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The death of album art?: What does the demise of HMV mean for designers and artists who work with music labels?


By Rosie Milton, Media & analyst relations

February 5, 2013 | 7 min read

With the future looking grim for HMV and physical music in general, Rosie Milton, brand manager at Smith & Milton, explores the repercussions for the artists and designers who work with music labels.

The future of HMV is uncertain – at the time of printing, the music giant’s debt had been taken on by Hilco – but what is clear is that the next phase of the relationship between the music industry and its consumers has begun. The larger music labels have been comfortable bedfellows with the digital landscape for some time now, entering into deals with Apple, Amazon and Spotify over recent years. Consumers rarely source their music solely from the high street, but HMV still represents some 38 per cent of the UK physical music market, meaning its closure would be a considerable blow to sales.Liz Stokes, news editor at the music industry daily bulletin Record of the Day, said: “The end of HMV [as we know it] hasn’t come as a shock to anyone in the industry. We’ve watched projections of physical sales plummet as digital rises and the end has been inevitable for several years.” So now that the last bastion of the mammoth high street music store, with its visual smörgåsbord of racks, has succumbed to administration, what does this mean for the production of physical music and the designers, artists and photographers who are involved in that creative process? Today music goes hand-in-hand with the visual, whether it’s a music video, promotional material or the esteemed cover artwork. The creativity behind album design is competitive. From high-profile photographers to industry-leading designers, there is universal understanding that the cover defines the album. The first album artwork was created by graphic designer Alex Steinweiss in the late 1930s. Steinweiss recognised the need to market individual musical artists to generate interest – record sleeves were just plain card before his work. The 12” cardboard sleeve of the vinyl record – revered now almost as works of art and handled just as delicately – has morphed through the decades from being cramped compactly into a cassette tape, reformatted behind the flimsy plastic of a CD case until finally as a digital stub on your MP3 player. It is well understood that designers wanted to do album sleeves like they wanted to do stamps – the holy grail of design. Stokes says: “A lot of love remains for album art and the joy of holding a tangible product – a market that many bands are keen to stay involved with.” But vinyl art is a niche market now. As for HMV’s relationship with vinyl, it hasn’t shown any real commitment to it for well over a decade. Tom Scholefield (or Konx-om-Pax as he is also known) is a Glasgow-based designer and traditionalist when it comes to designing for music. He will only take a commission if it is going to be in the 12” format; “an actual piece of art you can pick up.” Scholefield has worked mostly with credible indie labels, such as Warp and Hyperdub, and finds much warmer reception – not to mention gratification as a designer – in independent record stores. “I can walk into a record shop in Glasgow and see one of my designs on the wall racks.” In fact, Scholefield is glad that the monster chains have all dwindled away, as it will bring more focus to the boutique shops that have for a long time been under the shadow of the generically branded superstore. Could this be one of the positive effects of the recession? A reversal of the recent reshaping of the high street? Stokes argues that “a large distribution network will be lost without HMV’s 240+ stores around the country, leaving smaller indie labels without a direct way to distribute their physical copies.” Gregory Euclide is an American artist who counts the artwork for Grammy award-winning Bon Iver’s selftitled album and associated single releases amongst his oeuvre. Euclide recognises that any exposure of the physical product is a good thing for the public. “You can see the posters in the window, you can go and hold the product and experience it in person. This is not widely valued in our culture right now and I am not sure if it will ever make a resurgence, but for those of us who enjoy an existence in a tactile world, these stores have their place.” The focus on the digital music landscape is now greater than ever, so will existing and future channels step up their game? Or are the visual frontispieces of musical releases lacking importance for virtual platforms? Euclide works primarily for vinyl, but he understands the need to adapt. “In this day and age I know my design is going to be made flat for MP3 listening so I have that in mind while I am making something.” In regards to the future of digital artwork, he says, “I think people will demand, through the market, a more meaningful interaction with the image. That is what the iPad is about. It is a hand held device that is fairly large and allows for video.” London-based artist Manuel ‘Optigram’ Sepulveda works mostly with dance labels and designs for vinyl. In regards to seeing his work in digital, he says: “Most websites only display album artwork at a very small size. I wouldn’t bother doing it if that was the only place that it would be seen.” In Sepulveda’s view, there has been little demand for any real development in music’s digital artwork. “For over a decade there’s been the expectation that album artwork will become more interactive and have more moving image aspects, but even though there have been experiments and some interesting work it hasn’t really happened on a large scale or with any regularity.” But now that music’s primary home envisages a future online, does this mean a greater opportunity for the development of digital artwork? Euclide comments: “I think it is going to be much more interactive, much more a total experience. The design and the music are not separate, they are the package. It would be great to see groups, instead of musicians doing their thing and designers doing their thing... the music, video, design and the social component all wrapped into one product.” According to Sepulveda, labels still invest considerable sums into “commissioning artwork for their releases” yet lack the willingness to spend on developing concepts for digital interaction. Perhaps now the focus will shift from a digital representation of the production to a more expansive and creative experience. A lot of this will depend on the desire to keep the visual as central to a listener’s experience. Apple has always led the way in terms of developing high-quality graphics when it comes to user experience and has developed iTunes and the Music app on handheld devices to the highest integration of music and artwork ever. On the other hand, websites such as Amazon put much less stock in how they display their products visually, presenting them as flat, low-quality and subsidiary. Inspiration needs to be taken from the vinyl record – a collectable piece of art that is treasured and savoured. The idea of the music library should be developed as a place to house an exclusive and personal collection that offers a different visual experience for every album, or song even. It could be a miniature environment that holistically expresses the journey of the artist and their music. Captivating creative possibilities await the music industry; let’s hope they seize this chance.

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