Jones, Steven y Sorger, Martin. Covering music

Jones, S. and Sorger, M. (1999). Steve Jones and Martin Sorger: Covering music: a brief history and analysis of album cover design. Journal of Popular Music Studies.


“When Johnny Rotten  of  the Sex Pistols proclaimed,  “if
people bought the records for the music, this thing would have
died a death long ago” (Dean 6 Howells, 1982: p. 2 3 ) ,  he illus-
trated the importance and power people place on “the look of
music.” Using all forms of  mass-media exposure, popular music
has increasingly relied on visual style to present and sell itself.
The visuals of  music have been most permanently stored and
most widely displayed on the packaging of  prerecorded musical
products-album  covers. While the basic role of  music packaging remains the protection of  the prerecorded medium, it also
functions as a visual mnemonic to the music enclosed and as a
marketing tool.” (Jones y Sorger:1999;68)

“despite a great  deal  of  writing about the  visual dimensions of popular music, it is clear that most scholars have overlooked analysis of  album covers and music packaging. We seek to acknowledge this art as deserving serious scholarly attention. Our goal is not to present  a content analysis of  album covers, but rather to begin to recover the history of  their development as a form of art and commerce, and as an integral part of  the production and consumption of  popular music.” (Jones y Sorger:1999;69)

“When considering the physical packaging and design associated with prerecorded music as a  whole,  the album  cover  serves as an important  focal point  for a number of  reasons. In a purely functional sense, the significant history of  prerecorded music packaging has centered around the presentation  of  record  discs,
whether 78s, 45s,  33’j3 LPs, or CDs. The album cover remains the most visible form of  music packaging. In addition, LP  album covers have not yet lost their cultural status for designers and consumers alike. Visually, the  12-inch square of  the album cover has proven a fertile forum  for the development  of  a rich sense of  cultural, artistic, and social history. As musician Patti Smith said, “Man,
if  you want to see where the world’s been, just look through some old album covers” (Record Album Art,  1978). Singer Tony Bennett  said in  regard  to LPs, “They were  large enough to make you  feel like you  were  taking home your very own work of  art” (Kohler, 1999, p. 7).” (Jones y Sorger:1999;70)

“If  new digital forms, particularly ones that involve the Internet
for downloading, become popular means of  acquiring music,  what might become of  the visual elements of  music packaging?” (Jones y Sorger:1999;70)

“As Kohler noted, it was important to find ways to get a consumer’s  attention  to sell records, because “A store that sold only records was a rarity, as they were typically sold in music or appliance stores along with phonographs and sheet music” (1 999: p. 11). Sleeves functioned as decorative frames for the labels but, despite attempts
at enhancing their appearance, they often were referred to as  tombstone.” (See Figures 3-9,  record labels and sleeves, at” (Jones y Sorger:1999;71)

“The first covers to be individualized  according to recording
medium were classical 78s. Due to the length of  classical pieces of  music and the relatively short length of  discs at the time, multiple discs were used to cover the recordings of  whole operas or longer orchestral works. These works generally consisted of  three to five discs and, because of  the weight of  the shellac used to make them, required stronger boxes made of  pasteboard. The similarity, in ap-
pearance and function, of  these boxes to photo albums led to them to become known as albums. The earliest albums used only typography with the name on the front and spine. Later, they incorporated photographs, scenes, and portraits of  the composers or performing artists. These two means of  packaging, the paper sleeve and the album box, continued until the 1950s.” (Jones y Sorger:1999;71)

“The earliest post-Depression covers were not particularly popular. Decca’s covers of  the late  1930s resembled  abstract wallpaper  (Schmitz,  1986: p. 88), and RCA Victor used a series format incorporating elaborate paintings with designated spaces for the title, composer, and any other relevant information. By the end of  the 1930s, gaudy colors, drawings, and pictures of  artists abounded.
The images on all of  these  packages were printed  on paper  slicks that  were pasted onto sleeves” (Jones y Sorger:1999;72)

“American covers of  this era were dominated by three distinguishable styles.
The first were the painterly covers made by RCA. Using traditional imagery on their  classical releases,  RCA  tried  to promote a conservative,  quality-oriented corporate image. The company incorporated various genres of  painting on its covers, alternating from Surreal or Cubist to Romantic.  Frank  Decker, one of the more productive freelancers used by  RCA,  attempted to match his cover designs to the music  historically  (Schmitz,  1986: p.  92; see Figures  13 fr  14, RCA-Victor  album covers, at httpp://
The second direction was toward poster-like covers, used by CBS Columbia and introduced by Alex Steinweiss, whose work incorporated the principles of  various European  design movements  (Schmitz,  1986: p.  94). These covers became the models for other companies,  and RCA adopted this style for their 73 popular  and jazz  albums when the painterly  covers became  considered oldfashioned.  (See Figures  15-1 7,  Steinweiss/Columbia  album covers at  httpd’  .)
Kohler noted that Steinweiss was, in many ways, responsible for album cover design becoming part of  the production process in popular music:
It was Steinweiss who came up with the idea of  specially designed
cover art. . . . These new covers were an instant success, and Colum-
bia  soon realized that the extra production  cost required  was  well
worth it when sales figures of  albums with the Steinweiss covers rose dramatically in comparison to those same albums issued earlier with conventional  plain  covers.  The  popularity  of  Steinweiss’s  work prompted Columbia’s marketing department to request cover art for all subsequent releases. (1999: p. 13)
The third style of  album cover, used mainly by  smaller, independent  labels, consisted of  a more purely graphic approach  (Schmitz, 1986: p. 90). This direction was epitomized by the work of  David Stone Martin. Working for Moses Asch, Martin was probably the best-known and most emulated of  the designers working for independent  labels. He imbued his stylish covers with a sense of social consciousness (Schmitz, 1986: p. 96). Out of  his work grew a new image for “colored” or “race” music, as it was then called. Prior to Martin, the images of  black musicians, if  they were portrayed at all, were stereotyped because their pictures  were  not  regarded  as an incentive to sales. More  commonly,  covers included abstract images and geometric designs. (See Figures 18-2  I, race records by David Stone Martin, at (Jones y Sorger:1999;72)

“One of  the major changes that emerged in the mid-1940s was the rise of self-service selection at record stores. Shelves that displayed only the spines of records were replaced by racks that brought customers face to face with covers.
Slowly the importance of  the cover as a “silent salesman” was noticed by record company executives and marketing personnel. By  1945, nearly every popular record had a designed cover” (Jones y Sorger:1999;73)