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Long live album artwork

With the rise of the digital music era, Joel Hargreaves discusses how this flood of music has affected album artwork and graphic artists.

The debate about whether or not album artwork is becoming a rapidly forgotten art form has recently sparked up again. The website AV MAX published an article suggesting that due to the digital age of music, album artwork is dying out.

It states that with the rise of CD’s and now digital music, “the imagination and detailing that cover designers could previously indulge in was squeezed out to fit sleek, modern-day dimensions”.

Similarly, a New York Times piece published in 2011 suggested the popularity of technology such as iPods is to blame; designers were opting for more simplified designs for album artwork. This was due to the shrinking of album artworks to an iPod screen size, so the design would not be largely visible or sometimes, not even at all.

The whole original concept of the album artwork began to set different vinyls apart, after they all used to be packaged in plain paper. Once the artwork was introduced, vinyl sales rose favourably as it gave them a new lease of life.

But have iPods, iTunes and more recently Spotify, impacted the way graphic designers think about their work? Local graphic designer Stephen Baker seems to think otherwise.

“I think you just really need to step up your game,” says Baker, after a long sip of coffee.

“Your artwork is just going to be shopped amongst hundreds of other albums on the shelf being flicked through. You really need that element of surprise, whether it’s in the colour or the graphic.”

After growing up in East Doncaster and studying at Swinburne University, Baker now finds himself residing closer to the heart of Melbourne. Apart from designing and starting his own website Death by Chandelier, Baker has always been fond of music, drumming in bands such as Hawaiian Islands and Regrets.

It was this deep connection to music and making friends within the industry which gave him the opportunity to create album art. Inspiration coming from the studio HIPGNOSIS, who created a number of famous covers for Pink Floyd and Muse, Bakers most prominent recent works is the cover of ‘Rainbows In Space’ by local punk-rockers The Bennies.

640x640-cBaker says that his interest in albums growing up was a big influence in deciding to enter the industry.

“I’ve always loved album cover artwork for bands and it’s lots of fun to be actually able to do it now. It’s the best day when you get that pressed LP back from a band and they’re holding it with your own artwork on it.”

Baker admits to being pretty “archaic” when it comes to his design process, opting for a more hands on illustrative approach. Discussion of the process of creating album artwork seemed to suggest that the shrinking of album covers was a non-issue. If anything, Baker says more problems can arise when a vinyl is requested.

“When you start doing an artwork for an album cover, it’s good to know if it’s going to be pressed on LP or not. It determines how detailed I would do my illustrations from the get go. The difference between CD packaging and vinyl are huge.”

That difference is that album covers are roughly 25 per cent smaller than a vinyl release and no matter how big you produce a piece of work, shrinking something is easier than blowing it up.

“It usually depends on whose handling it, but some record covers can be a bit dodgy because they scan it and blow it up on represses,” Baker says.

But while the process for creating album artwork may have changed for larger labels, for smaller labels the process has never been more engaging. The Bennies played a major part in the production of the ‘Rainbows In Space’ artwork, a personal taste which Baker says is refreshing.

“I’ll look into their lyrics, sit down have a chat with them and they’ll kind of inspire me to do something. Or you know drink some coffee and get kind of razzed up,” he says.

“They are into wacked out trippy illustrations, which I also enjoy creating. So if they love what I’m doing, then I enjoy doing it.”

With The Bennies playing a pivotal role in this process, it’s apparent that album artwork has never been a harder decision. Plenty of independent artists, such as Bliss N Eso as well as bands like The Bennies, are choosing to have a greater say into just what goes onto the cover of their album.

Baker perfectly summarises how creating an album cover should feel for designers.

“A lot of these bands don’t have lots of money,” he says, “so at the end of the day if they’re prepared to invest in that product and for me to do whatever I want on the cover, it’s pretty rad.”



Joel Hargreaves is a third-year Bachelor of Journalism student studying at La Trobe University. Follow his Twitter feed: @joelphargreaves

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