From a highly cynical point of view, album art has always existed to serve capitalism, a view summed up neatly in the cover for XTC’s second album Go 2 (see below). Cynical, yes, but the more shocking/pretty/intriguing the cover, the more likely it is to gain attention, and therefore the more likely a person is to give the music a quick listen, and the more likely they are then to buy or download the album.

“album art has always existed to serve capitalism”

In the past, the way to grab the eyes of prospective listeners was to give a visual indication of what was inside the album. Take, The Clash’s London Calling, with bassist Paul Simonon smashing his guitar against the stage of the Palladium in New York City in 1979. Although the photographer initially did not want to use the image due to its lack of clarity, it encapsulated the music within so well, that it ended up being used. In fact, it was named by Q magazine as the best rock and roll photograph of all time, saying it captured “the ultimate rock’n’roll moment – total loss of control”.

However, bands that were already established relished the opportunity to create something fuelled more by aesthetic than musical preoccupations. For example, Andy Warhol’s collaboration with The Velvet Underground and Nico ended up with the iconic adhesive banana-peel record cover, which he signed as if it were a regular piece of his work.

Much like the banana, other iconic album covers have been borne of simplicity. Take the universally recognisable image on The Beatles’ Abbey Road, a photograph that was taken in a photoshoot of under ten minutes, while police held up central London traffic. As creative director John Kosh explained, when questioned about the lack of visible information: “we didn’t need to write the band’s name on the cover… they were the most famous band in the world.”

Now, however, artists seem to have reverted to ensuring that potential listeners can get a sense of their music (or perhaps themselves) through their cover art and thus buy their work. There are different ways to go about this. The first route is to create the most over-the-top, shocking and dramatic image possible, in the hope that wide-mouthed or bemused viewers will take a chance on the music within. Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream cover depicts her lying among fluffy candy-floss clouds, coquettishly staring at the camera. It provides a delightful image, which combines the innocent with the sultry, not only enticing her audience visually, but also still managing to summarise the tone of her new album: fun, light-hearted and somewhat cheeky.

While some subscribe to the idea that a dramatic image can draw the most attention, others seem to believe the opposite (as the Velvet Underground & Nico and Abbey Road covers demonstrate). The simple polaroid that makes up Taylor Swift’s 1989 cover was chosen precisely because it revealed nothing about the album. Swift explained that she did not want to use a smiling photo and give the impression it was a happy album, and she certainly didn’t want prospective listeners to “see a sad-looking facial expression and think, oh, this is another breakup record.” Swift wanted to keep her music a secret from anyone who did not listen to it.

“Swift wanted to keep her music a secret from anyone who did not listen to it.”

Finally, deeper messages and political statements draw in prospective listeners. For example, many interpretations of the image on Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly have been made. Perhaps the location is tied to Obama’s tenure as US president, with black people therefore finally having a platform. The X’s of the judge’s eyes could be a symbol of the end of injustice, resulting in economic equality (hence the money). However, such an interpretation is far too simple. The chaos created by bottles of alcohol, expressions of confusion on some of the boys’ faces and the fact that one member of the group is on the phone, suggests there is more than meets the eye. We are engaged, and invited to listen to the music, in the hope of receiving answers to the questions provoked by the cover.

Clearly, album covers aim to give a visual representation of what is inside, so that prospective listeners have an idea of what to expect. Thinking of album cover art simply as packaging whose function is to entice buyers is slightly depressing. Yet, ignoring their capitalist purpose allows you to appreciate the designs as ‘art’. Whether the image on the front is meaningful, meaningless, beautiful, grotesque, politically charged or purely aesthetic, there is still a discussion to be had over each album cover’s details and merits, which is far more rewarding than cynically debating its revenue-producing role.