In the midst of a changing market, where the idea of “music product” is always evolving, one thing is becoming more constant – terrible cover art/packaging. I’ve long maintained that an album cover is one of the most important marketing pieces for any project. Each cover serves as an advertisement to any consumer. If someone isn’t familiar with an artist, and only ever sees the album cover, it damn well better be good! Think of it as 1,000 points of light drawing attention to the product and seducing someone to buy.
We can all think back to some of our favorite album covers – album art and packaging that stuck with us and gave us an appreciation for the artist beyond just hearing the songs. (A good music video should do the same, but we’ll save that for another day). You know a good cover when you see one – iconic imagery, carefully crafted logo or nameplate, original illustrations or amazing photography. Yet somehow, lately, many of these components have been totally neglected. How did this happen?
A little history…
From the 50s to the mid 80s, Vinyl ruled and so did big album covers with lots of real estate to try new and interesting ideas. It was important to have a great cover and great photography because the thing was so big, it had to look good! Consumers also organized their albums based on these covers, so the packaging benefited the consumer as well as the label.
Then came the mid 80s and the popularity of CDs, and suddenly covers were a whole lot smaller. The more noticeable change, however, was that consumers were now taking CDs OUT of their cases and putting them in binders and organizers, never to use or care about the packaging again. Labels saw this behavior and decided they didn’t need to spend as much time or money on something a consumer wasn’t going to really care about in the long run. During the next 15 years, great packaging was still released, just not to the same degree as before.
Then came 1999 and Napster and digital music libraries with hundreds of thousands of songs, and album artwork became even less important to many music consumers. So labels and marketing people collectively decided to abandon any real quality in creating cover art and packaging.
Change, of course…
The pendulum of change has swung yet again, and this time it’s returned us to a place where cover art is important. New devices like the iPod Touch have given consumers reason to recognize an album cover, and use it for organizing their collections. Amazon, iTunes and countless digital stores have positioned music product in ways that ONLY display album covers. Most important of all, the sheer glut of product that’s released into the market every single day has created thousands of identical artists with the same sound and imaging. These artists have to not only compete amongst themselves for consumer attention, but also with video games, DVDs, Harry Potter books and everything else you can find at a Best Buy or Borders.
This competition means your product has to have the most compelling marketing message possible, because 9 times out of 10 folks are NOT going to have any familiarity with who you are or what you do. 9 times out of 10 the ONLY interaction they will ever have with your brand will be through your album cover. That’s an opportunity to leave an impression – one that could result in a sale or at the very least a curiosity that could grow over time and online.
Visit any big-box retailer and you’ll see just how important product imaging has become. “Drive-by” impulse buys are becoming the new core business, and if your product can’t move, it’s replaced with something that can. This is why Walmart continues to shrink its music section and has been placing certain albums at the checkout line.
Who’s the biggest offender?
Speaking of Walmart, walk into the dwindling music section of your local and you’re bound to be greeted by an entire row of abysmal CD covers in the Country section. Sure proof that most “creative directors” at Nashville record labels need to be fired. Their idea of packaging seems to include a busy afternoon of taking “generic artist photo” and slapping “generic crappy font” on top. No color correction or creativity required! They probably fired up ‘ole Microsoft Paint to accomplish this. (In case you think I’m exaggerating, take a peak at this.….from 2005!)
Our sources have even confirmed Mike Dungan (head of Capitol Nashville) has stated “cover art doesn’t matter…fans aren’t interested in this.” Clearly this is why Dungan ended up with covers that look like this, or this.
Country covers didn’t always used to be this way. There was a time when the same high caliber photography and creativity that led to so many great pop/rock covers also benefited country. Take Kenny Roger’s The Gambler album cover for example. It draws you in, creates a story and an atmosphere that compliments the music. And it SOLD you. Granted, Kenny had the help of a huge #1 single to push units, but had he not, this cover would have still served as a powerful marketing message and advertisement. The same goes for Restless Heart’s Big Dreams In A Small Town and Wheels covers. Joe Galante (Sony/BMG Nashville head) used to care about this sort of thing. He once employed a creative dept who toiled night and day, sometimes over holidays, to arrive at packaging that truly served the product and helped push sales. No longer.
Lighting the future
Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of every artist to look after the presentation of their product and brand. By understanding the importance of an album cover, you can move one more notch ahead of the competition and build stronger fan relationships. No one marketing piece can have such a widespread, or long lasting impact. Just ask Rob Thomas, who clearly left his last album in the hands of a Phil Collins fan.