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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 in (25 cm) and 12 in (30 cm) 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.
In addition, in the case of all types of tangible records, it also serves as part of the protective sleeve.
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. These were invariably made out of acid paper, limiting conservability. Generally the sleeves had a circular cutout allowing the record label to be seen. Records could be laid on a shelf horizontally 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 four 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 paperboard 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. 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.
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. 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" and 12" 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 became the major formats for the distribution of popular music. The LP format remains in use for occasional new releases, though other formats have largely supplanted it. The size of the typical cardboard LP sleeve cover is 12.375 in square (31.43 cm square).
Since the mid-1990s, the compact disc (CD) has become the most common form of physically-distributed music products. Packaging formats vary, including the very common plastic jewel-case, and the cardboard and plastic combination commonly known as a Digipak. Typically the album cover component of these packages is approximately 4.75 in square (12.1 cm square).
The cover became an important part of the culture of music at the time. Under the influence of designers like Bob Cato who at various stages in his long music career was vice president of creative services at both Columbia Records and United Artists, album covers became renowned for being a marketing tool and an expression of artistic intent. The Band's 1970 release Stage Fright with Norman Seeff's photograph as a poster insert is an early example with the poster quickly becoming a collector's item. 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 even though it was a single album, The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street which had a gatefold and a series of 12 perforated postcards as inserts (also by photographer Norman Seeff), and Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon which had a gatefold, lyrics, no title on the sleeve and poster and sticker 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, Cal Schenkel for Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica and Frank Zappa's We're Only in It for the Money.
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. Photographer Mick Rock produced some of the most iconographic album covers of the 1970s, including Queen's Queen II (recreated for their classic music video Bohemian Rhapsody), Syd Barrett's The Madcap Laughs, and Lou Reed's Transformer. From 1972 to 1975, photographer Norman Seeff was Creative Director at United Artists and in addition to his many cover photographs (The Band, Kiss's Hotter than Hell, Joni Mitchell's Hejira etc.), he art directed dozens of album covers including Exile on Main Street, many of which received Grammy nominations. In addition to the examples mentioned previously, a number of world-renowned graphic artists and illustrators such as Ed Repka (Megadeth), Andy Warhol (The Velvet Underground, The Rolling Stones), Mati Klarwein (Santana, Miles Davis), H. R. Giger (Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Debbie Harry), Frank Frazetta (Molly Hatchet), Derek Riggs (Iron Maiden), Jamie Reid (The Sex Pistols), Howard Finster (R.E.M., Talking Heads), Al Hirschfeld (Aerosmith), Ken Kelly (Kiss, Manowar), Gottfried Helnwein (Marilyn Manson), Rex Ray (David Bowie), Robert Crumb (Big Brother & the Holding Company), John Van Hamersveld (The 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 and Other Assorted Love Songs (from the painting "La Fille au Bouquet" by French painter and sculptor Émile Théodore Frandsen de Schomberg), the cover of Kansas's debut album, adapted from a mural by painter John Steuart Curry, Norman Rockwell's cowboy (Pure Prairie League), and, more recently, Coldplay's Viva La Vida, which features Eugène 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 Drew Struzan (Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, Iron Butterfly, The Beach Boys and others), 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, Peter Gabriel) and Francesco Scavullo (Diana Ross, Edgar Winter), David Michael Kennedy 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 and 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), Graham Coxon (13 and most solo albums), Mike Shinoda (various Linkin Park albums), Joni Mitchell (Miles of Aisles) as well for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (So Far), and M.I.A. (credited variously on Elastica's The Menace, her records).
The physical design of album covers has been the subject of creative innovation. Ogden's Nut Gone Flake by the Small Faces was originally in a circular metal tin, and Happy to Meet – Sorry to Part by Horslips was in an octagonal package.
The album cover is a component of the overall 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.
Packaging formats for compact discs widened the variety of presentations as well, even as the size of the CD meant that album covers were no longer so large.
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.
With the increasing popularity of digital music downloading services and the inflating cost of conducting business, the purpose and prevalence of the album cover is evolving. While the music industry tries 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. Both MP3 and WMA music files are able to contain embedded digital album artworks (called cover images or simply covers) in jpeg format. As of 2008[update], physical music products, with a physical "album cover", continue to outsell digital downloads.
Alternately, some artists have used Internet technology to generate even more cover art. For instance, Nine Inch Nails initially released its album The Slip as a free download on the band's website, attaching separate but thematically connected images to each individual track. On February 14, 2013, rapper Tyler, The Creator announced his new record Wolf would be released with three different available album covers.
Album art is still considered a vital part of the listening experience to many, and despite the less-tangible nature of digital images, there are still many collectors trading cover art and music.
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Some album covers have been banned due to violence, nudity and other banned pictures. Guns N' Roses's 1987 album Appetite for Destruction's cover depicted a robot rapist about to be punished by a metal avenger. Kanye West's 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy depicted West naked being straddled by a phoenix with her bare breasts and bare buttocks showing.
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