Oct 26 2021

By Dave Thompson.

Who Controls the Album Cover Artwork?

It’s the first thing you see when you buy a new album, and one of the last things you’d imagine could be subject to dispute. A record sleeve, after all, should say more for its contents than the musicians ever could, and if you range through rock’s most dynamic catalogs, the jackets come to mind as quickly as the music, and encapsulate them as well: the historical hall of fame that covers The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper; the pennant bedecked scooter on the front of The Who’s Quadrophenia; the cut ‘n’ paste blackmail text for the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks; and of course, a room full of 19 bare naked women for The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Electric Ladyland

Hendrix was furious when he saw the British sleeve for his long-awaited third album. He had already designed the album’s artwork himself, balancing Linda Eastman’s photography with his own handwritten notes. But when the finished item was presented to him, only the inner half of the gatefold retained his original vision. As for the rest of it … 

The picture, by Swinging London photographer David Montgomery, had originally been intended for a Sunday Times feature article. When Hendrix decided not to turn up at the session—his absence summing up his feelings on the concept—the session went ahead without him, with the girls given pictures of the guitarist to hold instead. Then, when the newspaper feature fell through, Sunday Times photo editor Dave King just happened to be art director at Track Records as well. 

Who Controls the Album Cover Artwork?
Controversial Track Records artwork for Electric Ladyland caused a commotion in the press.
Top Pops (November 9-15, 1968) & Melody Maker (November 9, 1968)

“I don’t know anything about (the picture); Hendrix complained when the album hit the stores. “I didn’t know it was going to be used.” And he did his best to dissuade his US label, Reprise, from perpetrating the same ghastly image. He succeeded, too, but not because the label necessarily respected his rights as an artist. He succeeded because Reprise knew they would never get a gatefold full of topless models through the halls of American prudery. 

“If the artist wants to be outrageous, that’s what the music’s for. If the label wants to be conservative, that’s why there’re trade papers. But when it comes to the sleeve, that’s where everyone should pull together. Because that’s the first thing people look at in the record store … “

~ Tony Secunda

The business of choosing the correct record jacket for an album has never been an easy one, yet it is one that few artists even begin to consider when they sign their first record deal. It is, after all, human nature to assume that if the musician makes the music, then the musician is going to decide how the music is presented.  There have been enough highly publicized instances over the years, where an artist’s own artwork has been released and then banned, to persuade the average consumer that control is complete. Indeed, it is precisely because of such controversies that so many record companies do NOT like artists to have the final say on their album sleeves. 

It is only within the last decade, for example, that the Rolling Stones’ epochal Beggar’s Banquet album has been available with the band’s chosen artwork present and correct. For almost 20 years before that, the graffitied bathroom wall that the Stones handed in had lain forgotten and forlorn in a closet somewhere, suppressed by a record company (Decca in Britain, London in America] who felt that such an image was distasteful. Taste equates to sales, and sales, of course, are what labels are all about. 

Yet controversy (or the avoidance of) is only one of the issues involved here, as Gene Loves Jezebel vocalist Jay Aston discovered in 1992. 

Who Controls the Album Cover Artwork?

The Welsh Goth rockers’ latest album, Heavenly Bodies, was on the eve of release, and vocalist Jay Aston explains, “(The label) put a sleeve on it that really offended me. We didn’t pick that, they just delivered it, and said, ‘Here’s the sleeve.’ I was so offended by that. All the photos inside, those were the pictures we took. Somehow, they managed to get one and put a pizza behind it, or whatever they’ve done, and colored it.” 

In common with many other bands, Aston admits, the group’s contract was such that, “Yeah, we could stop a sleeve. But in the end, it would have just delayed everything forever.”

Maybe Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell did speak for many more musicians when he insisted, in relation to his own records’ jackets, that he would never allow his own vision to be compromised by the reactions of “people who are unartistic.” At what price did that determination come, however? 

As far as Gene Loves Jezebel were concerned, a very high one. A massive, and long sold out, American tour had already been set up to coincide with the album’s scheduled release; to delay the album would mean either canceling the tour or going out on the road to play songs that nobody had heard and wouldn’t be hearing for months to come. In other words, the label had them at its mercy. Grudgingly, the band approved the sleeve. 

