Adrian Shaughnessy | Essays

Are JPEGs the New Album Covers?

Black to Comm "Levitation/Astoria." 7" Lathe-Cut Picture Disc, design by Marc Richter and Renate Nikolaus. Dekorder Records.

Over the past few months I've been researching a book about current record cover art. Besides hunting down examples of stimulating music graphics, I've also been looking for digital alternatives to the traditional album cover. As downloading threatens to become the main distribution method for recorded music, it is widely believed that the album cover will be replaced by some new online format — perhaps animated — that will make CD packaging redundant. Well, I might be missing something, but I've found nothing in the digital arena that offers a viable alternative to a well-designed CD or vinyl album cover. Instead, I've discovered a grim-faced resistance movement amongst dozens of tiny record labels determined to hang onto physical packaging and expressive cover art, no matter what.

This resistance movement is found mainly amongst independent labels — micro labels — often run by a single individual, and often existing on budgets that would embarrass a shoestring. And what distinguishes so many of them is a deep-rooted commitment to selling physically packaged music with resonant cover art.

It's not worth discussing what the major labels are up to: they haven't got a clue. There used to be five major record labels; when Sony and BMG merged this became four, and now it is hotly predicted that another merger will reduce the number to three. These lumbering conglomerates are doing what they have always done: waiting for someone else to show them the way forward. In the meantime, as they dither and prevaricate, their domain is encircled by Apple, Starbucks, Amazon, WalMart and various corporate entities with the wherewithal to offer digital downloads to an eager public. For anyone who cares about music, this is hardly a heart-warming prospect.

And yet, is the determination of the micro labels to continue producing CD and vinyl packaging anything other than the remnants of a fanboy obsession with recorded music common amongst people who grew up in the pre-digital era? Most of the label owners I've interviewed for my book have talked about the usual teenage interest in band logos, enduring love affairs with New Order album covers, and fixations with the "smell of records." But are we talking about something deeper here? Does music need some sort of physicality to maintain its intrinsic value? If our favourite music merely exists as a sliver of invisible code on a computer, do we lose something?

In a recent Guardian article, "It's a Steal," the novelist John Lanchester wrote about literary copyright. He detailed Google's ambitious attempts to digitize the world's literature. Lanchester has some sharp things to say about the way copyright and intellectual property rights are being eroded in the digital age, but he gives a cautious welcome to Google's plans, and does not foresee the end of books.

"Personally, I think that books are going to be OK, for one main reason: books are not only, or not primarily, the information they contain. A book is also an object, and a piece of technology; in fact, a book is an extraordinarily effective piece of technology, portable, durable, expensive to pirate but easy to use, not prone to losing all its data in crashes, and capable of taking an amazing variety of beautiful forms. Google Book Search is going to be a superb tool for accessing the information in books; but how much of Middlemarch or White Teeth or Tintin in Tibet is information? You can see [ ... ] just how much of the cultural history of books, and their cultural importance, lies in their bookness. This will, I think, dilute the impact of digitization for writers and publishers: even if you could rip an MP3 of Moby-Dick, who on earth would prefer it to a bound copy?"

Lanchester phrase, "an amazing variety of beautiful forms," applies to the best music packaging as much as it does to books. There is an undeniable sense of completeness when music comes with handsome packaging and engaging graphical material.

I download music, and while I have gripes with the poor audio quality of most downloads, I do it happily enough, relishing its instantaneousness and convenience. I tell myself that there's no good reason to need music to be packaged since one of its greatest assets is its lack of materiality — if you really want to enjoy music, listen to it with your eyes closed. And yet, when I analyze my feelings towards the digital files that sit on my laptop, or on my iPod, or on neglected backup discs, I find that I care less about them than I care about the CDs and vinyl discs I own.

An audio file with a thumbnail JPEG of the album cover will never have the resonance — not to mention the commercial value — of a well-made piece of packaging. But if the corporate providers of downloadable music have their way, this is the future of recorded music. Who ever had a love affair with a JPEG?

Posted in: Music

Comments [65]

It's gotta be both and all. We've done a lot of music packaging, and are in the midst of two rather high profile projects, one for a cool artist that's on a major and one that's a major artist going indie. We're spanning the gamut -- doing special packaging for retail so the collectors and fans get something extra cool and making sure whatever JPG gets called the 'cover' looks good at 1" square. It's an interesting world ... a true digital package just around the corner. We've been working on prototypes.
Tom Dolan

Regarding, " ...fixations with the 'smell of records.' "

I'm still in love with the "new print" smell of CD covers. It began with cassette tapes I bought in the '80s. I would peel off the plastic, open the casette, take out the printed cover insert and sniff away.

