Walking through a record store is always a pleasant experience for me. I’m not an analog fanboy, or a vinyl collector, but I enjoy having the opportunity to hold an album in my hand, to see the cover art firsthand, flip through the liner notes, touch the disk. It seems to me that the recent vinyl craze (which I have mixed feelings about) is also helping bring back unique covers.
As digitally distributed music has become more popular, bands have been faced with the dilemma of selling cheaply distributed music files rather than having people purchase more expensive CDs. The nostalgic return to vinyl has created a new demand for physical copies of albums, and therefore the return of the record case – which, due to its size and intention of protecting vinyl – has unique design elements. Simultaneously, many bands have begun selling “special edition” or “collector edition” albums with additions such as books, DVDs, backstage passes, or even props – not to mention unique cases and boxes for these items.
Putting aside the controversial statement of producing “special” and “collector” material, I’m very excited about the return of the physical case. Especially cases that are physically different to hold and interact with. Such “novelty” cases have been used for some time. Examples include Andy Warhol’s famous cover for the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers (with working zipper), Jethro Tull’s Thick As a Brick (with a 12-page newspaper for the cover), and Tool’s 10,000 Days (packaged with stereoscopic eyeglasses). Similar trends can be seen in film as well, with new “Director’s Cuts” and re-releases packaged with alternative covers, slipcases and booklets. The Criterion Collection produces a whole line of films with newly designed covers specifically for their release, often including other goodies as well.
Why am I excited by this? Because covers and cases are a medium themselves that are inherently tied to the work they are designed to protect. Cover art is intended to grab attention and sell records, yes, but it is also intended to convey the essence of the album. In a digital form one sees the cover art, yes, but it is removed from the music. It is not a whole package but scattered elements on a screen. In many cases the addition of liner notes (and any artwork contained therein) is removed, sometimes the art on the back of the cover is subject to the same fate.
Even if the vinyl fad fades away, I hope people will be able to appreciate the uniqueness and necessity of the physical case. Digital distribution is cheap and effective, and I’m not going to say that we should reject it, I wouldn’t even reject the possibility that digital “cases” may be a possible alternative, but something beautiful will be lost if the medium of the case fades into obscurity.