Album cover

Album cover

An album cover is the front of the packaging of a commercially-released audio recording product, or album. The term can refer to either the printed cardboard covers typically used to package sets of 10" and 12" 78 rpm records, single and sets of 12" LPs, sets of 45 rpm records (either in several connected sleeves or a box), or the front-facing panel of a CD package, and, increasingly, the primary image accompanying a digital download of the album, or of its individual tracks.

The cover serves 3 main purposes:
* To advertise the contents of the music product.
* To convey the artistic aspirations of the original artists (see Cover art and Alex Steinweiss).
* In reproductions of the artwork, to serve as a primary image in the promotional efforts surrounding the product, as an identifiable image associated with it.

Also, in the case of all types of records, it also served as part of the protective sleeve.

Early History

Around 1910, 78 rpm records replaced phonograph cylinder as the medium for recorded sound. The 78 rpm records were issued in both 10" and 12" diameter sizes and were usually sold separately, in brown paper or cardboard sleeves that were sometimes plain and sometimes printed to show the producer or the retailer's name. Generally the sleeves had a circular cutout allowing the record label to be seen. Records could be laid on a shelf horizontially or stood upright on an edge, but because of their fragility, many broke in storage.

German record company Odeon pioneered the "album" in 1909 when it released the "Nutcracker Suite" by Tchaikovsky on 4 double-sided discs in a specially-designed package. # [] (It is not indicated what the specially designed package was.) The practice of issuing albums does not seem to have been taken up by other record companies for many years.

Beginning in the 1920s, bound collections of empty sleeves with a plain cardboard or leather cover, similar to a photograph album, were sold as "record albums" that customers could use to store their records (the name "record album" was printed on some covers). These empty albums were sold in both 10" and 12" sizes. [Example in personal collection.] The covers of these bound books were wider and taller than the records inside, allowing the record album to be placed on a shelf upright, like a book, suspending the fragile records above the shelf and protecting them.

Starting in the 1930s, record companies began issuing collections of 78 rpm records by one performer or of one type of music in specially assembled albums. These albums could include either a collection of popular songs, on several 78 rpm records, related either by performer or style, or extended length classical music, also on several 78 rpm records, including complete symphonies. [personnal collection]

In 1938, Columbia records hired Alex Steinweiss as its first art director. He is credited with inventing the concept of album covers and cover art, replacing plain covers used before. (See Alex Steinweiss for more information and links.) After his initial efforts at Columbia, other record companies followed his lead. By the late 1940s, record albums for all the major companies featured their own colorful paper covers in both 10-inch and 12-inch sizes. Some featured reproductions of classic art while others utilized original designs.

When the 10" and 12" LPs came along, starting in 1948, and box sets of 45 rpm records soon followed (see Gramophone record), the name "album" came along for the new format of collections and the creation of artistic original album covers continued as well.


From the 1950s through to the 1980s, the 12" LP record and the 45 rpm record were the major formats for distribution of popular music, and the LP format is still used for occasional new releases, though it has largely been supplanted by other formats. The size of the typical cardboard LP sleeve cover is 12.375 inches square.

Since the 1980s, the CD has become the most common form of physically distributed music products. Packaging formats vary, including the very common plastic jewel case, and the popular cardboard & plastic combination commonly known as a Digipak. Typically the album cover component of these packages is approximately 4.75 inches square.


The cover became an important part of the culture of music at the time. As a marketing tool and an expression of artistic intent, gatefold covers, (a folded double cover), and inserts, often with lyric sheets, made the album cover a desirable artifact in its own right. Notable examples are The Beatles "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" which had cut-out inserts, lyrics, a gatefold sleeve though a single album; and Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side of the Moon" which had gatefold, lyrics, no title on the sleeve and poster inserts. The move to the small (less than 1/4 the size of a record) CD format lost that impact, though attempts have been made to create a more desirable packaging for the CD format, for example the re-issue of "Sgt. Pepper", which had a cardboard box and booklet, or the use of oversized packaging.

The importance of cover design was such that some artists specialised or gained fame through their work, notably the design team Hipgnosis (through their work on Pink Floyd albums amongst others) and Roger Dean famous for his Yes and Greenslade covers.

The talents of many photographers and illustrators from both inside and outside of the music industry have been used to produce a vast array of memorable LP/CD covers. In addition to the examples mentioned previously, a number of world-renowned graphic artists and illustrators such as Andy Warhol (The Velvet Underground & The Rolling Stones), Mati Klarwein (Santana & Miles Davis), H.R. Giger (ELP & Debbie Harry), Frank Frazetta (Molly Hatchet), Drew Struzan (Iron Maiden), Jamie Reid (The Sex Pistols), Howard Finster (R.E.M. & The Talking Heads), Al Hirschfeld (Aerosmith), Gottfried Helnwein (Marilyn Manson), Rex Ray (David Bowie), Robert Crumb (Big Brother & The Holding Co.), John Van Hamersveld (Rolling Stones) and Shepard Fairey (Johnny Cash) have all applied their talents to memorable music packages.

