Lost art on record covers

The eye-captivating lure on the dealer’s shelf permanently lost in most homes
By Wally Robinson – Originally published in Hifi & Music Review July 1958

The sultry Oriental touch to showcase its Tchaikovsky Scheherazade

Salesmen call it; “Self-Service.” A breezy historian might call it “the great browse.” Whatever its name, a profound “revolution in shopping and selling habits has radically altered our everyday marketing experience. “Window shopping,” thanks to high arts of lush packaging and ingenious display, has gone on a rampage out of that confined space to interrupt our steps midway in what may have begun as the most purposeful buying mission. If your normal shopping expedition should consume, say, twenty minutes, how much extra time do you allow for dawdling. Among the arresting colors and designs that fetch your eye from every corner of the shop you visit? How much extra cash do you take “in case l see something I like?”

We are talking about the post-war boom in fancy dress for products together with imaginative exposure for the catchy wrappings. Nowhere is this phenomenon as completely and irretrievably decisive for sales as it is in the recording business.

Show business acumen and the evolution of the LP, which created a favorable size and shape for albums, propelled the record companies far ahead of other industries in the race to seize our post-war Ieisure time and to direct some of it to blissful contemplation of what they had to sell. Besides, unlike the static design for frozen foods or cigarettes where ‘uniform design suggests a uniform product, each record release has its own sensational packaging. You never know what you’re going to see on dealer shelves next.

Major record firms, which may issue -as many as forty new LPs each month, maintain costly art departments with the best design directors money can buy. The smaller “independent” operators; who are not geared for such volume production, will in most instances retain the services of a single freelance designer-and íf they are lucky, and the -artist really gifted, some truly striking covers will result. Of course, many of the elements that go into a record cover come from widely scattered outside sources-a painting from a museum; for instance, to say nothing of models, special photographs, and so forth.

A conservative estimate of the money lavished by the record industry on its cover art comes out well beyond the million dollar mark. One need merely multiply an average pro-rated expenditure of  $1000 per record cover for artwork, layout, and printing by 200 a single month’s LP output-to arrive at this figure.

The amusing irony behind this whole operation you can discover for yourself if you will just glance at your library, of LPs, vertically stared according to best advice. What shows? Nothing but the thin white edges of all that expensive and beady cover -art!

We are not prepared to suggest that there is anything sinister in all this planning and endless scheming of new ways to make a product sell itself to our unwary desires. On the contrary, we recommend it as a forthright, out-in-the-open sales hawking in a hotly competitive marketplace; as contrasted with some darker arts or don’t you believe all the fuss and feathers about so called “subliminal advertising”?

Personalities on record albums are generally treated with simplicity – as shown in the typical illustration at right. Columbia recording stars is Rhonda Fleming

On the other hand, this subject of visual sales appeal as applied to the LP disc is, perhaps, worth the inquiry. Particularly so, if it can be determined, more or less, how much you can tell about a record by its cover.

While it is true that the majority of collectors make their purchases in conventional fully -stocked stores (no longer the drab or disorderly shops of the past, to be sure), some rather recent aspects of record buying phenomena have assumed new importance. Many of us have at least one LP purchased from an LP record club or one of those gigantic “we-really-stock everything” record stores. In any case, it is incontestable that there are many more places where records can be bought today. Most of these outlets, together with many of the

conventional shops, nowadays no longer offer what once was standard-auditioning booths, Thus we rely more and more upon reviewer recommendations, radio and TV programming, plus in -the -store (or in-the-record, club-brochure) suggestions to guide our buying choice. Of these factors, some manufacturers rate the “sight-impulse” in the store as the commanding influence.

Against that background, and recalling the brilliant arenas the stores have now become in the war to ensnare our fancy, a fairly clinical “browse” among current techniques may arm us somewhat better to resume our original mission – the search for rewarding experience in sound.

While the record firms protest that the contents of a record clearly exceed the cover in importance, who re-calls the recent television interview in which one of the leading popular singers of the day confessed having spent more time posing for the cover pictures of her album than doing the actual recording? Here we might note, in addition to the gradual demise of the record shop audition booth, the sharp increase in the number of factory sealed LPs, which cannot be opened for sample listening, thus make the record cover an even more crucial sales factor.

That the art of producing attention getting covers has been raised to such a high degree of competitive finesse does not imply much agreement within the record industry on the subject. A panoramic scanning of any record store reveals the sharp differences of attitude between the various companies with respect to what is considered a good cover “sell,” However, the record cover product as a whole can be broken down into four or five categories about as follows: Mood or Atmosphere; Design (mostly “modern”); Personality and – inevitably – Cheesecake.

”Mood” covers generally depict a good listening context or evoke the feeling of the music featured on the record. It may be music-for-this-that-and-the-other-including-dancing, in which case the dress and pose of the girl model will provide a reasonable clue. Or it might be an “ominous horizon” or “brooding heaven” cover for the apocalyptic grandeur of Beethoven or Bruckner.

When it conies to “Design” covers, artfulness – or artiness – is the thing, and these manifest themselves in enormous variety. Sometimes the whole cover is built around nothing more than ingenious typography and layout as applied to the title and artist information which in former clays would have appeared in conventional format. Neil Fujita, Design Director for the Columbia and Epic labels, has come up with some brilliant examples of this type and has been recognized accordingly by design and graphic arts societies. It is in this field that the artist is able to come closest to real “creation” and it is not surprising that many of the most aesthetically interesting and genuinely worthwhile efforts in the field have been of this type. These, in fact, are the covers which seen to grow the most pleasing to live with over a long period of time.

The “big name” artist, be he pop or classical, will several times in the course of his recording career become the subject for a “Personality” cover; for his name and prestige constitute the “sell” aspect in itself, with no need felt for the usual extended promotional copy. Here’s Louie or Ella Sings Rogers and Hart represent the kind of titles in point that will be decked out with a striking character photograph. More recently record covers have appeared without accenting the name of the artist at all. Boy Meets Girl was the main title appearing on a Decca disc, without other prominent indication of the artists involved, other than a photo of Sammy Davis, Jr. and Carmen McCrae. The sales, nevertheless, upheld the implied optimism of the cover designer. Now we even have the cover with no title at all other than the artist’s countenance in four-color Kodachrome, as witness Leopold Stokowski on Capitol’s Landmarks of a Distinguished Career.

Which brings us to “Cheesecake,” which as applied to the art of record merchandising has begun to take on sonic special attributes. Quite apart from the so-called “party records” whose content is presumed to be risqué or bawdy, there are plenty of “respectable” records issued by companies of honored and long-standing reputation which arc tricked out with a deliberately provocative girl cover. The psychology would seem to parallel that of the paperback book publishers who apply the same treatment to their re-issue of literary classics of Hawthorne, Whitman, or Edith Wharton.

“Cheesecake” art on all kinds of records – whether it be Hifirecord’s Jazz Erotica or Audio Fidelity’s Port Said.

Art directors are by no means agreed on what does prompt them to provide this type of cover for, say, an Erroll Garner, or a Mantovani release. Some claim the need for variety to differentiate clearly the new disc from earlier ones by the same performer. Others indicate that the “cheesecake” approach is a perfectly valid solution – among many – for the continual problem of satisfying visual appeal conditions in today’s ultra-competitive atmosphere. Be this as it may, “Cheesecake” art will turn up on all kinds of records – whether it be Hifirecord’s Jazz Erotica (not erotic at all, by the way, but an excellent collection of small combo work ), Audio Fidelity’s Port Said, or London’s new Ansermet issue of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. The manager of one well-patronized New York record shop has asserted that sexy record covers repel many would-be customers – “Not so much for reasons of moral objection, but more out of a false sophistication many buyers develop, which leads them to believe such albums are seeking to overcome inferior contents with desperate resorts to ‘the ever saleable’.” Here is a point which some companies would do well to ponder, especially where those of their artists subjected to this doubtful form of promotion are scarely in need of it!

