Time to wear their art on their sleeves again

CD sales are declining and music is, increasingly, bought online. So why do bands still bother so much about album art? Gillian Orr discovers that some are making more interesting covers than ever

Last week, the online music community went into overdrive when revered US indie geeks, Weezer, released details of their latest album cover.

Not for them an arty snap of the band looking moody, or a picture of a beautiful lady flashing some flesh. Not even a buzzing cityscape shot. No, for the album cover of their eighth studio album, Weezer have chosen a close-up portrait of Jorge Garcia, better known as "the fat guy from Lost". They also confirmed that they would be naming the album after Garcia's character, Hurley. As far as album covers go, it is a bizarre and off-the-wall choice. But they haven't been the only high-profile band having a bit of fun with their album artwork recently.

Last month, Klaxons presented the album cover for their forthcoming sophomore effort, Surfing the Void. It is a cat posing in an astronaut suit. A similar ripple of amazement followed by bemusement ensued.

Earlier this year, MGMT ditched the traditional cool group shot that adorned their first album cover and chose, for their follow-up, a colourful graphic design of a surfing cat, under attack from a Sonic the Hedgehog-shape wave.

There is, of course, a rich and hilarious history of outlandish album art, but these recent jaw-dropping pieces prompt the question: what is the role of the album cover in the digital age?

In the last few years it has been predicted that album covers would soon be a dead art form. After all, no one sees albums anymore – all the record stores have closed down, and certainly nobody buys CDs anymore, right? Influential figures such as Sir Peter Blake, designer of one of the best-known album covers of all time, the Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Peter Saville, artwork designer for Roxy Music and New Order, have both publicly bemoaned the end of album art in recent years. Blake was reported to have said, "It survived from the LP to the CD, but... if that becomes obsolete then I guess album art won't exist. I think it would be a big loss."

You can't argue that it wouldn't be a crime for bands' artwork to disappear from popular culture – after all, there have been entire exhibitions dedicated to the art of the album sleeve – and their ability to be an extension of an artist's identity as well as inducing a wave of nostalgia must be cherished, but have these design leaders spoken too soon? Obviously the base product is changing: so it has become more complicated than just designing an LP sleeve, and traditionalists no doubt lament the end of having something tangible, but the very concept is still there: artists still need images and artwork to resonate with the public and to tell their story. While the industry is changing – digital album sales were up 56 per cent last year, while CD album sales were down 3.5 per cent – it's not as if the CD is moribund just yet. CDs still accounted for 79.5 per cent of all album sales during the first half of 2010.

And the record labels certainly aren't ready to say goodbye to album artwork just yet. Although they might acknowledge that the CD is less ubiquitous than it once was, and they have to embrace digital, the album cover remains the basis for an artist's entire marketing campaign. It will be on display at festivals, on outdoor billboards, in magazines. It's still very much a necessary branding exercise for them.

So while record-shop browsing is on the way out – three out of four independent record shops have closed in the past ten years and even some of the big retailers like Zavvi and Woolworths have failed to survive – consumers will still have access to that image on a number of other platforms. They will see it alongside every snippet written about the band, in the aforementioned marketing campaign, on its i-Tunes page. No longer having the opportunity to make an impact in a record shop, perhaps bands are better off with a bold image that will stand out on the various different platforms that the image will now appear across. It needs to be something that has an effect whether it is appearing on the side of a building or as a thumbnail.

Klaxons frontman, Jamie Reynolds, certainly thinks a powerful statement is key. "We wanted something that could be a potentially iconic image. We wanted it to stand out as much as those old Wonderbra adverts: when people saw those ads on billboards it would cause them to crash their cars." Spacecat, as the band have affectionately christened their feline cover star, was the boys' mascot while they were recording their album. It is bonkers, amusing and something the public won't forget. By releasing such artwork, Klaxons and Weezer have ensured endless speculation and buzz around their albums. Not a bad move.

Weezer frontman, Rivers Cuomo, recently revealed: "I just loved this photo of Jorge Garcia, it just had this amazing vibe. We didn't want to do a fourth self-titled record and we knew people would refer to it as "the Hurley record" even if we left it without that title, so we just called it Hurley. No words are on the cover because all we wanted was his amazing face."

In fact, while having an obscure picture of a character from a now defunct television show may have not been a wise move in the day of the record store, when CDs and records were literally judged by their covers, it becomes a stroke of genius in the digital age of today. It is blogged about, Tweeted about, emailed about.

Simon Fox, CEO of HMV Group, recently told a newspaper, "The entertainment industry is not just about one big album, here's the cheque, end of story. There is no one big answer – artists, labels and retailers have to work much harder and have multiple income streams, one is simply not enough." If that is the case, artists could do worse than using a strong image for the public to recognise and identify them with.

While some artists might still be trying to entice the record buying public back to physical CDs (Katy Perry's new album, Teenage Dream, is to be candyfloss scented, for example), the prevalence of the album cover is evolving and its future is uncertain. But because of the way it now gets viewed on more platforms than ever before, you can be sure to expect plenty of eccentric and wild statements from artists in the future. People may have laughed when Weezer's new album cover was revealed, but maybe the band are really on to something.

'Surfing the Void' is released on 23 August. 'Hurley' is released on 13 September