Syracuse University Magazine


Music history professor Theo Cateforis shows off some favorite album covers in his office. Cover art became a way to convey an album’s genre, creating opportunities for visual artists and targeting specific audiences.

Photos by Steve Sartori

Caught by Album Cover Art

As you flip through bins of vinyl records, an image jumps out at you. You study it, turning the album jacket over in your hands while listening to the record for the first time. You find the image paired with album reviews. You see it framed on walls. It can be simple, intricate, weird.

Cover art can be an important element of a work of recorded sound. At Syracuse University’s Bird Library, you can browse LPs on the fourth floor, and at SU’s Belfer Audio Archive—which houses around 65,000 long-playing (LP) vinyl recordings—you also find cover art of all sorts, holding all manner of recorded sound within. Organized by label, fascinating juxtapositions occur on Belfer’s shelves. George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass sits next to Famous Czech Tunes of the Golden ’30s. Johnny Cash sidles up to Janis Joplin. Cheap Trick is sandwiched between Merle Haggard and George Jones.

Cover art on classical LPs—indeed, cover art in general—really came into being thanks to a designer named Alex Steinweiss. Back in the late 1930s, discs were generally housed in plain, blank sleeves, stamped with a number and title to identify the contents. When Steinweiss was hired by Columbia Records as its first art director, he created original designs and custom cover art to better capture the spirit of the music and to draw the attention of would-be buyers. Steinweiss revolutionized the industry, and Columbia saw sales skyrocket by 800 percent.

Album covers have never been the same. They are alternately colorful and void of color. They contain photographs, paintings, collages, and clever pairings of text and illustration. You can tell a lot about a recording’s sounds by the art portraying it—and yet, sometimes the cover doesn’t take on meaning until you’ve dropped the needle into the groove, forever melding the visual and aural elements in your mind. “Cover art was absolutely crucial to conveying genre,” says College of Arts and Sciences music history professor Theo Cateforis, author of Are We Not New Wave? Modern Pop at the Turn of the 1980s (University of Michigan Press, 2011).

As Cateforis notes, if you were into heavy metal in the 1980s, you might never stumble across what you wanted. But if you went to the local record store and looked through some albums, it was a safe bet that the ones with demons on the covers held the menacing brand of music you were looking for. Cover art’s ability to convey genre directly correlated to buying decisions. The point, Cateforis says, was to lure someone in to buy. Intrigued by an artist you hadn’t yet listened to, maybe the appeal of the cover art would tip you toward parting with your hard-earned dollars.


A Medium for Visual Artists

Aside from aiding in genre identification, cover art serves as a creative medium for visual artists. The Talking Heads’ Speaking in Tongues, with art by Robert Rauschenberg, won a Grammy for Best Album Design. Similarly, The Velvet Underground & Nico with art by Andy Warhol made the banana an iconic image. Cateforis pulls Ornette Coleman’s album Free Jazz from his office shelf, revealing a cover painting by Jackson Pollock. Cateforis cites the modern art/modern jazz connection: Pollock on the cover insinuates the music is also high art. 

As much as album covers tell us about the connection between art and music, they equally reveal a great deal about the very consumers to which LPs were being marketed. As an example, Cateforis pulls out Exotic Percussion by Stanley Black & his Orchestra. On the cover is a beautiful woman with thick dark hair, leaning slightly forward so you can’t quite tell whether or not she’s topless. Her red lips are vibrant amid a green tropical forest. “Basically what you had was Playboy cover packaging, but the interior is all technical details,” Cateforis says. Released on the London label in the 1950s and ’60s, the album’s target audience skewed male. It was a new era of high fidelity, and this audience wanted high-end audio equipment to go along with it. With covers like Exotic Percussion you had, as Cateforis says, “a really interesting convergence of exoticism and modern technology.”

But if cover art is such an important piece of the puzzle, what about examples like the Beatles’ White Album, Sunny Day Real Estate’s LP2 ( “The Pink Album”), Metallica’s self-title album (“The Black Album”), or Spinal Tap’s Smell the Glove (another all-black album cover)? Cateforis says these types of covers tried to subvert the common exchange between artist and consumer. XTC has a great example of this with Go 2, the cover of which is filled with text that explains, “This is a RECORD COVER. This writing is the DESIGN upon the record cover. The DESIGN is to help SELL the record,” etc.


Into the Digital Era

In the 1970s, phonogram dates—which were associated with copyright protection—began to be regularly included on disc labels and containers. But before that, dates were usually not indicated. If you’re a music librarian, a catalog librarian, an archivist, or someone else dealing with LPs, cover art can be useful to help date a disc. For instance, in the article “Dating LPs,” which appeared in Music Reference Services Quarterly, Wendy Sistrunk notes, “Digital artwork, airbrush techniques, and refined graphics are a hallmark of album covers from 1967 and beyond. This is said to be a direct relation of the psychedelic and drug cultures’ influence.” Around the same era, “when the ‘teenager’ was discovered as a money-maker for record sales…many of these later record covers reflected a certain style designed to shock the adults (this is still true today),” Sistrunk writes.

As CDs, then streaming and digital formats took over, “the statement you were previously making with cover art, you’re now making with a music video,” Cateforis says. There was a change in visual focus once YouTube really hit, and it became the place where listeners learned about artists and their identities. “Think of the albums that had action shots of artists—concert albums, gatefolds: Music videos and YouTube took the place of those,” Cateforis says.

Still, amid the quick and easy downloads of today’s digital world, there’s been a resurgence in the popularity of vinyl records. For some music seekers, it’s an adventure to comb through rows of albums, searching for a new discovery, hastened perhaps by visually intriguing cover art. 

When asked about his favorite album covers, Cateforis chose a compilation album by The Cure from 1981, titled …Happily Ever After. “The album was an American double-disc release of their two previous British LPs Seventeen Seconds and Faith: two of the most depressing, gloomy, moody albums ever committed to vinyl—and probably my favorite records as a teenager,” he says. “The reason I love the cover so much is that the image seems so random (a shot of female color guards) and the title (...Happily Ever After) is so ironic given the bleakness of the music. I love things that clash and are at odds like that. The music of The Cure, which is very isolated and desperate, seems to hint at the hollow nature of happy endings and pointless pageantry. There are plenty of other album covers I could have chosen, but that one has always stuck with me!” —Jen Bort


Jen Bort is a May 2017 graduate of the Library and Information Science program at the School of Information Studies. During her time in the program, she worked and interned at the SU Archives, the Fayetteville Free Library, the iSchool, the Belfer Audio Archive, and in the cataloging department at Bird Library. She is now research and development librarian at the Central NY Library Resources Council (CLRC). Jen has a background in communications/journalism and her lifelong interest in music includes a stint playing in a noir rock band and the co-founding of bettyElm Records.