No music to your eyes

Jim Davies is saddened by the passing of record sleeve artwork.

Music downloading is here to stay. Towards the end of last year, the amount of songs bought over the Internet overtook those bought as CDs or records in shops for the first time and, amazingly, the mobile phone ringtone is now officially the music industry’s most lucrative revenue stream.

It’s easy to see why the download culture has blossomed; the whole process is quick, accurate and efficient – you don’t even have to leave your chair or sully your fingers with banknotes to get hold of the latest butt-kickin’ tracks.

And for the product designers charged with filling the world with dinky gadgets, it’s been a boon. And I’m not just talking about the glorious iPod and its baby brother the Shuffle; Sony has also weighed in with its nifty colour-screen Viao range; Philips’ sleek, wearable Micro Jukebox really looks the part; while iRiver’s diminutive players are so multi-talented they can take and store digital photographs for you while you sing along to The Hives. Inspired features like the random shuffle, which throws up such wonderful, unexpected juxtapositions, give you a different take on your collection. And you can take all your music with you wherever you go.

But despite the ingenuity of these natty gizmos, the whole process is cold, clinical and deeply unsatisfying. Music, that most powerful of emotive forces, is reduced to simple lines of compressed digital data; you buy it sitting pathetically alone at your computer screen and it’s stored as an anonymous file along with your anti-virus software and letters to the bank manager. Where’s the soul in that?

Buying music used to be an experience, not a process. Finding a rare gem in a dusty old record shop; talking to fellow punters; checking out what’s playing on the sound system; browsing rack upon rack of inspired, eclectic sleeve artwork that could take you on a visual journey from Philadelphia to Kingston Jamaica via Rio and Manchester.

Pulling a pristine piece of 12-inch vinyl from a record sleeve was a delicious ritual, every detail to be savoured – not just the finer points of cover art itself, but the sleeve notes and the label, even the letters and coding on the run-out groove. Then there was the smell of the print and the crispness of the paper, an intoxicating newness that lasted for a while before being replaced by a cosy familiarity.

Vinyl records were semi-precious artefacts which needed looking after. There was something so physically satisfying about owning a tangible object that you could actually carry around with you to your friends’ houses to share and enjoy. How many of us spent hours checking the band photographs for nuances of cool, or systematically read through the thank-yous, conjuring up a mental image of the exotic backing singers Carmel and Trixie, the road crew’s favoured tattoo parlour, or the chunky drummer’s favourite greasy spoon? But, of course, the most heinous crime of all inflicted by the download revolution is the demise of sleeve artwork. Things were tough enough when the 12-inch canvas was shrunk to the 125mm x 140mm CD format, but now it faces extinction. Some designers optimistically talk of punters perhaps being able to order a postcard, poster, booklet or some other printed memento when they download music, but will they really bother? And the small digital images you now get when you buy a download track are no more than an empty gesture, they lack any texture and tactility – and a back cover for that matter.

The record sleeve has been the canvas for some of the most seminal pieces of graphic design in the past half century – from Peter Blake’s Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, to Andy Warhol’s The Velvet Underground and Nico, George Hardie’s The Dark Side of the Moon, Jamie Reed’s Never Mind the Bollocks and Peter Saville’s Unknown Pleasures… They’re all potent cultural icons that manage to encapsulate their eras as much as any film, building or style of tailoring. And the numbers of people who discovered graphic design through music packaging is significant; for many, doodling the Motorhead logo on the back of a maths exercise book was their very first brush with typography.

An album without a cover is like getting an unwrapped present – it’s the same gift, but where’s that special, personal touch? The music that matters to us acts as a kind of sonic journal, transporting us back to places and people, sights and smells. And the artwork that used to house that music was the perfect foil, a visual mnemonic to match.

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