Packaging, Discovery and Recorded Music


Unfortunately, as we acquire more and more recordings online as audio files, we are losing valuable information that can really add to our understanding of the music. Just as we think of milk as coming from the supermarket instead of the cow, now music is “made” by the web. I remember spending hours in record stores when I was young, looking at the lp covers and reading all of the information on the jacket as a way to put the music into context. (Of course, it was also great excuse to hang around and hear what was being played in the store—that’s how I heard the first David Grisman Quintet album when it came out in 1977.)

The searching for context could sort of be put in two categories.

1. Information that the record company wanted me to know. This was not always the most interesting or helpful way to get an idea of the contents inside the record jacket! The cover often used graphic design as a way to engage the intended audience’s demographic, and the notes on the back often indulged in so much hyperbole that it was easy to dismiss them as the blathering of the in-house marketing department. Some covers did become such a strong expression of the label that the opposite occurred—you began to trust it when you saw it. (The design of covers from sixties Blue Note and Impulse releases are good expressions of that—great branding cases, both, too.)

2. Information gleamed from another type of reading. Where was the album recorded? Who played on it? Who produced it? What label was it on? What instruments were played? Answering those questions often led me to a better sense of what I might hear and gave me a way to continue exploring if I liked what I heard. Sometimes, the takeaway was related to the consistency of presentation—when I saw a poor design job I often wondered about the quality of the actual recording, since they didn’t seem to have taken much care with the part that I could actually see.

I am in mourning for record jackets, though I have come to terms with CD packaging, even if don’t have the impact of the old lp covers. The visual face-off between the Beatles and the Stones with Sgt. Pepper’s and Their Satanic Majesty’s Request would have seemed much less important than it did if first delivered in jewel boxes. (At least they are portable.)

Perhaps the “packaging” for digital audio files is the Wikipedia entry, the MySpace page, and YouTube videos. If so, what’s missing is the actual promise of the old packaging. Many times I bought albums because the cover lured me in, not because I knew anything about the music. Often these records became favorites—an album of modern gamelan music with a short man wearing a huge mask on the cover, Amarcord Nino Rota, and Gal Costa’s “India” for example. Because I purchased them “sound unheard”—as opposed to hearing snippets online—I was invested in listening carefully to every note in order to decide whether I liked the music.

The ability to hear snippets of music online is both good and bad—good, because you can get an idea of the music; bad, because you don’t get the whole idea. You make judgments quickly, and often unfairly. Given this mode of quick decisions, perhaps what we ultimately listen to is actually much more limited than before, despite the actual availability of a greater range of music.

So maybe there’s a design challenge here—how can we add a visual element to an audio file that that lets our imagination go to work?

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8 Responses to “Packaging, Discovery and Recorded Music”

  1. Sven Tesch Hallström Says:

    Yes Robert, You are absolutely right. I share your memories of unpacking an LP, reading and listening, smelling the fresh print, feeling the quality of the package. I still have thousands of LPs packed with memories. Collectors want to buy them, and I’m tempted to sell. But some of them are impossible to sell. Like all the Miles records, the MJQs and some of the best Blue Notes. And the Impulse Coltranes in their thick, glossy covers.

    It’s like having a book that you want to leaf through from time to time, smell the paper and just enjoy. It’s also pure logic and artistry that you have made a very nice design for your blog. Thank You! /Sven––your jazz friend in Sweden

  2. Sven Tesch Hallström Says:

    Ooops, I forgot to mention the Nino Rota cover/record. It’s also in my collection. Music from Amarcord, as far as I remember.

  3. Doug Kessler Says:

    Great idea. I miss album art too. And liner notes evoked my first symptoms of ‘description seduction disorder’ (describe anything in enough loving detail and I need it).

    Maybe with the iPad we can get back the words and pictures taken away by the iPod. I sense an app coming on…

  4. Richard Wells Says:


    I’ve noticed that some iTunes Store purchases now include a PDF of the CD booklet. There may be some hope/promise there.

    But when working at home and listening to music (either MP3s I’ve purchased or online radio services like Pandora or [(neo-)progressive rock, another deep vein of album art/content]) I find myself going to Wikipedia and/or review sites to satisfy my hunger for the kind of information I used to gorge on from the album covers *and* sleeves.

  5. Steve Says:

    Ooops, I forgot to mention the Nino Rota cover/record. It’s also in my collection. Music from Amarcord, as far as I remember.

  6. Robert Says:

    Steve, yes, the music is from Amarcord and a range of other Fellini movies, including a wonderful “8 1/2” by Carla Bley and friends…

  7. Richard Wells Says:

    Update: Just bought the latest 2-song digital download from Rush, which they published simultaneously to (at least) both iTunes and Amazon. From both sources it includes a 5-page Digital Booklet in PDF format. I bought it from Amazon and it imported right into iTunes, including the booklet. The Digital booklet, opened in Preview and Zoomed on the iMac, is *almost* as big as an Album cover. :-)

  8. Robert Says:

    Well, that’s very interesting. Still, the information is now in a different ”location“ than previously–it doesn’t persuade, it only fills in the blanks.