Published: 09th July 2018
How the visual expression of music has changed through evolving album cover designs
With dramatic stage lighting or chiaroscuro profile shots, prints of their visages made for good cover images
By the 1940s, American music culture had begun to expand globally. The themes of peace, love, and fraternity were recurrent everywhere, especially in the aftermath of the World Wars and the Great Depression. During the 1950s, an artist named Alex Steinweiss began to rise in popularity. His eye-catching lettering, bold visuals, and bright tones started acquiring a fanbase all by themselves. Steinweiss is now considered as the designer who spearheaded a love for music album cover art.
Right before television had taken over in popularity, radio was still the favourite choice of mass media and music wafted into homes and streets all day, every day. Initially, records were simply sold in envelopes that had been sealed and stamped with the names of the singer, record company and the song titles. Later ones were considered prized possessions and people especially loved those that came with illustrated covers as it was like taking home a piece of art with you along with the music you had just paid for. Some of these have become heirlooms and even museum artefacts due to their artistic value. As time went by, rock and roll, punk rock, bebop and other music categories started getting their own modes of artistic expression. Caricatures, collage work and computer graphics began to feature majorly on covers.
Some of the young designers and artists who started out with record companies as cover illustration artists were later recognised and lauded for their repertoire. The more famous ones include Andy Warhol and Burt Goldblatt, who became celebrated modern art practitioners in the 20th century. Capitol Records was the first company to realise the talent of designer Donfeld, who later shot to fame with his design for Wonder Woman’s costume. Photography started making the process of album cover art easier. Elvis Presley, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, David Bowie and Cher were some artists who had a penchant to be arresting visuals themselves.
With dramatic stage lighting or chiaroscuro profile shots, prints of their visages made for good cover images. These photographs later turned into posters and minimal art vectors.
The punk rock era had also paved way for controversial cover art, band names and flamboyant song titles. Present day artists around the world invest in cover art even if their music is released online and does not possess hard copy covers. A few popular ones are Coldplay’s wallpaper design for ‘Viva La Vida’ in which the words are in white and are juxtaposed over Eugene Delacroix’s painting of ‘Liberty Leading the People’.
Sia is another artiste who has courted fame and controversy in equal measure because of her desire for album videos and images that represent her but do not reveal her face. Album covers are the only other visual expression of music apart from music videos and are responsible for the globalisation of music. This quiet and popular art form probably deserves sole credit for our ability to recognise on sight, an American Michael Jackson, the English Sex Pistols, or even the newest kids on the block, BTS from South Korea.