The visual integration of art into the music listening experience has undoubtedly been a significant milestone in music history. We are drawn to attention-capturing cover art and even display some of our favourites on walls and clothes. These visual aids can add much to the pleasure of music listening and allow artists to express themselves beyond just the music.
So what does it take to produce cover art that is attractive, thought-provoking and suits the music? One of the most compelling components of cover art is that it is not just one thing. Cover art can be photographic portraits, paintings or collages. Some of today’s biggest artists have distinctly unique images attached to their sound; so it seems the only criteria are that it must be singular. Some of the greatest covers of the last 50 years have few comparisons or look-alikes.
The history of art and music really began with Alex Steinweiss, essentially the father of modern cover art designs. He lobbied for the integration of cover art into the consumer buying experience when he was the art director at Columbia studios. This was the catalyst for the whole music industry; it was a huge move for music marketability and helped increase consumer demand.
Following Steinweiss’ contribution, celebrated artists like Peter Blake made a name for themselves in the musical adjacent world of cover art. Blake produced striking works such as The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967 and The Who’s Face Dances in 1981. These pieces are distinct, timeless and embody the music and era of the bands in visually engaging ways.
Some artists even developed relationships with bands that span careers, creating art for various bodies of work such as Stanley Donwood’s collaboration with Radiohead. Donwood has helped create every cover for the band since 1994. Each time, his work seems to perfectly capture the soul of the band’s music.
More modern artists have the opportunity to work with a variety of mediums: paint, graphic design or photography. So Denis Rouvre's choice to use photography is responsible for the gem that is the visual accompaniment to To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar. His work is an iconic visual piece memorable to many and certainly helped to elevate the classic status of Lamar’s release and impeccably capture the themes and topics the album discussed.
Art has the ability to catch our eye and inspire thought. Cover art is a tool for the visual expression of an auditory experience, conveying to audiences the spirit and personality of music. I am excited to see the continued collaboration of visual and musical art, allowing visual and sonic art forms to go hand in hand.
By Mehera Salah