Vinyl album sale are hitting historic highs in the United States, casting a spotlight on the importance of album cover art. Album sleeve design plays an essential role in expressing a musician’s vision and sparking curiosity through visual storytelling. In the digital age, album cover art is even more valuable. That’s because digital gives musicians more ways to raise awareness for their work through the visual power of an album cover — on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Tumblr, Twitter, and so on. The memorable covers of 2020 expressed the times we live in. The album sleeve for Taylor Swift’s Folklore captured the essence of social distancing and a newfound longing for nature that led to skyrocketing visits to national parks during the pandemic.
Duval Timothy’s Help reflected something we’ve been missing and wanting during the pandemic: the human connection . . .
. . . as did Heavy Light from U.S. Girls:
SAULT’s Untitled (Black Is), with its simple upraised fist, symbolized Black empowerment during a time of social upheaval.
Those themes of Black empowerment where everywhere, including Flo Milli, Ho, Why Is You Here? from Flo Milli . . .
. . . Legends Never Die from Juice WRLD . . .
. . . and Twice As Tall from Burna Boy:
But there was plenty of room for artistic expression on its own terms. The goofy design of Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters reflected a bit of whimsy, mystery, and arch sense of humor that has defined her work for years.
Madeline Kenney’s Sucker’s Lunch shared a sense of deadpan humor that works for any era:
In the digital age, album cover art remains an essential artistic and commercial element of any musician’s work. And 2019 was no exception. As Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You demonstrates, album covers are arguably even more important than they were in the golden era of vinyl. That’s because on apps like Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter, album cover art such as Cuz I Love You can be a more viral and potent form of self-expression than it could sitting on the shelf of a record store.
The memorable album covers of 2019 consist of fierce, uncompromising self-portraits. On Cuz I Love You, Lizzo presents her nude self as a fully realized woman exuding power and grace. Cuz I Love You is an important statement of body positivity, and one that Lizzo made often throughout 2019.
On the other hand, the striking close-up of Jenny Lewis’s torso on the cover of On the Line invites curiosity by what it reveals and does not reveal – her bare arms and cleavage complementing a glitzy dress that evokes vintage Las Vegas (in fact, the dress is an homage to one that her mother wore when she performed in 1970s Las Vegas).
Both Lizzo and Jenny Lewis capture images of artists in control of their own bodies, sharing what they want on her own terms. For more memorable album covers from 2019, check out the link at the top of this post (or go here).
What are your favorite album covers in recent years?
Even though album sales continue to decline, album cover art is more important than it was during the days when vinyl ruled the world.
As I have discussed on my blog, today album cover art acts as a visual imprint repeated across a number of touch points: the artist’s website, social spaces, merchandise, outdoor advertising, and many other places where artists tell visual stories. By contrast, back in the glory days of the album, the primary role of cover art (from a marketing standpoint) was to make the work stand apart in record store bins. An excellent demonstration of the new role of the album artwork is DJ Khaled’s Major Key, one of the most memorable album covers 2016.
DJ Khaled released Major Key in July 2016. The album received generally positive reviews for delivering his distinctive blend of dance and hip-hop with guest artists such as Drake and Jay Z. Major Key also featured the most imaginative album cover of his career. It takes a special kind of self-assurance and badassery to have yourself photographed on a throne next to a lion, and DJ Khaled pulled it off. The cover is not only visually striking, but it also makes a statement about the artist: the lion suggest power, and the flowers, elegance. Like a Pharaoh, DJ Khaled is unsmiling. He doesn’t need to. The successful musician and producer rules his universe his way.
But the album and the music inside it are linked to a bigger story. DJ Khaled fans instantly recognized the name Major Key — stylized as a golden key emoji — as an extension of the DJ Khaled brand on Snapchat. He is easily one of the biggest names on Snapchat, where he dispenses life lessons that he calls “major keys to success.” He typically uses the key emoji to accompany his little snippets of wisdom, which focus on living positively.
