It’s the time of year for saving money!
One detail I grumped about back in the 1980s when the Compact Disc first emerged was the small footprint of the product. By “footprint,” I am referring to the physical size of the CD and particularly its ability to attract attention on store shelves in music stores. But I have also realized this issue can impact individual attention to our collections at home.
While the CD had advantages from a consumer perspective on certain fronts — small size, relatively sturdy, more portable, etc. — from an artists’ marketing perspective it was something of a nightmare (actually, the beginning of a nightmare).
Suddenly, the large scale vinyl record album graphics were slashed to roughly one fourth the visual presence in a retail store. When you had displays of CD albums, the images designed for the large format LP were reduced to a point where you almost needed a magnifying glass to appreciate them (think The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper). Labels still used posters and LP sized “flats” to promote new recordings in stores, but that substantial vibe the consumer received when picking up a full sized vinyl album — that connection — was lost.
It was one fourth the visual impact. And I argue one fourth the long term value proposition… hold on to that thought for a moment…
Yes, a new wave of a CD-centric album design aesthetics evolved resulting in small format albums covers that were designed to pop even in small displays (think R.E.M.’s Out Of Time and Monster). But, for the most part the finely detailed cover designs became few and far between. Different times, for sure…
Even a group like Yes — which had dabbled with modern graphics in their hit albums in the 80s, forgoing the surrealist interplanetary vistas sculpted by Roger Dean — at one point hired Peter Max for a later period CD cover. This bold rainbow-colored graphic reinvention of their logo was a far cry from the story telling cover designs of their peak period albums from the 1970s.
Sure, there were exceptions. For example, Radiohead did step up the game with some of the more creative album art of the CD era, some with intriguing detail (OK Computer, Hail To The Thief) as well as more bold graphic approaches (Amnesiac, Kid A).
Still, I remember talking with a music industry friend in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s who was lamenting how his kids would immediately throw away the jewel box and covers when they got new CDs. That young generation had pretty much zero connection with the album art which the artist may have toiled over to complement the music.
Sure enough, millions “ripped” and tossed their CDs entirely as iPods gained favor. This genuine tornado of consumer disgust manifested itself quite darkly as illegal file sharing became the norm and it was somehow accepted that it was OK to steal music from the artists on a mass level (it seemed to go way beyond even that of recordable audio cassettes and CD-Rs in terms of impact on the industry). I get it. People were over the lackluster value proposition. The industry kept asking for more money while delivering something smaller and less compelling.
In general, CDs got hella boring while the costs seemed to always go up. The industry did try to respond, crafting more compelling boxed sets and deluxe edition packaging which started to gain some favor with some consumers (like myself!). But… it may have been a bit of too little too late.
Fast forward to present times, in the wake of the CD’s downward spiral, I have begun to think about something else the industry nearly lost with the advent downloads and streaming: personal advertising space in consumer’s collection.
What do I mean by that? I’m referring to the daily reminder one experiences from having a sizable music collection openly integrated into your home living environment. It is that subconscious reminder that you share some physical space with the music and the artists you enjoy.
Now, before you start telling me about how your parents put all their records in a closet out of public view, let me flashback to an earlier era when that wasn’t really the case. Flashback with me to ye olden analog days when 12-inch LPs were the gold standard and pretty much everyone had some records in their homes on display. The music collection was a source of pride among many collectors who enjoyed showcasing one’s good taste for all to see.
By the mid-1960s, most of those vinyl albums had a very legible “spine” designs which made it relatively easy to find your favorite artists. Artists and labels grew increasingly creative with the medium, wrapping artwork around the cover that the album spines might stand out from the wall of records.
More on that in a moment…
I have heard from some friends and acquaintances these days that one problem some have with streaming and downloads is that they forget what is in their collections. This doesn’t surprise me. They have lost that personal connection to their music. I have long had the same problem with most of my digital album files. When I would close my old iTunes app (when that was “a thing,” as they say) or unplug my backup hard-drives — I pretty much forget what is on those devices until I open them up again. For me, file management is one of the least pleasurable things to do on earth. Go ahead and call me a boomer (I am!) but I do feel that reducing an artist’s musical statement — ie. the record album — to mere computer files offers diminishing returns for all involved.
