We Should All Be Able to Judge an Album by Its Cover
Cover art matters if you want your album to stick around.
Recently, seminal Swedish metal band At The Gates revealed the cover for their upcoming album, At War With Reality, their first full-length record in 20 years, and the follow-up to their genre-changing classic Slaughter Of The Soul. In a piece covering the art's reveal, a blogger for MetalSucks wrote, "I just find it really difficult to get excited about cover artwork in this day and age, when the biggest I'm ever going to see it is embedded right here in this article, and thereafter only as a tiny thumbnail on my phone's iTunes library."
This doesn't sit well with me, and right off the bat I want to tell bands: don't take this to heart. If you ask me, cover art—all art with which you surround your music—matters a shitload. And okay, maybe your record label making a big deal out of the reveal of that art is a little silly (though I'd counter that it's a far more interesting lead-up announcement to your album than a fucking lyric video—GOD, I hate lyric videos) but the art itself is deeply important.
Let's start with the obvious and eternal fact that your album art tells your fans how this album is different from the last one. Some bands, like Judas Priest or the Killers, are content for all of their cover art to look similar because part of their aesthetic is that they don't change. No one wants a drastically different the Killers album. But for bands whose sound progresses from album to album, creative visual artwork lets your fans know that change is part of your aesthetic. Costin Chioreanu's cover for the new At The Gates album is a prime example—black and arch, so different from the orange-heavy flame-and-blood-evocative covers of the band's previous two albums. Meanwhile, look at Muse. The arena-rock masters' art has changed drastically over the years. Each cover speaks to the album's sensibilities, from the shadow-on-concrete of Absolution to the neon rainbow frayed thread of The 2nd Law. The band is letting you know that this won't be the album that came before it.
Next, in case you've been in a coma for the past decade, people, especially serious underground music fans, are buying vinyl again. Sure, it might be a lot of hipster bullshit if you're into throwing around hackneyed terms like that, but the truth is that vinyl is an important musical medium once more. If you have stupid or careless cover art on your album, you're going to feel like a total asshole when that thing is blown up to huge proportions and sold at your shows. There are three main factors your average modern consumer considers when buying an album on vinyl, especially if they already own said album digitally: a) if the album's sound will be improved by the hiss of an actual record; b) if an album is so fucking good that they just need it on all formats; or c) if the cover art is extremely cool to look at in a large format. One more thing to consider: you know who loves vinyl? DJs and music critics. Send a music journalist your album on vinyl and they will give you a second chance at a decent review, even if your last album was mediocre. If your cover art is a bunch of slapdash nonsense, they might not even bother.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, the best musicians have a unified aesthetic, and cover art creates that. More than T-shirt art, poster art or band photos, cover art melds visual stimulus with what's on the album it represents to create a musician's unified aesthetic, and the best bands have that. Wu-Tang had it. Motorhead had it. Joy Division had it. Godflesh had it. The Clash had it. Celtic Frost had it. And whenever music fans today bitch about how rock and roll is dead and there are no great bands anymore, they never mention that bands used to think long and hard about the cover of their albums, and how those covers represented those songs. The best bands are those who project images into your head, who have their own natural color palettes. Hell, even if your aesthetic is No Art—looking at you, FIDLAR—that's better than it being half-assed. Sure, these things can change over time, but the point is, you've got to own that aesthetic if you want your band to be incredibly memorable, and art—especially cover art—is the best way to do that.
And finally, the bands with good cover art are going to eclipse your ass if you can't match them. For real, if your cover art isn't interesting, there's a legion of musicians out there no better than you are who will leave you eating their dust because they took the time to hire a decent artist or learn Photoshop and create an image that captures the viewer. It doesn't matter if that image only appears in a small box on iTunes—if there's something cool about it, people will look into it. They'll throw wallpapers on their laptops and buy poster flags featuring that image (if they're 15 or own a genre-centric bar, primarily, but still). And even if your record came out before theirs, they will see your shit and think it's a cheap imitation of That Guy's work because your album cover was thrown together in a hot second.
You can't judge a book by its cover, but if a good book has an awesome cover the whole thing's existence is exponentially justified (the world will forget that Chip Kidd image from the Jurassic Park cover). You can say that it's the music that's important, and that if the album's good enough the art doesn't mean anything. And, well, good luck with that. But more often than not its best to stimulate two senses rather than one (be honest, you would taste a song if you could). If your cover art is detailed, original, and evocative of your sound, it will elevate your music to the next level, and it will get people to notice your album. If it's not any of these things, we might not remember who you are, and if your album's forgettable, why make it?