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” 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 record 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.
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
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.
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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