Remember when cover art was everything? It was how music stood out, how an artist identified with the listener, how the general public got a taste and literal feel of a musician’s message. The cover art of an album was the first impression, and was vitally connected to the success of that album. With the advent of technology, the distribution of music has changed dramatically. No longer do we buy the entirety of the album as vinyl or CD, but as broken pieces in singles and online songs. No longer is the cover art the first thing we come into contact with; the tangibility of the album is completely lost on consumers as it is viewed through a technological interface. Listeners may or may not even see the album cover, and if they do, it is usually a miniaturized version mediated by a glowing screen.
The technology of delivering music en masse has made cover art largely superfluous and obsolete. Because of the accessibility of music through iTunes and Spotify and the steady decline of consumers buying albums, producers have greatly decreased the importance of album covers by reducing the budget for the album cover art. The artistic rendering of the cover art, historically used for the consumer to identify more readily with the artist, has now been superseded by the torrent of social media. Listeners don’t need to know the musician through their cover art; they already know them through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Soundcloud and various other social media platforms through which celebrities express themselves and personally connect with their fans.
The ubiquitous nature of social media has changed the landscape of music in such a way that the artist must cultivate their persona outside of what exists on their album on many different platforms. Thus, the artist today is intimately known in ways artists of the past have not been. Before the onslaught of social media, one of the only ways artists could be known was through their cover art, making it vital to the musical experience and the interdependent relationship between creator and consumer. Now that the artist’s persona can be known through technology, bands rely less on the physical aspect of their album and more so on the social media aspect to foster that connection between musician and fan.
Although the art of album covers has largely taken a backseat due to these many factors, two artists have emerged from the fray in an attempt to break the mold. Despite antithetical in style, approach, and execution, both John Mayer and Chance the Rapper offer their fans a clear and provocative vision through the album artwork.
John Mayer is an extremely well known American singer-songwriter, guitarist and producer. He was rocketed into multi-platinum stardom after he won a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance in 2003 for the popular single “Your Body is a Wonderland.” Although initially a pop and acoustic rock artist, with his fifth studio album Born and Raised (2012), Mayer drew inspiration heavily from the 1970s folk and country-rock music of Laurel Canyon. Due to his return to true Americana, Mayer wanted an album cover that reflected this change in musical style to an old, ephemeral sound. In his own words, Mayer was always captivated by the look of old, turn-of-the-century trade cards but also wanted to incorporate elements of his persona like watches, faces of band members on coins, flowers, and ribbons. He wanted his album to mimic the ephemeral look of old, trade-cards, while still maintaining the unique aspect of his particular musical style. The visual aspect of art itself drove Mayer’s vision, with the feeling that album cover art is the “last true expression of the artist’s musical expression.”
With the help of David Smith, a traditional ornamental glass artist, Mayer’s unique vision came alive. As beautifully shown in Danny Cooke’s video on “The Making of John Mayer’s ‘Born & Raised’ Artwork”, the entire process is painstakingly and unbelievably detailed but incredibly rewarding. The craftsmanship is obvious in the finished project, and made all the more impressive when the techniques behind the process are exposed. The eye-catching detail is impressive and uniquely provocative regardless the size of the image, with even an 8bit thumbnail recognizably Mayer’s album. It is a truly a beautiful work of art, the ornamental style pairing perfectly with Mayer’s silky voice and folksy music.
While Mayer was driven by visual elements of album art, Chance the Rapper was guided by the symbolism of a mixtape trilogy as it relates to his relationship with the rap world. A native of Chicago, Chancellor Bennett, professionally known as Chance the Rapper, is relatively young in the rap scene but highly influential and incredibly popular. Like Mayer, Chance had a unique vision for his album covers that incorporated all elements of his musical persona. The visual progression of the three album covers not only portrays Chance’s personal evolution, but also his relationship with the genre of rap. The highly distinctive style of Chicago-based artist Brand Breaux is visually striking and lends perfectly to Chance’s eclectic musicality. Like Mayer’s Born and Raised, the provocative and unique album cover art of Chance’s “mixtape trilogy” separates him from other artists.
Mayer and Chance are very two different people in diametrically different genres. Yet, their passion for music and a drive to visually express that music have intrinsically linked them to a small subset of artists who care about album covers. Two sides of one coin, Mayer and Chance are slowly but surely reclaiming this lost art and changing the landscape of music to one that appreciates album covers once again.