That newly printed smell is awesome. (Much better than "new car" smell.)

I still buy CDs. I open them and sniff. I put them in front of friends noses and say, "smell this." Usually they say, "Oh! That does smell good. I never smelled 'that' before."

Try it.

I own about 200 vinyl albums, too. But I can't remember "smelling" them after being opened. Maybe I was too excited to play them back then.

Joe Moran

Certainly much of my own interest in what was then called "commercial art" came from album (vinyl) covers, but I was living in my parent's upper middle class home in the suburbs then. A space easily 20x larger than my SF apt.

What a relief it was not to unpack the (large) CD collection. What a relief it was not to think about yet another physical asset. Solid design, solid artwork, but so what? I havent looked at any of it in years since digitizing my entire collection.
Gary R Boodhoo

PDFs of cover art and liner notes can be packaged with downloads as an alternative to print packaging. In my mind this could actually be a step up from CD packaging which never matched the heights of record cover design.
Tom Hughes

I think if vinyl fans were honest, they would admit that you could replace the LP record inside the cherished sleeve with an equivalent mass and shape and they wouldn't miss a thing. They've got all their music per se on the computer.

Now, a more interesting discussion concerns 12-inch records that were never released as CDs and are unavailable as downloads in any form. Apparently there are several Grace Jones albums in that category. That is materiality.
Joe Clark

With the gears stripped and the wheels coming off the packaged music industry, designers today have to consider album art not so much as "cover" art but as "icon" art and respond accordingly. How long will it be before we have to consider the icon design first and let the CD, etc. fall out from that? Maybe this simplification will benefit the typically overindulgent craft of album art as a whole. We'll have to wait and see, as it took years after the death of the LP before anyone began creating particularly well for the CD format.
Brent Stickels

I've seen at least one iTunes album download that came with a sort of "interactive liner notes and lyrics" thing that was incredibly clumsy and badly designed. Think 1997-era interactive CD-ROM. While I can't recall exactly what, I'm fairly sure it was high-ish profile, definitely major-label, and would at least in theory have had some real budget that should have resulted in something decent. I don't think music packaging's going anywhere, and as far as digital "cover" art, home printers are getting good and cheap enough that I figure what's most likely is that the downloads will start coming with print-resolution files, in case the customer is so inclined.

I'm always a bit mystified by death of hardcopy hand-wringing, but I suppose it relates to how I and most people I know approach the issue. While I do download more digital media of all kinds and questionable provenance than it would be wise to admit here, I've not once actually bought a digital copy of anything, unless that's the only foreseeably available format, eg. bands releasing digital-only singles. If I'm forking over money, I expect full quality audio, which is still a rarity in the services, and I just plain like books, never mind that I still find reading on screen generally unpleasant for extended periods.

A book is also an object, and a piece of technology; in fact, a book is an extraordinarily effective piece of technology, portable, durable, expensive to pirate but easy to use, not prone to losing all its data in crashes, and capable of taking an amazing variety of beautiful forms.

Is this quote being offered in opposition to music formats or just in parallel? All of this is applicable to CDs(and even vinyl, mostly) as well, with some minor caveats. CDs are "easy" to pirate but only inasmuch as you take the time to do so, and that's after you learn how. Let's keep in mind that the majority of casual computer users still don't quite get that their browser does not equate to the internet. And while books can take a "variety of beautiful forms," let's be realistic: there are four, maybe five formats that account for the overwhelming majority of volumes in any bookstore.

I think what the music industry needs to figure out is that there is value in good printed material to accompany music. The problem is that they think of it as packaging, and they think of it as packaging for a product that is under transition and they don't know what to do. It's not packaging, it's graphic material for fans. Fans want stuff from the musicians they love: posters, booklets, liner notes, photos ... and while some of this can be got online there really is something different about having printed copy, something to hold in your hands. I can easily see myself throwing out all those plastic CD cases with their pathetic 1-fold inserts, but the nicely designed paper ones ... no way.

I'm reminded of that Led Zepplin III album cover with the rotating wheel ... I played with it endlessly when I was kid, and damn I wish I still had it. I think this is where things will head. The music itself may eventually be free, but you'll buy the paraphernalia. And downloadable PDFs? I don't think so. Most people can barely be bothered to print out their family photos, let alone a bunch of lettersized PDFs ... not the same at all.

So Adrian, I think the future is bright for graphic design in the music industry. Possibly brighter than it's been in a long time.
marian bantjes

I can easily see myself throwing out all those plastic CD cases with their pathetic 1-fold inserts, but the nicely designed paper ones ... no way.

The thing is that "nicely designed paper ones" account for a tiny percentage of what goes around a CD. Ninety-odd percent of it is just packaging. The sooner it doesn't exist, the better.

