Image and design

cropped photograph of a man looking through a professional camera with a large lens

© iStockphoto.com/Korhan Hasim Isik

Sound and vision have always been connected in popular music. From live performances and stage sets to photographs and music videos, we don’t just listen to music, we also watch it. One way of talking about this connection is through the idea of images. We can think of the term ‘image’ in two ways: as the image of an artist (the particular 'look' that an artist puts across to the audience); and as 'images' in the broader sense (the visual images that are circulated through film, TV, print media, etc).  Both kinds of image play very important roles in how we think about and understand different types of popular music. This section explores how they do that.

Many different people - photographers, managers, video makers and designers, as well as the musicians themselves -  are involved in producing what we see when we watch music, and part of what they do is work to create an image for an artist or group of artists. Even musicians who are just starting out know that what they wear and how they look is all part of being in the music business. The ‘look’ of a band has to fit together with what they sound like. Some musicians have a lot of control over their image, others are styled by professionals, but whether musicians are considered ‘manufactured’ or ‘genuine’, image is central to being a pop musician.

The relationship between sound and vision in music has a long history.  Before sound recording arrived, they were united in live musical performance: an audience both listened and watched. It was accepted that visual features of a musical performance affected the meaning people got out of it. A concert pianist in the obvious grip of emotion, a visibly happy singer, a spectacular stage set - these are just three examples of this process. It was a two-way relationship.  Music provided cues to visual aspects of performance, and they in their turn enhanced the music.

With sound recording the relationship changed.  Visual aspects were not forgotten, but they became more subservient. Then, as the sound of recorded performance became more and more dominant, it was recognised, particularly by the music business, that there could be a new role for vision in adding dimensions to the musical experience - not through live performance, though that of course still continued, but by using visual phenomena to create interest in the performers themselves. In due course, live performance itself would start to react to this new idea.

As its name suggests, the ‘image’ of a performer or groups of performers is based on how they are seen. It wasn’t in itself a wholly new idea. Before sound recording tipped the balance in favour of sound over vision, artists had tried to capture the essence of virtuoso performers, and in so doing helped to create what the 20th century would call a ‘brand’ for them. Sheet music for popular songs and short instrumental pieces had used the design of its pictorial covers to suggest visually what meanings and associations might lie in the music inside it, once it was performed, and soon images of celebrated singers who performed the music in public, especially the singers, were attached to these covers.  

With advances in photography in the early 20th century it became possible to use quality photographic images of performers in more varied settings, such as newspapers and, particularly, speciality magazines.  From this last category came the fan magazine, which proved of unusual significance in raising the importance of the performer’s image, especially as a promotional tool for the music business.

As the notion of an image developed, therefore, it included visual aspects of musical performance, but it did not stop there.  Image involves using visual aspects of music - its musicians, its performance, its contexts - to add new dimensions to the idea that the music has meaning or significance, and indeed to suggest what those meanings and significance might be.  At the same time, because the music in question exists in a commercial environment, the value of image has long been recognised for its marketing potential.  The two are not incompatible: the same images that raise ideas about the meaning of music can raise interest in buying it. This recognition has been fundamental to the development of new ways of marrying sound and vision, from album sleeves to videos.

Following these links to explore these and similar questions in more detail: