The musical junction between artistry and commercialism

Image credit: The Who - The Who Sell Out 1967

Music’s dependence on a single sense gives it a purity which album covers defile. They remind us that music cannot only be recorded and enjoyed, but must be bought and sold. Music is a commercial product, and an album cover is the packaging.

The decline of physical distribution makes this link between album cover and packaging less clear. A Youtube video is now far more likely to catch a consumer’s eye than an album on a shelf. Cover designs have moved from physical imprints to a small icon on a screen. What seems like diminution in fact frees albums from having to convey even basic information about an album’s content and provenance.

This development completes the trajectory of album cover design away from mere description. Consider the Beatles’ move away from their early band photoshoot covers towards more experimental images which reflect the content of the album rather than merely capitalising on Beatlemania. The band’s move from group poses to more finely-worked designs coincides with their change in emphasis from live performance to ornate studio production. It is no coincidence that their first interesting cover bedecks their first interesting album. Revolver (1966) marked the first time the Beatles paid any attention to the album as a cohesive artistic object and the cover’s ironical depiction of the group’s faces towering over fellow pop  culture icons reflects this. Its punning name and (unsuccessful) experimental tracks like ‘Love You To’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ mark this as a stark departure from their earlier blandness, and for their audience the cover would have been the first indication that Revolver offered something different.

Of course this leads to a classic double-bind: the Beatles’ move towards artistic integrity only cemented their commercial success, and authentic images are used to sell things, so that the difference between branding and self-expression is lost. The division between album cover and logo is unnervingly permeable. The Rolling Stones’ tongue, Joy Division’s wave, Pink Floyd’s prism.

This relationship between artistry and commercialism in pop music is generally, however, comfortable. Often it is gleefully highlighted, such as by The Who on the satirical cover of The Who Sell Out (1967). It is only disconcerting when a band adopts a deliberately edgy aesthetic in an obvious attempt to stand out, like Animal Collective’s clever-clever evocation of psychedelia on Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009) or Arcade Fire’s pretentious Funeral (2004).

For classical music the problem of squaring artistic intention and commercial necessity is more acute because the two are so divorced. It is difficult to create commercial packaging which reflects the intentions of composer, performer and record label, especially when music was written for an aristocratic patron hundreds of years ago. Commercial and artistic incentives cannot be easily reconciled. In the most part this leads to unexciting non-designs like photographs of Viennese palaces, or a portrait of the composer, conductor or performer. There are rare exceptions, such as the Peter and Christopher Whorf’s entertainingly bizarre designs for Westminster Gold in the 1970s, which reveal that decade’s warped notions of countercultural cool and gender politics. Simon Rattle’s 2003 recording of Beethoven’s 9th has a superb cover, his closed-eye introspection perfectly suiting his turbulent, emotionally jagged interpretation of the piece. But such successes are rare.

Album covers have not progressed much in the digital age. Perhaps the lack of emphasis on the form is no bad thing, as the attempt to embody around an hour of sound into a single image is not only chimerical but dangerous, pandering to the increased emphasis on sight over sound. We are just as likely to talk about ‘seeing’ as ‘hearing’ a band. Music videos and dramatic live performances are more often a distraction from a lack of substance than an authentic extension of the musical form. Perhaps that’s why I feel the most affinity for covers which are ostentatiously minimalist, like the White Album and Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled Unmastered; the latter is the rich hue of a well-aged Barbour jacket, and suggests both the album’s stylistic puritanism and its preoccupation with apocalypse. Covers like these remind us not to judge albums by the images which adorn them. The converse is true also, and some covers do stand on their own. But we should always be ready to close our eyes and listen.

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