If I need to read lyrics or see photos, I can find them in seconds.
Jeff Gill

Great article. FYI: The image on the top is unreadable on mac (mozilla browser) (http://www.designobserver.com/archives/Lathe.jpg)

If our favourite music merely exists as a sliver of invisible code on a computer, do we lose something?

Yes. Quality. I for one always look to get on Vinyl as well as mp3. And I hope there will always be enough like-minded people to ensure the 12" survives.

In our digital age, album cover artwork can be presented in "an amazing variety of beautiful forms" - in ways never possible before. Serving cover lovers' affection was part of my intention when I created an album artwork visualizer for iTunes (http://www.imagomat.de/coverversion/). The boilerplate for computer-aided pixel manipulation is the 2D still image artwork (which IMHO remains being a part of digital packaging though it is not physically printed on a cover anymore).
You can manipulate digital image artwork data nowadays in ways only dreamed of before. You can even additionally display lyrics embedded with the audio data. Digital packaging should enhance not reduce the richness of music.
Heiko Wichmann

This netlabel's "covers" might be of interest:


Pretty simple but lovely designs.

The CD packaging problem is a really interesting one. One one hand - music is just digital data, and even when I buy a CD, I always encode it in iTunes because I'm always near my laptop, and almost never near the actual CD.

On the other hand, few albums can justify their print/packaging part of the product - which means buying digital media just for the print part of the product. This might be true when the packaging has some special features or a very unique design, but in most cases it's somewhat absurd - record labels need to create a print product that justifies it's in directional purchasing because it is attached to a CD that holds digital media.

It's hard to find solutions for this problem (although it is a thrilling design exercise) - because you either have to create a print that justifies the purchasing of digital media, or create a digital product that somehow creates the motivation to actually buy the music from a provider like iTunes and get some extra back - other than the JPEG front cover.

CoverFlow is a nice feature in iTunes and it can be considered a step forward - because navigating through many albums with coverflow is very nice, and I do find myself manually adding art for each album I download/encode - It might mark the beginning of a new format, or design platform, but it still has to evolve.

Or maybe this one?

Our designers from Yokoland have done lots of great design for our label Metronomicon Audio.

I generally download my music now, only buying CDs if I really want the whole album (which I rearely feel compelled to do these days). The problem we have (in the UK at least) is that when record labels actually make an effort to offer an incentive to buy the physical artefact, like Beck's recent album with it's lovely stickers, it becomes exempt from entering the charts! (Of course, the concept of the Beck packaging was completely ruined by the utterly useless and unremovable "Special Edition" sticker on the case.)

Although it'll never come close the tactile joy of an actual record sleeve, the iTunes CoverFlow system does a good job of presenting artwork. However, it's let down by the images it finds for your precious music - a lot of my albums now have fuzzy and wonky low res photographs attached to them. If I'm lucky it might even be a photograph of the correct album.

Of course, it's quite possible that the entire concept of "albums" and "singles" will soon become obsolete. Their nature is dictated by the technical constraints of the formats they were recorded on. Digital media removes those constraints and, although it won't be on precious pungent printed matter, offers the opportunity of each track having it's own artwork.

The nexus of art and music isn't going to go away - I for one am quite excited to find out what amazing new ways fans and artists alike will find to maintain it.

I think 'resonance' is entirely personal. I love the smell of books, and I recently walked past where they print The Dandy and The Beano and took a good sniff of the ink/paper smell. I'm sure I'm a bit weird for that...

But I also just filled a girlfriend's iPod with music and found that a) she wasn't interested in albums and b) wasn't fussed about having the covers.

Clearly what's important to some of us isn't to others and I suspect those of us who lament the passing of LPs and their eminent displayability are in the minority. (I think graphic designers too often think like graphic designers in that respect and don't think like the people they're ultimately designing for.)

It's the music that matters to most, and the social or private effect the music has. Graphic designers maybe use the albums in the same way, but I think we should be cautious of insisting that people are losing out when actually what we mean is we're getting nostalgic.

I agree with those who say digitisation has opened up other possibilities for using cover art as screensavers etc, and maybe things like the Apple TV and iPhone will create a new desire among people for album art that displays on large HDTVs etc.
But I'm sure the love of album covers was never anything most people indulged in, if my experiences in 2nd hand record stores in the 1980s are anything to go by (bent, torn or completely missing).

On another note, while it's great news about the book, Shaun, if I find that I'm fending off dissertation proposals about record covers over the next few years I'll know where to come...

An audio file with a thumbnail JPEG of the album cover will never have the resonance -- not to mention the commercial value -- of a well-made piece of packaging. But if the corporate providers of downloadable music have their way, this is the future of recorded music. Who ever had a love affair with a JPEG?

