Introducing the Crappy Photoshop Awards!

HS_hikey_4lights.jpgEver since beginning to write and edit the AlbumArtExchange Blog, I have considered creating a special “award” for some of the Photoshop disasters that are often used for album cover art. Two recent examples with similar problems have finally pushed me to make that move.

Probably one of the least expensive ways to create a quality album cover is to hire a professional photographer and have the artist pose in front of a studio backdrop (right). The result is a series of photographs that can be used by a talented graphic designer to create cover art. If the concept includes an image of the artist and a white background, a professional photographer can ensure that the lighting, makeup and styling are perfect for that purpose.

The worst way to create an album cover that features the artist and a white background is to use a photograph taken outside or during a live performance and use Photoshop to erase the background. There are some very skilled graphic designers who could do that and get a good result. However, the most likely outcome would be what we see in the two covers shown below.

 

Daryl Hall – Laughing Down Crying
dhall-laughi_03.jpg
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  Lauren Alaina – Wildflowers
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There is simply no excuse for using images like this for the cover of an album by a recording artist on a major label. This is the kind of amateur design work that we expect to see on a bootleg album or a mixtape. Even most of today’s indie artists will spend a few bucks to create a professional design.

Sadly, we are seeing more album covers that look as if they were created by high school students. The Daryl Hall cover is particularly bad. The composition, the bad Photoshop technique and the ugly typography make it one of the worst album covers of the year.

I have already written about the Lauren Alaina cover. What I did not touch on is the mess that the graphic designer made with her hairline. If you look at where her hair parts, it looks as if a lot of blurring and clone stamp work was done. I assume that this was done to hide where the attachment of her hair extensions was showing. Who knows?

Photoshop is a very powerful program. In the hands of a skilled artist, it can be used to create something brilliant. Those who try to skimp by using the unskilled and untalented usually end up with something crappy. Now, there is an award for that. Congratulations!

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Pandora and TiVo puts album art on my HDTV screen

I just got a message from TiVo about a free service that is now part of my regular TiVo subscription. Pandora is an Internet radio service that is now available to TiVo users with TiVo HD, HD XL, Series3™, Premiere and Premiere XL boxes.

It only took a few minutes to set up Pandora on my TiVo and I was quite happy with how it works and looks. One of the things that I really liked seeing is that Pandora displays album art. Other services that I’ve seen do not include this feature.

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Pandora allows users to set up radio stations based on the artists and styles of music that they like. To test the service, I created a station based on Pet Shop Boys. I then clicked the “thumbs up” button for a few songs that I liked and now Pandora has been serving up songs that I like for about 30 minutes.

My only complaint is that I would like the album art to be larger. There is a lot of wasted space on my TV screen and I would rather have it filled with the album cover than all of those blue pixels. At least Pandora gives me something to look at instead of just the artist name and song title. Being able to identify the album is a big plus.


Sirius Satellite Radio Inc.

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Atlantic Records sells MP3s without artwork

estelle_freak.jpgI recently purchased an MP3 download from the online store of Atlantic Records and was very disappointed to find that they are selling digital music files without artwork. I purchased Freak, the new single by Estelle (right), and received high quality 320Kbps MP3s. That’s much better quality than you can get from iTunes and Amazon.com.

However, I am one of those people who just can’t stand having music without the official album art in my collection. Blank images in the iTunes flow display and on my iPod are unacceptable.

Unfortunately, the standard 600 x 600 pixel cover art for this single isn’t available anywhere. This is one of the reasons why AlbumArtExchange is such a valuable asset to music collectors. Eventually, someone will scan the physical cover for this single and I’ll be able to ad it to my MP3s.

So, be warned that if you buy digital music from Atlantic Records, you won’t get the artwork that normally comes from iTunes, Amazon.com, Rhapsody, and other online retailers. However, you will get a high quality file.

