Monday, April 4, 2011

The Lost Art of the Album Cover

I've always preferred vinyl over CDs, cassettes, 8 tracks and MP3s.  Part of this preference has to do with cover art. 

Cover art is something that seems forgotten about these days.  Yes, it still exists, but I think any serious lover of music would admit that the cover art for a CD is seriously lacking when compared to that of an LP.

When I was a kid, I got lost in cover art.  Whether it be Iron Maiden's The Number of the Beast or Massacre's Killing Time.  It didn't matter.  I'd put the record on, listen and look.  My cassettes had cover art, but it was too small to see.  Same with my CDs.  My 7" singles were even better than cassettes and CDs.  The cover art seemed to matter.  It looked like art.  It was art.  It was important.

Now the art is nothing more than a picture.  It doesn't help sell anything.  It tells no story.  It is as cold and impersonal as the MP3 format.  There seems to be little thought put into it because the people consuming it (and don't kid yourself, MP3s are a consumable product and nothing more) put no thought into what they are buying. 

Years ago, when going into a record store, I'd look at everything.  If a band I never heard of had a neat sounding name and a cool album title, the cover art would often make or break my decision to buy it.  That's how I actually ended up buying Killing Time.  The cover art appealed to me. It was as mysterious as the names of the songs on the release (and in hindsight fit the music perfectly).  The cover art of a CD never swayed me to make a purchase.

If you compare the vinyl art on any Iron Maiden album to the exact same art on the CD or cassette, you quickly realize how much detail you lose.  There are subtle touches that just aren't there when you shrink down the image to fit the format.  The LP cover was the perfect size.  Above and beyond the music, it was often art that stood on its own.  In fact, when I got Kiss' Creatures of the Night for my birthday, I actually displayed the album cover in my room for quite a few months, much like someone would hang a painting or display a sculpture.  Again, I never did that with a CD.

MP3s are meant to be played on tiny devices, the portability of which is the selling point.  Some of these devices display the cover art for whatever music you are listening to at any given time.  The art is so small, though, that it becomes pointless.  I've purchased MP3s, and like CDS, I never bought one on the whim of a cover ... because I can barely see it.  I definitely can't display it, either. 

Maybe I'm old, or maybe I romanticize too much.  I don't think so, though.  Many of my music loving friends feel much the same way.  They long for the days when buying an album meant something.  When a record felt like an event.  Sure, vinyl is still being made (and I still buy it), but the industry has changed.  The art seems less inspired.  The compact format has led to compact ideas.  There are always gems, of course, but they are no longer the norm.  Long gone are the days where I would examine every detail of a photo or painting, pondering how it fit into what I was experiencing coming from my speakers.  Upsetting?  Of course.  But it's also a sign of the times, where art has little meaning and everything is meant to be disposable ... including the music.

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