Despite the fact that they are not in the strictest sense making sound themselves, album covers are profoundly musical. Album covers represent the music contained inside them and, even further, they mediate our listening experience. Conversely, our viewing experience is mediated by the music. Looking at an album we are reminded of the art historian W.J.T. Mitchell’s assertion that “there are no visual media,” by which he means that all media are mixed media.1 Likewise, we can say, there are no sonic media, and covers are exemplary of the audiovisual dialectics of records.
Scholars have used generally four parameters to explain the album cover: a) as protection for the record inside; b) advertisement for the music; c) accompaniment or visual aid to the musical sound and text; and d) commodity and collector’s item in its own right.2 These categories are, however, more descriptive than conceptual. Similarly, many studies of album covers describe a history of sleeve design and offer case studies with an emphasis on—or even bias toward—the LP and rock music.3 Despite these descriptions and histories, few scholars have attempted to theorize the album cover. Indeed, historicizing the album cover is only one of four ways to think about the sleeve and its design, the other three being paratext, audiovisuality, and materiality. Rather than merely chronicling the history of the album cover, we can reconsider it as an example of what media theorists term device convergence (even before the time of digital media).4 This can be approached through what Emily Dolan calls a “musicology of interfaces,” which suggests that the album cover can be thought of as an instrument through which we interface with sound.5
Historical studies of the album cover are where much of the analysis of the iconography, liner notes etc. takes place and where work highlighting issues of representations of identity through cover designs is found. This is where we interrogate the scopic regimes of the album cover6; and examine shifting techniques of listening that goes with it.7 Form and function are intertwined in the disc (or tape etc.), sleeve, and album design. The physical shape of the album cover determines the size, dimensions, and material of the sleeve, to a certain extent. But it is also shaped by demands of, e.g., genre, economy, class, and cultural distinction. For instance, the rise of the LP format in the 1950s and the high-art association with classical music, and later jazz and rock, was as much about the promotion via the album cover designs as about the recording format itself.8 Similarly, in the digital age, when labels release MC mix tapes or LPs that also contain a free download code for a digital recording, they are drawing on a retromania and cultural hierarchy of media formats while not imposing retro-listening practices.
Surrounding and extending the recording, the album cover is paratext, a term that denotes things that present a text as a text, such as the artist’s name, a title, and illustrations. Rather than regarding the paratext as external to the text, literary theorist Gerard Genette considers it a threshold, an “undefined zone…between text and off-text, a zone not only of transition but also transaction.”9 Thinking of album covers as paratext makes us see and hear them as sites of convergence and interfacing. We can paraphrase the film theorist Jonathan Gray and say that “rather than simply serve as extensions of a text, many of these items are filters through which we must pass on our way to [the music and record], our first and formative encounter with the text.”10 Gray distinguishes between entryway paratexts, which would be an album cover that grabs the viewer before they reach the music and tries to control the listener’s entrance into the record; and in medias res paratexts, which flow between the gaps of textual exhibition, or come to us during or after listening, as when one reads lyrics or liner notes as part of the listening experience, or when the music re-mediates the experience of the album iconography.11
This suggests that paratexts are hermeneutically privileged. Analyzing album covers as part of a mixed medium means viewing the album cover as an audiovisual text. Printed lyrics and liner notes are perhaps the most concrete form this takes, as they invite the listener to engage in the hermeneutics of listening and reading. As regards the images and their relation to the music, we can follow Nicholas Cook, who states that “juxtaposing music and image has the effect of drawing attention to the properties they share, and in this way constructing a new experience of each; the interpretation is in this sense emergent.”12 This ever-emergent mode of interpretation constitutes the audiovisual hermeneutics of album covers.
The juxtaposition of sound and image, however, also invites us, following Guy Debord, to see the image is a sign of alienation, i.e. that the album cover proves the alienation between music and materiality inherent in sound recording.13 If, for Theodor Adorno, “the form of the phonograph record was virtually its non-form” then the album cover is a feeble attempt to regain the semblance of Benjaminian aura.14 Indeed, the modern LP cover can be a way to (seemingly) overcome the alienation of record production. Most famously, the Beatles’ so-called White Album, plays with this dialectic of mass-produced art: It uses its blankness to assert uniqueness among post-Sgt. Pepper psychedelic album covers and by individually numbering the first release it draws attention to its industrial scale of production, but also reminds us of a limited-edition art print.15
Other scholars have veered away from this Marxist critique and taken on the question of materiality from a different angle. From an actor-network-theory perspective, the album cover is testament to Benjamin Piekut’s “acknowledgement of music’s weakness, the extent to which it requires collaborators in order to touch the world.”16 In this view, the album cover may function as a “collaborator” in an assemblage, exemplifying Georgina Born’s description of music as a “multiply-mediated, immaterial and material, fluid quasi object.”17 The material of the album cover affords a tactile experience that stresses presence more than just representation. As an interface for recorded sound, album covers also serve a pedagogical purpose as a material indicator of the work-concept, engendering what Will Straw calls a “protocol for listening.”18
Much has been made of the recent explosion of interest in LPs. From this point of view, the materiality of vinyl and album covers resists the immateriality of the digital age. The appearance of cover images, lyrics, and liner notes in digital formats may appear as a radical break with previous formats. One scholar has even gone so far as to speak of “the death and resurrection of the album cover.”19 But the album cover never really died, it just took on a new life. In convergence culture, the album sleeve as a paper or plastic container may be gone, but paratexts still engender protocols of listening and invite audiovisual hermeneutics through screens. When we listen to music on a smartphone, the album cover pops up; many “videos” on YouTube are accompanied by an album cover (or sometimes a fan-made collage); and Wikipedia, Discogs, and allmusic.com now serve as liner notes. Several labels and artist, most famously Björk, have experimented with app albums.20 These are usually concept albums that use the interactive covers through audiovisual elements and mobile devices. In more subtle or banal ways, Spotify has recently tried to update the album cover for the digital age with images, liner notes, and lyrics that flicker across your phone screen as you stream a song.
The album cover is alive and well in the paratextual threshold, even if its materiality is not determined by sleeves and jewel boxes. Artists and listeners engage in sophisticated audiovisual hermeneutics of album covers, in device convergence from LPs to smartphones. Rather than doing away with the album cover, the digital age provides multiple interfaces for the album cover.
W.J.T. Mitchell, “There Are No Visual Media,” Journal of Visual Culture 4, no. 2 (2005): 257–66.
Steve Jones and Martin Sorger, “Covering Music: A Brief History and Analysis of Album Cover Design,” Journal of Popular Music Studies 11, no. 1 (1999): 68–102.
Richard Osborne, Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012), 161–81; and Jan Butler, “Album Art and Posters: The Psychedelic Interplay of Rock Art and Art Rock,” in The Routledge Companion to Music and Visual Culture, ed. Tim Shepherd and Anne Leonard (New York: Routledge, 2014), 180–88.
Thomas Elsaesser, “Digital Cinema: Convergence or Contradiction?” in The Oxford Handbook of Sound and Image in Digital Media, ed. Carol Vernalis, Amy Herzog, and John Richardson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 13–40.
Emily Dolan, “Toward a Musicology of Interfaces,” Keyboard Perspectives 5 (2012): 1–12.
The term scopic regime was introduced by Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982); and has been developed by Martin Jay, “Scopic Regimes of Modernity,” in Vision and Visuality, ed. Hal Foster (Seattle: Bay Press, 1988), 3–23.
The idea of techniques of listening or audile technique comes from Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).
Osborne, Vinyl, 165.
Gerard Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 2.
Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and other Media Paratexts (New York: New York University Press, 2010), 3.
Gray, Show Sold Separately, 23ff.
Nicholas Cook, Analysing Musical Multimedia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 73. He continues: “In other words, the coupling of image and sounds contextualizes, clarifies, and in a sense analyzes the music.” 74.
Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books, 1995). Cf. Philip Auslander, “Looking at Records,” TDR/The Drama Review 45, no. 1 (2001): 77–83.
Theodor Adorno, “The Form of the Phonograph Record,” in Essays on Music, ed. Richard Leppert (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 278; Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” in Selected Writings 3 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 101–33.
Ian Inglis, “‘Nothing You Can See That Isn’t Shown’: The Album Covers of the Beatles,” Popular Music 20, no. 1 (2001): 89; Osborne, Vinyl, 173.
Benjamin Piekut, “Actor-Networks in Music History: Clarifications and Critiques,” Twentieth-Century Music 11, no. 2 (2014): 191.
Georgina Born, “On Musical Mediation: Ontology, Technology, and Creativity,” Twentieth-Century Music 2, no. 1 (2005): 7.
Will Straw, “Music and Material Culture,” in The Cultural Study of Music, ed. Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert, and Richard Middleton (New York: Routledge, 2012): 234.
Ismael López Medel, “The Death and Resurrection of the Album Cover,” 37–57. See also Dominik Bartmanski and Ian Woodward, Vinyl: The Analogue Record in the Digital Age (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).
Nicola Dibben, “Visualizing the App Album with Björk’s Biophilia,” in The Oxford Handbook of Sound and Image in Digital Media, ed. Carol Vernalis, Amy Herzog, and John Richardson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 682–706.