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Why Allison Iraheta’s album cover needed a concept

airahe-justli_03.jpgAfter I wrote a review of Allison Iraheta’s new album cover (right) this morning, I started thinking about what makes the difference between an average cover that is simply designed to sell the album and those memorable album covers that make a lasting impact. The cover for Iraheta’s Just Like You doesn’t really say much. It features an attractive portrait of the artist, but it doesn’t tell us anything interesting about her — other than the fact that she has brightly colored hair.


If you’re a fan of American Idol, you watched Allison grow as a performer during the competion. She matured from a timid young girl who had difficulty speaking her mind into a confident star. Why isn’t that story conveyed by her album cover?


Below is a mock up of a concept that I came up with for Iraheta’s album cover. It shows her standing in what could be a backyard or neighborhood playground anywhere in the world. Standing in front of a tire swing is a small girl with a frightened look on her face. This child is “just like you” or just like anyone who has ever been small enough to be afraid to jump in that swing and head for the sky.


concept_allison_cover.jpgA talented photographer could do much to improve a concept like this. It would result in a cover for a debut album that Iraheta could be proud of for the rest of her career. I think this kind of image would be inspirational to Iraheta’s young fans who view her as a peer who has already achieved fame and success.


This concept shows a contrast between the edgy pop star that Iraheta has become and the child that she used to be. It is something that will contrbute to her image and be valued by fans years from today. There are dozens of album covers that portray female artists as sexy vixens. There are very few that are smart and sexy at the same time.


It took me about an hour to come up with a concept for this album cover. That demonstrates the small amount of effort that must have gone into creating the final cover for Just Like You. The record label just slapped something together without considering the artist’s image or her future. That is very typical and should serve as a lesson to young artists who are just starting out in the business. Ask for concepts that you can live with for the rest of your career. Your album art will help define you.



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iTunes LP shuts out indie labels and I told you so

Thumbnail image for itunes9-02.jpgLet me begin by making it clear that I am NOT one of those people who don’t like to say “I told you so.” Back in August, I wrote about the new digital sales formats that both Apple and major record labels are introducing in order to boost album sales.


In Apple’s Project Cocktail vs. CMX: Either way indie artists lose, I wrote:



One thing that most of the news articles about these new formats seem to overlook is how they will impact recording artists. The digital music format was not developed by the record industry. The MP3 was something that was forced upon them. In addition, the technology that is used to produce an MP3 is not proprietary to the recording industry.


This means that independent recording artists and small record labels can easily produce their own product and distribute it for sale through online stores. This will not be the case with Apple’s Cocktail and CMX. These formats will be owned by the record industry and artists who wish to use them to promote their albums will undoubtedly have to make deals with the major labels.


If these formats end up being something that consumers like (and that’s probably not likely), it will be a step back for independent recording artists and small labels. They will almost certainly be locked out of the game by the big boys.


Yesterday, John Herman wrote an article for tech and gadget blog Gizmodo that reveals Apple is in fact shutting indie artists out of the iTunes LP sales format:



Apple to Indie Labels: iTunes LP Is Out of Your League


With a higher price than regular albums, no lossless audio and virtually no device support, iTunes LP seems like a hard sell. Turns out, it might be lame for musicians too—at least, the ones without platinum records.


I spoke with Brian McKinney, who runs Chocolate Lab Records, a smallish label out of Chicago. As someone who actually makes records, he saw potential in iTunes LP, and after seeing how incredibly simple the actual LP files are, started looking into making some himself. It didn’t go so well:



I contacted the digital distribution manager at my label’s distributor. He had a conference call with an iTunes rep and asked how we go about putting an LP together. He was told that LPs aren’t being offered to indies and that there are only about 12 LPs being offered right now. They also said that iTunes charges a $10,000 production fee for them as well. So that pretty much edges out the indie market completely.

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So, there you have it. I am still surprised that this wasn’t reported on much earlier. I know that my earlier blog post got quit a lot of traffic when it was published back in August. I was certain that someone who works with independent artists would raise this issue.

I didn’t take a genius to figure this one out. Oh, and global warming is real, too.



