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Album Artwork

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Album Artwork

Album artwork was an added attraction to us record consuming fans of the heyday of vinyl records. I believe it is still a big attraction for many of the new record collecting fanatics today. When listening to a record, we could spend the time while the record was paying admiring the artwork  and reading the album notes on the back.. Where and how did this concept of album art originate from?

This will be at least a two part post as there is a lot to cover concerning the artwork that graces many of our albums. This post will be mostly a history of how it got started and who started it and next post I’ll get more into some of the actual work itself.

Where did the idea of album artwork come from?

When the 78 rpm records replaced the phonograph cylinder around 1910, the records were issued in 10” and 12”album artwork​ diameter sizes. At that time there were sold in brown paper or cardboard sleeves.

Often these sleeves were just plain brown and sometimes they were printed to show the producer or the retailer’s name. Usually they had a circular cutout that allowed the record label to be seen. The records could be laid on a shelf or stood up horizontally on edge for display purposes, but because these 78s were made of shellac they were extremely fragile and many broke in storage.

I’ve sold a few 78s on eBay and they do require much more care in packing to ensure a safe delivery. In fact to pack them properly is a real pain in my opinion.

 

 

 

 

The original album and where the term came from

The short playing time limitations of the 78 resulted in usually only one song per side. Beginning around 1930s recordrecord album​ companies began selling collections of 78s by one performer or of a certain type of music (like a symphonic piece) and these records were bound in leather folders that were called “albums”, similar to a photograph album that customers could use to store their records. Even the name “record album” was printed on some of these covers.

Some of these were sold already containing a collection of records and some were sold empty so the customer could fill them with his own personal collection. The covers of these bound books were larger than the records allowing the album to be placed upright on a shelf, like a book resulting in the actual record being suspended above the shelf thus protecting them from breakage.

 

 

 

 

The First Record Cover Art Director and designer

Alex Steinweiss was hired by Columbia Records in 1938 as the companies’  first art director.  Steinweiss is credited with inventing the concept of album covers and cover artwork, replacing the plain paper covers previously used.album artwork

After his successful work at Columbia other record companies began doing the same thing. By the late 1940s all the major record companies featured their own colorful artwork on paper covers

From the 1950s through the 80s the 12-inch lp and the 45 rpm single record became the major formats for the distribution of popular music.  The album art cover work with its eye-catching illustrations, vibrant colors and lettering, has been attributes to Columbia records designer Alex Ateinweiss in the 1950s

The cover became an important part of the culture of music. Under the influence or Steinweiss and designers like Bob Cato, album artwork became renowned for being  a marketing tool and an expression of artistic intent.

During the early 1960s albums like the Beatles “With The Beatles” and Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changing” and the Rolling Stones self-titles debut album each contained a cover photograph that was designed to further the artist’s public image

 

 

 

 

Gatefold Coversgatefold album cover

 

The gatefold cover  (a folded double cover)became popular in the mid 1960s. A gatefold cover, when folded, is the same size as a regular cover and was popular for a two record set, although they could also be used for a single record. The larger cover, with the 2 additional “sides” when folded open, provided a means of including more artwork, liner notes and song lyrics that would not fit on a standard cover.

Even today, when listing an album on eBay or another online selling platform, you want to mention that the cover is a gatefold as they are often desirable.

Some examples of notable gatefolds are The Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which had cardboard cut-out inserts, lyrics and a gatefold sleeve, but was just a single LP.

“Exile On Main Street” by the Rolling Stones had a gatefold cover and a series of 12 perforated postcards as inserts.

Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of The Moon” had a gatefold which included a poster and sticker inserts. There was no title on the sleeve but the gatefold contained the lyrics.

The importance of cover design was so important that some cover artists specialized or gained fame through their record album work. Also, the talents of many photographers from inside and outside the music industry have been used to produce scores of memorable LP covers.

 

Do You Actually See Things Before You Hear Them?

Well not always but in the case of record albums, it is true that you usually see them before you drop the needle onto the platter and hear the nice warmth that flows through the wires and comes out of the speakers. There is a relationship between music and artwork and to some extent it heightens the listener’s experience.

 

The artwork acts as a window into what the listener can expect from the abum and can give an insight into what kind of musician lies behind the cover. A strong album cover can make a huge statement and impression.

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Conclusion

Well, I’ll call this a wrap on my introduction to vinyl record cover art. Next time we’ll look at some examples of artwork and a few of the iconic albums ot the 70s and 80s.

 

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Craig

36 Comments

  1. Oh, how many times have I sat listening to a record on my turntable while reading everything on the cover. I especially loved those gate-fold covers! Many times those types of covers also contained the lyrics and I could sing (badly) along with the artists. Thank you, Craig, for this amazing schooling on album coves.

