#ArtsyTuesday: How Alex Steinweiss Revolutionized Album Cover Art

Albums in their early days were stored out of sight in plain brown wrapping. Buyers needed to know what they were looking for and ask for the album by its title.

All of this was changed by one man.

album coversIn 1938, music creative packaging was revolutionized when Alex Steinweiss, a 23-year old man, was appointed by Columbia to be the company’s first art director. He immediately suggested that there was something missing in Columbia’s tactics. The first album cover from Steinweiss came out in 1939. It was a song collection from Rodgers and Hammerstein, the renowned writing team from American musical theatre. The cover featured a theatre marquee that had the names of the composers in lights.

Steinwess wanted people to hear the music when they saw the artwork

This one simple step showed just how powerful custom media packaging could have in sales. From this time, it has been estimated that there was an increase in record sales of about 800%. The designs by Steinweiss featured illustrations that had a very strong European influence. Over the next decade these set the tone as more record companies joined in on the trend.

A Powerful Force In Social History

Subsequent media packaging developments have frequently reflected societal changes. For example, during the 1950’s photography advances, artist head shots became very popular album cover choices. However, they sometimes revealed some of history’s more controversial aspects. The original cover for The Chantels’ album depicted all four black female musicians. However, once the record started drawing national attention, the cover art was switched to a picture of two white teenagers looking at a jukebox.

Some record labels, by contrast, used their media packaging as a powerful force for social change through reinforcing the Civil Rights Movement, which was emerging. Blue Note and Specialty, then Motown later on, focused on promoting rather than hiding black artists.

Leading the way was Blue Note. They integrated their artwork as part of the entire package. Their designer during the 1950s as well as 1960s was Reid Miles. He worked with briefs from the musicians to create covers that reflected the meaning and mood of their music instead of depending on commercial images that many companies used during that time.

Art For Art’s Sake?

In 1967 The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album was released. This represented the next major turning point. This is often considered the all time number one album. The cover featured an explosion of color and design. It was also the first album that had the lyrics printed on the customized inner sleeve as well as being the first cover to really be treated like a work of art.

However, media packaging has a long association with current developments in the art world. The cover for Jackie Gleason’s 1955 album Lonesome Echo was designed by Salvador Dali, which transformed media packaging into a legitimate art form. Subsequent collaborations between the music and art worlds have continued to reinforce this. For example:

  • Andy Warhol and the Rolling Stones on the 1971 album Sticky Fingers
  • Debbie Harry and H.R. Giger on the 1981 album KooKoo
  • The Hours and Damien Hirst on the 2009 album The Hours

The Future

Custom media packaging, whether merely echoing the day’s latest fashions, making artwork for art’s sake or conveying serious political statements, continues reflecting societal values, and has done so from the beginning. These days, traditional vinyl has become popular again among collectors. One of the main reasons why is because it allows for a large format with great cover art.

However, recent releases have illustrated that DVD and CD packaging also offer plenty of opportunities for artistic expression. Instead of having to cram a lot of artwork into a small space, DVD and CD packaging actually allows for more. This includes the booklet, image tray underneath the CD, back of box, as well as on the CD itself. There is a blank canvas for artists to create their images on and help keep the mysteries alive as music lovers attempt to find messages inside that artwork that is part of the whole package.

By Geoff Roy

Geoff Roy enjoys writing and curating blogs across a wide range of industry niches. In his spare time, he enjoys quality time with his family, running and swimming, and supping the odd pint of T.E.A. from the Hogsback Brewery.


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