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A look at iTunes 9 and the iTunes LP

I just installed iTunes 9 and before I discuss the new look and feel and the iTunes LP, I want to get my biggest complaint with iTunes out of the way. The program is just as slow as ever. It simply creeps along when activating songs after the download completes. The Genius feature grinds browsing through the iTunes Store to a crawl. These are old issues, but they have not been resolved in this latest version.


I like the new look of iTunes 9. It is always difficult to find your way around when the navigation features are moved from one place to another. The biggest change to the iTunes 9 user interface is the addition of a horizontal navigation bar at the top of the window. It has drop down menus that allow you to select the various genres of music, TV and movies, apps, etc. (All images below are clickable for a larger view.)


itunes9-01.jpgiTunesLP.jpgThe feature that will be of most interest to album art enthusiasts is the new iTunes LP. The iTunes LP is a special album that includes a menu screen similar to those on a DVD. Currently, iTunes customers can choose from a selection of six iTunes LPs for immediate download and six others as presale purchases. I wasn’t too impressed with the selection.

I already own all six of the albums that are currently available. I chose to purchase The Doors to use a research for this article.

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After the download competed, it took about 35 minutes for the songs and iTunes LP file to process and to be made available through the iTunes application. Meanwhile, I was unable to do anything else in iTunes. Browsing the store and playing other songs were not possible. So, if you want to purchase one of these iTunes LPs, make sure that you are willing to wait for it to do its thing.

doors-ituneslp01.jpgOnce I was finally able to play my new iTunes LP, I was impressed by the menu screen. The album art looks great on my 1920 x 1200 pixel LCD monitor. There is no pixelation at all. The menu is sized for smaller resolution monitors and does not fill the entire screen.  


The iTunes LP has a nice interface for playing the tracks that includes the lyrics. The photos and liner notes are a nice addition — although I think a larger view of the photos would be nice for those of us with high resolution monitors.


doors-ituneslp02.jpg

doors-ituneslp03.jpgThere is one area of concern regarding the iTunes LP. The Doors iTunes LP file is a huge 518.9 MB in size. So, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the image quality is good. This also explains why the LP took so long to download and process. Consumers who do not have large hard drive storage capacity may want to avoid purchasing too many of these things. I know that hard drive storage is less of an issue these days, but you’re not going to be able to store hundreds of these files on your average laptop.

All things considered, I like the new iTunes LP digital sales format. I think that it will work for classic albums and those by artists with a large and devoted fan base. I do not think that they’ve done enough to expand the value of album art. The images are not as large as I would like them to be. Apple should be getting ready for the next generation of high resolution monitors and the continued convergence of HDTV and home computer systems.



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Apple’s Project Cocktail vs. CMX: Either way indie artists lose

pinkfl-wall_02.jpgWhat was the last album that you purchased that you listened to from beginning to end over and over again? When I was a teenager, there were many albums like Pink Floyd’s The Wall that you just couldn’t pick and choose individual tracks to play. We put the LP on the turntable, donned our headphones, and listened to both sides. It was an experience.


An article posted at Wired magazine’s Epicenter blog details the upcoming “battle” between Apple and major recording labels over the development of new digital music formats. Both Apple’s Project Cocktail and CMX, which is being developed by Sony, Warner, Universal and EMI, are supposed to add cover art, liner notes, and interactive features to digital albums.



Record Labels Diverge Over Next-Generation Full-Album Music Format


By Eliot Van Buskirk  August 11, 2009  |  6:18 pm  |  Categories: Media


Apple and the major labels are squaring off  for a major battle this fall with competing formats for delivering the latest innovation in digitial music. Full albums will come with a cornucopia of digital extras — at least that’s the way much of the tech press is setting the scene for a clash between Apple’s Project Cocktail and the major labels’ CMX format.


Both wrap songs, videos, images, lyrics, ringtones and other digital doodads into a comprehensive package that the industry hopes will bring back the long lost, profitable days of full album sales, which gave way to listeners buying single songs.