Aston continues to seethe, however, and with good reason. “It looks absolutely awful, and it totally misrepresents what is ultimately a very sensitive album,” he says, and he is, of course, correct. The way an album looks is traditionally construed as an indication of the way it will sound. Imagine a “classic” Yes album, for example, without the characteristic flying islands and sci-fi landscapes that decorated their jackets; Dark Side Of The Moon without its trademark prism; or an early Beatles record with-out their smiling moptops gazing out. In all three instances, the artist had control of the artwork. But once again, that control is illusory. The record company could have simply turned it down and gone with their own image. 

Who Controls the Album Cover Artwork?

In 1979, at the height of the punk rock explosion in Britain, one of the biggest bands of them all, The Adverts, delivered their own idea for their latest album to their label, RCA: a photograph of a human torch, one of the Buddhist monks who set themselves ablaze to protest the war in Vietnam. “But when the album came out,” singer TV Smith recalls, “our artwork had been thrown away, and replaced with a photo of the band. And it wasn’t even a good’ one.” RCA defended their actions by arguing that the original picture was simply too horrific to even be considered; the fact that Rage Against The Machine blithely used the same photo on their self-titled debut album 15 years later, then, is either an indication of just how much more control bands can exert on their careers today, or, more likely, a sure sign of how far moral standards have declined in the last couple of decades. Because even as Rage were winning the fight against suppression, in 1992, Gene Loves Jezebel were going to war over that pizza! 

The belief that a strong cover image will indelibly affect the listener’s perceptions of the music, however, cuts both ways. Pink Floyd would agree that it can help. Richard Carpenter, on the other hand, knows it can also be crippling. 

Through the early 1970s, he and his late sister, Karen, created some of the most enduringly beautiful easy listening music of the era, and today, they are justly applauded for doing so. But at the time, Carpenter remembers, “We were getting skewered by the critics, and if you look at those LP covers, you can’t blame them.” He shudders. “Here we are together, cheek to cheek, and it’s just too sweet.” 

The Carpenters themselves had absolutely no control over their record sleeves, and their label, he swears, “really didn’t know how to market us.” Which was a problem because that’s what an album cover is; a vital—perhaps the most vital—cog in the marketing machine, and one upon which a band’s fate can literally rise to the sky, or plummet like a stone.

Who Controls the Album Cover Artwork?

Discussing his own, extraordinarily successful, career in artist management and promotion, the late Tony Secunda explained, “The best covers are the ones which come with the full support of everybody involved—the artist, the label, the legal department, the sales people. 

“If the artist wants to be outrageous, that’s what the music’s for. If the label wants to be conservative, that’s why there’re trade papers. But when it comes to the sleeve, that’s where everyone should pull together. Because that’s the first thing people look at in the record store … And the last thing they see when they put the record down, unbought. 

Who Controls the Album Cover Artwork?
When John Lennon and Yoko Ono went full frontal on their 1968 album Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, their record label EMI refused to distribute the album. To skirt controversy Track Records and Tetragrammaton stepped in and brown bagged the LP for release in the UK and US. The album failed to chart in the UK and only managed to reach #124 of the US charts.

Discussing album art in 1987, Jeff Gold, then VP of Creative Services at A&M Records, told CNN, “What usually happens is, we have a meeting with the artist, who nine times out of 10 will come in with an idea, and my job is either to make that idea work and work well, or dissuade them from the idea they have got, and come up with something that works for them and works for us as well.”

Who Controls the Album Cover Artwork?
When Electric Ladyland’s cover art caused a ruckus in the press, creative adjustments were made to the marketing efforts. New Musical Express (November 2, 1968) with most of the cover art obfuscated and twisted in new directions; and Hitweek (November 1968) with the ad that simplifies the marketing “Jimi Hendrix’s new double album is for sale on Track Records that’s all you need to know.”

And if that doesn’t work? The record company will just go its own sweet way, of course, and the first the artist knows about it is when the finished artwork drops through his mailbox. And what does he see as he rips off the wrapping paper?

Why, 19 bare naked ladies, of course. 

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