An album of music begins at track one, but you start setting the scene long before this. People see the cover before they hear a single note, before they read the track listing, and sometimes before they even find out who the artists are. Most musicians have some sort of a plan in mind for their next album. That plan should already include the cover. In this article, I’ll tell you why it matters and how to avoid screwing it up.
As a buyer for a large music retailer, I quickly learned that you could tell almost everything you needed to know about the commercial potential of an album by looking at its packaging. This seems wrong. I was taught from an early age not to judge a book by its cover. It seems like a useful lesson until you find yourself standing in a bookshop, trying to figure out which book to buy.
It would be very wrong for a music critic to review an album s/he hasn’t heard, but as the buyer for a store, you’re not really concerned with whether or not you think an album is any good. You’re concerned with whether or not lots of other people will buy it. At the point at which they make their purchase, a great many customers will not have listened to the album either. There’s something to be said for taking a walk in their shoes.
It’s not just the retailers and the customers who will unwittingly let their prejudices make judgments for them. There’s significant evidence that trained professionals hear quite a bit of what they’re expecting to hear, too, so when it comes to ensuring your record gets the best possible reception, it’s worth thinking about the signals your packaging is sending.
The outside of a CD is intentionally informative. It will almost always list the artists, the repertoire, and the name of the label. The track record of each of these will tell you a lot, especially if you’ve never heard of them. Movie posters use that weird narrow contractual obligation typeface, so everybody can have their name printed in letters X inches high. This is almost never the case with guest artists, so the relative size of their names will give you some insight into the priorities (or power) behind the enterprise.
The type of packaging will tell you a lot, too: a plastic jewel case is the standard choice. A cardboard Digipak is more expensive to make, and indicates a higher expected retail price. A Super Audio CD is expensive to produce, so the SACD logo tells you something about aesthetic and commercial priorities, while a record that comes in the even more expensive SACD case wears its old-school audiophile priorities on its sleeve. An o-card (a cardboard sleeve that wraps around the jewel case) is another little extra expense. If the label doesn’t normally use them, an o-card is an indicator that this was an unusually expensive record, a high priority, probably assigned a larger marketing budget. These are all the standard types of packaging: the types that are easy to order. If a CD is packaged in something else fancy, somebody made a real effort to make that happen.
A CD without a barcode isn’t for commercial release. One without a catalog number is probably not from an established label. The convention is for the text on the spine to read from top to bottom, so that when it’s on the shelf, you tilt your head to the right to read it. If you have to tilt your head to the left, the packaging is the work of a beginner or maverick. If there’s something vitally important on the left-hand quarter of the cover, the record will struggle in Japanese stores, where it’s common to wrap this side of an imported CD with a piece of paper carrying a Japanese translation.
All of this, and we’ve barely started on the actual design.
The design itself carries a lot of value cues. Expensive records tend to use photography on the cover. They tend to have images that go right to the edges (“full bleed” as the designers say), and they place the logos and names right on the image, without a solid background behind them. This is difficult to make work—you end up throwing out a lot of otherwise perfectly good images because there’s nowhere to put the text, and you can spend a lot of time in Photoshop gently blurring, darkening, or lightening the details behind the words. Cheap records use stock photos, put the images in boxes, and put the text on solid backgrounds, because it’s easy and you can bang them out quickly.
Typography is a minefield. The rest you can do yourself without too much risk, but typography is the bit that sends me running to a real designer, every time. Decades spent fiddling with Microsoft Word has given most of us an intuitive sense of the basics of desktop publishing, but Word is bad at typesetting: it gives us too many of the wrong sort of choices (lots of fonts and gimmicky effects) and not enough of the important ones (little tweaks to the one font we’re using). Word teaches us that all typefaces are available in normal or bold. In truth, most good typefaces are available in lots of different weights (thin, ultra light, light, medium, book, bold, black and ultra black). Most text takes on a certain designer air if you just pick a typeface and use several different weights to indicate the information hierarchy—especially if you avoid the “default” looking normal/bold ones in the middle.
