Album art is important.
It’s the first impression we get to a musician’s work. It sets the mood and tone for the whole album—Kanye wanted an image that was “something that will be banned” to set a dark tone for his album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (and he got his wish); Taylor Swift’s 1989 cover featuring a polaroid mirrors the nostalgia of the album’s sound. It’s also the image that pops into my head as soon as I hear a new song come on—like Beyoncé typed in millennial pink over a black background; or The 1975 written in neon in a glowing rectangle. It’s also the easiest way for me to see what song is playing with a quick glance at my phone’s lockscreen.
Originally, the album cover was completely utilitarian—a cardboard square with some text on it to protect the vinyl record inside. It soon became more of an art piece that consumers used to find the record they wanted to listen to. But in the time since, album art hasn’t really changed from the old static, square image (with the exception of the cassette tape). Sure it has kept up with current design trends, and maybe feature some sparkly foil or some clever cut-outs, but the format we get today isn’t much different than it was 70 years ago.
The way we consume and interact with music today is completely different than 70-even 10 years ago. So why hasn’t album art evolved with it? We don’t need to protect anything physical — we’re streaming it online or from our phones. We don’t need it as a reference to find an album — we type it in the search box or ask Siri to play it. We don’t have it spinning on a record player or in a boombox — we have it as a temporary wallpaper on our phone.
Here are some quick ideas I’ve come up with to bring album art up to date:
Shape. Move outside the square. Make it fill the screen. Whether it’s portrait or landscape. Take advantage of the screens we have in our pockets. Soundcloud uses the whole screen, and Spotify has started to do it too—but they are only cropping a square image.
Animate. The popularization of .gif and motion graphics makes this easy to implement. It doesn’t even have to be too crazy — just enough to add a little life to the image like a cinemagraph would be a nice update.
Animate Level II. Take it a step further: make the album art change based on what track is playing. Continue to tell the story of the album through changing visuals — whether its changing colors, moving pieces, or warping — that’s all dependent on the song. Take it even further by having it change within each song — let the sound affect the image (kind of like the old-school iTunes Visualizer). Note: this could get too close to a music video—it’s a fine line with this one
Interact. Allow us to use our fingers or tilt or turn our phones around to change the image.
Experience. Create a whole virtual reality experience for the album. Create a three-dimentional world for the consumers to move/look around in. It would be a lot of work, but how cool would that be!?
Any ideas you have that could be a fun evolution for album art? Let me know! I’d love to hear ‘em!