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The Album as Artwork

The 1960s saw the beginning of a close relationship between record sleeves and music. This decade introduced a new breed of designers creating album art who took creative liberties that elevated sleeve-work from a mere presentation of an album to the beginning of a musical story. Moving away from the strict formats put in place by large labels, self-represented artists shook the market and pushed album art into new territories. Facilitated by the introduction of independent labels and thus creative control, the ‘60s became a fundamental moment in art-to-music dialogue. And the legacy lives on.

Although the record itself had been around as a commodity since the 1890s, LP jackets stuck to strict formats. Jazz cuttings had minimal, dark designs (usually in blue and black) with writing or graphic drawings of the featured musician; classical music was almost invariably presented through cursive writing and a representation of an old-master painting; and country LPs displayed the gem-stoned bodies of the singers, in bright technicolor. In their formulaic repetitiveness, the covers of vinyls demonstrated the control that record companies had over their artists. Since the birth of the ‘big label’ in the 1920s, musicians were required to stay in-line with others and become yes men.

Images were not established by artists, but rather they made to conform to a visual system constructed by the industry. The idea behind this system was that it allowed for easy association for an audience and cheap, mass production for the company. In the 1950s this began to change. Following the blatant exploitation of their artists, corporate record labels developed a bad reputation. Musicians were no longer willing to surrender almost 100% of their earnings to these companies and as a result, independent labels began to emerge. One of the first examples of this was Sun Records who laid claim to country and rock n’ roll superstars Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. It marked the beginning of a new wave of independent labels and, in turn, an unprecedented freedom of sonic and visual expression which became its own in the following decade.

If you were around in the ‘60s, you may remember the excitement with which you would gather your wages, step foot into a record shop, and come out with an armful of colourful, imaginative 33inch sleeves of magic. The experience of music was just as much about the images on the jacket as it was about the music itself. Album covers became artworks in their own right. Bands and their designers would create whole worlds that their fans could inhabit, providing the ultimate doorway to escapism. And no-one was more qualified to supply you with the key than London-based sleeve design company, Hipgnosis.

Founded in 1968 by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell, Hipgnosis was one of the key LP visual design companies that helped launch album art into the realm of the collectible. The company developed its own recognisable visual language through tapping into the psychedelic atmosphere of the time. They became the go-to designers for alternative rock and roll bands including Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and The Pretty Things. Thorgerson and Powell made it their mission to begin the experience of a record before the music was even heard. The resulting intimate relationship between music and image has meant that the covers made by Hipgnosis are now inherently linked to the albums for which the work was created. It is impossible to think of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, 1973, (still one of the best selling albums of all time) without picturing the iconic  Hipgnosis image of a prism split by a rainbow of light.

Companies like Hipgnosis paved the way for future album artwork. Musicians used their aesthetics as stamps of identity and movements such as Punk and Hip Hop gained momentum thanks in no small part to their cover-images. It wasn’t until 1991, with the release of the digital CD, that vinyl lost its title as king of the music mediums. Although alternatives had been introduced in previous years – such as the cassette tape – the preciousness of the album and it’s 33 inches of original artwork made it fundamentally untouchable. It was the combination of the CD as middle-man and the introduction of music videos that shook vinyls from their position at the top..

In a time where music files are becoming smaller and more accessible and MTV broadcasts one music video for every 20 reality TV shows, the LP is making its comeback. Simple and effective, album art has not lost its ability to excite the buyer. Laying claim to your own square of original artwork by your favourite band has been proven to be an unbeatable experience. Independent musicians often opt to release on vinyl before any other medium because it is a sure-fire way to build an image for themselves and spark interest from the public. But, it must be said that this is a small faction of the music industry. As with the early 1900s, large labels still lay claim to much of the industry and thus they have creative control over imagery. Your standard bubblegum pop or indie look can be distilled to one simple, profitable format. This is why the power of the independently produced LP will no doubt continue to occupy an important space for artists and music aficionados.

Image: Album artwork for The Oscillation ‘Veils’ (2011)