Thus, I never got rid of my vinyl collection (nor my CDs, for that matter). I have no trouble visualizing my vinyl record collection and even big chunks of my CD collection when it comes time to find a recording I want to play. I’d be hard pressed to remember which album files I have stored on my hard drives however.
As I sat down at my desk to write this admittedly rambling thought piece, I turned around and looked at my wall of records. Some of you know that I have a quite sizable collection (its not the biggest in the universe but it is a robust assemblage of musics which I cherish).
I know that other collectors get off on what I’m about to say: I take a certain amount of pride when I see the distinct spines of the legendary albums and labels punctuating my collection. I’ve enjoyed that badge of honor (if you will) when friends have visited and exclaimed somewhat breathlessly as they eyeballed my jazz collection: “Oooh… look at all those Impulse Records you have!”
Even when albums didn’t have colorful spines, some labels delivered a creative identity that helped to make the albums stand out. For example, for many years Columbia Records’ releases were easily identifiable by a row of horizontal pinstripes adorning each album spine — in the 1970s that became an array of diagonal stripes. It was a subtle but effective method of branding and advertising.
Chess subsidiary Checker Records (home to everyone from Ramsey Lewis to Bo Diddley) had little checkerboard patterns in those sacred album spine spaces. Creed Taylor’s legendary CTI Records label crafted a distinct approach by wrapping museum quality modern photography around every gatefold cover — and back in the day you could mail order poster size reproductions of that from the label! — which would often pop boldly out of the collection.
Fast forward to present times, the good news is that there is a current wave of high quality releases which seem to be reclaiming this precious promotional space.
Recent reissues from the likes of Universal’s Blue Note Tone Poet and Acoustic Sounds series and many of Craft Recordings’ releases are bringing back this vintage vibe back for a new generation to discover and appreciate. These great reproductions pretty much look and feel like albums were in the 1960s and early ‘70s before the labels started cutting corners.
The physical covers are quite thick and produced at a very high quality level (many are actually better than the originals!). Some deliver bold graphic design that jumps out at you and many are even laminated. These great quality records stand out in your collection waiting for you to rediscover them each time you scan your racks.
Resonance Records has been doing excellent work for their wave of fine archive releases, creating cover art which feels of the period — the spines to their recent Bill Evans releases stand out boldly in my collection.
Personal advertising space…
Craft Recording’s great Jazz Dispensary compilations have been stepping up the presentation with very creative album design that beautifully complements the high quality recordings on the vinyl inside.
Artists are embracing the vinyl medium again for all its worth as an artistic statement as well as a promotional vehicle for the music. There are some fine super deluxe editions out from the likes of Vinyl Me Please which go a long way to recreate the vibe of the original releases and present them in context with their times. I’ve reviewed some of them here including sets by Herbie Hancock and The Grateful Dead.
There is even a record club called Vinyl Moon which pairs new musical artists with new graphic artists, delivering unique packages that are as compelling to look at as they are to listen to (click here to read my review of that record club’s offerings)
Look at some of these pictures I’ve posted here from my collection and I think you’ll get an idea of what I’m talking about.
What are some of your iconic album designs that jump out from your collections?
Mark, that is a lovely essay. It’s been over 15 years since I had vinyl playback (for several reasons), yet I still appreciate the art, notes, and distinctiveness of LP albums. Those never have migrated successfully to CDs, and sadly, many labels don’t even provide a PDF with their downloads. As you say, Sgt Pepper is hard to appreciate in shrunken form. My favorite — the Mothers of Invention’s rejoinder — pales, too.
These days, I don’t want the complications nor sonic flavor of LP, but I do miss the albums, album covers, smell, and look of LPs. And somehow, the complication of playing one could at times make the musical experience more intense.