Fri | Aug 17, 2018

The fading value of cover art

Published:Thursday | June 30, 2016 | 12:00 AMMel Cooke
Tanya Stephens
Morgan Heritage’s ‘Strictly Roots’ album cover.

It is now so commonplace that the twinning of image and song in the music video is not only unremarkable, but expected. In Way Back, Tanya Stephens reminds us of a time when music wasn't sold off the video alone, and whether or not the moving images have overwhelmed the song itself, leading to an acceptance of shoddy tunes as long as the chicks are numerous and nubile, is debatable.

What is not, though, is the fading significance of album cover art. It is a case of plenty makes for less, as storage space on hard drives and cloud services makes the proliferation of still images to go with an album easier than ever. Plus, there is the Internet to spread it around, until the cover art (which covers nothing physical if there is no CD or vinyl album) reaches anyone with the desire and Internet access.

However, it felt like more when the only album art images we had access to were the ones with the LP or CD. There are the standouts - the famed lighter-style jacket encasing The Wailers' Island Records debut, Catch a Fire; Peter Tosh seated in a herb field fronting Legalise It; Michael Jackson with a furry friend when Thriller was opened up. Then there are my favourites from the 1990s, the decade before the CD started to fade as the preferred format of moving music, among them the cover of Sizzla's Black Woman and Child (which was released nearly 20 years ago).


I question if I am romanticising the past, or treasuring the visual impact of cover art which the digital age has blunted. I do believe that the cover which the physical music format is kept in shows the performer in a more lasting way than a slew of images accompanying the virtual distribution can. Take Tanya Stephens' Rebelution, with the red beret, in a profile reminiscent of Che Guevara. It has an enduring impact, no matter how many other pictures I have seen of her, or seen Stephens perform.

This may be good or bad. The positive is that I have an indelible memory of a preferred performer. The bad is that I may freeze her in my mind at a particular stage of her artistic development and not sufficiently appreciate her subsequent work as much as I could.

However, for me, the latter is part of the beauty of album cover art. It twins the stage of where the person's music is at that point in their lives, with their physical state (for those who use their photographs extensively in the album art). With an LP or CD, I can pick up the package and get the impact and understanding of both in a limited storage space. When there is less space to work with, we naturally tend to try to utilise it as best as we can.

This permeates the entire process, from recording the still image or songs through to the final packaging. It is a need for careful selection which the limitless virtual world negates, I believe, to the detriment of the final product.