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How the Digital Music Revolution is re-shaping Album Artwork

One of the great things about the digital music revolutions is that it opened the doors for indie musicians to cheaply and effectively distribute their music to a wide audience, without having to invest in physical CDs and records. And yet, many have felt that the digital revolution has deprived albums of their visual and tactile components and depersonalized the experience of music ownership. 

This might have been true in the earliest days of digital consumption, but now, with services like Bandcamp and Topspin (and many others), the digital music revolution is breathing new life into the possibility of creating meaningful, unique, collectible, and cost-effective album artwork.

Everyone has come to understand that the digital music revolution liberated music from its physical delivery medium, far fewer musicians have grasped that it has also liberated the physical album artwork from its musical delivery medium. Seemingly by happenstance, the digital music revolution has spawned a parallel and equally-profound revolution: a revolutionary paradigm-shift of what constitutes “album artwork.”

The rules have changed completely. As artists and labels we no longer have to submit to the anachronistic notion that “album art” constitutes an image printed onto a 12 cm or a 12 inch square piece of cardstock, just to suit the retail store specifications of a near-obsolete music formats.

With much of our music being delivered as pure data, our artwork can now be anything we want it to be. 

Say for example you’re a goth or industrial band and you were considering a picture of a cross as your album artwork. Instead of a CD with a cross on the cover, your artwork could be small wooden or iron crosses sent to fans who purchased the album. Or if past album artwork used a creative photo of your band as its cover, you could now take 250 Polaroid photos and use those as your album artwork–each photo unique, signed, and wonderfully personal.

Now, it’s easy to confuse this paradigm shift with “creative merchandise.” But merchandise has always been understood as “something in addition to (i.e. set apart from) those components that make up an album or collection of music. I’m not talking about offering a coffee mug, t-shirt, or tote bag that happens also to come with a random album. What I’m talking about is creating a unique, physical art-object that is bound in perpetuity in meaning and intention to a specific album. These art-objects are no more “merchandise” than traditional jewel cases that are missing their CDs would be considered merchandise.

This is more than a mere linguistic shift, it’s a conceptual revolution of our notion of what constitutes “album art”. What’s more, it’s an economic game-changer for DIY artists and labels.

One of the big hurdles indie artists have to overcome with CDs and vinyl releases are the high manufacturing costs and stiff competition in pricing. The perceived “fair market value” of CDs and vinyl records are largely determined by the big commercial players (i.e. the big indie labels and majors), who’s unit manufacturing costs is a lot lower than DIY releases with runs of 1000 or less. An Arcade Fire CD is going to be printed a million times, so the unit cost is well under a dollar, which makes a price point of $10.99 feasible. The problem is that their price point shapes world-wide consumer expectation and affects the entire music marketplace, including those artists that only print 100 CDs.

As we all know, the first reasonable price point with CDs tends to be a 1000 units. When you’re a new band, that’s a lot of CDs, and it requires a major financial investment. The only feasible option under a 1000 units is to go with 100 CD-R’s, which are less durable, of comparatively poor print quality on the disc/packaging, and more expensive per unit. It’s no wonder indie artist struggle when they’re spending $3 to $4 dollars per unit (not counting recording costs and gear), have to sell their CDs for $10, and still find themselves overcommitted to hundreds and thousands of unsold CDs. 

By comparison, my label, Stars and Letters, just re-released GPSYMTH’s debut album, “Ripostes”, with two bonus remixes, and placed dried sunset moths from Madagascar into 1.25oz glass vials, handwriting each download code onto a card, and attaching the card with a string and a wax seal. Total unit cost? About $3 dollars. At only 25 units. 

Try to imagine a major label being able to do compete with this approach. The countless meetings, new contractual language, changes in manufacturing and shipping protocols, etc. It’s too expensive for huge labels to make every release special and unique. What their business model requires are repeatable, systematic, mass-produced products. As indie labels and artists, we no longer have to buy into their organizational constraints and mass-market packaging.

With tools like Bandcamp and Topspin (or even Etsy), we can create custom, physical album artwork that is striking, desirable, and cost-effective, and wed it permanently to any collection of music we choose. Want to release custom, neon-spray-painted alphabet blocks as your album artwork? We’re going to do it. $.99 cents per block at Target and a can of spray paint. Done. The possibilities are as limitless as your imagination.

To me this is exciting and progressive and beautiful. What’s more, it’s a paradigm shift that has the potential of forever changing the way artists conceive of their album artwork.


Mark Roberts is the founder of Stars & Letters Records (by night) and the label manager for Evergreene Music (by day). When he’s not busy with his two labels, he creates music under the moniker, We Are Temporary. Links are / /

Reader Comments (14)

great article, though I would say that rather than opening the door, the digital music boom has simply made artists realize the door exists. since the beginning of recorded music, artists could always create whatever visual accompaniment they want for their music. the trend toward digital formats has simply popularized the idea of alternative visual artwork. i suppose the thing keeping musicians from becoming more adventurous with their visual artwork has been their lack of imagination and the belief that their work must conform to the standards of a commercial system. it might even be true that musicians are still thinking this way, but now the commercial system is different.

April 24 | Unregistered Commentermj

Odd to see an article with this title that doesn't mention *digital* (virtual) artwork. It is perfectly possible to design a package of artwork to be downloaded online, including credits, lyrics, as well as photo, links to videos and other content, and so on. The only example I know of at present is Streemliner (sic), formerly 3DiCD, but I expect there are others.