This is purely nostalgia, and a nostalgia that belongs almost exclusively to the visually-inclined. Don't get me wrong; I share this nostalgia with you, but let's get real -- the concept of album art is relatively new, and the concept of music is ancient. Most of what is widely considered to be the best music ever written was created before technology even existed to record audio, and long before there was commercial art to accompany it. These facts make statements like "There is an undeniable sense of completeness when music comes with handsome packaging and engaging graphical material" difficult to defend, no matter how subjective they may be.

One other thing: Why is it that the future of any visual media is always assumed to involve animation or some other motion? The ideas proposed in this recent Wired article about the future of album art are so idiotic, they make my head spin.
Rob Weychert

This is why I still buy everything I can on vinyl.

Well, have you seen the Digital Jewel Box?

Funny, I did this same question on books in a presentation at school three years ago. I'm sure it's been covered lots in various minds. Album art, the smell, the texture and taste (if you get nervous and chew on these things like dogs do slippers) are only identifiers in your human mind.

It's fun to read things like this from aficionados like yourselves because I feel how out of tune I am with you guys. Some of us people or maybe only one of us people: me, just listened and still do listen to the music and don't identify artist or song or album. I bet you could talk to radio DJs and they constantly get calls from people all the time that say, "you know, it's that song that has that melody or line-la da da- and it's from the 80s."

It is much the same as not being able to identify the author of a book. I know I should care, but sometimes I don't. I just like the story or the sound. For the music I did care enough about back in my youth, I still identify those songs of the 70s with the cover art. I may say, you know it's that song on the Eagles album with the one picture of such and such on it. Or that album by Chicago, I don't know which number, but it's the one that looks like the fingerprint. I really had too much studying and too many part time jobs to work to commit all the word details of so much song and dance to memory.

When music becomes a sliver on a disk , you let the computer start doing the identifying. Years from now it may be interesting to note how the casual listener identifies that song, "you know, it's the one I downloaded when ... what? or that has the cool animation that ...? Or will it be just a matter of pushing a button to tell you how you felt. Nah, as usual we humans will adapt something to our visual and tactile senses. If not, the machines will.

The absence of packaging in music goes hand in hand with the destruction of the album in general. Party Shuffle has assured that millions more people will stop identifying any music in any meaningful way beyond its "information." It's sad really, reducing an entire piece of work down to bland sound bites. (Much like television news?)

As CEO/designer/custodian of one of those sub-shoestring indie labels, one who's been accused of only making music as an excuse to make band flyers and album covers, this all pushes a lot of buttons for me.

Yes, it's the music that "matters" and yes the concept of album art is relatively new, and the concept of music is ancient. But for many of us (and not just designers), music has a huge social/commercial component. We don't just love the sound, we love all sorts of associations with it: the haircuts, the social group it identifies us with (mods/rockers/goths/emo, whatever), the artwork, the coolness of popularity (or the coolness of obscurity).

The recent news item about classical violinist Joshua Bell busking anonymously (with his Stradivarius!) and only making $32.17 comes to mind. Were all those folks who passed by or just tossed in a dollar shallow? No: context matters. And a printed package still (not forever, but for now) offers a lot of lovely context for music. And it's portable, device-independent, and high-resolution.
Mark Lerner

Joe Clark:
I think if vinyl fans were honest, they would admit that you could replace the LP record inside the cherished sleeve with an equivalent mass and shape and they wouldn't miss a thing. They've got all their music per se on the computer.

You obviously don't own any records, especially ones you bought when you were young. I still mourn the loss of albums and 45s I've sold in the past, I can buy replacements on CD but it's not the same. They're a record (pardon the pun) of my life as much as old photos are.

Rob Weychert:
This is purely nostalgia, and a nostalgia that belongs almost exclusively to the visually-inclined.

I don't agree with this at all. The most obsessive vinyl hound I know is a writer.

I disagree with Nick above.

To suggest that people will only identify music as "information" and "bland soundbites" conjours up images of people listening to the noise of a dial-up modem! As long as the music is still being heard, it will be meaningful in different ways to different people at different times.

Music survived for thousands of years before the invention of the jewel case, and I'm fairly sure it'll cope with it's demise.


i agree with parafenilia people want to hold on to and cherish but with a big screen ipod and a touchscreen there is a lot of options for digital material, photoshoots, lyrics etc. so i think there wil be interactive material that will come with your song or album.

