Since Columbia Records hired Alex Steinweiss as the first ever art director in 1938, music has become an industry riddled with variables.
Whether album covers featured the artist or a concept, they immediately became a point of judgment for music. When I stopped buying CDs for what I saw on the album covers, I started listening to music based on thumbnails. Regardless of where I went and how I searched, the internet provided a long list of music for all requests and often, the criterion was the attractiveness of the small image next to the title. Sometimes it was album art, sometimes it was the music video; either way, the appeal of music stemmed in its visual attractiveness. Of course, it was never easy to sample an auditory format in the way you can an image, but I was still choosing what my ears liked based on visuals.
Since the emergence of streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, the industry has revolutionized. This is seen on the artist front as artists are now paid indefinitely rather than on the basis of first week sales. It is also seen in the ability of independent artists to garner millions of followers. With this, the playing field seems to be more even – especially with Spotify allowing music to be uploaded without a label. Not only does this medium allow consumers to reach all kinds of music genres an varieties, it also lets music be the only factor in our judgment.
While the music we get through the online streaming platforms is based on various factors, the music we like, choose and put in our playlists, is based solely on what we hear. Yes, we can look at album covers but music is now presented to us based on what we like. Yes, what we like is based on the audiovisual selection process, but the generation that will only ever experience streamed music will experience it in a way unique to the last 80 years of the industry.
Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Nirvana’s Nevermind, Michael Jackson’s Bad, The Beatles’ Abbey Road, The Arctic Monkeys’ AM and so many more are iconic images forever ingrained into the fabric of the music industry and the walls of its followers, but I believe that these were all meant to be complementary rather than decisive. Album art relies on music, but the “co.” snuck into the independence of this art, limiting its freedoms, but only until the medium of streaming services.
I feel that the art we have now and onwards is and should be “Art for art’s sake.”
Aakash Nair is a first-year student at University of Amsterdam, the views expressed here are not necessary those of the Amsterdammer.