The album cover was a code for his fans as well as an attention getter for more casual listeners of his music. If you liked what he was selling on Snapchat, Major Key was a clarion call to get even more immersed in his own brand of wisdom through song. And it turns out that the cover was a harbinger: in November, Khaled published the book The Keys, which collects his wisdom into lengthier essays on successful living, categorized under themes such as “Stay Away from They” and “Don’t Deny the Heat.” Released just in time for the holidays, The Keys also features a familiar image: a majestic lion, resting on the same purple bed of flowers scattered about the album cover.
In context of DJ Khaled’s brand as a pop culture sage, the Major Key album cover acts as a brilliant touchstone. Khaled and that lion are everywhere, ranging from his Instagram feature photo to his Facebook banners.
On his home base of Snapchat, he continues to rely on the key emoji to express his personal brand.
It remains to be seen how successful The Keys will be, but Major Key is DJ Khaled’s first Billboard Number One album. Meanwhile, the book is receiving positive notice from the likes of The New Yorker, which is the kind of attention that will make his brand as digital self-help guru more mainstream. His ability to brand himself through visual storytelling is the key.
The success of Adele’s 25 triggered speculation that maybe, just maybe, record albums were coming back as an art form following years of declining sales. But by July, album sales figures released by Nielsen Music brought those hopes crashing down to an ugly reality. Consumers had purchased 100.3 million album units, down 13.6 percent compared to the same period in 2015, putting 2016 on pace to be the worst selling year for albums since Nielsen began tracking the data in 1991.
But fortunately, musicians didn’t give up on albums. Beyoncé and David Bowie were among the artists who created albums meant to be experienced as complete song cycles, not as chopped up morsels of content. Beyonce’s Lemonade challenged our notions of what an album could be, released as a “visual album” aired via an HBO special along with the songs themselves. And the music inside Lemonade was a brilliant statement about race and femininity.
Lemonade was also notable for its simple yet powerful cover depicting a spent-looking Beyoncé in fur and golden cornrows, hinting at the statement inside the album. Lemonade was one of many examples of albums that intrigued not only because of their music but also because of their cover art. As I’ve written before, album cover art is alive and well even as album sales decline. In the 21st Century, album cover art acts as a visual imprint repeated across a number of touch points: the artist’s website, social spaces, merchandise, outdoor advertising, and many other places where artists tell visual stories.
Ironically, album covers have even more reach than they did back in the days of album-oriented art for the very reason that the artwork can reach music fans through so many digital and offline channels and devices. The best of the covers do what album cover art has always done:
Capture your attention through striking design.
Express the essence of the artist.
Say something about the musical content of the album itself.
The examples I’ve chosen from 2016 consistently live up to those three functions of a cover, ranging from Beyoncé’s Lemonade to Loretta Lynn’s Full Circle. Check out the best examples from my new SlideShare to restore your faith in the power of album cover art to tell visual stories.
I recently received an invitation to check out some behind-the-scenes Rogue One: A Star Wars Story videos and watch cartoon images of Star Wars X-Wings fly through the streets of Chicago. There was only one catch: the experience was available exclusively on my Uber app and viewable only after I had requested an Uber ride. I believe the Rogue One content points to a new future for Uber: one in which the app serves as a content-sharing platform for brands, like a Snapchat on wheels. Soon, musicians will launch new song videos on Uber before anyone else can see them. When Wes Anderson creates another slick short-form holiday film, Uber riders will see it first. Get ready for Uber to become a hot media brand.
Uber has been blurring the lines between ride sharing and entertainment for some time. In July, Uber hosted a secret concert with musician Wale, and the only way to attend was to unlock the location through Uber. In September, Uber introduced Rider Music, through which riders can tap into their own Pandora and Spotify playlists through Uber — in essence, taking their favorite curated music with them while they’re getting an Uber ride. Rogue One marks a first: branded entertainment content embedded in the app.
