Sound and Fury

Images of Bono the Fabulous

I just completed my first legal music download, courtesy of the iTunes music store and a gift certificate from a friend. It’s a mixed feeling. There is the thrill of choosing individual songs from amongst hundreds of thousands and watching as it takes the few seconds to arrive on your computer—and the smugness of knowing that the RIAA can do nothing. But the thrill is tempered by the feeling of having given in to The Man in the suit. Once you start paying for your music downloads, it’s all downhill—you might as well take out a mortgage and buy a Volvo.

Buying music online has a couple of advantages, including the fact that there is almost no risk of it turning out to be pornography. But before I decide to switch to entirely buying my music online, I’m going to have to acclimatize to a couple of unforeseen side-effects.

Most music programs make it possible to add album art, squeezing it into the corner of your browser. While it’s nice to get a look at the cover for the song you’re listening to, it does seem a little pointless, particularly when you’re buying standalone songs. Cover art generally refers to albums as a whole, not single songs. And anyway, you miss all the other art, lyrics, liner notes, credits, pictures of the artist, shoutouts to parents, friends and God—all the unnecessary, obscure and banal goodies enshrined in the familiar CD booklet.

Album art and liner notes have evolved a lot. The CD booklet is really the shrunken offspring of the vinyl LP sleeve, which was big enough to be almost a poster included with your album. It didn’t lend itself as well to belabored liner note essays or tributes—sorry Moby—but it gave artists a sumptuous amount of space to flaunt their chosen image or visual artistic vision.

The first time I really listened to the third Santana album I was struck not only by the pyrotechnic guitar playing—infinitely superior to his current brand of lazy, guest-appearance cheese—but by the fantastic, almost certainly drug-inspired cover of the old vinyl album. The image, of an almost human man conjuring the universe against a dark lunar landscape, fit the music perfectly, or at least complemented it well. I was distinctly disappointed a few years later when I bought my own copy on CD: the cover, shrunk to CD size, looked tacky and painfully dated.

With the shift to electronic music distribution, album art has suffered yet another indignity. If it is attached to songs at all, it is shrunk even further, stuck in one corner of your computer screen. If you listen to music on your iPod or other digital device, you don’t even have that option, though the art may still take up precious space.

This is not without an upside. I have been in love with the iconography of music for almost as long as I have been in love with music, but most album art is at best throwaway and at worst downright awful. Identi-kit rock bands with identical surly-yet-vulnerable gazes; rappers cramming enough bling into the frame that they drown in diamond-studded Cadillacs; songstresses wearing as little as legally possible. And if the cover is bad, what’s inside the little ego-booklet is usually even worse.

The better musicians can sometimes rise above this threshold of dreck, often by enlisting a more talented photographer. Photographer Anton Corbijn has been an important influence on the careers of people as diverse as David Bowie and Tricky, perfecting the superstar pose even while he pokes fun at it. Or at least that’s how I rationalize my love affair with his work. The truth is that the Corbijn’s cover of U2’s Joshua Tree album is indelibly associated with the album itself, which will forever have a place in my heart. For all the crassness of album art, I am reluctant to entirely swear off those pensive young men and barely dressed women.

Given how little effort has been put into providing an electronic replacement, liner notes seem to be as disposable as the art that accompanies them. This may be thoughtless. How can you be sure God won’t mind not being thanked for overseeing the R&B song you download? Might there not be mass industrial action by drum techs and producers? Without liners, would anyone know that the guitarist of A Perfect Circle used to be a Smashing Pumpkins guitar tech? Does anyone care anyway?

Liner notes are the stock-in-trade of the music snob and critic alike. They provide almost infinite raw material for those given to trawling through details to find patterns and axes to grind with the music. Without them, there could be no arguments about who produced the three best U2 albums, or at least it would require more effort to resolve. Then again, avoiding liners might have saved Paul McCartney being sued by Yoko Ono over his switching of the traditional Lennon/McCartney credit on his last album. And then there’s the problem of lyrics. Without printed prompts, will we still be able to sing along with our accustomed confidence and abandon?

They say one door closes and another opens. The demise of album packaging may also herald the rise of various other genres of musical iconography. Already labels are rushing to include bonus DVDs with new releases to encourage us music-lovers to buy the CD rather than simply download it. Unlike a photo, it takes more than a sultry or surly look to fill a video, which means that only those with the talent to hold your attention or those with the money or body to do so by other means can win this war. We may not know what they’re singing, but at least we’ll know if they can dance or play guitar.

—Crimson Arts columnist Andrew Iliff can be reached at iliff@fas.harvard.edu.