    • The covers with the lyrics and notes were almost as good as the music. Spent many hours looking at them and reading everything. If I try to read the notes on a CD cover I need a magnifying glass. lol

  2. This is rather interesting. I just always assumed that albums had always contained art. Some albums had wonderful covers (better than the actual music…)

    I also found it interesting that you mentioned old record were made of shellac and were brittle; I watched an episode of M*A*S*H recently where a character hit his album on the side of the player in anger and it shattered. I had taken it to be artistic license to show his anger, but now I wonder if that would be accurate?

    • I don’t recall the episode but it is entirely feasible that it could have shattered, especially if it was a 78. I’ve dropped a few of them and the pieces fly all over the place.

  3. Hello Craig, this was so much fun to read! I have always adored cover art on Cd’s and albums. And at one time I had looked into how to become a cover artist.
    I know I have spend hours as a teenager just reading every single word. And being fascinated by the art work. I am so happy you did this article. And thanks for the examples too.
    In peace and gratitude, ariel

    • You’re welcome Ariel. I too have spent hours admiring the art and reading the notes on record covers. I hope to dive a little deeper into some specific album covers soon.

  4. Oh Wow, great article, Craig. I remember the days when I was younger and used to just love looking at my father’s record album collection – in addition to playing the records. Such bliss! Your article has taken me down memory lane and I look forward to the next!
    Michelle

    • Back it the day you’d put on an album and sit down with the cover in hand. I’d either follow along to lyrics or study the various musicians who played on the different songs. That way I could discover new musicians to listen to from paying attention to who was playing on different songs.

  5. I have listened to the albums of many artists as I grew up in the 50s and 60s, but I never knew the history of how album covers developed. It is fascinating to discover there is a history of such things. How we take our world for granted! Thank you helping us to appreciate where things come from.

    • Hello Sheila,
      Album covers are awesome! I can spend hours in a store just looking at the various covers. I’ve got at least one more blog post planned on album artwork but one more may not be enough to cover everything.

  6. It seems so obvious that records have sleeves with artwork on them – it’s hard to imagine that there was a time when this wasn’t the case.
    Getting me all nostalgic 🙂

    • It was way back in the beginning when 78s were the only records available. By the time we got to vinyl it was pretty common by then.

  7. To be honest I really miss the effort and sweat that used to go into making covers for vinyl records.

    Yes CD’s have a better quality sound, but the covers are neither here or there in comparison to the vinyl era.

    It is nice to be reminded of it.

    And on another point, even though the CD has a better audio quality, I still miss the odd crackle from a vinyl… what about you?

    Great reading… thanks!

    Chris

    • Thanks Chris
      You may have a point on the quality of CDs being better but I would beg to differ on the earlier vinyl records. CD’s (speaking in general) are compressed audio files and many are inferior to the pure analog sound of the older vinyl records recorded. Over time and many playings the needle will wear in the grooves thus wiping out some of the sound so it that case record quality will decline over time. The more mdern vinyl records being produced today are being mastered from the digital original recordings thus rendering them, in many cases, inferior to the original digital files. Now when we get to the streaming files we are getting worse sounding files as these are mostly recorded at low sample rates and heavily compressed to save file size.
      Glad you stopped by and thanks for your input and opinion.

      Craig

  8. Hey Craig, i agree…if the vinyl is in pristine condition, you’ll get a warm, crisp, deep, warm sound from it. i know i always see the LP covers art but didn’t know there was a history behind it. and yes ur so right about the appeal of the cover to the eyes..you always assume that if the cover art is attractive, the music will sound good… vinyls are making a comeback…Here in JA, the guys threw out their Pressing Machines during 90s when CDs became popular….luckily Tuff Gong studios still held on to theirs ( because ur not gonna throw away a machine that once pressed Bob Marley records right?!) love ur blog Craig…thanks

    • You are absolutely correct, no one would throw out the press that produced Bob Marley records. Would be awesome to own that baby!

  9. Hello Craig,
    I always loved vinyl records and I still have a big collection of my favorite music. The covers are wonderful, some of them are limited edition and Is just as you say, amazing to listen to the music and read the lyrics or other things from the cover and admire this kind of art. I know we have to keep on with the new technology but I miss the old days, the old sound of the vinyl. Thank you for reminding it ..brought me many memories:)
    Have a good day
    Cristina

    • I’m not sure exactly how many records I currently as I am always buying and selling. I’ve got some on shelves and some in crates and boxes in various places in my basement waiting for me to sort through. I research each record before I decide to list it or keep it. I’ll usually sell anything I have if the price is right hehe. I do keep up with the new technology as well but prefer vinyl. I’ll use Spotify when I’m working in the yard or on my walk and I also use it to listen to artist I have not heard much of to see if they are worth looking for on vinyl. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your thoughts.
      Craig

