The incredible shrinking album cover

Faced with sluggish CD sales, artwork designers are readjusting for a digital world

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

June is the 40th anniversary of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," the Beatles record that raised the bar for album cover art with its colorful collage of famous faces. But not everyone's celebrating – some critics say that album art is nearing its imminent demise as fewer people buy CDs, digital-music consumers overlook the thumbnail-size cover art that appears on their iPods, and illegal downloaders never see it at all.

Last month on Wired Magazine's website, Eliot Van Buskirk mourned album art's "slow death." On Design Observer, an Internet think space for designers, author Adrian Shaughnessy predicted that as digital music replaces CDs, JPEGs (album artwork that typically accompanies purchased audio files) will oust CD inserts.

Is the traditional album cover really dead? No, but it has undergone an extreme makeover. The new-and-improved version is smaller, interactive, and loaded with extras. When Beck released "The Information" last fall, for example, the cover was a blank, graph-paper-style grid, with sheets of stickers enclosed in the packaging. Beck fans became cover artists, each able to personalize their own copy. Good Shoes, an English indie-pop band about to release their debut album, has conceived a cover-art contest. Anyone interested can download a stencil from their website (goodshoes.co.uk) and submit a design. The band will select the best entry for their album cover.

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"Music fans today need to feel connected with bands," says Gail Marowitz, creative director for Wind-up Records, the indie-label of bands such as Stars of Track and Field and Evanescence. "They hear a band, and they go right to MySpace to become [the band's] friend. To them, it's a personal thing."

In her 20 years as a designer, Ms. Marowitz has worked for Columbia Records and won a Grammy for her pulp-magazine-style cover for Aimee Mann's 2005 album, "The Forgotten Arm." But unlike many veteran designers, she's not fighting cover art's digital rebirth. "I'm always trying to figure out how to make the online experience more interesting," she says. "Whether it's a digital booklet or a special package with a limited run so that the fan base will go out and buy it immediately, it's all about packaging."

Jeff Kleinsmith, a longtime designer for Sub Pop, the Seattle-based indie label, values packaging in the more traditional form – the actual compact disc. "We can make it more interesting. That can include extra songs, or a live DVD. It can be a configuration of the CD that's not common – it folds out, or includes lots of photos."

But isn't that backward thinking? The Recording Industry Association of America notes that US compact disc sales were down 13 percent in 2006, even as digital album sales doubled and overall digital music sales increased by over 74 percent. On the face of it, the changing market might signal that physical CD packaging is rapidly becoming a worthless endeavor. That's not necessarily so, however. As Daniel Gross pointed out in Slate in March, "What we are witnessing is not so much the imminent death of CDs but the death of the old methods of selling CDs." CDs may be a disappearing medium, Mr. Gross argues, but people are still buying them – baby boomers and classical music fans, to name a few.

Over at Blue Note, EMI's jazz-focused imprint, creative director Gordon Jee is not worried about digital music. "Jazz and classical are below the radar, so it's easier than the pop world," he notes. Mr. Jee says album designers have adjusted to their shrinking canvases, but they aren't yet envisioning how the cover will look once it is reduced to the 50-pixel, square image common to blogs and digital music stores. "We're still looking at the five-inch square as a springboard for our image."

Few designers admit to creating album art on digital music's tiny scale. But they do admit to making adjustments. At Blue Note, fonts may soon be forgotten. "Typography is a challenge," says Jee. "It's more important that the image communicates without words who the artist is."

Marowitz says simplicity is key. "I try not to cram the cover full of stuff, because I know that people will be looking at it as a one-inch square. But it still irks me that I have to simplify what I want to be a complex design."

Still, her outlook is realistic. "That's technology – you just have to roll with it."

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