There’s more to a CD than just the music. Flipping through liner notes, reading lyrics and, especially, staring at brilliant cover art is all part of record listening experience. Or at least it was — with legal downloading accounting for 20 per cent of all music sales, the future of album artwork is in jeopardy.
“There seems to be less and less need for artwork,” says Bob Mersereau, author of the Top 100 Canadian Albums. “When my son buys a CD he throws the insert away. He doesn’t want it; it just gets in the way for him. He’s not interested in that experience.”
If Mersereau’s son is any indication, the days when an album’s cover would often resonate more than the music is over. That worries the New Brunswick-based journalist.
“When you say Dark Side of the Moon, what’s the first thing that pops into your head? It’s not Money. It’s that cover. Abbey Road? It’s the cover,” he says.
While there’s no doubt the experience of flipping through a CD booklet is changing, one web-based music store owner doesn’t think album art will disappear.
“The future is limitless,” says Dave Ullrich, founder of Toronto-based Zunior.com. “It might not be the same as vinyl, but it can be very different and different can be better.”
On his website Ullrich gives music buyers the opportunity to download PDFs of a disc’s artwork, and he once offered downloaders a high resolution Rheostatics poster that could be printed and framed.
While he’s happy to give his customers more than just MP3s, he admits that the future of cover art will soon be far more dynamic than a simple PDF download.
“It doesn’t exist yet, but with things like iPhone apps fans will be able to easily dig into lyrics, or even kick back and just listen to music and look at the record’s artwork, all on their phone,” Ullrich explains.
Michael Wrycraft, a Juno-winning artist who’s designed artwork for Bruce Cockburn among other Canadian acts, should be the first one to lament the move to digital. But, not only is he busier than ever before, he thinks the work will keep coming well into the downloading era.
“Artwork on paper may die out years from now, but then someone will download a track, play it on a computer and a screen saver will pop with credits and pictures,” he says. “I’m not panicking about my future — I just realize that someday the material I work with might change.”
Mersereau, however, thinks the devaluation of cover art is already in full swing, especially when it comes to major label releases. “There’s less and less work going into them already,” he says. “Take the new Bruce Springsteen, the reviews are great, but it’s the ugliest cover you’ve ever seen. Where are the iconic shots of the past? Where are the great covers that you want to hang up on your wall?”
Ullrich agrees that some liner notes aren’t as eyecatching as they used to be. He chalks that up to budgeting issues, which can be resolved when digital artwork takes off.
“Creative bands will be able to do some really cool stuff,” he says. “Digital is more wide open — it’s even more open than what you had in the old days.”