Hi there Adrian,

Here are my thoughts on a deep and somewhat, personally speaking, distraught felt subject. Pessimistic as I am, I do feel we have had this debate waving before our eyes for almost ten years yet somehow we have 'wanted' it to happen - Wanted in terms of commercial pressure and economic laws, or at least I'm sure that this is how the major companies would repost. And when I say this, I mean that music has entered a kind of cheap 'easy come easy go' era of mass consumerism where the majority are in need of the latest up to date technology that has been fed so easily to us. It is political, economic and indeed a huge statement on consumer attitudes - and not just simply a 'graphic' issue that you have unearthed. I wonder at times and in reply to such remarks as, '...it is the music that counts..', how many people do actively listen to their 1000 plus tunes in shuffle mode and are actually engaged, thoughtfully, with the music and their creators. Deleting the file or throwing the dusty 1950's vinyl to the rag 'n bone man poses a huge question that not only manifests a problem of materiality but more importantly a problem of behaviour and attitude.

Secondly, and this is perhaps more optimistic, I truly believe that the graphic designer has not yet taken on the challenge in front of what is available in terms of technology nor in light of current consumer trends. Optimistic I say, indeed there is alot of work to be done. I see rare examples of inventive packaging for CD's or the 'object' and even though I still find myself buying plastic jewel boxes, I'm surprised that nothing truly inventive has taken off for music packaging. The same can be said for the immaterial World of music, we are far from pushing the technology to newer forms and exploring the digital presentation for music online. I do believe the best it still to come

Two links for my two penies worth:

Mark Webster

I run a single-individual micro label.

I like creating nice artifacts.

I'm sorry.

I had written a longer comment but maybe the technology didn't acknowledge my 'post'.....

anyway to resume (and the terribel fact that I hadn't Pomme Ced my text, here's a thought provoking link :

Mark Webster

All the musicians/bands I've designed for have been passionate about the presentation of their works, often infuriatingly so, insisting on the typefaces to be used and so on. Bands care far more about the look of their CDs than authors I've worked for do about their book jackets. This attitude isn't going to change simply because the delivery format changes.

Albums as artworks are unique (compared to books, films, etc) in that they tend to come as a package which rarely gets altered afterwards. Think of all the books that would have been published in June 1967; none of them will have kept the same cover design if they've been reprinted. Now think of Sgt. Pepper...

CoverFlow in iTunes is one way forward, I reckon. I've even made jpeg covers for iTunes playlists like I used to do for CD-R compilations. Makes searching through thousands of tracks a lot easier, as well as looking better on the screen.
John C

I vividly remember in the 80's purchasing records on the 4AD label purely for the lush pleasure of the artwork by Vaughn Oliver. Luckily I enjoyed the music as well.

To think that this work was done "pre-digital" --it still amazes me.

Take a look for yourself: http://www.4ad.com
Joanne K.

Its a strange phenomenon. As music aficionado who compulsively collects thousands of works, I'm well aware of the immediate effect of owning a physical album. But, since I have almost no time to effectively listen to it all, just knowing of all those plastic cases, sleeves, and envelopes are stored in my library gives me a profound satisfaction.

It's not nostalgia for a visual experience, it's nostalgia for a concrete experience. After all, the computer is almost entirely visual.

It's not that downloading is the death of our visual relationship with music (now we look at iTunes lists instead of records revolving) it is the death of a individual objects as the intermediary in our relationship with music. The nostalgia is for a world in which cultural experiences are mediated by these individual concrete objects and thereby experienced through all senses.

The computer is becoming the sole agency for all cultural exchange (already people buy and sell paintings based only on a jpeg) so the question is a lifestyle one: do we want to live with and experience objects or digital objects?

This is not a black and white question. The creation and transportation of objects is an immensely wasteful and polluting system, it is also less democratic and reinforces the urban/rural cultural hierarchy. What would happen if every person had access to all the worlds culture? Less might in fact happen, it's hard to say.

Sacrifices have to be made either way, so the question stands, do we value concrete sensuous experience of fewer cultural items or the more abstracted essentially single-sense experience of many?

And finally, I couldn't agree more with Rob when he asks, "Why is it that the future of any visual media is always assumed to involve animation or some other motion?" I can't stand the hegemonic idea that modern/contemporary = motion/video.

Coming from someone who was born in and has grown up in the middle of the digital age, I think there will always be a place for music packaging. I may not have the love affair for music packaging that a little older generation might have, because they were around when artists started to really express them selves not only through their music but with the package it came in.

The right packaging puts the perfect finishing touches on a great piece of music, and it can make a horrid release not seem as bad. Maybe it will become something that is associated more with special releases, or commemorative editions.
Chris Wilson

All this talk of packaging has me wondering if anyone else considers the environmental effects of buying cds vs. downloads when making their decision as to whether to switch over or not. All that plastic, cellophane, and even paper seemed wasteful when my primary audio players are my computer or ipod dock anyway. I'll still buy cds at local shows because I know the artist will benefit from my support more so than if I went home and went to the iTunes store, but I wonder how many jewel cases are in our landfills.