All record companies follow the same basic procedure in working out the covers for their product, which is to say that sales, promotion, art personnel-and to a more limited extent the artist-and-repertoire people concerned with the recording-will discuss title and cover treatment. Most often this is done after the recording has been taped; but if it is a special release or an original cast show album, the cover may even he finished before the tape from the recording session has been edited; for it usually takes a good 90 days to produce from scratch a finished cover with program notes ready for the store. Once title and basic treatment have been agreed upon; it is up to the Design Director to carry out the idea as effective art which will both provoke the record dealer to give the disc prominent exposure on his shop’s display shelves and entice the customer to buy the recording sight unheard, if need be.

It’s interesting at this point to sample the opinions of some of the record company art designers in terms of what they feel to be effective cover art sales wise. Very often these opinions will reflect the merchandising techniques and channeling adopted by the company in question. A mass merchandising outfit will take a quite different point of view from a specialty firm catering to a selected clientele.

Art Director Bob Jones of RCA Victor sees no necessarily reliable relationship between so-called “good art” and “successful merchandisers.” He makes particular note that many “fine examples of award winning graphic art have not been successful merchandisers.” A comparison of the best sellers as against cover art award winners from twelve leading record labels would seem to support this point of view.

Caedmon’s Belief

In the “no-title-no-text” category was Columbia’s Songs of the West and the so-called “Mood Music” which is the most dependent on the right kind of cover.

On the other band, Marianna Mantell and Barbara Cohen of Caedmon Record – primarily exponents of the spoken literary word on disc-believe that “an intrinsically good design definitely influences sales” – at which point they cite their Walter De la Mare disc with the cover designed by Matthew Liebowitz around a painting by one of the most widely discussed West Coast modern painters, Morris Craves.

Columbia, who pioneered the LP, also claims credit for sparking the trend which has led to that most ubiquitous if all record cover types the four-color photograph. This medium had now become almost as monotonous as the jungle of finned cars on the superhighways. When the four-color photo job is well done, it is not only a work of art which can sell records but can also cost a great deal of money. Columbia’s cover for Reflections of an Indian Boy called for photographer Alan Reed to journey to the top of a mountain in Navajo territory to get just the right kind of shot with the right kind of mood. In the “no-title-no-text” category was Columbia’s Songs of the West featuring the Norman Luboff Choir. Columbia, in company with Mercury and most recently RCA Victor, has done large-scale repackaging of its earlier releases, dressing them up with brilliant four-color photos. Columbia, for one, cites an increase of 200 percent in sales on some items as a result-which is to say that nothing can improve the appeal of an old house inside and out like a fresh coat, of paint!

Westminster’s Point

The endless variety of record covers speaks well indeed for the resourcefulness and taste of those responsible for them.

Westminster’s Art Director, Igor Kipuis concurs with Ernst Werner of Vox in a point worth making here – that the selling effectiveness of a reeved cover is closely tied up with the kind of music to be promoted.  Names – personalities – are the important thing in jazz; but it is; the so-called “Mood Music” which is the most dependent on the right kind of cover for selling impact; for more often than not it is the “mood” that is being sold rather than Ansermet, Horowitz, Johnny Mathis, Louis Armstrong, or even the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto. Therefore the cover art has to “pull” that much harder, or else.

The endless variety of record covers extant these days sneaks well indeed for the resourcefulness and taste of those responsible for them. When they miscalculate in one way of another, and aroused sales department, a miffed virtuoso, and a deluge of consumer complaints can be the result; but more often than not, barring a major “goof,” the customer decries the tendency to sacrifice the essential spirit of the musical contents in the interest of “some infernal effort to be beautiful.”

Which brings us back to the matter of our opening paragraph – what you and I do about the really fine art which does turn up in record cover form occasionally and which we would even like to have on the wall rather than lost in our collections. RCA Victor did make a desultory attempt to solve this problem a few years ago when they sold their HMV series with removable art, sans title material, which could be framed. With or without typographical content, record companies do get requests from all over the country for samples of their most effective covers for use in decorating rumpus rooms, lampshades, waste baskets, screens, and the like. Some firms and/or dealers are obliging with respect to such requests with or without a nominal charge; but the fact remains that once an LP goes into your collection its art, save for that contained within the grooves of the disc, is  “lost art” indeed. Take a browse through your library for the best covers one day. You may find some pleasant and occasionally astonishing surprises.


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