Originally published in The Hindu Metroplus in August:
You didn’t need a lesson in reflection of light from your physics class when you were staring at the cover of Pink Floyd’s psychedelic rock monument ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’. The entire who’s who of popular history were cut out and pasted in the photo that graces the front of The Beatles’ flower-powered ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’. Apart from (arguably) containing the greatest songs in music history, these records became instantly famous for their album artwork. Such was the popularity of these images that they become part of pop culture, bearing artistic significance even till today.
Other artists gained praise for the story behind the defining picture that served as the album cover. ‘Who’s Next’ – released in 1971 by the Who featured band members zipping up after relieving themselves on a cement support structure. Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled album featured a photo of a Vietnamese monk immolating himself during South Vietnam’s Buddhist crisis of 1963.
Today, however, while the music continues to write itself into new pages of history, the importance of artwork has diminished. This can be largely attributed to the rise of the download-via-the-internet age. In a research conducted last year by the Nielson Company, digital album and track purchases went up 16.8 percent and 9.6 percent, respectively. With similar analysis reports predicting a 40 percent drop in physical CD sales in the US by 2012, it’s safe to say we are living in the age of downloads. More so, in India, where music downloaded is almost entirely pirated and illegal, the download culture took off even before the CD culture could bring in sales! And now that even parts of the music fraternity have endorsed the download culture, the idea of releasing and packaging music has certainly gone to the other extreme.
“Some bands have given up on the physical media for music and only upload tracks online for free and tour. I have no respect for such bands. Music is nothing without the artwork and the physical disk,” says Mikhail Madnani, who collects vinyl records, CDs and box sets put out by his favourite metal bands. Madnani does not have a negative opinion of current album artworks, but he specially reveres the work of Derek Riggs for the cover of Iron Maiden’s ‘Somewhere in Time’. “The amount of references this image has is unbelievable and it was all done by hand,” he adds.
Pronoy Dutta, who is currently studying fine arts, blames technological advancement for changing the way album art was meant to be created. He agrees with Madnani’s sentiment of how “once something is digital, people do not put much value on it.” Dutta draws a parallel from the timeline of publishing art in general saying, “The emphasis on painted art diminished when graphic art and photography caught on.”
But if we were to examine the current culture of the internet path to rockstardom and the bevy of one-hit wonder bands, we can agree with music aficionado Shikher Chaudhary when he says that bands “do not subconsciously place as much emphasis on album art, since they are aware that viral marketing and word of mouth buzz has more importance for selling records.” He admits that “album covers does seem to be a sort of dying art,” citing the emergence of image rendering software such as Photoshop.
However, there is still one factor that is helping the cause for great album art – The LP (long-playing) record. Box sets and vinyl sales have been steadily rising as both artists and fans are returning to endorse the oldest listening experience – by cranking up the old gramophone. The vinyl culture has certainly experienced a revival; Vinyl sales were 14.2 percent in 2010, and are experiencing a 37 percent increase in the beginning of 2011, according to Nielson. There’s also Record Store day, which celebrates the revival of this culture on every third Saturday of April each year. “There’s a different joy in holding an LP; the touch and feel of it, along with posters and musical paraphernalia packed in,” says Mehmood Curmally, in a reminiscent tone. Curmally, who owns Rhythm House, credited with having the best international music catalogue in Mumbai. The store is known for its stock of vinylrecords and rare albums. He says vinyl sales are on the increase partly due to modern printing and packaging methods employed by record companies.
Resurgence is certainly possible, according to Dutta. “I’m certain some affinity for art goes a long way in choosing a fine cover. Pink Floyd was smitten with their ‘Dark Side’ cover the moment they saw it,” he says. Madnani used to buy album just for the cover art before, but since prices have become steep he “does a little research” beforehand. “Most of the time I end up convincing myself the album will be good if I really love the art,” he laughs.