Last week I was having a horrible time with my “listening sessions.” Everything I heard was utter garbage. It’s enough that I spend about five minutes a day opening cellophane, just to be disappointed with what I hear.

There also seems to be a close relationship between bad cover art and the music such cover art contains. In addition to the artwork that is displayed on the front of the jacket, the inside rantings of the composer, really bad photographs of the composer in “artsy” poses, or attempting to be candid, along with just out-right ridiculous performer shots, makes me want to laugh and scream at the same time.

Some composers, I guess, feel that the more light-hearted and witty they can be in the program notes, the better the music will sound (?). Some are absurd and bizarre, boring narratives.

Here’s my advice to all of you producing your own recordings: Simple is always more effective. Be artsy, but tasteful. Don’t buy a disposable camera at Walmart and setup some still life in your bedroom with a clarinet and a flower vase. Don’t sit at your dinner table with your works spread out, have your wife take a “candid” pose and expect us to believe that you were caught in the act. If you’re going to pose: pose! Be real and, for God’s sake, hire a professional. When embarking on art work, keep it simple and professional. You are making a first impression, so at least give it the old college try.

Perhaps every composer should be required to take some visual art classes in college.

Am I being too superficial (no pun intended) or realistic?

12 Responses to “Bad Cover Art”
  1. I’ve never found that bad cover art or liner notes detracted from an album, but that good cover art and liner notes can help. When I ran a label, I had a few artists who insisted on interfering with their cover art, and their cd’s ended up having weaker covers than anyone else on the label.

  2. I haven’t paid attention to the correlation you’re talking about, but I know the kinds of cover art you mean. I’m not sure making composer take visual art classes would solve the problem — a lot of what’s going on isn’t a lack of skill but a lack of taste. I’ve seen a lot of professionally done headshots which are technically excellent but horribly tacky — I don’t need to see you caressing the keyboard, folks.

    This seems like the sort of situation where the record label needs to assert its authority to veto bad choices — and the label needs to have somebody with taste and skill on staff to make those decisions. And some labels clearly do care about this — Cold Blue, for instance, has totally gorgeous cover art; Cantalouple has a lot of great cover art. Bridge, on the other hand, has mostly middle-of-the road cover art, with some that’s very nice, but also some real dogs.

    The saddest tale of all, though, has to be Naxos. Their idea of having a single template is very smart, and really helps with their brand recognition, but does that template have to be so ugly? Composers who want good cover art either can’t get it or have to use a cardboard sleeve, and inside that sleve is the ugly standard template. Tzadik, on the other hand, does the template thing right — it’s distinctive and attractive, and allows for good art underneath the text.

  3. Adam Baratz says:

    Galen: I think you got it right by describing this issue as one of “taste.” If you look at the credits for Cold Blue albums, most (all?) of the photos are credited to The Center for Land Use Interpretation. Anyone can use these photos for free, but Jim Fox finds the ones that fit the music and overlays the text in an attractive way.

    Tzadik wins the award for making really nice objets with their packaging. The shiny gold ink, the unusual paper flaps on the side, the absurdly glowing descriptions… Makes you want to buy it, take it home, and see what’s inside. There’s also the occasional surprise, like the incongruous piece of kinky porn under the CD tray, but I think we had a thread a while back on that issue with Zorn…

    Stephin Merritt had a comment about how music is explained in the liner notes so people can appreciate it… pop people do it with photo shoots, classical/experimental/serious people do it with notes. I think that observation partially explains the tacky packages we’re discussing.

  4. Eric Lin says:

    Actually Adam, some of my favorite albums of non-classical music are those which don’t have photos but just good artwork. Not a single Radiohead album has photos of the band members and they’re just cool to look at.

  5. David Salvage says:

    Just reviewed this guy’s CD. I guess he’s too busy to pose properly.

    (If the cheesy quote were in a bubble above his head, maybe my opinion would change.)

  6. My all-time favorite album cover is the Wailer’s “Catch a Fire.” The original packaging (no notes) was a photo of a cigarette lighter. The top quarter of it was hinged on the side, and when you opened it, there was a cut-out of a flame.

  7. Tim Risher says:

    The old album covers for Nonesuch were also jaw-droppingly bad. You almost had to hold the album with tongs, I felt that the colors would somehow get on my hand and cause some unknown disease.

  8. rama says:

    I think this is really a issue especially for the first listening. Maybe it just goes to show how shallow we are as music consumers! it shouldn’t matter what it looks like, but somehow the package plays in and i think actually affects the way we listen to something. the record, the cd, the tape they all have subtly different aesthetic ideas that interact with the actual sound that comes out. i thin about this a lot.

    i’ve also countless times purchased cds with cool cover art in hopes that the music would sound like that and been disappointed. cds are a really fascinating object, the .mp3 file could be the same, for instance — does the location of the download link affect our listening? the simplicity or complexity or the color of the link? flash or html?

  9. Stefano Savi Scarponi says:

    Last night I went to the Rome (my hometown) auditorium and I spent some time in the record shop. I was hit from a cd in the “ancient music” section. A skinny, gorgeous girl, dressed with a white t-shirt with a huge red cross, was looking at me like top-models could do. I read cover notes: it’s a famous italian ensemble recording of Monteverdi madrigali. The girl is a soprano.
    On the other hand my records (only 2, sob…) had really awful cover art… I think that, in these times, composers are forced to try to follow the whole process of record/production/promotion otherwise it’s really difficult to hit some “new possible” audience.
    I don’t like that, but it’s true (here, in Italy).

  10. Jack Gabel says:

    I either let the artists do or direct their own covers, unless they’d rather not – sometimes they’re pretty out there e.g. – sometimes very subdued e.g. – it’s really a matter of taste and it’s their gilded calling card – for portrait photos we do always get a pro unless they can deliver something unusual – at day’s end, if the music doesn’t hold up, the cover doesn’t much matter, and visa versa.

  11. Cary Boyce says:

    Good taste comes and goes. Bad taste is timeless. On covers as well as music.

  12. Daniel G. says:

    Thanks for the links Jack. See, for me personally, if I had to choose one CD from the two you’ve linked to – without knowing the music inside – only based on cover art it would be, hands down, Mitsuki. But that’s my taste.