And there’s no reason why Uber needs to limit itself with entertainment experiences. In fact, Uber already offers branded content through relationships with other businesses, just not in the slick, in-app way that Disney does with Rogue One. In January, Uber launched “Trip Experiences,” which relies on integrations with third-party apps to make it possible for brands to serve up content ranging from restaurant reviews to news. It’s taken some time, but businesses are figuring out how to take advantage of the functionality. The Washington Post recently launched an integrated viewing experience through which readers can browse content on The Washington Post app while checking the status of their Uber ride. Moreover, Uber recently announced that users could order Uber rides off the websites of nearby businesses and receive branded content from those businesses en route. Cole Haan and Guitar Center have already beta tested the functionality.
Becoming a more full-blown media app for content sharing makes perfect sense for these reasons:
Uber is sitting on a treasure trove of data about the 50 million people who have taken 2 billion Uber rides, including who they are, where they are going, and what they’re doing. (Uber has received criticism over its use of customer data, too.) The company can offer advertisers very targeted opportunities to reach segments such as millennials. And Uber regularly puts its customer insight data to use, forming partnerships with brands such as Starwood that want access to Uber’s customers to provide offers such loyalty program points for customers that use Uber.
Uber could use from the revenue the app could gain by forming relationships with brands. The company lost a reported $1.2 billion in the first half of 2016, with a failed expansion into China proving to be especially costly. The company is eager to show that it can monetize effectively in advance of an expected IPO.
By its nature, Uber is a utility that people have to open in order to use. The downtime that users experience during Uber rides is a natural moment for brands to share content to keep users engaged with Uber so long as the content is engaging. Picture those annoying screens that play in the back of taxicabs (if you still take taxicabs anymore) only with content that is more interesting and useful — because Uber is consistently an interesting and useful brand. Rogue One, for instance, is not a randomly curated piece of content. Uber has timed the sharing of the behind-the-scenes video plus the playful in-app Star Wars space craft experience during the run-up to the official opening of Rogue One to capitalize on a time when users are going to be more naturally interested in viewing the content. The Rogue One/Uber experience is all about relevance.
Uber also consistently demonstrates a willingness to adapt its business. As I’ve contended on my blog, Uber’s core business is disruption, not ride sharing. Uber has entered markets ranging from food delivery to healthcare by wedding technology with a keen understanding of consumer behavior, by the creation of partnerships with other brands, and by consistently trying new models. Uber tests, learns, and corrects its model quickly. Right now making a content push is Uber’s latest test-and-learn initiative.
Businesses can play in a number of fascinating ways. In addition to serving up exclusive content, brands could provide broader experiences that span the online and offline worlds. The next musician who offers a secret concert via an Uber relationship could also provide exclusive music through Uber while fans ride to the concert. Imagine a hotel offering rides to its guests via Uber and providing exclusive in-app games for riders en route to their destination.
Uber is a palette for content. Businesses just need to figure out the right kind of branded content that engages riders. Rogue One offers a glimpse of how that content will look.
A few weeks ago, Adweek‘s Chris Heine asked me how soon Americans will accept self-driving cars — or vehicles that do all the driving while everyone in the car kicks back and enjoys the ride, freed up to bury our noses in our mobile phones, watch movies on longer drives, and do all the other things passengers do. I responded that many Americans are acting already as if they’re behind the wheel of a self-driving car, judging from the number of distracted drivers I see texting, reading, fussing with their kids, and, well, basically doing all the other things passengers do.
Silicon Valley and Detroit are bringing self-driving cars to our lives sooner than you think, as I discuss in a new blog post for SIM Partners. And I believe I believe a critical mass of consumers — enough to support the uptake of driverless cars — will accept autonomous vehicles as soon as automakers make them commercially viable and demonstrate how safe they are.
As I write in my post (which focuses on the marketing implications of self-driving cars), driverless cars are expected to be hitting our roads in 2020, and a number of developments are hastening the process. The two vanguards of autonomous driving, Google and Tesla, have generated plenty of headlines, and justifiably so, for making self-driving cars real and achievable. But the behemoths of the traditional model, the big automakers, are making breakthroughs, too. General Motors recently announced with Lyft a $500 million partnership that includes a self-driving service. At the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Ford announced it is testing a self-driving car in poor weather conditions, thus tackling what is considered to be an impediment to driverless performance (which Google had been testing already). Mercedes-Benz rolled out the 2017 semi-autonomous E-class sedan, thus bridging between the world we know today and the one that’s coming (as Tesla is doing with semi-autonomous cars).