April 24 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

Oh no, I think I'm still failing to grasp that the digital music revolution has "liberated the physical album artwork from its musical delivery medium." Strangely, it didn't help at all when I read phrases like "bound in perpetuity" and "paradigm shift." Hey, I know what would liberate album artwork EVEN MORE! Why don't music labels just keep switching the official artwork of their releases online whenever they encounter a preferable image? As far as I'm concerned, they might as well do so. The death of physical music media ended the "perpetuity and meaning" of the art/music connection for me and many others. However, I wish you the best of luck in marketing school.

April 24 | Unregistered CommenterJeff

@MJ "I would say that rather than opening the door, the digital music boom has simply made artists realize the door exists" ... I think that's a fair way to put it, yeah. 10 years ago we could have sold GPSYMTH CDs, including a moth and vial. Put yeah... wouldn't have been that cost-effective, perhaps :).

April 24 | Registered CommenterMark Roberts

@David Yeah, that's a good point. Digital liner notes and art is super important to me (we use elaborate audio liner notes at Evergreene Music for our Balkan Arts Series, for example). I guess the point of departure for my article was the notion that "many have felt that the digital revolution has deprived albums of their visual and tactile components and depersonalized the experience of music ownership." I agree that digital artwork, expanded and improved upon, can restore some of that. At the end of the day though, I still want something tactile that I can display. Something that feels like it's special and collectible.

April 24 | Registered CommenterMark Roberts

awesome, of course, for everyone, up with progress et al, but I've always thought the medium of the 12x12 rather interesting. not that everyone used it well, but someday, when it's dead, there will be museum exhibits and art teachers will give assignments and people will write books about the art of the album cover.

April 24 | Unregistered Commenteralexis

@Alexis no doubt. I'll be at that exhibition with all the enthusiasm and love in the world. I've adored, collected, and made many 12 x 12 squares myself! :)

April 24 | Registered CommenterMark Roberts

Hey @Jeff. Thanks for sharing your thoughts man. I really connected with your comment that "the death of physical music media ended the 'perpetuity and meaning' of the art/music connection for me and many others." As an artist, I'm still reeling from all of this myself, which is precisely why it matters so much to me to explore other avenues of creating physical artwork.

My main point is that physical retail packaging set a fair few boundaries for album artwork (at least if you wanted it sold in stores). With music now being delivered digitally, physical artwork no longer needs to be "retail ready" and can instead be anything we're willing to create and ship or sell at shows.

Creating album art like this is no more or less about "marketing" than making artwork for retail CDs or records. In that sense, nothing's changed. At it's best, traditional and unorthodox album artwork, alike, are all things at once… effective marketing tools, immersive art objects, beautiful, creative, collectible, special.

April 24 | Registered CommenterMark Roberts

Artwork is essential, if you can tune in to your emotions and express your creativity, you will find your release will capture attention much better. Add to that a inspiring tune and you're on to a winner. Remember the artwork is just as important as the production.

Not only that, but on a promo pool front, perhaps I'm the only one, but an interesting cover encourages me to open the promo and check it out.

The same goes for videos!

April 25 | Unregistered CommenterRachel Rixham

I'm not sure where you're getting your figures ("It’s no wonder indie artist struggle when they’re spending $3 to $4 dollars per unit"), cause these days you can easily get 100 CD-Rs in retail ready jackets for less than $2 a piece. Your criticism of CD-Rs is also a bit uninformed. CD-Rs has s 99.8% compatibility rating and with the thermal or eco-solvent inks that most manufacturers use these days, you can hardly tell a difference in the print quality between that and the offset printing used on replication runs.

Hey Silver,

It's true, if you're willing to go down the jewel case or no-spine jacket option you can get your unit cost down, but those option, in my opinion, are not very special. Jackets are fine for radio promo and PR, but jewel cases are just an awful consumer experience in my opinion, and a nightmare to ship as a label (always cracking etc.). I think for a decent CD product (even CD-R), with tax, shipping, digipack or wallet with spine, etc. you're looking at well over $2 per unit (at least from places like Oasis and Discmakers... who are the same company, pretty much). And 99.8% compatibility? Sure, if you HAVE a CD player. A lot of the new macs don't even come with drives, which is a whole 'nother debate. In a few years many of us won't even have the ability to play back CD's. And the printing? I don't know man... the on-disc printing with CD-Rs is still far inferior with the big manufacturers.

April 26 | Unregistered CommenterMark

Some friends of mine that were in a local independent band had a wonderful idea for releasing their album back in 2011. Since one of the members works at a bar which has a good working relationship with a local brewer, they had the brewer whip up a one of a kind beer, slapped labels with the band's artwork and the brewer's logo on the bottles, wrote a download code for Bandcamp on the side, and sold them from the bar during their 2 record release shows. Not only did I think this was a totally unique way to release an album but it also meant that people paid for the album more than once (hopefully ensuring the band made their investment back) since most people were enjoying several beers at these shows. The "album" was sold out after the two release shows so they must have been doing something right!

April 30 | Unregistered CommenterAbram

@Abram I totally LOVE that idea, just hope they don't get into trouble with the ATF! :)

This is good for artists for they are given great ideas regarding album artwork!

Merlin Moon

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