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Classical Notes

Why are classical album covers so boring?

Posted at 12:00 PM on November 13, 2013 by Jay Gabler (1 Comments)
Filed under: Recordings

The final volume of BIS's Bach cantata series--volume 55--is one of the most notable recent classical releases; among other plaudits, it was highlighted by BBC Music Magazine as the single most outstanding release of the month. Understandably, conductor Masaaki Suzuki appears on the disc's cover looking well-pleased.

Suzuki Bach 55.jpg

Of course, he also looked well-pleased on the cover of volume 54.

Suzuki Bach 54.jpg

And volume 53.

Suzuki Bach 53.jpg

And volume 52.

Suzuki Bach Cantatas 52b.png

Now, I appreciate that BIS had more urgent concerns to attend to than designing 55 entirely distinct CD sleeves. That said, it seems odd that with such a distinguished recording series, there was so little effort to generate visual excitement. Classical labels may run on shoestring budgets--in fact, they certainly do--but the classical world seems to be slow to pick up on the reality that's already been acknowledged in other media realms: the content may be king, but a king has a hard time ruling when he's dressed in rags.

Limited budgets notwithstanding, classical labels seem perversely driven to draw attention to their packaging design struggles. I wouldn't even have noticed the Suzuki repetition, for example, if BIS hadn't positioned volumes 54 and 55 right next to one another in a large print advertisement. Then there's this trick, where the same photo shoot is made to do double duty with slightly varied poses.

Philip Cobb.jpg

Even the stock images of flowers, cathedrals, and composers are better, since at least they can be varied. They might be boring, but boring is probably preferable to laughable. Then there are those designers who draw plenty of attention to their album covers--but for the wrong reasons.

Can classical music's design problem be solved--within a budget? Possibly. Consider what's happened with classic literature: enterprising publishers are enlisting comic book illustrators and getting creative with type to put fresh faces on books by dead authors. Word Cloud Classics, a series from Thunder Bay Press, uses textured plastic covers to add a new tactile element to the act of reading.

Word Cloud Classics.jpg

In popular music, bands and labels are encouraging consumers' newfound interest in analog formats such as vinyl and even (strange but true) audiocassettes, recognizing the advantage in selling a product that can't be torrented. Interesting covers and packaging have become more integral to pop music marketing than ever, whether the label is a major player like Interscope (with Lady Gaga commissioning Jeff Koons to create a sculpture for the cover of her new album Artpop) or a small outfit like Minnesota-turned-California label Moon Glyph. (Of course, indie rock has its own well-worn tropes: for every photo of a pianist reflected on a Steinway cover, there are ten photos of hipster bands standing in parking lots wearing Ray-Bans.)

What do you think? What are your favorite classical album covers? What covers do you never want to lay eyes on again? Is there anything the classical world can reasonably do--within its limited resources--to step up its design game?


Comments (1)

OK, I was thinking of Nadia Mackie Jackson and thinking this doesn't have to be. She offers a different aesthetic, far from boring...


Posted by john | November 19, 2013 9:38 AM