  10. Craig,
    When my sister died a few years ago, I took her milk crate of albums, most were from the 60’s and 70’s. The Dark side of the Moon cover was in there, no album. A friend of mine was decorating his bar with albums and I let him have it for free.
    I still have the rest in the milk crate many years later. Many of the albums I have, the artwork is great on the cover and no title or band name is needed. Like Hellbound Train by Savoy Brown, most people would know this album by its cover. There is great value and memories in these albums.
    I still play my vinyls and the sound is great on my 70’s stereo system although I have a complete surround sound system in another room.
    John

    • It sounds like she had some great albums. The 60s and 70s are my favorite musical time period. That was nice of you to give the Pink Floyd cover to your friend. I have sold just the covers without the record before as some collectors have a decent copy of the vinyl but their cover is trashed. Last summer I bought about 400 albums from a craigslist ad and it in was Buddy Holly’s first album. The record looked like it had slid a few blocks down an asphalt street but the cover was immaculate. I listed the cover on eBay for $40 and it took about 15 minutes before someone bought it! Since it sold so fast it made me wonder if I put too low of a price on it, but I was happy with the $40. I recently sold a copy of Hellbound Train as well although I don’t remember the price.

  11. Hi Craig,
    I have made several demos of songs I co-wrote with friends, and I remember the amazing feeling of experiencing a song come to live by flesh and blood musicians. It beat just making the demo by machine. To me vinyl records, especially ones with notes on the cover, are the closet thing to actually being in the recording studio. Thanks for a post that brought back good memories of making tunes in the studio.

    • That’s cool that you’ve actually recorded some songs, what a cool experience. When I was an audio engineer one of my favorite parts of the job was setting up the stage, hooking up all the inputs etc, then going through sound check. When you get all the inputs and levels where you want them, then the actual show was a piece of cake. I always had a blast. Glad I could bring back some memories for you!

  12. Good article Craig, I just wonder how many people have a record player now a days? You have some good info on the record industry that I never new about. Did you save a lot of vinyl albums or just started to collect them?

    • I think I read somewhere, and mention it in one of my posts, that about half of the new vinyl collectors do not have a turntable. I’ve written a few posts about what to look for in a turntable in an attempt to perhaps urge them on to getting one. I still have my system (or rather parts of it) from the 70’s so I can still listen to my vinyl. I am looking for a new turntable though and I need some better speakers. I listen through headphones a lot so I can crank the volume up and not bother my wife.
      I’ve been collecting over 50 years so I do have a lot of records I bought in the 70’s and 80’s. Most of the ones I bought during my high school days are long gone since I left them home when I went in the army. So, they are gone along with my childhood baseball cards haha. Glad you enjoyed the article Fred.
      Craig

  13. If I had all the albums I’ve collected over the years I’d cover a wall with them! Love album art. Sadly a few moves diminished what I could keep.
    Great post! I learned a lot from it.
    A nearby CD/DVD collectors/used store is now doing a booming business in new and used vinyl. No surprise, right?

    • Over the years things can disappear on us. I wish I still had some of my earlier records along with my old baseball card collection. I can imagine that CD store is doing a great business selling vinyl since it has become so popular. At the local thrift stores there is always a gathering of people it seems.

  14. This is such an interesting topic. My niche is medicinal cannabis and there is a lot of history between cannabis and other drugs and album covers. I remember the first album I received was Magical Mystery Tour and my grandmother bought it because it looked psychedelic. She had no idea what it sounded like. Grandma just figured that if the cover looked trippy then the music must be cool.

    • Magical Mystery Tour was a good album. The cover was pretty awesome as well and very nice of your grandmother to buy it for you. Thanks for stopping by Doc

  15. Craig,
    Very interesting history of album covers and the artwork. I agree with you, the artwork acts as a window into what the listener can expect from the album. Do you know which album cover is the most valuable to collect? I’m sure some of the album covers are hard to find, so go for a much higher price.
    Lisa

    • There are a lot of album covers that are rare and valuable. Off hand I can think of the Beatles “Butcher” cover from “Yesterday and Today”. The Velvet Underground w/Nico” which has on the cover a banana you could peel by Andy Warhol, a certain issue of Led Zeppelins 1st album, which have been selling in the $5000 range. But one of the most highly valued one is a version of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In 1967 a special version was made that featured 4 record company executives faces in place of the four Beatles faces. I think around 100 of these were made and there are three known copies in the hands of collectors. It is valued at $98,000 dollars. A few years ago I know a man located one and auctioned it on eBay and it sold for upwards of $40,000. There was a confidentially clause in the sale so he could not reveal the name of the buyer, but it is rumored to have been Paul McCartney! Who knows but makes for fun speculation. But there are lots of fairly rare and valuable album covers floating around for sure.

  16. Craig,
    Thanks for your speedy answer. I wish I had one of those album covers in my collection, unfortunately, I do not.

    Lisa

  17. Dear Craig,

    Thanks for the post “Album Artwork”, I got new insights and I came to know the history of this album covers. Very informative post. Thanks again!

    Your Friend,
    Paul

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