The Big Picture: The Art of Record Packaging

Before the age of digital music, one of the most important aspects of marketing a new record to the buying public was its packaging: a physical presentation of the artist's work that not only functioned as a holder for the record, but as a visual companion to the musical recording itself which you could hold in your hands. Whether it be eye-catching cover art, an engaging lyric booklet, or the actual record case; it all lent itself to the complete audio-visual experience intended by the artists for the listener.

Now that owning physical copies of music is becoming more and more rare (retailers like Best Buy and Starbucks have even started selling digital albums in their stores), many bands are trying to find new ways to make the visual representation of their work help them stand out in the changing landscape. One band that took the extra step in recent years was Long Island's own, Brand New, on their 2007 release, "The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me". With it's particularly striking and conceptually fitting cover art, and a layout consisting mostly of obscured photographs, fragmented sentences, and simple drawings, they managed to create a visual aesthetic that fit perfectly with its sonic counterpart. The band also opted to use an old school card-stock sleeve over the typical jewel CD case; managing to create something that felt good in your hands, and was a piece of art in itself.

Another band that got people talking recently was Bishop Allen, with their "EP Project" in 2006. Every month of the year, starting in January, the band released a 4-song EP; each named after the month of its release,with its own unique themes and artwork; meant to work together with the other 11 as a collectible set.

This year's new releases (even a couple of which were previously highlighted in our Best of 2008) are no exception. The two words I would use to describe Lightspeed Champion's, "Falling Off The Lavender Bridge", are simple and vulnerable. What could be more simple and vulnerable than placing songwriter/musical mastermind Dev Hynes in front of a solid sky-blue background, cradling
a small black rabbit in his arms? Another recent release which perfectly pairs audio and visual is Death Cab for Cutie's "Narrow Stairs". The cover's rigid mosaic of colors, seemingly taken from various photographs, holds the structured diversity of America's west in the days of Jack Kerouac; frontman Ben Gibbard's favorite author, who has become an inspiration for Gibbard's own writing; most notably in the song, "Bixby Canyon Bridge". A great deal of the new album was actually written in and around the late Kerouac's Cabin at Big Sur, where Gibbard went to find clarity in his life.

Then of course we have the biggest release of the year so far (the physical release), and possibly of years to come, both aesthetically and musically: Radiohead's "In Rainbows". The initial buzz of this record came from the fact that a) they're Radiohead, and b) they were basically giving it away (recently repeated by both Nine Inch Nails and Girl Talk, respectively). After hearing the news, people immediately flooded to the band's site, where they were greeted with an oil slick-esque rainbow of colors, noted with mysteriously systematic patterns
of letters and symbols; thus launching some of the most innovative and effective digital record packaging that music has ever seen. It not only served as a visual component to the album, but as the key turning in the ignition of the "In Rainbows" hype-machine, which was followed by hidden messages to fans in binary, and a series of live performance/distopian future vignette podcasts; setting a standard for every record yet to be released. With a bar that high, who knows what we'll see next, and from whom? Here's to the future.

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