As a designer and musician, if pressed I'd admit that I make music as an excuse to design nice packaging and related materials. (I'm already three complete album covers ahead of any content for them!)

I've also always been a sucker for fancy packaging, and prone to buying unknown albums for a snazzy presentation. It might explain why I have an inordinate amount of awful music in my collection that I never go back and listen to.

I think the way in which we interact with albums is changing. There is a predominant shift towards full-on digital distribution, but I feel that there will always be a place for physical packaging.

The transition from LPs to CDs is often heralded as the end of classic album design, but the physical constraints of the CD brought about some really wild innovation (not to mention more consideration to type, booklets etc..).

The shift to digital distribution will see its share of innovation and weakassed shit as well. Where album designers used to be concerned with one object (the LP cover) as the predominant if not only visual representation of an album, contemporary designers have a lot more to consider. We're no longer restricted to one solution when designing for music, but entire systems reaching across various delivery methods.

Also, DJs and diehard Vinyl Junkies will never let LPs die.

Also, take coverflow as an example of our preference to interacting with a library of albums in a physical way. I despise itunes, but cannot deny that the integration of coverflow is the best method for interacting with music digitally I have ever seen.

I love design for music in all its forms, but I'll be damned if I'm giving up on physical album covers for my music collection.
Richard Flanagan

ScottB: Vinyl has always been (theoretically) more recyclable than CD. Card sleeves can be recycled and surplus vinyl also used to be recycled at pressing plants (as I recall).

But this is an issue that taxes me on the design responsibility level. Jewel cases use three or more separate pieces of plastic in their construction. Beyond the environmental concerns they're badly designed from an ergonomic point of view (often difficult to open; easily broken) and being plastic cases they turn into dust traps. When I have the opportunity I always try and persuade clients to opt for the digipak format instead. It's not perfect but I prefer it.

That aside, another point about digital music is its impermanence. People used to scoff at the idea of CDs lasting for years but in the near future you're going to hear the words "I lost my entire music collection in a hard drive crash" more and more frequently.
John C

The question begs to be asked, what does cover art really have to do with the recorded music contained inside the packaging? I love the album cover and packaging as much as the next person, but I can also accept a future where media changes and arcane notions of production are shedded.

David Byrne has interesting ideas regarding the topic posted on his online journal:



"Who ever had a love affair with a JPEG?"

Dangerous question.

Joe Moran, Su, Marian... hear hear!

I still have my vinyl copy of Led Zeppelin III. :-) And no way am I ever throwing away all of my other LPs or CDs.

What would be really nice: the soon-to-be three (two? one?) record companies dropping the price of CDs. Dreaming is free. Dream on...
Ricardo Cordoba

The computer is becoming the sole agency for all cultural exchange [...] so the question is a lifestyle one: do we want to live with and experience objects or digital objects?

Very nicely put, Sven.

i'm one of those freaks who drives around with the cd box in my lap so that i can read it at stoplights.

imptce of the physical thing to a liner-notes junkie:

can i pull over the car and immediately look up in the liner notes who sang backup on a certain track? can i check the lyrics?

what will be the digital means for replacing my ability to do these things? most of what i buy or download has to do with my ability to learn about music and who's involved with certain music via this kind of living with the liner notes.


i thought i'd share

this project i did

in my second year (undergrad) graphic design


Mention should perhaps be made of the recent fad for reissuing CDs as shrunken facsimiles of the original vinyl. The most crazily "authentic" of these are the not-quite-legal limited reissues of long-deleted and tremendously obscure analogue electronic music on the Creel Pone label. As well as having sleeves that are scans of the original art in all their grungy, price-stickered glory, the discs are black CDs with labels that match the original vinyl label artwork. And the music is taken from the vinyl, of course.
John C

»Who ever had a love affair with a JPEG?«

Obviously, Adrian, you've never been a 13-year-old nerd.

I am glad to see jewel cases and CD albums are going extinct. I'm surprised no one here yet has commented on the positive "green" solution downloading music has provided us with. Each of us has hundreds of cds, with corresponding cd cases, filled with (for the most part) useless paper booklets. What a waste!! One can only wonder how many cd packages lay in our landfills, taking an eternity to decompose and rot. The thought of interactive album art on my mp3 player or computer is much more enticing and much more sustainable.

As a musician and a designer, I am on both sides of the fence. Obviously, I love being able to control the look and feel of every album that I produce. Choosing the paper, production method, colors... all of this is definitely part of the music contained within.

However, I offer many of my albums as digital downloads. As a complete independent, this allows me to have no overhead when selling music.

