There’s been a lot of banter about the relevance of album artwork in the digital age across the metal blogsphere (starting on Metalsucks, then moving to Invisible Oranges). The conversation has generally centered around whether the fans want/need/appreciate album artwork anymore. Many folks don’t buy CD’s or vinyl any more, and those that do often just rip the music for their iPod and file the hard copy away without paying much attention to the packaging or artwork. There are of course others who view an album as a package – 10 or so songs made to be together, with cover artwork, sleeve notes, lyrics etc. – and consume as a whole.
However, in many ways, whether the music buying public want, or feel that they need artwork or not is somewhat beside the point. The fact is, aside from the artistic concerns, artwork has a very practical purpose, which means it’s unlikely to disappear any time soon.
It’s unlikely that bands are going to stop releasing songs in ‘collections’. It makes financial sense to record multiple songs in one session, not to mention that extra cost it would take to promote and market 1 song at a time. Whether you call it an EP, Album or twozzlefangler, this collection will need to be identiified by a ‘label’ – the title – so that people can identify it. But from a marketing and promotional perspective this is simply not enough. This is, after all (wether you like it or not) a product, and products need to be distinct and easily recognisable. Imagine if all that was on every washing powder box was the brand name – no logo, design, mascot, product picture, gimmick - how would you identify one from the next? How would you remember which one was recommended to you, Washomatic or Cleanomatic? Branding professionals have known about differentiators for decades, and the music industry is no different. So bands often have logos, so that people can easily pick them out and identify with them. This is our fist visual cue. But that doesn’t do a very good job of differentiating one album from the next – enter the album artwork.
At corporate level, all the elements of the album package from the songs, to the logo, to the title to the cover image, are carefully harmonised to portray a particular theme, image, tone. This is called merchandising and it’s take VERY seriously. Merchandising can make or break a record. This merchandising is taken through to marketing – adverts, PR, press kits, live show promotion and is usually reproduced to some level as part of the live show itself.
So when you get your mate to throw together some artwork for your latest EP this is what you are doing – merchandising. It means that you have a way to visually present your collection of songs, so that people can easily identify it in a shop among a bunch of other blackened deathcore CD’s, on Amazon or iTunes Store, and when flicking through the cover flow in their MP3 library. People are more likely to remember the distinctive cover design than the obscure latin album title or your unreadable BM logo.
It goes further than this though. Album artwork tends to be similar within genres. If you’re a Death Metal band, you probably want to be noticed by Death Metal fans. Death Metal album covers are usually striking, disturbing and immaculately painted by some some disturbed genius. Black Metal covers are usually sparse and colourless. Next time you leaf through Metal Hammer or Terrorizer take note of which adverts you notice – somehow it mysteriously aligns with your music taste…wonder why that is?
In the digital age, where visuals are everything, I’d say that album artwork is more important than ever. Whether you spent hours gazing at it (like I did with Iron Maiden’s Somewhere in Time artwork when I was a teenager), or merely used it as a reminder when looking for particular album, it had an impact on you, and fulfilled a vital need.Album Artwork