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Art, Rock - Why Album Art Still Matters

Posted on Monday, 21 January 2013 | No Comments

In the wake of the potentially fatal problems facing HMV, talk amongst some has turned to the obvious point: how do we get the buggers to pay up? In an age when you torrent new releases before your local cinema has them, or download a band's discography in minutes, convinving people to pay up for the physical product is proving tricky. Hence, less sales, hence, less shops.

But while it may not be what it was, there is still palpably a market out there willing and happy to purchase. The issue then is how we turn things around to match the needs of this audience. Well, one of the ways to do so is to make the proposition of purchase an attractive one. And how do you do that? Make the product attractive.

Rather than being in decline, or as Peter Saville suggested in 2008, dead, for the audience of music fans and afficionados who appreciate it as art (i.e. the people who are still buying records), album art has become more important than ever in deciding whether to buy something or not. If you've got enough money left for one £10 CD or a £15-18 vinyl purchase and have to choose between several albums you want - well, you go for the one that's going to look nice on your shelf, of course.

An example of how to do packaging right in 2013 comes with the new Yo La Tengo record, Fade. For a long-standing cult band both of and for music geeks, that they should put some thought into how their releases come out. Even so though, it's a stunning product - both the CD and vinyl come in a beautiful, shiny foil cover, while the vinyl comes with a bonus 7" of cover songs and links to the whole lot on MP3 alongside an extra ambient track for your trouble. None of this would matter if Fade wasn't such a good album - which it really is, by the way - but if you want to persuade your fanbase to pick up a copy, well, that's how to do it.

Going against Saville's pessimism even further, the las few years have seen a variety of acts experimenting with their packaging. Of Montreal released Skeletal Lamping in a range of odd formats - T-shirts, badges and even a paper latern - whilst the CD version was produced as a bizzare fold-out artwork that required its own instruction video. Kevin Barnes elaborated on the reasoning in an interview with Pitchfork in 2008, claiming:

It goes back to this thought that we had, that it would be so cool if that becomes the norm and no one is creating just jewel cases anymore. Everyone has to create an interesting object and something that's singular from other objects. So you go to a record store, and it's filled with these totally bizarre art objects. It's like, "Hey, I'm looking for the new Panda Bear record, what is it?" "Oh, it's this bonsai tree."

The last few years have also seen Clinic release their recent Free Reign album as a UFO (that's a frisbee to you or I), a limited edition of Matthew Dear's Black City came out as a totem, while The Flaming Lips tried to hide a series of increasingly dissapointing and time-wasting releases in increasingly outlandish packaging. Radiohead too have been in on the act, using their clout and reputation to put out a DIY CD for In Rainbows and a newspaper special edition of The King of Limbs.

It's also interesting to speculate on the harm that can be done by an album's artwork if it isn't seen to be up to scratch. The relative commerical failure of Animal Collective's Centipede Hz can be put down to a few reasons - a lengthy between-albums absence, increased piracy, a far-reduced PR drive compared to Merriweather Post Pavillion, not measuring up to its predecessor in the critical consensus - but then you actually look at the garish nightmare they doled it out to the world in, and it's hard not to wonder who the hell would actually want that thing in their house. (In fact, there was an even more off-putting first draft originally released, presumably before their record labels starting crying that they were about to be put out of business.)

There's no single way to save music shops and to prop up the industry, but one piece of advice cannot be ignored. If it looks good, people will want it - and if it doesn't, they won't. If they are to survive, artists and labels must become the purveyors of beautiful objects, items whose aesthetic force will draw people into whatever lies within. If you care about albums, you have to care about album art as well.

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