Reservations about self-driving cars are predictable, ranging from concerns about safety (“what if this car makes a mistake on the expressway, and I cannot stop it?”) to loss of control.
I think it’s interesting that in April 2014, 48 percent of the public was actually open to riding in a driverless car — that’s nearly half the population being open to riding in a driverless car even though we’ve been conditioned to accept a conventional driving experience for decades. In fact, we’re already adapting our behaviors to smarter cars that do everything from help us search to manage our media. The development of semi-autonomous cars from Mercedes-Benz and Tesla will help ease in the self-driving experience, but more affordable brands such as Ford would have more of an impact
With effective marketing and the introduction of cost-effective alternatives, I believe self-driving cars will first gain the trust of key demographic segments such as city dwellers and aging baby boomers who have the most to benefit from driverless vehicles. The future will arrive in stages.
And once that trust takes hold, there will be no turning back.
I am curious to see how soon driverless cars emerge, especially after, a few days ago, I dodged a distracted driver who careened the wrong way down a one-way street. Computers make mistakes, too. But I’ll take my chances.
Some album covers are memorable because they perfectly express an artist’s image (or brand, if you will) as well as music. Such is the case with Sticky Fingers, the 11th American studio album of the Rolling Stones. Sticky Fingers, newly re-issued to celebrate its 44th anniversary, created controversy in 1971 for its Andy Warhol designed close-up of a man’s crotch, featuring with a functional zipper that dared the listener, “Go ahead, unzip me.” More than four decades later, the cover for Sticky Fingers expresses the Stones at its best: salacious, impossible to ignore, and rough around the edges.
The album’s history and legacy are well documented. Sticky Fingers was partly recorded in the fabled Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in the United States during the band’s 1969 U.S. tour (you can catch a glimpse of the recording in Gimme Shelter, the historic movie about the tour), as well as the Stones mobile studio unit in Stargroves (where Led Zeppelin would later record Houses of the Holy).
Sticky Fingers featured familiar Stones terrain: sex (“Brown Sugar”), drugs (“Sister Morphine,” “Dead Flowers”), the blues (“I Got the Blues”), and dirty rock and roll all over. The album also displayed the improvisational talents of guitarist Mick Taylor, especially on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” and some surprisingly tender, if weary moments, most notably “Moonlight Mile” and “Wild Horses.” The violence and menace of 1969’s Let It Bleed gave way to a more decadent, yet more introspective feel, resulting in an artistic breakthrough.
No other Stones album cover would express the band’s decadence so well. According to 100 Best Album Covers: The Stories Behind the Sleeves, by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell (themselves legends of album cover design), Warhol suggested the idea of using a real trouser zipper to Mick Jagger at a party in 1969. Jagger, intrigued, asked Warhol to do the design.
According to Warhol’s former manager Paul Morrissey (quoted in 100 Best Album Covers), “Andy was sensible enough to know not to be pretentious when doing album covers. This was a realistic attempt at selling sex and naughtiness. It was done simply and cheaply, without the pretensions of that seem to go with other covers.”
The stark black-and-white close-up of a man’s crotch captured the cheap, simple approach. “It was a cheap camera and cheap film,” said Morrissey. “I have no idea what brand.”
The red rubber stamp design of the album title and band’s name added to the gritty look.
Artist Craig Braun was responsible for translating Warhol’s design into a functional album cover. As told in a recent New York Times article, Mick Jagger insisted that the zipper needed to work, and it had to reveal something when you pulled it down.
“[The Rolling Stones] knew if they put jeans and a working zipper that people were going to want to see what was back there,” Braun said.
Braun obtained a photo of the Andy Warhol model in his white underwear to slip behind the zipper. (Contrary to popular belief, it’s not a close-up of Mick Jagger’s crotch you see when you pull down the zipper.)