A number of record covers have also used images licensed (or borrowed from the public domain) from artists of bygone eras. Well-known examples of this include the cover of Derek and the Dominoes Layla (from the painting “La Fille au Bouquet” by French painter and sculptor Emile Théodore Frandsen de Schomberg), the cover of Kansas’s debut album, adapted from a mural by painter John Steuart Curry and, more recently, Coldplay’s Viva La Vida or Death And All His Friends, which features Eugene Delacroix's painting 'Liberty Leading The People' (a favorite in The Louvre) with the words "VIVA LA VIDA" brushed on top in white paint.

Legends from photography and video/film who have also produced record cover images include Annie Leibovitz (John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen & Patti Smith), Richard Avedon (Whitney Houston & Teddy Pendergrass), David LaChappelle (No Doubt & Elton John), Anton Corbijn (U2, The Killers & Depeche Mode), Karl Ferris (Jimi Hendrix, Donovan & The Hollies), Robert Mapplethorpe (Patti Smith) and Francesco Scavullo (Diana Ross & Edgar Winter), among others.

As one would expect, a number of artists and bands feature members who are, in their own right, accomplished illustrators, designers and photographers and whose talents are exhibited in the artwork they produced for their own recordings. Examples include Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin IV), Chris Mars (Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me & others), Marilyn Manson (Lest We Forget…), Michael Stipe (REM’s Accelerator), Thom Yorke (credited as “Tchocky” on misc. Radiohead records), Michael Brecker (Ringorama), Freddie Mercury (Queen I), John Entwistle (Who By Numbers), Mike Shinoda (various Linkin Park albums), and M.I.A. (credited variously on Elastica's The Menace, her records).

Collectors of music-related illustration, design, and photography world-wide have been able to build their personal collections of album cover-related fine art through the efforts of galleries and publishers that specialize in these works, such as [ St. Paul's Gallery (UK)] , [ Walnut Street Gallery (US)] , and [ RockPoP Gallery (US)] .


The album cover is a component of the over all packaging of an album. Especially in the case of vinyl records with cardboard sleeves, these packages are prone to wear and tear, although wear and tear does often take place to some degree on covers contained within plastic cases. A variety of treatments could be applied to improve both their appearance and durability, such as clear plastic wrap. Many products have been available for the storage of vinyl albums, often clear plastic sleeves.

The surface of a vinyl record is readily damaged, so aside from the outer cardboard sleeve, there is usually an inner protective cover to protect against dust and handling. This is normally shaped to allow it to readily slide within the outer cover. The inner sleeve is either thin white paper, either plain or printed with information on other recordings available from the same company, or a paper sleeve supporting a thin plastic bag. These quite often have a circular cut out so that the record label can be read without directly handling the record, though when the inner sleeve is printed with lyrics, which became quite common, then there is usually no hole. Decca Records used a system of colour-coding on these sleeves where a blue color denoted a stereophonic recording while red denoted a monophonic recording (the mono record players of the time were not always compatible with stereo records). This system was begun in the 1960s to reduce packaging costs.

For more on packaging formats specific to CDs, see the separate article.

Besides the practicalities of identifying specific records, album covers serve the purpose of advertising the musical contents on the LP, through the use of graphic design, photography, and/or illustration. An album cover normally has the artist's name, sometimes in logo form; and the album title. Occasionally, though more common on historical vinyl records, the cover may include a reference number; a branding (the label), and possibly a track listing. Other information is seldom included on the cover, and is usually contained on the rear or interior of the packaging, such as a track listing together with a more detailed list of those involved in making the record, band members, guest performers, engineers and producer. On the "spine" of the package, the artist, title, and reference number are usually repeated so that albums can be identified while tightly packed on a shelf.

The album cover in the age of downloads

With the increasing popularity of digital music downloading service and the inflating cost of conducting business, the purpose and prevalence of the album cover is evolving. While the music industry changes to keep up with technological and cultural shifts, the role that packaging (and thus the "album cover") will play in consumer music sales in the near future is uncertain, although its role is certainly changing, and digital forms of packaging will continue to surface, which, to some degree (and to some consumers) take the place of physical packaging. However, it should be noted that physical music products, with a physical "album cover", continue to outsell digital downloads by a substantial margin. [ CNET:Digital-album packaging to improve in '08]

In August 2008, album cover designer Peter Saville, responsible for cover art on albums by New Order and Roxy Music, suggested that the album cover was dead [ [ Peter Saville Says Album Cover is Dead] ]

ee also

* Book cover
* , copyright but used as fair use in Wikipedia
* History of controversial album art


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