Artwork the demands attention.

At TOTEM we talk a lot about the importance of simplicity in cutting through the noise – making bold statements that captivate consumers’ attention and imaginations. It’s something our Senior Designer Brian has really observed in the music industry.

Outside of his day job at TOTEM, Brian is a talented musician with a sizeable vinyl collection. In this blog he shares his insights on how artists have taken on the challenges of the modern digital era, creating artworks that still have real impact, relevance and added value…

vinyl records

For me, an album isn’t just about the music. The album artwork is a representation of the music also. Music and art go hand in hand.

I recently heard an interview with a guy from Warner Brothers, whose job it was to approve all the album artwork in the seventies. Back then, before downloads, the artwork was such a critical element in the marketing and selling of an album.

And one of the most interesting things he talked about was that when new records arrived in to a local record shop, the person in the shop had to know easily what category and genre to put them into. If you brought out a Country album and it got put into the Funk section, it just wouldn’t get sold. So if you were producing a country album, for example, you had to have cowboys with cowboy hats on the cover to ensure it was easily identifiable as a Country album. This meant that the artwork was a vital part of the selling process – the album artwork showed you what kind of music you could expect on the record as much as anything else.

vinyl records

I thought it was an interesting contrast to how things are now. Where album artwork appears as just a little square on your phone, on Spotify or iTunes, no longer really a vital part of the selling process. You can easily see the genre details. And while this would seem to make the album artwork an almost redundant part of the process, there are some artists who use this limited space to successfully make bold statements that resonant with their music.

And when you’re trying to capture someone’s attention in such a limited space – to intrigue them and inspire them to listen – less really can be more.

girl in the picture

A good example of this is the cover of the FKA Twigs album from a few years back, featuring artwork from Jesse Kanda. It was such a striking, single image that it almost demanded attention. And for me it was a bold statement about beauty and femininity, with a hint of the violence and distortion of self that women can be subjected to.

But it’s not just for, or about, the digital market. Vinyl sales have been rising for the last five years or so. I find that there is something much more personal, compared to digital, about taking a record out of its sleeve and putting it on a turntable. Holding the album artwork in your hands really adds to the experience of listening to an album from start to finish.

And one of the interesting elements I’ve noticed is how people are taking a simple, bold design idea and then adding extra printing processes and clever formats to the vinyl sleeves to add even more value to the artwork.

music app

Like David Bowie’s last album, Black Star, which had a star shaped cut out from the front that revealed the black vinyl behind it. Or The XX’s, I See You, which had a large embossed X on the front of a reflective card.

The world has changed. The way we consume music and art has changed. The way we interact with media has changed. And for individuals, artists and brands to resonate with their audiences, they need to change too.

My advice would be to simplify what you’re trying to say. Define the emotion you’re trying to provoke and create. Then when you’ve total clarity on your message – say it in the boldest, bravest and most creative way you can.

vinyl records dynamite