Realizing Warhol’s vision was a chore. The zipper damaged some of the initial pressings when the albums were stacked and shipped to record stores. The zipper literally dented the vinyl inside the sleeves pressed against it. Removing the zipper would ruin its effect. The solution was for each zipper to be manually pulled down just far enough that the tip of the zipper would no longer rub against the vinyl of any other albums in shipment. As Braun told Joe Coscarelli of The New York Times:
“I got this idea that maybe, if the glue was dry enough, we could have the little old ladies at the end of the assembly line pull the zipper down far enough so that the round part would hit the center disc label,” he said. “It worked, and it was even better to see the zipper pulled halfway down.”
As famous as the cover is, the artwork inside is also notable for the debut of the Rolling Stones’s iconic tongue logo, designed by John Pasche. The tongue logo would become as famous and recognizable as the Nike Swoosh logo, which also appeared for the first time in 1971.
If the album cover reminded us of the Stones’s dirtiness, then the rolling tongue recast the band in a new light: a rock and roll brand, and eventually a lucrative one, gaining revenue streams from touring and merchandising, and corporate deals that few, if anyone, envisioned in 1971. And that tongue retains its power. Lucky Brand recently signed a merchandising deal with the Stones in which the tongue eclipses the clothing.
Apple has some work to do with the Apple Watch. Early adopters are criticizing the new wearable for a host of problems, including limited battery life. In other words, development is progressing on schedule. Apple is breaking into a nascent market with an imperfect product just as another huge brand, Disney, did two years ago with the launch of the MagicBand wearable that manages most facets of a guest stay at Walt Disney World. Disney faced criticisms for a new device, addressed them, and is seeing strong uptake two years later. Apple will, too. The biggest challenge Apple faces is investor expectation that every new Apple product will take hold immediately like the iPhone or iPad. The Apple Watch is different: it represents an entry into an evolving market, more akin to the first Model T automobiles. (By contrast, the iPhone cracked an already established telephony industry.) As I discuss in a recently published white paper, both Apple and Disney are acting on a vision to change the way we live. Following is an excerpt discussing why I believe they will succeed.
Ease of Use
Apple and Disney designed the Apple Watch and MagicBand to look good, and they need to look good. The devices are designed to be visible extensions of you, worn prominently on your wrist instead of being tucked away in your pocket. Disney wants Disney World patrons to use their MagicBands to manage their entire stays, including checking into their lodging, buying souvenirs, reserving their ride times via the FastPass+ system, and getting their meals served — akin to using a wristband to live in a city. Apple has even grander ambitions: your Apple Watch is the key to not only buying goods and services, but also handling myriad other aspects of your life, such as managing your fitness.
Apple and Disney need you to feel comfortable about wearing your devices, and for good reason: wearables have been marred by ugly design, and who wants to wear a device that embarrasses the owner? Appearance is so crucial that Apple has departed from its usual custom of providing simple product options and instead provides 38 different Apple Watch designs, ranging in price from $349 to $17,000. Similarly, the Disney MagicBands are available in many different colors (at prices ranging from $12.99 to $29.99), and Disney makes it possible for MagicBand owners to “show off your Disney side” by customizing its look with accessories such as an R2-D2 Magic Slider.
But what makes Apple Watch and MagicBand game changers are their ease of use. Both devices eliminate an action: digging through your belongings to conduct an action. Have you ever found yourself fumbling around for your iPhone to search for a restaurant on Yelp? Dropped your Disney room key while trying to lasso your kids as you dig through your backpack? Apple and Disney just eliminated those aggravating moments and replaced them with more fluid, graceful user interfaces such as swiping, glancing, and speaking.
