For the most part when it comes to buying music, gone are the days of vinyl, cardboard, cellophane, and anal-retentive mylar sleeves . The creation of album art has had to adapt, just as it did when those teenie-weenie CDs came out in the mid-80s.
But, how has it changed by 2013, exactly? What strategies (it’s all about marketing after all!) have artists and labels employed in support of a market in the new, downloadable, digital paradigm? Are there older strategies at work, re-positioned in the age of the iTune?
Music fan, writer, and cultural commentator Geoff Moore is here to unpack the issue of album packaging in the 21st century …
A telegram from 1977 arrived the other day. ‘Where are we now?’ it asked, signed, Beauty, the Beast, Joe the Lion and the happy couple who were shot at in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. If the question concerns the cover art of David Bowie’s very recent and very good The Next Day, the answer lies somewhere between The Black Keys and Lou Reed.
Rock ‘n’ roll music is a consumer commodity. Is there another art form that’s been packaged so artfully and in so many ways? In the music’s infancy there were package tours, stacked bills of 20-minute sets. In the wake of Elvis there were manufactured teen idols.
Post-Fab Four the record companies and the television networks foisted pre-fab bands on their teenaged markets. The Beach Boys wore candy stripe shirts. The Ramones dressed in black leather and denim like classic Brando gone to seed. ‘Bin readers of a certain age will remember gatefold albums, elaborately die cut sleeves and the inclusion of stickers or posters.
Some releases landed in the racks wrapped in brown paper or tinted cellophane. Designs often featured recurring logos or mascots and, saints preserve us, thematic tableaux beamed from release to release – gawd-awful guitar-shaped space ships, for instance.
And there was other rock ‘n’ roll packaging too. Upon viewing images of Led Zeppelin in their heyday no decent tailor need ask Robert Plant whether he dresses to the left or right.
The Next Day is “Heroes” defaced though it lacks the surreal whimsy of a handlebar moustache on Mona Lisa (she’s smiling because she knew that would happen some day). The original title is redacted, like a document obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The dark and pale contrast of the original art is now a wash of monochromatic Photoshop grey; the earlier and eerily luminous portrait of the artist as robot in Rur or Metropolis has been concealed by a rectangular text box.
Although the colour palette and the cropping were different, Lou Reed regurgitated the cover art of Transformer on another suicide screed, the stripped down The Blue Mask, perhaps to acknowledge his return to RCA from Arista. The Next Day steps forward even further into starker clarity, a neat black sans serif font in a white square with proper capitalization, more legible than uniform upper or lower case. Given how society now shops and accesses various media, the genius of each image is the perception that both artists have already cut through the cyber crap and noise and somehow simplified things for you. Brothers, a release by The Black Keys, might be the first calculated example of digital thumbnail album cover art. It was designed to be viewed as a one-inch square on iTunes or Amazon. It has the clarity of directional, emergency and warning signage, easy to understand. And it resembles an app icon.
The Next Day is Bowie’s first new music in a decade. The reuse of the “Heroes” artwork evokes an earlier era when Bowie’s stature was likely at its zenith. It cannot help but set fans’ expectations prior to their first listen. Had the white The Next Day box been superimposed over the cover of Tonight (which begs for a whiteout anyway although the title mash works), fans’ expectations may have been way down here as Tonight is rightly regarded as one of his weaker releases.
The implied link between “Heroes” and The Next Day doesn’t suggest something as desperate and crass as Bat Out of Hell II, nor should the deconstructed repetition negate nor dismiss everything that came between. The more avant-garde than thou Man Who Fell to Earth has linked album cover art before. The original black and white cover of Station to Station and its CD brother’s colour cover both feature stills from the Nicholas Roeg film. Low, its follow up and the first installment of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, utilized the theatrical poster profile image of Bowie, orange hair and brown dufflecoat, the horrific alien colour schemes of A&W and Cleveland football. Still, it’s unthinkable to own only one of this pair of albums.
So where are we now? It’s a mystery but not nostalgia, “Heroes” is our point of departure. Could be we’re desperados waiting for a train 17 coaches long in Berlin Hauptbahnof as the new tracks on The Next Day may take us anywhere. Meanwhile, the distant past is close behind.
Geoff Moore is a writer of words for blogs, and books. He is enjoying his “Berlin period” in the city of Calgary.