The cover of a CD - to be more accurate, the front page of the booklet that is lodged inside what is known as the jewel case - affords the designer a canvas of five inches square, and a quarter of that space will probably be obscured by a sticker that repeats the name of the artist and lists the "hits", in other words the tracks that are scheduled to be released as singles. These singles, by the way, are often sold in several different editions. The same song will be available on two or three separate CDs, each with different back- up tracks and a different sleeve.
Adrian Shaughnessy of design company Intro discusses all this in the introduction to Sampler, a new book of contemporary record art: "Previously regarded as an essential part of a successful record, there is now a tendency to treat sleeves as merely another marketing surface to be covered with price stickers and the buy-me-now graphics of modern consumerism."
In other words, when you get home you might as well throw the packaging in the bin along with the record shop's plastic bag.
In the olden days, the album sleeve was a poster, something to be Blutacked to the wall or mounted in a record shop's window display. It was a badge and a calling card. If you gazed at your new purchase on the ride home from the store, everyone on the bus could tell what your tastes were. Not any more. Today, some albums come with free posters, but they have to be folded to the size of the CD box, and no poster looks very stylish when it's creased into ninths.
From a record company's standpoint, if you want to establish your band's visual emblems, the MTV-friendly video will be worth a much higher investment. Take a look at the cover of two highly acclaimed recent albums - not something you may have done very often before. For OK Computer, Radiohead seem to have photocopied a picture of a motorway, scribbled over it and then glued it to a white sheet of paper. Urban Hymns by The Verve boasts a not very urban photo of the band sitting in a park, four of them looking to the left, one facing right. Nothing could be less eye-catching or evocative of the music on the CD. The video for The Verve's single "Bittersweet Symphony", on the other hand, was an instant classic.
And these examples are not the exceptions. The cover of Beck's latest album is forgettable, as are all of Oasis's. In this last case, Britpop's cult of ordinary bloke-ism is partly responsible. Ocean Colour Scene and Cast both have top-10 hits, but both favour sleeves that look like they have been snapped by a wedding photographer in his lunch hour.
If this is getting too gloomy and nostalgic, then glance over at the accompanying pictures from Sampler. A reminder that inventive cover art still exists, these images attest, to quote Shaughnessy again, that "sleeve- design remains the only place in mainstream commercial life where visual innovation has a permanent foothold".
None the less, they do tend to rely on post-modernism, and pretension. They don't try to be bright, bold or inviting. Indeed, they suggest that to be any of these things is either uncool or just beside the point. In short, they're not much fun. Except where a Michael Ball or a Daniel O'Donnell is involved, the naivety and unselfconscious amateurism have gone from CD packaging, just as they have from the music on the CD. Sleeve design is flourishing, you might say, but sleeve art is a thing of the past.
Well, almost. Great covers do still appear, although for my money the most memorable, clever and enjoyable ones of recent years have been those which Sampler can't reproduce properly: three-dimensional ones. Obvious examples are Pulp's Different Class, Spiritualized's Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space, and the records released on the MoWax label.
MoWax's design department heroically avoid the jewel case in favour of die-cut folded card: the CD sleeve as origami. Pulp's 1995 album had, in place of a conventional CD booklet, an embossed envelope with a window cut in the front and six double-sided picture cards which you could rearrange to choose your own front cover. Even more ingeniously, Spiritualized's Ladies and Gentlemen ... came in a perfectly authentic prescription medicine packet. The disc itself was lodged in the dimple of a plastic tray sealed in foil, as if it were a giant aspirin.
This packaging had a big effect on Spiritualized's standing. It marked them out as an important band, and the record was one that people wanted to own, to study, to pass reverently around their friends.
So there is life in the record cover yet. Creativity adapts to test the parameters set around it. The question is, what sort of visual accompaniment will there be when music becomes something you download via the Internet? Will animated web pages be a vital sales tool, or will we care even less about having something to look at while we listen?
It's an unnerving notion for those of us who can remember album covers. But people of younger generations, who have been using computers from their first day at primary school, will have no problem getting their music from this cool medium, without the security blanket of a tangible lyric sheet. And maybe all of these developments are healthy. Maybe they're a move away from immature, fetishistic materialism. Maybe sleeve art as a whole will die out, only to be preserved in design museums as a form that existed between the years 1950 and 2000
`Sampler: Contemporary Music Graphics', by Intro, will be published on 24 May by Laurence King, price pounds 19.95
This page, clockwise from above: the stripped-down artwork of APC Tracks Vol ll; Bruce Gilbert's `Ab Ovo'; Ned Sublette, Lawrence Weiner & The Persuasions' Ships at Sea, Sailors & Shoes; Pro- Pain's `The Truth Hurts' CD which featured news-style photographs which extended to a gruesome shot on the disc itself - with strategically placed hole in the middle
Clockwise from above: minimal artwork for `Ceefax' by Fridge; St Etienne's `Sylvie'; `Saturday Night' by Suede; Square Pusher's `Music is Rotted One Note'; Hip Hop Don't Stop by various artists; `Angel' by Massive Attack; the shrink-wrapped `TruPak: 12' from Orbital
Clockwise from top left: Tortoise's TNT; Bring it On by Gomez; Spiritualized's Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space; The Complete Bill EvansReuse content