The times they are a-changin’


I recently wrote here about frustrations I was having with how my iPhone displayed album sleeves on its Music app. Since then I’ve been somewhat forced to sign-up to Apple Music to get over this, (and other), issues with the app. In doing so it feels like I have made a major shift in some of my long-held behaviours; this is not just in regard to how I listen to music, but also to my relationship with music visuals.

In discussing this personal cultural change to how I ‘buy’ and own music over on A Different Kitchen, I pondered whether I had bought my last CD in pre-ordering Wire’s forthcoming release Mind Hive prior to signing up to Apple Music. Since then, I have bought other music physically, but these haven’t been for my usual choices of wanting better sound quality when I listen to certain artists, (a CD on a good stereo is, to my ears, is far superior than a download), but because these recordings were not available via Apple. 

In thinking about this, it made me realise that I can not remember the last time I bought a physical release specifically for the visuals that accompanied it. That said, when ordering the box set Further Perspectives & Distortion: An Encyclopaedia of British Experimental and Avant-Grade Music 1976–1984, I hadn’t realised it came with a small booklet that contained an excellent essay by Mark Paytress. The accompanying recording information and thumbnails of the original record sleeves contained on the collection provide great contextual backdrop to the tracks and text, and these alone would have been reasons to buy, rather than stream or download, the 3 album set had I known it came with these. But based on my recent music buying experience, this is rare, and many CD sleeves and packaging I’ve bought of late have been, at best, hard-hearted in their consideration for design. At worst, an environmentally-unfriendly single-use plastic jewel-case with a two-sided paper insert that just replicates what is on the back sleeve, has been distinctly lame. (If Coldplay really want to think about their environmental footprint, then stopping releasing CDs altogether would certainly be a good start.) No wonder people don’t buy these little round discs anymore—and it could be argued designers are as much to blame in their lack of innovation for this state of affairs as any technological advance is.  


There are caveats, of course: Soul Jazz Records do give good value in this area, and their ongoing pursuit to unearth or release newly themed compilations of reggae gems, means I’ll be buying their CDs for many years to come. And the 2019 Stereolab reissues were worth their weight in packaging. Outside of such specific examples and a few other labels / bands / designers dedication to great visual / contextual content, I can see 2020 being the year my album buying habits truly change.

That this coincides with the death of one of the greats of record sleeve design, Vaughan Oliver, makes this introspection all the more poignant. There are many excellent tributes to the great designer online, (Adrian Shaughnessy’s Creative Review piece is worth a read), so I won’t repeat here what others have said much better than I ever could. Except to say that he was one of the people who got me into graphic design in the first place, alongside many of his predecessors and contemporaries*. This seemed to be a common theme on ‘design Twitter’ eulogies in the days after his passing, and it prompts the thought about what is going to enthuse future graphic designers that this is their calling? I’ll leave that for another post though.


It’ll be interesting to reflect back on 2020 in December as I start to compile my list of music I’ve listened to and ordering my favourite albums of the year. At the start of a new decade though, in looking forward, it does seem to me there is a big cultural shift happening in my personal attitudes towards album sleeves. Underneath all the navel gazing, that I do not seem that bothered about it, and that I have a sense that I should just let this pass, is maybe the result of my ageing attitudes growing up and accepting the new norm. To a degree, I am behind the times anyway; almost none of my students buy physical music, and when discussing downloading with them I can almost hear them saying ‘get with the times grand-dad’ under their breath as the concept of owning music as a file seems increasingly arcane. I don’t feel that out of date though—I refused to jump on the vinyl revival bandwagon as an anti-nostalgic act on my part, and as a result all my old 12”s are still confined to the loft. With a move away from the CD format though, I’m just going to have to make sure I find a way to hook the Sonos system up to our decent speakers so that I can retain some modicum of good sound quality and accept that sometimes, things just move on. I’m still left wondering what am I going to look at while listening to music though. 

*As an aside, in all of the heartfelt comments about Oliver’s death that I read, when speaking of other graphic designers who made great album sleeve art, not one single female designer was mentioned. Come on ‘design Twitter’, this is simply lazy stuff and proves the need for a graphic design #metoo. If you are scratching your heads about who to include, look no further than such luminaries as Scher and Vaucher, for a start? 

Published by Nigel Ball

Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design

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