Caught by Album Cover Art at the Belfer Audio Archive

University Treasures

An image jumps out at you. You study it, turning the album jacket over while listening. The image is paired with album reviews. You see it framed on walls. It can be simple, intricate, weird.

Theo displays an album cover
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. Photo by Steve Sartori.

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 Syracuse’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.

Cover art was absolutely crucial to conveying genre.

—Theo Cateforis

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).

Vinyl records by David Ossman, Johnny Cash, George Harrison, and Merle Haggard and George Jones
Albums courtesy of Special Collections Research Center

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.

SaveSave

SaveSave

Jen Bort

Last updated:

This story was originally published on December 14, 2017. It also appeared as “Caught by Album Cover Art” in the Spring 2017 issue of Syracuse University Magazine.


Also of Interest

  • Special Collections Research Center

    The Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) advances scholarship and learning by collecting and preserving rare books, manuscripts, and other primary source materials.

  • Music History and Cultures

    Immerse yourself in the study of music in a historic, social, and cultural context, as well as in its relation to other arts.