For the products to take hold, they need to be more than user friendly; they need to be pervasive. As Austin Carr of Fast Company notes, Disney designed the MagicBands to support your visit to a metropolis spanning 25,000 acres, comprising four theme parks, 140 attractions, 300 dining locations, Continue reading →
Even the most successful NFL teams cannot control the quality of their product on the field. And in an era of free agency, it’s harder for teams to develop fan loyalty toward their best players. So more teams, even successful ones, have turned their stadiums into memorable experiences, where a team has more control over its own brand. In 2009, the Dallas Cowboys wowed fans with a new stadium that features the world’s largest column-free interior and (at the time) the biggest high-definition video screen in the world. In 2014, the San Francisco 49ers opened Levi’s Stadium, which features high-tech amenities such an app that allows you to order food from your seat. But the Atlanta Falcons are preparing to open one stadium to rule them all in 2017: a state-of-the-art extravaganza that may change the way we experience live sports.
In the 49-year existence of the Atlanta Falcons, the team has compiled a decidedly subpar record of 316 wins, 414 losses, and six ties. The team has won no Super Bowls and has fielded zero Most Valuable Players. The Falcons have been wildly inconsistent, capable of an impressive 13-win/3-loss season followed by a horrid 4-win/12-loss season, as was the case in 2012-13. But there is more to football than winning (and I don’t care how many ex-jocks in the broadcast booth say otherwise). Football teams want fans to have fun, and the New Atlanta Stadium (whose title will certainly change when a corporate sponsor is found) is designed to provide fun in spades.
For starters, the new building is going to be an architectural marvel that Atlanta visitors and residents will visit and tour in the off-season. Most football stadiums, however well designed, look like, well, football stadiums. You always know one when you see one. But New Atlanta Stadium isn’t any ordinary football stadium. New Atlanta Stadium is designed to be a visually stunning building where football games happen to be played.
The dramatic glass-and-steel exterior, which as been described as a gigantic metal origami, evokes the creations of Frank Gehry and Jørn Utzon (who designed the Sydney Opera House). Lead designer is Bill Johnson, a principal at Kansas City-based 360 Architecture (recently acquired by HOK), designed eight ocular shaped panels on the roof as an homage to the Roman Pantheon. According to 360 Architecture, the roof will “open and close like a camera aperture.” Moreover, the shape of the roof panels are will emulate the wing-like Atlanta Falcons team logo.
The retractable roof and overall stadium design have already caught the eye of publications such as Architecture News Daily and DesignBoom, which raved about the “striking structure.” Now, let me ask you: when is the last time a retractable roof generated this kind of reaction? I predict that the look of the stadium alone will inspire other architects to rethink the design of football stadiums, just as Oriole Park at Camden Yards reimagined the look of Major League Baseball Parks in the 1990s. Continue reading →
In 2014, musicians once again demonstrated that album cover art still matters — even as album sales continue to drop. The album cover remains a powerful way for artists to visualize their music and their personalities. According to analyst Mary Meeker, we upload and share 1.8 billion images a day. To get our attention in a world cluttered with pictures, artists need to stand out with strong, compelling visual stories that grab our attention and don’t let go. And album cover art needs to represent the artist across a variety of online and offline touch points, ranging from concert merchandise to Twitter wallpaper. So it’s no wonder that in 2014, we witnessed a plethora of artists using album covers to literally sell themselves to potential music buyers. Pharrell’s face on the cover of Girl is more than an album cover: it’s a billboard that sells the artist behind the music, repeated on his website, Facebook page, and everywhere else you find Pharrell. Even someone as popular as Pharrell has only a split second to convince you to pay attention to him. So he make the most of his moment to keep the focus of your attention on him. But as my new SlideShare, Memorable Album Covers of 2014: The Self-Portraits, shows, artist portraits can be evocative, alluring, and anything but bland.
For instance, Flying Lotus’s You’re Dead!, designed by Japanese artist Shintaro Kago, is a mystical piece that is practically a graphic novel on an album cover. And Lykkie Li’s cover of I Never Learn is a dark, textured portrait that conveys a mysterious sensuality. Especially as artists continue to struggle to monetize their music, you can expect album cover art to continue to evolve and excite. Popular music has, and always will be, a visual medium as well as aural one. Even as the music industry continues to change, you can take that assumption to the bank.