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Album Cover Art History - Forty Years That Changed Society

Mar 4, 2008
In part two of our four-part discussion with Vinyl Record Day Founder and vinyl businessman Gary Freiberg (http://www.RockArtPictureShow.com & http://www.VinylRecordDay.org), we focus our attention on the history of album cover art.

CDs and computer files fail to give an artist or group a proper canvas in which to display their visual art, to help create an image of who the group is. After all, not everyone buys a record strictly for the music.

"Album cover art historically catered to recognizing some customers will purchase an album just for the cover art," said Gary Freiberg. "Now this commercial pursuit, perhaps the most creative product packaging there has ever been, has become an American art form with significant social importance."

"Album cover art is a unique depiction of the evolution of our society," explained Gary. "Since it was first introduced in 1939-40 it has evolved both in format and subject matter. Initially album covers were drawn illustrations; Alex Steinweiss, the creator of the art form, has a strong European poster influence. Steinweiss covers are among the few that are "signed" by the artist; his name is typically along the right side edge on the front of the album cover he designed. In the fifties technology advancements in photography replaced illustrated covers with head shots and scenes depicting "typical" life at the time, everyone was white, wore a tie or cocktail dress and had perfect children. It was Sgt. Pepper that changed it all graphically, creativity zoomed after that release and compared to what had been, the gloves came off on what was acceptable."

Freiberg continues, "However; regardless of the graphic method, album cover art has always depicted our social values, racial attitudes, lifestyles, fashion and political views in a way that is only seen in the art form. It reflected who we were, who we were supposed to be, and at times, led who we became."

Discussing the roots of album cover art Gary Freiberg adds, "When Alex Steinweiss was hired by newly formed Columbia Records to be their art director, he was the first in the industry to create advertising material to promote a company's musicians. His background was in poster art and was heavily influenced by French and German artists. Steinweiss had a logical idea; he suggested discerning different artists and their music by having art on the paper packaging in place of the plain brown paper packaging that was customary when individual records were first introduced. The brown wrapped records promoted the record company; there was no promotion for the artist or the music other than the hole in the center that allowed reading what the record was. The idea had merit since there were no record stores, records were sold in the back of appliance stores. Steinweiss argued an art cover would make the customer stop, pick up and want to look at the record. Thus a better likelihood they would buy it. One of the first attempts, a record of Beethoven 'hits' had an 800% increase in sales."

"History has shown this was pure genius, not just because it revolutionized the marketing of music, but for the accidental visual recording of a society that dramatically changed in the forty year tenure of album cover art."

Continuing, Freiberg says, "Steinweiss may have been the catalyst to change the visual representation in album cover art but it was the record companies that brought the social changes into visual form. Several record companies, Specialty Records, who gave Little Richard, Larry Williams and others their break, the Jazz label Bluenote and later Motown, were particularly influential in promoting civil rights when this country was experiencing race relation changes that had been building for years."

"Like Specialty, Bluenote was distinctive in that they did not hide their black artists on the album cover. It was common, with some exception, for record companies to hide black artists from public view," said Gary.

"Were they racist or just reflecting society?" Freiberg rhetorically asked. "Having a black artist on the cover was very socially controversial at the time." He then quickly adds, "But doing so was a reflection of what was happening in society at large and was a part of the puzzle that coalesced into legislation changing racial equality."

Asked about the influence of the respected Bluenote label, Freiberg explains what made this company revered among record companies.

"They had a very, very unique and cohesive integration; the recording, the pressing and album cover art were all combined to present the product. There leadership was not confined to who they put on the album cover. Designer Reed Miles was the primary graphic artist and he wanted to know the mood and the intent of each one of the records that Bluenote produced. His goal was to then integrate the cover art so that it would reflect and be consistent with the mood of the music. It was a step forward that other companies emulated but perhaps not until Sgt. Pepper accomplished."

In our next article, we will discuss the Beatles' majestic and historic Sgt. Pepper album with Gary and why it is so popular and innovative, as well its role in the historic album covers of all time.
About the Author
Author Robert Benson writes about rock/pop music, vinyl record collecting and operates http://www.collectingvinylrecords.com, where you can pick up a copy of his ebook called "The Fascinating Hobby Of Vinyl Record Collecting."
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