Album covers are the front of the packaging of an audio recording, or album, released for commercial distribution. Album covers have three main functions: to advertise the album's content; express the artistic aspirations of the original artists who designed the cover art; and serve as an image associated with the album. It also goes without saying that as part of the record's packaging, album covers protect the recording media from dirt and damage.
Evolution of album covers
Early album covers were plain brown paper or cardboard affairs that sometimes included the producer's or retailer's name. Alex Steinweiss, Columbia Records' first art director, is credited with originating the idea of album covers and cover art in 1938. Other record companies followed suit so that by the late 1940s, all the major companies tried to outdo each other with their own colourful covers.
Album covers reached their heyday in the 1950s to the 1980s, the era of 12" LP and 45rpm records. A typical LP sleeve measures 12.375 square inches, providing ample space for artistic expression. During this period, album covers became an important part of music culture, with gatefold covers - folded double covers - poster inserts and lyric sheets becoming coveted objets d'art. Many featured commissioned artwork, reproductions of classic art, or original art by the musical artist featured in the record. The advent of the smaller compact disc (CD) format - a CD is no more than 25% the size of an LP - in the 1980s caused album covers to lose much of their artistic impact.
Album covers in the digital age
The growing popularity of digital music downloading and the soaring costs of producing a record pose dangers to the continued existence of "physical" album covers. Album art is available with digital downloads as a jpeg file, but unlike before, it is unclear what role it now plays in driving record sales. It must be noted, however, that sales of CDs currently continue to outstrip that of downloads by a significant margin.
Album covers and controversy
Album covers have attracted their fair share of controversy, with many records being banned or censored for their album covers that feature nudity, sexuality, religious iconography, violence, and other images deemed offensive. Record labels have responded to this by issuing sanitised versions of the album art.