I think its important to choose when an album needs to be packaged in some well-designed way, and when it needs to just be out there, for people to buy. I make that choice on a "per-album" basis. Some of my music will never be digital downloads, some will only be.

Regarding the purchase of music, part of the nostalgia, for me, is not only opening and inspecting the contents of an album, but also gong to an actual store and searching for music, rather than going online and donwloading. There is nothing like a record store bargain bin; nothing online can replace the record store clerk telling you what you really should be buying while some insanely obscure nonsense blares in the background.

Nothing can replace physical album art, and hopefully with the club and dj scene we will see a renewed effort to make attractive vinyl casings once again.

That being said, it would also be awesome to see how far the top designers of our time could tackle and really push the development of the digital package you can download with an online album. As a previous poster said, virtually all of these offerings so far have been of the afterthought variety. What kind of direction could progressive designers take this emerging format?
oyl miller

It would seem that the rumors of vinyl's death are at least somewhat exaggerated.

Good riddance to the jewel case. What a terrible piece of ugly-looking waste. Unfortunately, we see so much of this because the 2-panel inside jewel case form is one of the cheapest to produce. Less-plasticky digipacks and plastic-free paper wallets cost hundreds more for every thousand CDs pressed which many times is not an affordable option for small projects and labels trying to break even at best. A JPEG is a fairly level playing field if you ask me and hopefully that's where the future is headed.
mister worms

I remember when I got an ipod a couple of years ago (b/w text only screen) and the first thing I noticed about using it was that I sort of had more trouble, or something like that, selecting what to listen to. It's not that it was 'difficult' of course, but I found it much easier to browse my shelves and 'pick' something out than I did when scrolling through lists of names. So obviously there's some sort of intuitive aesthetic (visual) indexing going on there... anyway my ipod died about a month after it's warranty ran out and I never replaced it. Stick to the artefacts I reckon, they're tougher!

Look forward to the book.

Liking the physical album art is not about nostalgia. It's like saying that one likes cookies because of nostalgia. I like cookies because they taste good. I don't eat cookies because I want to relive sweet childhood memories, I want to eat a cookie because I want that sugary satisfaction, though admittedly there may be some nostalgia as an added bonus. I like physical album art because they look good, and feel good now. My first brush with album art is the unfortunate cassette sleeve. I don't think of cassette sleeves and dream of good old days. I dislike cassette sleeves because they are badly designed. If anything at all, the digital jpeg representation of album art is nostalgic! It is a different case with an interactive/motion/whatever accessory because it delivers more or rather different than a static (does not include that Led Zep cover with the spinning wheel) physical album art can.

Our brains may have evolved and have the ability to grasp digital media: invisible codes that fly through a machine with a graphic/audio output for our enjoyment. But I think there is a primitive part of us (some and not all judging from the comments above); perhaps from our skin wired to our brain, or perceptions of 3D space and physical interaction with an object that thrill us. Fingering something, flipping through an album sleeve, is just not the same as pressing a button with a finger. There is nothing mysterious about it, nothing intellectual about how this piece of technology works: it exist simply and beautifully in front of our eyes. Plus you can't lay on your bed blasting music on the player and read the liner notes. It just won't work with a tiny iPod.

And I'm with Ricardo on that quote from sven: ...so the question is a lifestyle one: do we want to live with and experience objects or digital objects?

But I have to say I am excitedly looking to the great innovations that great new technologies can afford :)
Ruth C

I always wonder how much we can anticipate change, or see possibilities of a new medium, when we're so entrenched in the old way... like when people first started to print books on presses, how many hundreds of years did it take before type stopped compulsively imitating handwriting? And when the internet came out, how long did it take before established paper conventions were dropped? (ok, maybe that hasn't happened yet... but it's evolving). I do love how the rate of change has sped up enough that we can more or less watch it happen, and see where people (ie generally youth) without pre-conceived notions of the "old" way can go with the new medium.

I don't have any notstalgia at all for the album or for CD covers - I've gone digital without looking back. But, I do very fondly recall going through my grandparents record collections and hearing Jim Reeves like he was standing just behind you - it puts a warm shiver up your back. Vinyl deserves a respect in its own right.
Christina W

It died for me with LPs, end of story, because it was about the sound as well. Vinyl, and recordings engineered before the "hotter than hot" compressed garbage had presence. Audio presence. And we liked the albums themselves too. And holding/cleaning/caring for records. Great stuff. But, I sold a lot of records. And I don't listen to the ones I have left. I moved on.

And I think essentially this is just an argument for/against the worship of objects and images.

