Album Artwork

In this post, Adam explores works from the gallery’s collection that have been featured on album artwork, as well as the links between visual art and musical art.

On the wall above the staircase up to our newest exhibition Still Parents, hangs “I Love You”, a brightly coloured love heart rug, created by pop artist Peter Blake. Peter Blake famously designed many album covers over his career, most notably co-designing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles; Do They Know It’s Christmas? By Band Aid and slightly more recently Stop the Clocks the Oasis best of album. This got me thinking about album artwork in general and how important it has become for music. Here at the Whitworth we have one piece of art that was used as the album cover for Pinkerton by Weezer ‘Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Evening Snow at Kanbara’ by Utagawa Hiroshige.  

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 – 1858) ‘Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Evening Snow at Kanbara’ (1833), the Whitworth, the University of Manchester.

It has seemed like forever that musical art and visual art has walked hand in hand through the medium of the album cover. We’ve grown to associate the albums we love, and even individual songs, with the artwork that adorns them. But how did it all begin and how has it changed over the years? Is there still a place for album artwork in an increasingly digital music industry? 

As can be expected, album artwork evolved alongside the development of the album itself. In the 1910’s 10 or 12 inch records were kept in dull, plain cardboard, often printed with the retailer or producers name. These records generally lasted 3 – 5 minutes. In the 1920’s, record labels began to offer record albums, a leather folder similar to a photo album, with blank sleeves inside, where a record owner could keep their records safe. This idea of the “album” was expanded on, when record labels began to offer pre-assembled collections of songs, compilations of a specific artist, genre, a classical suite or collection of hits – however, they all very much looked the same. Eventually this would lead to the album as we understand it today.  

In 1938, Columbia records first hired Alex Steinweiss as its first art director. Steinweiss invented the concept of album covers designing the first ever album cover for ‘Smash Song Hits by Rodgers & Hart’. At first, Columbia were reluctant to get on board with the idea, but when they did, record sales increased by 900% and other record companies quickly followed suite. 

Throughout the 40’s Steinweiss’ work dominated album covers, designing covers for London, Decca and Everest Records. He helped bring records from something you’d find hidden away at the back of electrical appliance shops, to the front and centre of department stores with their eye-catching designs. He helped them become something that you would be proud to own and put on display, not just listen to. A physical work of art. 

From the mid 50’s photography became the most popular medium for album artwork. Producing eye catching images of the musicians themselves, portraits, group shots and live performances. This allowed consumers to see their favourite artists in a new and sometimes more intimate light than before. This practice has continued to this day and is still one of the most popular forms of album artworks. 

Peter Blake (b.1936) ‘I Love You,’ (1982) Wool; Cotton, the Whitworth, the University of Manchester. ©Peter Blake

Musical artists themselves realised that album artwork was another way to express themselves besides the music. With the industry at an all-time high going into the 60’s, and the emergence of psychedelia, this kicked off the beginning of elaborate, colourful designs that had not been seen before during the modernism of the 40’s and 50’s. Famous commercial artists began to see the potential of expanding their audience and artistic medium through album art, particularly pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Peter Blake, designing covers for The Velvet Underground and the Beatles. Album artworks were to quickly become desirable collectors’ items with an international commercial appeal. Even today, people all over the world wear these famous cover designs on their clothing and plaster them all over their walls. 

Blake, P; Howarth, J. ‘Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band,’ Cover Image, Parlophone (1967).

During the 70’s photography made another big comeback. With some images going on to define an album and even an era. Cover photos taken by celebrity photographers such as Robert Mapplethorpe’s image of Patti Smith for her album Horses and Masayoshi Sukita’s photo of David Bowie for Heroes have become some of the most memorable images in pop culture during that time, proving that a striking portrait could be a powerful and memorable piece of album artwork.

Here at the Whitworth, being based in Manchester it would be criminal not to mention the partnership between Peter Saville and Factory records. In this instance, the symbiotic relationship between album artwork designer and artist/record label took a step further. The bands at Factory Records would give Saville free reign over the cover designs for their albums, resulting in some of the most famous and instantly recognisable cover artworks of the 20th century i.e. Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division. 

Saville, P. ‘Unknown Pleasures,’ Cover Image, Factory Records (1979).

In recent years, streaming services have dominated the way in which audiences listen to their music. There are some who believe that this has heralded the end of the album as a concept. People are consuming music in bite sized chunks, one off songs and curated playlists of many different artists. The industry has become fast paced and musical artists are under more and more pressure to release music quickly to satisfy the hungry market. But what does this mean for the future of album artwork? Thankfully, despite the reduction in sales of physical music, musical artists still see the value and beauty in placing visual art alongside their music. This paired with the resurgence of vinyl over recent years proves how important the concept of album artwork really is. Albeit on a more mobile phone screen sized scale. The artwork attached to a single or an album are still one of the first ways that we are introduced to a band, I have found myself listening to new music purely based on the artwork catching my eye or intriguing me, the concept is truly engrained in our culture and thankfully doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon. 

Further Reading:

Undiscover Music: A History of Album Artwork

SOLOPRESS: A brief history of album art

Guy Novin’s A History of Graphic Design

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