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Is the Album Cover Dead? - Album Cover Designer Peter Saville

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On 17 August 2008, the album cover designer Peter Saville declared in the Independent on Sunday that 'the album cover is dead' (The Independent, 2008). Saville, of course, is renowned for his iconic album artwork whilst working at the now defunct independent record label, Factory Records. His most eminent work, including Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures(1) and New Order's Blue Monday(2), demonstrated an applied use of seemingly effortless modernist visual language for the then favoured 12" vinyl audio format. Broadcasting the demise of the humble cover, Saville is clearly referring to the ever-expansive dominance of the Internet for all-things-media.

In the digital transition of audio media and music in particular, the album cover is being largely handled almost as an afterthought, an ill-considered appropriation for the digital realm. The album cover continues to exist, but is commonly scaled to a pithy 100px square jpeg on-screen, in an underwhelming 72dpi resolution. Perhaps then, it is not the death of the cover. Rather that the primary function and value of the album cover is detrimentally affected by the transition of it's bearing medium and the inherent consequences for the supporting record label. Such theories however, cannot be determined without initially examining recent digital efforts, the preceding instances of sleeve design across different media, and how they in-turn led to current output today.

An example of a digital effort is Vincent Morisset's digital artwork for The Suburbs; the third studio album release by art-rock band Arcade Fire. Morisset, who previously was credited with reinventing the music video online, collaborated with print designer Caroline Robert to create a sequence of images for each of the different album's songs. Lyrics would then appear over imagery as the songs were played(3). 'Win [Butler, Arcade Fire's lead singer] wanted to create a version of the artwork that would be relevant in the digital world' (Aatoaa, 2008) explains Morrisset on his website. In theory, a noteworthy aspect about such a venture is the potential achieved by the reduction in artwork scale. Usually, the transition from disc-to-digital sized artwork is generally deemed to be worthless. However, in this instance the sequencing of individual lyrics remain resonant, precisely because they are separated by the limitations of screen size. Furthermore, the imagery act as hyperlinks to external online references relating to each song. Morrisset calls it 'Synchronised Artwork' (Aatoaa, 2008).

With the proliferation of ever more powerful mobile devices in the 21st century, the reduced screen size must then be questioned in regards to practical usage. How intuitive is it, really, to be constantly reading lyrics from screens typically the size of a credit card? Aside from inevitable fatigue that goes hand-in-hand with reading via screen, the listener typically using a portable device is often just supplementing another activity. Burgeoning developments in tablets and smartphones alike adhere to the constant on-the-move multitasking lifestyle in which a plethora of 'apps' sustain. Ultimately, whilst more engaging than a tacked-on jpeg, the interactivity involved is primarily no different from flicking through the linear notes of a vinyl LP. On the inner sleeves of John Lennon's 1973 LP Mind Games(4), he and Yoko announce the birth of a conceptual country called 'Nutopia'. It had no land or boundaries, only people. The couple as ambassadors then asked for recognition from the U.N, and diplomatic immunity. The latter would eliminate the consequences of previous improprieties like say, drug busts. But as design critic Kenneth FitzGerald (2010, p.241) puts it in his essay entitled Life in Ephemeral States: 'who reads linear notes'?

John Lennon together with The Beatles played a significantly more important role in establishing the power of the album cover with the groundbreaking execution of their eighth LP, Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band(5) (Parlophone, 1968). Commissioned by The Beatles themselves, designers Peter Blake and Jann Haworth assembled a colourful collage of life-sized famous people made from cardboard entitled "People We Like". 'That's the seduction side' (FitzGerald, 2010, p.111). The inside cover featured a gatefold portrait of The Beatles complete with MBE medals; and the back cover displaying the album's lyrics- a first for a British LP. Prior to Sgt. Peppers, album covers were functions of the record label's publicity department. Compusory requirements included a: 'plain white background check. Black-and-white photos, check one. 100 percent black basic sans-serif type, check two. Grid layout, check check' (FitzGerald, 2010, p.111). For many, the cover of Sgt. Pepper's was their first exposure to contemporary art and signified a moment in which album cover was about to become the art canvas of everyday society. Later work included Andy Warhol's famous peel-off banana skin for The Velvet Underground(6), and Robert Frank's influential design for The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street(7) (Rolling Stones Records, 1972).

Sgt. Peppers in particular, is perhaps the ultimate comparison of today's jpeg format. Ironically, today's mainstream record label cover appears to revert back to the publicity department requirements of a bygone era. The list of rules Blake and Haworth break would today be lengthy. Covers today should include: 'titles placed in the top left corner of the sleeve thus allowing retailers to place price stickers in the right corner...glamorous portraiture is generally preferred to graphic abstraction' (Shaughnessy, 1999, p.5). Such restrictions are understandable when considering the reduction of scale from vinyl, to compact disc, to mp3 format. Titles are reduced in size together with the interpretation of any abstract language. Portraiture, in effect, becomes the album cover brand, the single-most accessible form of imagery that can be related to the music. Fundamentally, this points to the survival of the album cover. The cover content, however, is what becomes detrimentally affected.

Efforts by The Beatles to standout from their peers culminated in their follow-up album The Beatles(8) (Apple, 1969), or as it is more commonly referred to: The White Album. In an industry pre-existing the digital format, The White Album could be referred to as the first album without a cover. In his essay Amplifications first published in Émigré, Fitzgerald (2010, p.111) states, 'the sleeve concept was an anti-package, an affirmable statement that the wrapping was ultimately irrelevant with them. It's The Beatles-they



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