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The common goal is supposed to be the resurrection of the album, which has long been the staple of the recording industry. With online customers choosing to download individual tracks rather than entire albums, it is believed that special features that come only with an album will help boost sales.


One thing that most of the news articles about these new formats seem to overlook is how they will impact recording artists. The digital music format was not developed by the record industry. The MP3 was something that was forced upon them. In addition, the technology that is used to produce an MP3 is not proprietary to the recording industry.


This means that independent recording artists and small record labels can easily produce their own product and distribute it for sale through online stores. This will not be the case with Apple’s Cocktail and CMX. These formats will be owned by the record industry and artists who wish to use them to promote their albums will undoubtedly have to make deals with the major labels.


If these formats end up being something that consumers like (and that’s probably not likely), it will be a step back for independent recording artists and small labels. They will almost certainly be locked out of the game by the big boys.


As I’ve written before, the only thing that will bring back the album is for record labels to produce albums that people want to buy — those with 8 to 12 good tracks and very little filler. People don’t really buy albums for the cover art and liner notes.


In the early days of the LP, albums were just that — collections of singles that the artist had previously released. Then, recording artists began to utilize the expanded recording time to create longer works. The albums were often recorded to be listened to all at once, like an opera or similar composition.


A return to creating long-playing performances rather than a collection of individual tracks is the best way to get consumers interested in purchasing albums. That interest is something that “digital doodads” such as ringtones and computer wallpapers won’t accomplish.



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The cool future of album art

A few weeks before we launched the AlbumArtExchange blog, I ran across an interesting article on Gizmodo by Wilson Rothman about the evolution of album art and packaging. At the time, I did not have a platform on which to comment about some of the things Rothman wrote regarding the future of album art and the history of the CD “longbox” packaging. Even though Rothman gave AlbumArtExchange a much appreciated endorsement at the end of his very entertaining article, there are a couple of points that I would like correct.



Cool Album Art and Packaging: Records, Cassettes, CDs Then Nothing


By Wilson Rothman, 6:00 PM on Thu Apr 16 2009


CDs originally came in long boxes with amazing art. Word went around that they’d go away, since hippies—like Sting—were pissed off about killing trees, but I was sad. Music packaging says a lot about music.


Album art used to be a serious pursuit, as if it was equally important to catch both the eyes and the ears of the music shopper. Perhaps, we don’t need the allure of album art anymore, since we can instantly gratify our need to hear the music we want to buy or steal. But when I was growing up, it was vital.


[...]


[CDs] actually started shipping in long rectangular boxes, so they’d take up exactly 50% of the rack space of a vinyl album. I think this was on purpose, so record stores didn’t have to retool their shelving.


[...]


But then the green freaks got their way, and the cardboard boxes were discontinued. Jewel boxes—and their never-too-popular “eco pac” brethren—just got thicker and thicker booklets, and more and more digital features.


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First, I would like to restate my position on the future of album cover art. It is NOT dead. In fact, the future of album cover art is becoming limitless. The death of printed paper packaging is unavoidable. But, digital art will always be needed. People need cover art in order to browse through their music collections on their iPods and hard drives. As home PCs and entertainment systems merge, there will be a need for high resolution album art to be displayed on HD television monitors while music is being selected and played.


In reality, it is the print medium that limits creativity. With digital album art, print and production costs are eliminated. In the near future, we will see Flash animation and interactive features introduced to digital album covers.


An excellent example of what the future has in store is Snow Patrol’s interactive booklet for their album A Hundred Million Suns. NPR recently ran an article about this new form of digital album art.



The Future Of Album Art


by Bob Boilen


When was the last time you sat down and listened to your favorite record, held the artwork in your hands and did nothing else? For me, it’s been ages. I find it so easy to have my attention pulled away by the Web, by email or even a magazine. The music may hold my interest, but the artwork rarely does.


I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the fault of the art and not my short attention span. I’ve never liked the CD format when it comes to artwork and liner notes. Sure, there are box sets that are knockouts, but the average CD booklet is hard to read and just plain too tiny.


