One of the great things about vinyl is the sheer square footages of the packaging. A minimum, a vinyl record offers two square feet to explain itself through artwork and liner notes. CDs can be okay, too, if time, effort and money are invested in the enclosed booklet. But when it comes to digital files, downloaded or streamed, artwork and liner notes are all but invisible. But maybe we’ve reached some kind of realization: that cover art is more important than ever. This is from Pigeons and Planes:
I keep thinking about something Kanye West tweeted in early 2016.
“The Yeezus album packaging was an open casket to CDs.”
Marked with nothing but a small piece of red tape over a jewel CD case, Yeezus‘ blank artwork was a fitting cover for a minimalist album. But on a larger level, it acknowledged the looming death of physical music—and helped started a conversation about the role album artwork will have as streaming replaces the idea of owning music.
Four years after Yeezus‘ release, while staring at a grainy digital photo on SoundCloud that serves as the “artwork” for XXXTENTACION’s massively successful “Look At Me!” single, I wonder what value cover art still holds.
In many ways, artwork has been reduced to a formality. Services like SoundCloud and Spotify still require artists to upload some form of cover art along with their music—so it lives on for now, but its purpose is changing.
In 2017, artwork appears as small thumbnails on digital screens far more often than on actual physical album covers. 80 years after a graphic designer at Columbia Records invented album art as a way to help sell vinyl in record stores, its original function is becoming a thing of the past. So, it’s worth asking: Does cover art still matter? Is Lil Yachty the only one whostill cares?
With these questions bouncing around my head, I asked musicians, visual artists, creative directors, writers, and A&Rs around the industry for their opinions on the changing art form—and learned that cover art might actually be more important than ever.