Watch and Learn
By Dan Blaushild
Photos by Christina Mastrull
In December, Beyoncé—the first lady of pop—shocked and nearly shut down the Internet when she released her surprise album Beyoncé. The new visual album, featuring 17 videos and 14 songs, became the all-time fastest selling record on iTunes after its release. The simple san serif "BEYONCÉ" on a black background effectively slapped the godfather of album covers, Alex Steinweiss, who pioneered the inclusion of art on album covers, in the face. But whether or not that slap shoved album artwork back into the closet where it will hang out with the cassettes and gramophones is yet to be determined.
According to the Nielsen Group, in 2012 physical album sales declined 12.8 percent while digital downloads increased 9.1 percent. And with that, the canvas for album artists and designers has diminished—from the 12-inch LP to the five-inch CD case and to today’s one-inch icons on portable music players and laptops. In 2010, designer Michael Carney took a satirical approach to this idea by creating simple and unmemorable album artwork for the cover of the Black Keys’ Brothers. With a basic white and red font on a black background, the artwork just says, “This is an album by the Black Keys. The name of the album is Brothers.” Carney won a Grammy that year for the design.
In this digital age, the infinite possibilities of animation and interaction with the Internet is more appealing to record companies than stagnant, stationary images on CD covers that only a handful of dedicated fans will appreciate. “It engages more of your senses and adds to the experience in terms of the storytelling and entertainment,” says television, radio, and film graduate student Ian Ludd. The sales of CDs are in a permanent state of decline due to free content offered by Internet giants like SoundCloud, Spotify, and YouTube.
To keep our fragile and attention deficit- addled brains focused, Beyoncé made the ingenious decision to accompany the traditional audio album with videos. In the intro to the album, she explains why she wanted to create a visual album. “I see music,” Beyoncé says. “It is more than just what I hear. When I’m connected to something, I immediately see a visual or a series of images that are tied to a feeling or an emotion, a memory from my childhood, thoughts about life, my dreams or my fantasies, and they are all connected to the music. I wanted people to hear the song with the story that’s in my head cause it’s what makes it mine.”
Before Queen B planned her completely visual experience, Arcade Fire paved the way for her success with an interactive video that utilized a webcam for its 2013 single “Reflektor,” also the title of the album. The juxtaposition of hip triangles, Haitian towns and people, and oversized paper maché heads became the visuals not the cover art featuring a statue sculpted by Rodin. In the 1930s and 40s—before the prevalence of high quality, mass-produced photography—Steinweiss and other artists took pride in the hand-illustrated beautiful full-color LP covers as seen in Steinweiss’s cover designs for jazz greats Bessie Smith and Cole Porter, and composer George Gershwin Porter. With the evolution of photographic technology, album artwork in the 60s boasted beautiful mixes of high quality photography and psychedelic drawings, exemplified in supergroup Cream’s iconic album Disraeli Gears designed by Martin Sharp. This imagery impacted record sales through the distinct character it established— similar to the Rolling Stones’ iconic Sticky Fingers or Dave Mason's Alone Together, which featured artwork on the actual vinyl. The Velvet Underground featuring Nico’s self-titled album was one of the most iconic albums of the 60s—a screen print of a banana painted by pop artist Andy Warhol.
Since then, contemporary and historical art has been used on many notable album covers such as Blur’s Think Tank designed by Banksy and Metallica’s Load designed by Andres Serrano. But with the dawn of the 1980s, album artwork began to shrink—both in size and in importance. This decline birthed such examples as the (in)famous Kanye West, who produces terrible album artwork, yet memorable imagery. From caricatured teddy bears to the twisted dark horrible painting in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to his most recent release, the why-even-have-a- case image of a CD, Yeezus has yet to create any truly memorable album artwork. That’s not to say that Kanye’s music lacks any visual association; it is quite the opposite. He’s the only artist who could get away with not only taking a photo of a naked Kim and himself suggestively riding a motorcycle, but creating an even more suggestive video of them on a motorcycle as well.
It would seem that Kanye, Beyoncé, and Arcade Fire pioneered the future of visual albums. And with Beyoncé making 8.3 million dollars off her eponymous visual masterpiece in the first three days of sales, it won’t be long before another artist tries to profit off the new medium. Perhaps the next thing to come out is a visual album personalized for each individual viewer and listener.
While the near future might boast more memorable music videos than album artwork, that doesn't mean that album artwork is completely dead. Thank the vinyl toting, black-coffee-drinking hipster population for that. Whether simply to be retro and ironic, or if people actually enjoy the warmer tones and crackly nature of record players, album artists and designers’ canvases just quadrupled in size. For illustrators, creating a wrap-around LP cover is one of the largest modes of mass-producing their work. Unless an artist is designing for One Direction, which sold 240,000 copies of Take Me Home in one week, being sold at stores like Urban Outfitters or the Sound Garden signals the big leagues. So until cassette tapes become the new ironic way to listen to music—which some Brooklyners have already started to do—vinyl will be responsible for bringing classic album artwork back.
Famous albums like the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ I’m With You and Lady Gaga’s Artpop feature work from artists like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, respectively, ushering in a renewed appreciation for innovative album artwork. Hiring some of the most famous artists in the world is not cheap, but proves some musicians have not completely disregarded the importance of an album’s visual presentation.
Creating videos as visual accompaniment might utilize technology to its full potential in our increasingly digital world, but singular album artwork is still iconic and memorable. Musicians lose the simplest method of effective branding and promotion by leaving album artwork as an afterthought. Album artwork is another opportunity to personalize the listeners’ connection to the music—making a song memorable for long after the final notes fade. So maybe it wasn’t iTunes and Spotify that killed record sales. Maybe when album artwork becomes more interesting or relevant again, we will see a rise in record sales.
Queen B, Mrs. Knowles-Carter, Beyoncé— whatever you want to call her—has indefinitely changed the industry with the release of her visual album. When she sings, the world listens, and now when she makes videos, the world watches. But the power of Beyoncé is not enough to completely derail the obstinate power of album artwork. From the creation of the eight-track player—ask your parents— cassette, CD, and MP3, album artwork has been under siege for the last 40 years, and it’s yet to succumb. Whether it comes down to hipsters’ love of vinyl, your dad’s record collection in the basement, or popular musicians investment into popular artists, there will always be support for album artwork. So yes, Beyoncé slapped traditional album artwork in the face with her latest release, but maybe this slap is just the wake-up call the classic visual accompaniment needed.