address these needs, young designers began to change their college majors to “New Media” and then “Digital Media”, taking on the training to allow them to design for retail packaging, web sites and other band-branded graphical needs (merchandise, stage design, poster design and, later in the 2000s, social media advertising and marketing assignments, etc.). Older/more-established designers needed to build their computer design skills and, as needed, add videographic skills to their resumes.
2000s to the present –
Top designers/art directors – Invisible Creature (Don & Ryan Clark), Backstage Design (Shauna & Sarah Dodds), Dan Tobin Smith, DONDA (design firm owned by Kanye West), Turner Duckworth (David Turner), Shepard Fairey, Herring & Herring, Carson Ellis and many more.
Design cues/innovations – iPods and copy-cat MP3 players rule, with the hi-res screens and extended storage capabilities provided by ultra-portable laptop/notebook computers, tablets and smart phones of all sizes providing canvases of all size,s along with the ability to deliver as much related content as they cared via convenient interfaces . The exciting but slight (as a % of overall industry revenues) resurgence in the sales of vinyl records, along with Record Store Day promotions, provided designers/art directors with the motivation to experiment with new methods and materials, while advanced CAD software, 3D printers and advanced record presses were put into use to create collectible albums and packages – retail records as art objects.
The genres – Pop, post-punk, pop punk, metal core, “emo”, garage rock, teen pop, adult contemporary (2nd wave), reggaeton, Latin pop (2nd wave), Americana
Milestones – Introduction of the DVD Audio and competing SA-CD formats (2000), both delivered in standard CD/DVD packaging. The first iPod player – using an early version of iTunes software, hit the market in 2001, followed by the iPod Mini, the iPod Touch (the first to use a 2003 version of iTunes – called the iTunes Store – that featured scrolling album art in the navigation), the iPhone (2007), other smart phones, tablet computers such as the iPad in 2010, ultra-light notebooks, free or subscription-based streaming services and larger-screen smartphones. Record Store Day products and other limited-edition vinyl and CD packages heralded the return of older formats – 7”, 10” and 12” vinyl records, picture discs, box sets, etc. – and added new-fangled options such as USB drives, laser-etched discs and packaging made from recycled materials.
Notes – Starting to work towards various “branding” strategies (online, major media), musical acts – both major label and indie – began taking on this important marketing/promo role for themselves. With a focus on touring, direct sales (online and at show dates) and merchandising sales, acts invested as needed to offer fans band-branded items that would help them build stronger ongoing relationships (limited-edition posters, member-only items, gig flyers and other merch). With an initially slow-but-steady uptick in the sales of vinyl records and record sets – from 1 million units sold in 2007 to 14.3 million units in 2017, according to statistics provided by Nielsen – some designers and their clients have returned to using “traditional” pre-production tools – pencils, pens, X-acto knives, airbrushes and paints, etc. – in order to create new designs, with record pressing/packaging firms also delivering exciting new ways to manufacture desirable retail products (colorful vinyl records, die-cut and laminated packages, informational booklets, etc.). Many of today’s designers work with their clients to embrace new technologies that allow them to create new album art-based merchandise, collectible art prints and online or virtual experiences that they hope will allow them to build stronger relationships with their fanbases, wherever they’re located.
What does the future hold for the visual artistry associated with the music business?
As a judge for several music packaging award shows, I’ve been excited to see entries from designers all over the world. Some have looked backwards for design cues (box sets of Flexi-discs, if you can believe it!), while others are eager to see the directions they’re pushed towards as music streaming, large-format video displays and “smart” TVs, speakers and mobile devices continue to grab the attention of music consumers, so while I’m not quite ready to say “the best is yet to come”, I’m sure I’ll be paying close attention to whatever those developments are. I’d suggest you do the same.
UPDATE 9/1/18 – Just wanted to share a link to an article written by Martin Chilton, a former culture editor/interviewer and music critic for The Telegraph (U.K.) titled Cover Story: A History of Album Artwork that will provide you with another detailed overview of how music and art have been combined in various ways over the years in order to help promote and sell recorded music – https://www.udiscovermusic.com/in-depth-features/history-album-artwork/
Unless otherwise noted, all text and images included in this article are Copyright 2018 – present by Mike Goldstein and AlbumCoverHallofFame.com – All Rights Reserved. All of trade names mentioned in these summaries are the properties of their respective owners and are used for reference only.