Changing formats, changing images
© iStockphoto.com/Geni Corwin
Historically the connection between popular music recordings and their packaging has been one born of necessity. Up until the 1990s recorded sound had to be captured within a physical object in order to be distributed and sold. Even when the CD format was introduced in the 1980s designers reacted by adapting their designs to fit the scale of the format, despite consumers often bemoaning the loss of the bigger (and more intricate) artwork associated with twelve inch vinyl. With the advent of digitally distributed non-physical formats such as mp3 however, this connection has been largely severed.
The full consequences of digital distribution are still unclear (for one thing, physical sales still eclipse legal downloads in the international market), but a number of effects can be identified. One is the way that consumers download individual tracks of their own choosing and make their own compilations, often across different styles. This process has led some commentators to talk about a decline in the primary importance of the album. As downloads become a much more dominant method for the distribution of recorded sound, consumers may come to place less and less value upon accompanying visual packaging. As a result, a new generation of music consumers may have no emotional attachment to recordings as physical objects, and the importance of sleeve art may diminish.
For their part however, internet companies have attempted to echo the historical connection between sound and vision in the new sound carrying formats. Downloads often come bundled with copies of sleeve art that automatically load onto the screens of mp3 players as a particular track is playing. The function of these sleeve art bundles is explicitly to replace or compensate for the lack of a physical cover. Apple's browsing function on the ipod touch and iphone, for instance, is clearly set up to mirror the act of browsing through a shelf of LPs or CDs. However the thumbnail jpegs usually bundled with downloads clearly do not have the same physical presence of a record or CD sleeve. Such images are so small and of such a low resolution that detail tends to be lost and information common to most record covers is rendered illegible. Other visual extras bundled with downloads include screensavers, access to website extras and videos. However, these extras tend to be somewhat divorced from the sound recording itself and constitute a different framing of sound through vision rather than being a replacement for the tangible elements of physical packaging.
Other innovations have sought to replace some of the functions of the record sleeve in the age of digital downloads. The web-based application and music website last.fm, for instance, fulfils a function similar to the sleeve note by retrieving information about a particular act from an online database and displaying it as a digital file is played. Last.fm also adds newer functions that would be impossible with physical formats. It gathers a detailed profile of a given user's musical taste by logging details of their listening habits (either on PC or via an mp3 player). The service also has a recommendation feature through which suggestions of other music are made and a social networking function that allows users to interact with other individuals with similar musical tastes.
The most prominent and well used example of the connection between sound and vision on the internet can be found in the social networking site myspace, currently one of the most popular websites in the world. Music pages held on myspace.com include a music player, visual images of a particular act and other forms of visual artwork. The site also lets fans comment on a band's music and receive regular updates, bulletins and blog posts; it also allows for some form of interaction with artist or record company. Both myspace.com and last.fm are perhaps indicative of a new form of interactivity in the relationship between music and visual packaging facilitated by new technologies. As such technologies advance, the diminishing importance of the physical recording and hence sleeve art will no doubt be replaced by new forms of visual contextualisation and new channels of gaining information about music.