Most music is not purchased in a record store full of vinyl treasures. Instead, potential buyers scroll through hundreds of online images on their phone or other electronic device, only stopping to click if the visual captures their interest. That means you only have a few seconds to make an impact.
Today’s artwork for albums and singles generally falls into four main categories: photography, portraits, illustrations and visual art.
Photography can feature the band in a serious or comic way or feature other people, animals or items that represent the album content. For example, Phychostick photographed a sandwich for its “Sandwich” album. Ministry’s “Filth Pig” has a political bent. Metallica’s 1998 “Garage, Inc.” is a classic band photo, and C2C gives off a party feel in its “Tetra” album cover.
Portraits of musical artists can be literal photography, like Lana Del Rey’s stoic “Born To Die” album pic and the mystical photograph of Wiz Khalifa on his “Rolling Papers” album. Janelle Monáe’s debut album “ArchAndroid,” has a futuristic, illustrated look, and Woodkid’s “Iron EP” single from his “The Golden Age” album takes the blend of photography and artwork even further with what appears to be a wooden head (so does Sia’s “1000 Forms Of Fear” cover that shows her wig as a portrait).
The Roots have a series of album covers that rely on illustration, including the two below, “Phrenology” and “Rising Down.” Some illustrations can be comic, like Steve Aoki’s “Boneless” or his “Wonderland” album. Even if artists switch between using illustrations to photography for album covers, it should still have a somewhat similar style.
Hailing from Iceland, Bjork’s 2007 “Volta” album has African-influenced beats, horns and industrial elements, and the artwork seems to reflect this blend of cultures. Tame Impala started out using abstract art in their self-titled album, and the use continues in the psychedelic album cover for “Elephant.” Lorn’s “Ask the Dust” is an abstract collage. Tyler, The Creator’s “Wolf” album has a limited deluxe edition cover that could be a painting on your living room wall.
So what kind of art should you choose for your next album or single? Here are three things to consider:
- Image: What is your band’s image and sound? What type of artwork would best represent the band’s image? For more information on branding, see Brand Basics.
- Budget: How much money can you afford to spend on original artwork or photography? If your budget is limited, you may want to use art in the public domain or have someone photograph you from a camera phone.
- Resources: Do you know a professional photographer, painter, cartoonist or visual or graphic artist who can make an original art piece for your band? If not, you may want to place an ad through social media or on craigslist.org. Consider doing a trade for the artist’s services of if you have a decent budget, by all means, pay the artist well.
A few more pointers: Before you spend any money on art, be sure to consider how it will represent your band and fit into your band’s catalog of albums. For example, if you click through a number of albums by Radiohead, you’ll see a strong use of original art with a similar look and feel.
If you need inspiration, visit the artwork from yesteryear in the Artcyclopedia. Search genres such as abstract expressionism, art deco, impressionism, neoclassicism, realism and surrealism. Seek out art being done today on every continent. See what artwork similar musical artists feature, then do the opposite. Or create your own aesthetic. Just remember that beauty — or shock value — is in the eye of the beholder.
Tamara Halbritter is a San Francisco Bay Area freelance writer and editor who develops content for music, transportation and green industries.