Humans are visual creatures. We tend to attach memories to creative experiences – we find relatability, intrigue and an emotional expression in art which influences how we feel about things. A great example of this is album covers. Combining the magic of music with visual art, identity and graphic design, album covers personify what it is to condense a concept into a brand.
Whether you love these artists or not, you’ll likely remember each album because of the visuals that accompanied them. Some are controversial, some eye-catching, some statement-making. But they all have one thing in common – alongside the music itself, their use of amazing imagery has created memorable, iconic albums with appeal that spans generations.
Music marketing wasn’t always visual
It wasn’t until the late 1940s that album artwork became a ‘thing’ – and it was much later that record companies realised the earning potential of a unique, eye-catching or thought-provoking album cover. Previously all records came with the same sleeve, with the only differentiation being the artist name and song or album title embossed on the cover (if you ever find a stack of ‘38s, the heavy original vinyl records, you’ll see what we mean).
Record labels realised that the image alone was a pull for fans – like a logo, it became an emblem they wanted to be associated with. In the eighties (coinciding with the birth of music television and increased artist visibility), record covers became a real talking point and were eagerly anticipated before their release.
Now, even in the digital age, artists still use visual media to attract and excite fans and new listeners alike. Spotify expanded their album profiles with headers and moving media to accompany certain tracks, and music channels and videos continue to be streamed at a rate of over one billion per month worldwide. Merchandise also continues to be popular, especially for vintage album covers – although there may be less HMV and Virgin stores knocking about, you can still find a plethora of t-shirts, caps, mugs and more featuring some of music history’s best-loved album covers.
Iconic album covers
So why are we telling you this? Well, marketing an album cover is very much like developing a brand.
Like an iconic album cover, branding must be memorable, needs to say something about who you are and make a statement about what you do. It’s how people know to connect with you and feel a resonance with what you offer that makes them want to engage with your company.
These unique collaborations by visual artists and musicians have cemented their spot in music history through their innovation and understanding of the brief – to make music memorable, without hearing a single note.
Nirvana – Nevermind
Nirvana’s influence has been immortalised since the mysterious and tragically young death of lead singer Kurt Cobain. Amongst the band’s most popular post-humous hits is Nevermind – the music, but also the album cover, featuring a swimming baby underwater with wide eyes. In the years since its release it’s become a visual landmark of alternative popular culture – the innocence of the naked baby floating underwater, juxtaposed with a not-so-subtle statement of the temptation of capitalist society as he appears to swim towards (this was added in later) plus the playful, child-like (but also kind of groovy) font. Experts say that the cover came to be though Kurt Cobain’s fascination with underwater births. ICYMI – the baby who ‘modelled’ for the cover recently tried to sue the band, but failed.
Beatles – Abbey Road
Everyone’s familiar with this legendary album cover – featuring the fab four crossing an iconic intersection in London’s leafy St John’s Wood (we’re particularly fond of this one, being Liverpool born and bred). Even though it’s incredibly simple in its presentation and execution, it’s also very special, having become a piece of pop music iconography known worldwide. The cover is eye-catching for a number of reasons, and has many components that draw the eye. The sunshine, the suits, the slightly staggered arrangement on the crossing (some say this hints at the band’s upcoming split). The leafy street behind looks idyllic and quiet with a calmness in the background – but the road was actually very busy, and it took six shots to get it right. Some say the band’s decision to shoot the album right outside the studio (also choosing the title ‘Abbey Road’ was lazy – but either way, it worked.
Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon
This unapologetically simple album artwork featuring a simple prism refracting light is now known all over the world. It could in fact be the genius of this simplicity that has made this album cover one of the most easily recognised of all time – making it onto every single list of iconic albums there is.
The brief from the band was – ‘bold, but simple’, which the artists certainly fulfilled. The iconic cover had an iconic design team to match – the band worked with Storm Thorgeson and George Hardie of Hipgnosis (a quick Google search will reveal their impressive back catalogue). The collective of prism, light beam and spectrum (minus indigo) reflects and represents the band – the rainbow colours for Rick Wright’s keyboard, their creative freedom and collaboration as well as wider concepts, such as the fragility of life and fame.
The Velvet Underground & Nico
Andy Warhol stepped in to provide this iconic design – a simple banana that’s instantly recognisable in Warhol’s bold, bright graphic style. In a celebration of US pop art, The Velvet Underground’s debut album that cemented stardom for the group, more than partially thanks to the huge amount of interest the cover attracted upon its launch.
What many people don’t know is that the banana design is actually a sticker – those who heed the advice (in tiny script) to ‘Peel slowly and see’ would find a pink banana fruit underneath. Fully intact originals are now hugely valuable collector’s items.
David Bowie – Aladdin Sane
Featuring what is perhaps one of the most popular and widely-circulated images of Bowie, the cover for Aladdin Sane has now been replicated millions of times and often forms the basis for fan art and merchandise, such is its influence even decades after its initial release. The simple shot on a white background reflected a number of elements including Bowie’s mixed feelings about his rise to fame, represented by his downwards gaze and a barely visible teardrop on his right cheek. Despite its apparent simplicity, it was one of the most expensive album covers ever made at the time, demonstrating just how complex it can be to create something visually vibrant with no frills attached.
It’s also been influential within the pop culture that shaped Bowies career and cemented his place in history forever – as many likenesses of Bowie and promotional materials have been based on this original image, complete with Ziggy stardust lightning bolt, slicked-back red hair and colourful make-up.
Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy
Featuring the world-famous Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, Houses of Holy cemented its place in album cover history early on, as the cover was hotly anticipated and much talked about upon its release. Led Zeppelin’s fifth album is as mysterious as it is iconic – fans and experts alike have long since speculated on what the cover’s meaning might be. Ranging from apocalyptic cults to occult rituals, not one theory has been confirmed or denied by the band, adding to the album cover’s ongoing intrigue and appeal. Fun fact: although it looks like there are many children on the cover there are only two, a brother and sister who were photographed many times over the course of ten days at dawn and dusk to create the cover’s scattered image.
Prince – Purple Rain
Bold florals and flamboyant, vibrant colours make Purple Rain a cover that’s instantly recognisable as belonging to Prince. An iconic record required an equally stand-out design to match – and the team delivered. The artwork for this cover is almost collage-style – the main image was shot in-studio in a ‘backstreet’ set to give a flamboyant, rock n roll image which is then offset with its floral border and feminine colours. It’s the main image and font that has stood the test of time in terms of memorability – the fierce pose, Prince’s iconic fancy period costume and of course the bold purple all stand out the most in the mind when you hear the words ‘Purple Rain’, or even think of Prince himself.
The album artwork is even the subject of an immersive exhibit later this year in Chicago, where fans can walk through an ‘audio-visual dance space’ and even get a picture on the famous motorcycle.