The other thing a real designer will do is fiddle with the spaces between the letters. You can make them all bigger (or smaller) to expand (or condense) the type to make it more readable (or to make the layout work without distorting the shape of the letters). This is called tracking. There’s also kerning, which is where you adjust the spaces between individual pairs of letters. If you don’t know how to do this, avoid all-caps, especially if your album has the word Stravinsky on the front. If you ever wondered why the copy just looks better when the designer does it, it’s because they know how to do this and they know when to leave it alone.
A Question of Image
Perhaps here, 1,000 words into this article, is a good time to admit that I’m not even going to try to tell you what kind of image makes an effective album cover. You can Google this question and find lots of people rationalizing the things they like. I read a lot of these types of posts before I started writing this piece, and I learned nothing very useful. That’s not to say there’s no space for creativity here—just that I can no more tell you what it should look like than I can tell you which notes you should write or how you should play them.
A substantial portion of the posts on my blog have fun with the photos people put on their album covers. I see people tweet links to these saying things like “Album covers that miss the mark” or “More terrible album art” and it makes me rather sad. I don’t create these posts to call attention to bad work. I do it because it’s fun to do. I look at a photo of a person either doing something or just standing there trying not to look awkward. We’re supposed to think this person is either making music or thinking about making music, but these little square photos are like individual cells from a cartoon strip, just waiting for somebody to impose a new narrative on them.
I don’t pick them because they’re bad. I’d like to be able to tell you that I pick the good ones, but the truth is I just go through the new releases on iTunes and pick the first ten albums with photos of people on them. Nothing interesting is safe from ridicule. If there’s anything funny about this, it’s the captions, not the covers. Otherwise I could just collect together all the covers and invite people to laugh at them. Besides, if you’re going to care about what people on the Internet think, you’ll never get anything done.
The choice of what (if any) image to put on the cover is personal and individual to the specific artists and repertoire. If you can find a picture that says something about the concept behind the album, that’s great. If the connection isn’t obvious, you might find some space to explain it in the booklet or, better still, on the back cover. Almost nobody does this, even though it’s an obvious opportunity to draw the listener into your world.
Here’s the thing: whatever you put on the front of your album is going to be partly aspirational. Whatever else it tells people, it’ll tell them which albums you’d like yours to be associated with. It’s very much like the clothes you wear: you’re unique and you’re an individual, but people are going to put you in a pigeonhole because it’s the way their brains work. There’s nothing you can do about that, but you do get to choose what sort of pigeon you’re going to be. The choice itself is not unimportant, but what matters most is that you execute it well. If you’re going to wear a suit, make sure it fits. If you’re going to dress your album like a hipster, do it in a way that doesn’t make people cringe.
You can go with a photo or a painting or a drawing or a collage or an abstract pattern. Whatever you choose, remember this is like a passport photo. It’ll be on the discography page of your website forever. Sometimes we’re happy that a product is very much of its time, but if you don’t want it to age conspicuously, it’s safer to aim for something that looks like it could have been done at any point in the last 40 years. Whether we’re talking clothes or graphics, modern fashions fall out of date far more obviously than classic styles.
A lot of customers will first experience an album cover as one of those little thumbnail images on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, or some other website. Getting them to click on it is the first step in the process of getting them to buy it, so the cover should make them want to see it bigger.
When I commission album art from a designer, I frequently ask them to deliver the first set of concepts not as glorious big high resolution images, but as little tiny thumbnails. Once you’ve seen it big, the experience of looking at it small will be totally different: you only get one chance to learn something important from this exercise. 
All About Assets
To print an album with a “full bleed” cover, you’ll need the background to extend at least 3mm past the edge. Your manufacturers or distributors should be able to give you a template or specification for all this.
When you come to make the real thing, you want it really, really big. To print the picture on the front of the CD booklet, you need an image about 1600 pixels square, but if this is the biggest version you have, you can’t blow it up for a full page ad or limited edition vinyl, let alone a poster or one of those giant album covers we hang up at signings and in the few remaining record shop windows.
