ABOUT a month ago, the shutters of Rock Corner in Bangsar were pulled down for the last time. The screeching, shrill sounds of the closing steel shutters must have been the loudest and most heart-breaking for fans who considered the outlet a music mecca of sorts. The shop is just one of the many major music retail stores in Malaysia which has called it quits with an industry which now makes its money via digital platforms.
As more people turn to the likes of Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal and SoundCloud for their music fix, the world’s love affair with CDs is slowly fizzling out. Those who relish the physical format of music will feel the loss deeply — the excitement of opening that album cover and flipping the pages of the sleeve often filled with a personal acknowledgement of the artistes, lyrics and photos of the artiste or the band. Yet there’s one element of the physical format which has transcended the eras and the sweeping tide of technology — the album cover.
At this year’s Cooler Lumpur Festival (aptly themed Notes From The Future), 12 graphic designers explored how music transcends time through creative interpretation of album art covers through the project re:cover. The second collaboration between the festival organisers and advertising agency TBWA/KL, this initiative re-examined 12 classic Malaysian albums which were mega hits way before the emergence of the Internet.
“Re:cover started out as a project for our designers to express work out of the agency,” begins Yee Hui Tsin, TBWA/KL’s chief operating officer. “Music has a universal language where young designers could reinterpret album art in their own ways.” What started out as a creative exercise grew into a full-blown project when Yee realised how much of a cultural impact re-imagined covers could have on the fast-evolving industry.
From functioning as a protective layer to becoming a sales and marketing tool; to branding a band and crafting hidden social commentary, album art has always been an integral part of music culture itself. In Covering Music: A Brief History and Analysis of Album Cover Design, authors Steve Jones and Martin Sorger note that while music packaging started in the late 1800s with the invention of the phonograph, it wasn’t until after The Great Depression that album art start taking off. “Following years of decline, increased sales brought about more aggressive promotions and marketing,” the authors reveal, adding that record labels started to use art on the front of the covers.
By the 1940s, record labels like CBS redefined their marketing strategies to attract buyers and placed album cover art as the heart of their sales. The approach was simple: minimise the text and place visuals in strong, bold colours that would “scream for attention”. The crucial element of this however, was to “reflect the spirit of the music inside.” The emergence of cover art was slowly known as the “silent salesman”.
But album art wasn’t just marketing tool; it was, in many ways, also a cultural tool. Gary Friedberg, founder of the Vinyl Record Day explains that cover art also reflected the evolving nature of societies of different eras. “Album cover art has always depicted our social values, racial attitudes, lifestyles, fashion and political views in a way that’s only seen in the art form. It reflected who we were, who we were supposed to be, and at times, led who we became,” he observes.
THE VISUAL OF SOUND
“I used to buy CD’s based on the cover art, and very rarely would the music itself be a disappointment,” recalls Cooler Lumpur Festival founder and director, Hardesh Singh. “This goes to show that cover artists always had a close understanding of how to interpret music visually.”
Like many of us who’ve owned physical albums, it’s not uncommon to pick up an album based on the cover art itself. Understanding how to interpret that is crucial, especially in the digital era when cover art has been reduced to a small box at the side of the screen. As music producer and CEO of Desert Flower Records, Laudi Heino, points out, album covers are an important aspect in setting the mood of the album, managing listeners’ expectations and sparking conversations or debate.
Music, as Hardesh divulges, isn’t just about the musical elements. “Music is also about the creatives and talents required in developing the industry, one of which are designers whose work is now harder in the age of streaming. How do you communicate the visual complement to the album when there’s no physical medium anymore?”
WORLD OF IMAGES
Hardesh’s question is a main point of contention for the subject matter — is album art really relevant without a physical medium? Many feel that with the eventual demise of the cassette and now, the CD, album art may lose its magic grip on music. Others, like Hardesh, feel otherwise. “Millennials are a generation that rely on visuals more than any generation before. Just look at the mediums in which they communicate with: Instagram, snapchat, memes — these are all foremost visual communication channels,” he remarks, adding that the emphasis on imagery could be seen as an opportunity for graphic artists to communicate the experience of music in a different way to a new generation of people.
Graphic designer Mihailo Andic who was responsible for album art for the likes of American rapper Lil Yachty and Fetty Wap acknowledges that the visual-filled Internet landscape makes it even more challenging for album cover art to be noticed. “Making something that’s going to catch people’s eyes within seconds is important. People only have that amount of time to be instantly attached to what you create. And you have to either grab their attention or you lose them right away,” he says, referring to just how short attention spans have become.
In their first offering in 2016, The Cooler Lumpur Festival and TBWA/KL approached two Malaysian-based graphic designers who reinterpreted three of the world’s 50 most popular albums of all time — Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and The Beatle’s iconic Abbey Road. The experimental project was such a hit with festival goers that this time, the collaborators wanted to see if they could bridge the gap between Malaysians. “We feel that the true appreciation for the artistes, their history and their influence is lost, forgotten and holds little significance to the millennials,” says Yee, referring to the choice of albums such as Ella’s Pengemis Cinta, Ahmad Wahab’s Geremis Senja and DJ Dave’s Saat Yang Ku Nanti among the many. “The aim with re:cover is to introduce the youths to a generation of great musicians who’ve influenced the popular music of today,” adds Yee.
What Yee is looking for is akin to homage of what represented the artistes’ body of work, life and passion. “Through this project, we hope to bridge the digital (music streaming) world and the analogue (vinyl) world to make music more visual, emotional and tactile,” she says.
Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols once proclaimed: “If people bought the records for the music, this thing would have died a death long ago.” Perhaps he knew that sometime into the future when album art became as small as a thumbnail that it would still remain the heartbeat of every album.
All re:cover art will be made available for auction, with proceeds going to help local musicians.
To find out more about the re-imaged album covers, their designers and to bid for a cover, visit www.tbwa.com.my/re-cover