I keep thinking about something Kanye West tweeted in early 2016.
“The Yeezus album packaging was an open casket to CDs.”
Marked with nothing but a small piece of red tape over a jewel CD case, Yeezus‘ blank artwork was a fitting cover for a minimalist album. But on a larger level, it acknowledged the looming death of physical music—and helped started a conversation about the role album artwork will have as streaming replaces the idea of owning music.
Four years after Yeezus‘ release, while staring at a grainy digital photo on SoundCloud that serves as the “artwork” for XXXTENTACION’s massively successful “Look At Me!” single, I wonder what value cover art still holds.
In many ways, artwork has been reduced to a formality. Services like SoundCloud and Spotify still require artists to upload some form of cover art along with their music—so it lives on for now, but its purpose is changing.
In 2017, artwork appears as small thumbnails on digital screens far more often than on actual physical album covers. 80 years after a graphic designer at Columbia Records invented album art as a way to help sell vinyl in record stores, its original function is becoming a thing of the past. So, it’s worth asking: Does cover art still matter? Is Lil Yachty the only one who still cares?
With these questions bouncing around my head, I asked musicians, visual artists, creative directors, writers, and A&Rs around the industry for their opinions on the changing art form—and learned that cover art might actually be more important than ever.
“A lot of times cover art is the consumer’s first interaction with an artist’s work,” D.R.A.M.’s creative director Sais tells me. “In the past a person would go to a record store, see an unknown artist and make a decision whether they would give it a chance. That time might be two to five seconds. With the internet there are more chances where that visual connection can be made.”
For decades, cover artwork’s main purpose was to compete for attention with other albums on the same rack at the record store. Now, that rack has been replaced by social media timelines. Not only does an album’s art have to compete with other covers in 2017, it has to stand out next to memes, family photos, cat videos, and everything else vying for attention on crowded timelines.
Making something that’s going to catch people’s eyes within seconds is important. People only have that amount of time to be instantly attached to what you create.—Mihailo Andic
“We’re in a time right now where our attention spans are really low,” Mihailo Andic (designer of covers for Lil Yachty, Gallant, Fetty Wap, and 6lack) explains. “We process information a lot faster and we process music a lot faster. Making something that’s going to catch people’s eyes within seconds is important. People only have that amount of time to be instantly attached to what you create. And you have to either grab…