Sleeve design and photography (image, branding, look)

Four men in matching suits walking along the road in the 1960s, with Liverpool town hall and the Liver Building in the background

Merseybeat band © National Museums Liverpool collections
(Peter Kaye archive). Accession number MMM 1998.23

Photography and sleeve (or album) design are two areas of the visual arts that have been especially important to popular music's development. Photographs add additional meaning to music, both in images of performers themselves and through other types of photographs used in record sleeves and advertising. Photographic images of musicians usually take one of two forms:

  • portraiture taken in a studio or other location
  • live shots which aim to capture the excitement and spirit of a particular performance.

Both have been crucial in the process of image creation and in providing a star image for popular music performers. When printed in magazines and newspapers or used in cover art for records, a well taken shot can help to make a star.

These types of image are also important in placing popular music acts in terms of both social context and musical style. The choice of location, style of dress, lighting and composition all help to locate an artist within a pre-existing set of visual, artistic and social associations. Often the conventions used in photographing particular types of musicians can lead to a kind of visual language that can be used and reused. So strong are these types of visual signs that we can often garner a good idea of what a particular musical act will sound like from photographs alone.

Record sleeves have a basic practical purpose: to provide packaging to encase sound carriers such as LPs and CDs. Such packaging normally includes a front cover that identifies the artist (or artists) and title of the recording alongside some form of photographic or graphic design. Over time this practical necessity has become an area for artistic expression but even the best album covers are more than just artwork. They also say something about the music.

In a variety of ways the cover of an album aims to provide listeners with an initial visual context for the act or music contained on the recording. Visual representation included on record sleeves can serve to highlight the artist, genre, origin or mood of the music being packaged. As Ian Inglis notes, the sleeve is an accompaniment to the music and "not a superfluous thing to be discarded during the act of listening, but an integral component of the listening which assists and expands the musical experience" (2001, 84). As such, LP and CD cover art has been a central part of the marketing of recordings, not only placing them in terms of style but also in the importance placed upon recordings as artefacts, or collectable items.

Sleeve design is a process - ideas are developed, rejected and re-worked to get the final look. Some ideas are never even seen in public as bands split up, releases get shelved or record companies decide to go with a different idea. Designs have to be adaptable. Artwork is used in different formats and sizes from vinyl albums to downloads and from CDs to advertising billboards. Sleeve design can also draw upon the creative scene in which a particular act emerges, often using visual artists who are part of their social network within a given city or genre culture.

Follow the links below to explore some particular aspects of the importance of photography and sleeve design: