How Does Album Art Influence the Way We Experience Music?

©iStockPhoto/Arkady Chubykin

I have a memory that must be pretty common for people my age: In high school, I discovered in my grandmother's house a box of old vinyl records that my dad owned when he was a teenager. Among them were albums by the Rolling Stones, Santana and, of course, plenty of obscure early '70s pressings that have since been forgotten by most of the kids who once set them spinning. But strangely, the thing I remember most about flipping through this crate of big cardboard squares is that they were -- well, big cardboard squares.

Obviously, I knew that vinyl LPs existed, and of course I had seen them before (I'm sure my parents had some stashed away somewhere in our house at the time), but this was the first time I remember really interacting with big LPs closely, holding them in my hands, and seeing how huge and unignorable cover art used to be.

I grew up in the age of CDs, which do have album art, but in a decidedly less influential way. On a CD, cover art is more a blur of color and text, supplying sometimes the name of the band, sometimes the name of the album, sometimes a general mood or thematic orientation. You can also look at a CD cover and usually tell the difference between hip-hop, country music, blues and death metal -- usually, I say! -- but the art isn't large enough to really make a difference. Compared to the large, glossy squares in my ancestral record bin, the CD cover seems more of a consumer convenience, an aid to in-store browsing, than a crucial aspect of the album as an artifact.

If I take a look at The Band's Music from Big Pink, to me, the difference couldn't be clearer. The cover, which was supposedly painted by none other than Bob Dylan himself, depicts in swipes of primary color a rollicking band of musicians, including a person playing a sitar with what looks like a large clay pot on his head, a man playing drums under a fruit tree with black bark, one band member hurling another over the top of a piano, and a chuckling elephant wandering into the fray. Now that I own the vinyl record -- in other words, now that I've spent time looking at the larger cover -- I can't avoid thinking about this picture when I hear the music. It makes every song inside feel a bit rambunctious and certainly funnier -- even the group's cover of the tragic "Long Black Veil," takes on a weirder, more comic edge with the album art in mind. I first became familiar with Music from Big Pink on CD -- when this was all I knew, I probably would have described the cover as "a painting of some people," and somehow I doubt it had much influence at all on how I felt about the songs.

Why does it feel so different, even though the art appears on both versions? Here's a brute-force numbers breakdown: I just measured a reissued record (The Band - Music from Big Pink) and a CD for comparison -- the record's cover art is 12.5 inches (31.75 centimeters) wide by 12.25 inches (31.115 centimeters) tall, totaling 153.125 square inches (about 988 square centimeters) of cover art. The CD cover, on the other hand, is 4.75 inches (12.065 centimeters) on all sides, for a total cover art area of 22.5625 square inches (145.5642 square centimeters). How does this shake out as a ratio? The CD has about 14.7 percent of the cover art space available on a standard vinyl LP.

These days, even the dependable CD seems to be on the wane, and cover art is shrinking yet again. In my iTunes library, little boxes of color appear next to each album I've imported. These boxes are about 1 square inch apiece. How small will they get? Will album art vanish entirely as music becomes increasingly digitized? And how will this change the way we feel about our favorite records?


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