Saturday 10 Dec 2016

The End of Album Artwork
Tim Sexton

I can't fully understand why cds are an improvement over old vinyl albums. Yes, I know about fads, fashion and technology. It's just that progress needs to drag what worthy if old, into the future.

The cd experience isn't better. The quality and crispness of cd sound is better. You don't have to put up with the popping and crackling sound of older albums, but the sound of the music isn't as full. Those pops and crackles heighten my enjoyment.

There's the advantage of being able to listen to a cd in the car or on a personal stereo. You do that with an album. You could record the album on tape, and take it with you.

In the old days, you recorded an album on tape. Now, you copy a cd. There's something sinister in the choice of words. Maybe you should've claimed you were recording answers to the Religion test-questions, from Mary-Margaret, not copying, and so weren't cheating.

No, there's is only one improvement the cd made over the album, as far as I can see. The sole improvement is the easy of moving to a song in the middle of a playlist. Even the best of us usually never dropped the needle directly at the beginning of a song. Then, again, dropping the needle scratched the record, which added to its authenticity. There's a lot to ponder.

Still, big price to pay for the biggest effect cds had on popular music, namely, the death of classic album covers. For those of us who grew up buying albums, part of the appeal was in owning a piece of great 20th century art. Ask many people what the single finest piece of art produced in the 1960s was, and chances are you'll get at least a handful of responses claiming it was the cover of The Beatles album, "Sgt. Pepper."

The "Sgt. Pepper" cover was a collection of some of the most recognizable faces. There was Marlon Brandon, Sigmund Freud, Marilyn Monroe, Edgar Allen Poe and Karl Marx. Pasted together, in a collage, of sort, these faces created a remarkable and iconic image of not only the psychedelic 1960s, but modernity. The album cover even contains images used as "clues" to confirm the rumour that Paul died in June 1965.

Imagine a record company, today, green lighting the "Sgt. Pepper" artwork. It's too complex and costly (sic), for a cd insert. Since the rise of the cd, album artwork has been more and more difficult to find. The question is why.

The cd inset is small, hard to see and hard to read. It just isn't worth a big investment - money, labour - to produce high-quality images, which are imaginative or creative. The investment is also hard to justify. Men and women over the age of 35 buy half the cds sold, today. They're often updating vinyl collections or ear-testing new types of music. For many reasons, some sensible, high-end inset artwork is hard to justify, aesthetically or financially.

When you brought home a new album, you closely examined every square inch of the cover or jacket, while listening to the music. You load a cd and do other stuff while listening to the music, in the background.

A good example of how album artwork has taken a hit since the cd took over from vinyl is "New Order," fro Manchester, England. The band is innovative, musically and artistically. Peter Saville is the creative force behind the cd-insert artwork for "New Order" and has since "New Order" was "Joy Division."

The "Joy Division" album, "Closer," and its 12-inch single, "Love Will Tear Us Apart," show how integral the artwork was to the identity of the band. Their albums and singles contain breathtaking images. Of special note are the singles "Murder," "Thieves Like Us," "Round and Round" and "Regret," as well as the album covers for "Power, Corruption and Lies," in 1983. "Power" wasn't just a great piece of artwork, it was also a hilarious response to their manager, who suggested put a face to their music. Check it out and you'll see why their response was hilarious. All of these are genuine works of art, suitable for framing. I know. I had mine framed at one point.

The latest "New Order" cd insert has a white background with the word, "No," written across it, in orange. The creative and memorable artwork is gone, and the question is why. First, it will be too small to have much effect. Second, many buyers discard the cd artwork or hide it inside a portfolio. Third, it's an expense for naught.

Soon, even the miniature masterpieces that do occasionally crop up will disappear. MP3 is almost the preferred music platform. The Internet is the obvious and simple source for MP3 music. Though available, at extra cost, the artwork that helped define albums and, to a lesser extent, the cd, is also rushing to extinction: a victim of technology.

It's not difficult to foresee a day when bands no longer record albums, but upload individual songs. The George Carlin bit, about a single recorded at 9 am and released at noon, topped the charts by 4 pm and was a golden oldie at 8 pm, may come true, sooner than later.

We are quickly moving to the day when a no album or cd has a unifying theme or message. Bands will become simply assembly line performers of singles and licks, putting out their latest songs, one at a time, with no artwork, liner notes or individuality, at all. The brave-new-world makes another once-creative effort sterile.

I don't know about you, but I'm hanging on to all my old vinyl. One day my kids will be able to make a mint by selling them as both antiques. Vinyl is a reminder that album artwork isn't some myth or urban legend. Yes, Virginia, once, there used to be something worth looking at while you listened to the music.


Ed Thrasher was one of the great album cover artists. He passed away 5 August 2006. Click here to read his obituary from the New York "Times."

Tim Sexton is a writer, living in Florida, at last report.

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