Now comes the future of album covers: digital art.


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longbox.jpgSecond, I know that South Park’s Eric Cartman has made it cool to beat up on “hippies” and “tree huggers” and blame them for almost every social ill and inconvenience. However, the CD longbox packaging was created to be tossed in landfills.


Unlike LP sleeves and CD jewel boxes, no one saved the cardboard package in which CDs used to be packaged, shipped and displayed. It wasn’t just environmentalists who complained about the CD longbox packaging. It made CDs more expensive to ship, store and display.


Many recording artists protested the use of the longbox by placing a sticker that read “This is Garbage” on the longbox. While there are a few people who collect longboxes, they are not considered to be valuable pieces of music memorabilia.


The longboxes were not quite as “amazing” as Rothman suggests. Most of the art that appeared on the longboxes was derivative of the album cover. The cover art was often cropped and enlarged to fit the rectangular format of the box. Graphic designers considered the album cover to be the principal component of the package design — just as they do today.


Because the CD manufacturers knew that the longbox would be ripped open and tossed in the garbage as soon as the consumer got home, they rarely included any copy or art that was not part of the CD jewel box on this component. I think most manufacturers, graphic designers, and consumers were glad to see it disappear.


I believe that over the next few years we will continue to see creative innovations in album art. Digital booklets will evolve and graphic designers will begin to use new technologies to create album art that both amazes and disappoints.



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A word about censorship

When writing about music — especially Rock and Pop — one occasionally encounters crude language and images. That’s just the nature of the beast.


Therefore, I will eventually include words and images in the articles I post here that some will find offensive and NSFW (not safe for work). Unlike many blogs, I won’t be shy about publishing this kind of content. It is accurate reporting to include words and images that may be considered crude, insulting or vulgar.


Here is an example of what I will not do on this blog:



censored.jpgApparently, there is an Alternative Rock band that calls themselves Starfucker. If you look them up on iTunes, you will see that iTunes has a policy of censoring album and song titles that could be considered offensive. However, iTunes does not censor the name of the band. They know that those searching to purchase music by Starfucker will not know to enter “S∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗r” into the search field.


So, we end up with this ridiculous situation in which iTunes publishes “Starfucker” as a band name and not as an album title. What’s the point?


Here is the same listing on Amazon.com:



uncensored_amazon.jpg


Amazon.com’s approach seems a little more grown up to me. I believe that if a record label can record and distribute music by a group called Starfucker, it is appropriate to publish the uncensored name in an article about them. You won’t see any &∗%!# here. 



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Fan-made cover blogs

While it isn’t specifically noted in the posting guidelines, AlbumArtExchange is a collection of album covers officially released by record labels and independent recording artists. The covers in the gallery are not fantasy creations nor tributes made by fans.

However, there are a few blogs online that feature such album covers. Covermania and Coverlandia are two of the most popular. Both blogs also post official album art, although often smaller than the 600 x 600 size that is preferred on AlbumArtExchange.

Some of the fan-made covers are quite good and obviously created by people with professional graphic design skills. However, they can pose a problem when they are assumed to be official covers. It is very likely that some of these fan-made covers could be added to AblumArtExchange’s collection as official covers.

Here are a couple of recent examples of fan-made covers posted to Covermania and Coverlandia:

Demi & Selena - One and The Same (FanMade Single Cover).png

Ciara - Like A Surgeon [bs _ 09].jpg

As you can see, the quality of both covers is professional. The first example displays the Disney logo and could easily be assumed to be an official Disney album cover. The second example is also excellent quality. The photo and the typography are consitent with what the artist’s label produces. However, the second cover displays the mark of the person who created it in the lower right corner. Unfortunately, very few who make fan-made covers add an indication that the cover is not official.

The easiest way to check whether or not an album cover is official is to look it up on Amazon.com or iTunes. If you’re still in doubt, Wikipedia often displays official album covers for CDs.

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