So in that context, seeing how adamantly people are defending their right/need/addiction to music as a tangible, informational and graphical product just drives it home for me that I might really enjoy seeing it all vanish completely and watch droves of people convulse in agony. I think music could potentially mean a lot more than it ever did before to the starving, huddled masses of the liner note and cover art-deprived. I mean come on. . .do we really need music that's tells us what to think, feel and see before we hear it? Yes, it's been fun having the stuff, I own a crapload of it, it's culture, let's celebrate it, yes, yes, wonderful. But truthfully, what if it was just gone forever? Could we suck it up and listen? Experience it live? I think it might really open up some people's skulls. Incidentally it's not just about "what you like" as a consumer, but about what the removal of this prepackaged identity does for the musician. Just think if you didn't know a thing about the performer whose music you loved. What they looked like. How old they were. What their "crowd's" demographic or preferred aesthetic was. What all the lyrics were. Sounds kinda cool to me. But. . .Never gonna happen. Until the great blackening of the sky. Hasten, blackening.
Nick S.

With the talk of new album cover formats in a digital world, plus some comments on animation = the future.. I couldn't help post a link to these (in my opinion, mostly, rather grand) examples of animated CD covers. Have a peek through a few..
Jim Morrison

The end of album art is really about the end of print. Album art is peripheral to the principle art of the music. Music videos and artist websites are the same except that they are are differing media.

Music is a single media art. The lyrics of an album (poetry/creative writing) can be a printed art, but pictures surrounding the type are not poetry, they are only supporting the poetry.

I'm all about multimedia experiences and look forward to future peripheral art that musicians will develop.
Stephen M. James

my band only has a digital album cover, as we only released our album digitally. i wish more bands would, it's better for the environment, especially since most people just download music (or put it into digital format) anyway.

I recently wrapped on the artwork for the next "Fray" release, whom is signed to the mentioned label Sony BMG. The art department and the marketing VP placed a lot of emphasis on the packaging, especially the eco-friendly aspects. We did a recycled board eco-wallet (no plastic) with a satin-matte finish. I'm all about finishes and paper stocks btw, a real "tactile" designer if you will. I don't know if a digital-only release was discussed before I came aboard, but Sony and the band seemed to have a pretty clear vision suggesting that the physical release is necessary and a wholly lucrative asset.

I bring this up only because this is a glimmer of hope, that at least that physical packaging won't die out so quickly as we fear. I still do, however, fear greatly that quality music with quality packaging will ultimately give way to the lowest common denominator, ie. a piss poor quality mp3's and, the print designer's worst enemy, the jpeg.

Hell, now that I'm thinking about it again I'm starting to feel depressed. I'll fight for real packaging to the death, but I know as well as anyone else that it's a losing battle. Just as Walmart has taught our new generation so aptly, convenience and immediate gratification will always dominate thought and effort.

CDs or some other physical manifestation of musical choice will continue to exist as long as people continue to interact in the physical world.

The book may well be saved by the coffee table and bookcase. If so, the CD will similarly be saved by the CD rack.
matt cook

I'm convinced that Apple's CoverFlow is poised to revitalize cover art design in the music industry.

Maybe it's not the same as being able to hold & enjoy an actual LP sleeve, but CoverFlow is bringing album covers back into the picture.

CoverFlow is not only the UI that iTunes now centers around, but the iPhone, iPod Touch, and the upcoming Leopard. You can already see that UI being widely imitated and it's only in its infancy. It'll have impact far beyond Mac & iPod users.
Rob O.

I think the current generations have developed an emotional attachment to the physicality of popular cultural items, including CD's.

Future generations will likely be less affectionate to the same items as they will have little value to them, having grown up in a more digital age.

I believe in the future the physical items will perhaps increase in popularity but also be more expensive and thus become more of a collectors items, or a way to express ones social status. Just like antiques today.

I guess I'm in the trenches of it all. I'm a designer making a living mostly from designing cd packaging for independent artists. The last few years have seen a steady decline in the number of inquiries, and more of those are for cover only (aka digital release).

I'm torn over this... I have LP nostalgia like many have described here, but must pursue the future. For now iTunes Coverflow has helped keep album art cool and accessible. It's one of the few positive things to happen recently. There are also a bunch of programs, widgets and other
software to display album art. They won't help you fall in love with a jpeg, but hey, it's something.


It is an interesting dilemma...
I suppose as designers we all love packaging..
i suppose as consumers we love buying something and opening it for the first time..pulling of the cover smelling the paper et all.
I love it..but i suppose with growing environmental concerns maybe a digital solutions is a good one.
Maybe not the best, and certainly one that lacks the immediate emotional connect like the paper of a book or the cover of a CD...
But with natural resources forever depleting, use of excessive plastic and other such resources..maybe a digital version will save us all..what say??


Jobs | June 14