Monday, May 16, 2011

Question of the Day: Are Album Covers Dead?

As many of ye know from The Facebook®, Supadiscomama recently got me a turntable and I have been having a lot of fun with it, rediscovering some music that I haven't listened to in over a decade (by the way, I also hooked up my Tape Deck and have simultaneously begun a cassette-gathering endeavor, but that is a different story....). One thing I have noticed while going through all this vinyl is the vividity of the album cover art. The covers are just so very much bigger than what any of us are used to looking at any more. You take a record like Hendrix's Axis Bold as Love, and look at the 12 X 12 version and it really does seem to lay the CD cover in the shade.

As once again testified by my The Facebook® page, I have long been a huge fan of Album Cover Art anyway, and I have always said one of the reasons that I didn't want to give up on CD's and go totally digital (one of the many, many, many, many reasons), was that I would miss the physical object that also includes the Cover Art. Think about the cover to Nirvana's Nevermind. I mean, good God. That's a work of art right there. But what if the art form really did diminish to an irrevocable point wih the emergence of the CD, and the newest Digital formats are simply the final blow?

Now, I guess I don't have that sensitive of an ear, but in the end I have decided that I cannot REALLY tell that much of a difference between the sound put out by Vinyl and that by a CD or even in the digital format--not enough to justify some of the absolute scorn I see being heaped upon CDs on audio forums. But the album cover art is another issue.

So with all these ruminations out of the way, here is my Question of the Day: What do you guys think of this quote, which I have posted from an audio forum I have been reading around in lately?

LP covers were great. The art aspect of covers was really lost with CDs, which have less than 20% of the space of LPs to work with. The art and originality of the covers was often as important as the music, sometimes more so. Even covers that were "just" photographs, needed great photographs when they were blown up to 12" by 12" size. I have a Best of Mississippi John Hurt gatefold album that has two great photographs inside of Hurt smiling while playing, and gives you a wonderful perspective of his wizened, Buddha-like face and the sheer likability of the man. Something that cannot be achieved with the postage stamp sized photos in CD booklets. Not just sound quality has diminished with CDs, but the whole magic aura surrounding albums from the 60's and 70's. This was a time when music was more than just music, but entered and influenced your life. Album covers were a big part of this. Would the Beatles, and others, have had as big an impact on the world if their music had first been released on CDs rather than LPs (how many would spend time examining the Sgt. Pepper cover if its size was 5" by 5"—get out the magnifying glass)?


Oxymoron said...

I agree, Harrogate, there is something special about album covers on twelve-inch discs. Growing up with vinyl, I rarely listened to a record without simultaneously studying the album art and liner notes. The same was true during my more recent foray into vinyl. However, things were very different for the twenty years or so in between. Only on rare occasion would I flip through a booklet of CD.

So why the difference in listening habits? I don't know. The most likely answer--well, the most frequent one--is size. Sure, it's nice not to have to strain my eyes to see the finer details of the art. But I think there's more to it than that. I wonder to what degree the digital medium itself has reshaped our relationship with the package.

Do you remember the Brady Bunch episode where Greg wrecked the family station wagon? Do you remember why he wrecked it? Well, Bobby let it slip that Greg was examining his newly-purchased album when he should have been concentrating on the road. Moreover, do you remember when you were a kid, when your parents would go to K-mart and let you buy a new album? Boy, I do. I couldn't wait to get home to listen to it. I was always so exited that I would remove the shrink-wrap as soon as we got in the car and examine the cover all the way home. The cover was always the introduction to the album.

Now think back to your last CD purchase. Chances are, you didn't have to wait to consume the music. I usually have the disc in my CD player seconds after I walk out of Best Buy and close the car door. The music flows immediately. There's no anticipation and little time or reason to study the cover.

Of course, bigger is better, as they say. But when it comes to the decline of album art, I suspect that size not the whole story.

harrogate said...

Love this comment, Oxymoron! You are spot on with the Brady Bunch reference and how that differs from walking into a store and buying a CD.

And of course, as our current studetns will be quick to tell us, even your story about walking out of the store and popping the CD into the car stereo is being moved into the antiquated category at an extremely rapid rate. Indeed, if only the "Vintage" kids listen to vinyl (there is a surprisingly high contingent of these kids at my current place of employment actually), CDs are not so far behind as one might suppose.

Compared to the ITunes model, our CD jackets and cover art suddenly resonate with the comment I shared in the original post, especially this:

"This was a time when music was more than just music, but entered and influenced your life. Album covers were a big part of this."

For my part, I very much lament the return of the obsession with the single. I say return because the single obsession actually predated the idea of a record being put together in a holistic manner. And now we've come full circle. Things have been lost. But maybe new worlds of art are opening too, and we don;t see it yet, Luddites that we are?