More importantly, if your cover image is made up of lots of different elements (text, logo, image, etc.) you want all of these assets individually. If any of them (like the background image) were cropped to fit on the cover, you’ll want the whole thing so you can expand it to make adverts, flyers, posters, and other promotional materials.
Don’t forget to ask for all this when you brief the designer. If you don’t ask for it until they’ve finished, they’ll have to do at least some of the work twice.
Working With Designers
If you’re not used to working with a graphic designer, here’s what I suggest: get them to give you a quote for one set of five ideas, one set of three ideas, and two rounds of revisions to the final concept, with an agreed fee for each subsequent revision. If they haven’t done a lot of cover art before, make sure you give them the specs from the plant so they deliver something you can actually use.
Unless you have a very fixed idea of what you want, show them examples of things you like (not necessarily album covers) and ask for ideas in that direction. Collect up all the feedback you want before you ask them to change something, so you’re not running up the bill or driving them crazy with lots of little alterations.
In my experience, good designers respond much better to written briefs than to a drawing of what you want it to look like. Having a go yourself and asking them to fix it up is like humming into a Dictaphone and then asking a composer to turn it into a symphony. It might be what you’re paying them for, but it’s not the way to get their best work.
Getting It Done
If you compress the timeline for producing and releasing an album so that everything gets done the day before its absence starts costing you real money, the album cover gets finished long before the music. Distributors need the cover before they need the audio, so there’s an argument to be made that you should start work on this before you record a single note.
This approach has several advantages. If you’re not in a screaming rush, you’re less likely to make uncomfortable compromises. You’ve got a better chance of including session photography on the cover or in the booklet if you have this in mind before the sessions take place. If the record features a rare collaboration between two busy artists, the session is a rare chance to get a picture of them in the same room. It’s not uncommon for labels to take two headshots and put them side-by-side on the cover, but it sends a terrible message about the extent to which this is a constructive creative partnership.
If I have a single piece of constructive advice for you, it’s that the day you think, “I’m going to make a record,” is the day you should think, “and I’ll need a cover.” If this is at the back of your mind as you go through the creative process, there’s a much better chance you’ll hit upon something fun or something beautiful. That is, after all why we do this, isn’t it?
1. I’m putting this in a footnote because it’s too big a topic to treat properly without going off on the sort of tangent that does not belong in the fourth paragraph. In the ’70s and ’80s, many American orchestras began using screens to anonymize the audition process. This led to a huge increase in the number of women joining those orchestras. It’s possible this discrimination was conscious and deliberate, but there’s reason to believe that a lot of the time, if the panel couldn’t see the gender of the performer, they simply heard something different. The classic paper on this is Goldin & Rouse 1997. Plenty of research has been done into how the visual presentation of a performance or recording affects the way it is judged—so much research, in fact, that Friedrich Platz and Reinhard Kopiez (2011) were able to do a meta-analysis of them all. They concluded that the visual aspect of a performance had a significant effect on its perceived quality. For those interested in exploring the research on this subject, this paper is a good place to start: the authors list not just all the studies they included in their analysis, but also the relevant ones they excluded as being unsuitable for inclusion.
2. This is completely off-topic, but the same is true when you’re developing a new website: the first time you look at the site, you get confused by some neat-but-not-very-intuitive aspect of the user interface. The second time you use it, you know what to do. The third time you look at it, you forget all about whatever it was that confused you, and it doesn’t get fixed. That neat-but-not-very-intuitive thing goes on to confuse everybody who ever visits your website, and nobody ever bothers to tell you about it. You can’t experience a first impression twice, which is why you need a steady supply of fresh virgins  when you’re revising your website. If you ever catch yourself asking somebody, “O.K., take another look at this. Is that better?” then you’re doing it wrong. Ask someone else. This is probably the single most valuable piece of advice I’ve ever heard about product design, and I have no idea why it isn’t written down more often.