When I saw I had 16 comments on my latest post about CD covers (and more have come in since), I knew I’d provoked a storm.

lara downes album blogAnd I had. Many of the commenters objected to the Lara Downes CD cover — for her album Exiles’ Café — I offered as an example of something good. (Shown here.) Which is perfectly fair. Nobody’s required to have my taste.

But the reasons for not liking it! You can’t see her whole face. She’s not in focus. She’s on a slant. “It looks like when my five-year old goes on a shooting spree with my phone camera.” It’s soft porn. The title doesn’t mean anything. Why café? We don’t see a list of the composers Lara’s playing. The image doesn’t suggest classical music.

Some of these make me think some people in our field just aren’t comfortable with contemporary art and design. Where not everything has to be a complete image of anything, and things are allowed to drift out of focus and out of alignment. Have been for decades now!

And café — how many café-titled movies and pop albums have there been? In Lara’s case, what “café” evokes seems very clear. Exiles have no home. They’ve long gathered in cafés. (Casablanca, anyone?) We all know that many, many composers were exiled during World War II. And, without straining our imaginations too much, might guess that many of them would be on this album.

I’m reminded of comments I found years ago on a public radio blog, and have heard many times informally — that classical music serves as a refuge from the wider world. Are we seeing that in these comments? Classical music as a refuge from abstract art, fashion design — and, I fear, unpredictable aesthetic experience. How comfortable, how secure to be told who the composers are! As opposed to what the album cover in fact gives us (or at least means to) — the promise of an aesthetic experience we can predict only to some small extent (we can guess that record won’t be full of bouncy dance music), an experience that might surprise us, that might take us places we can’t yet specify, places that we haven’t been.

Like, for instance, this CD cover promises. It’s the debut album of a striking singer-songwriter, Wolf Larsen, who sings almost in a whisper:

wolf larsen blog


This happened to find its way to our home (my wife met the singer’s mother). I was so struck by the cover that I had to listen, and was transported. One of the highlights of my musical year. With the cover unclear, out of focus (what does the singer really look like? does her look mesh with the heels she’s wearing).

But so evocative.

Next i’ll post some classical CD covers that I like.

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  1. Eric L says

    Hey Greg,

    To be really honest. I don’t think any of the examples you posted work…including the one you cite as a success. Is it an improvement over the others? I think so. But it still seems very generic to me.

    I tend to like really abstract classical covers. Someone mentioned, in a comment on your previous entry, the cover of David Lang’s Child, which I think is a great example of an appealing and knockout design (ditto for his The Passing Measures). I also have a soft spot for EMC covers, but only in so far as when compared to most other classical recordings. The typography + (the often) black and white photos are really quite tasteful…but I sometimes don’t quite get the connection between the music and the art.

    I’m also really biased towards New Amsterdam Records’ covers, since I used to work for Judd et al, but I was also somewhat involved with the decision process…even if tangentially. The covers were submitted by the artists, and Judd (or Bill) would then solicit the office staff for a thumbs up or down. Most of the time they already made up their mind as to whether they’d approve the cover, and simply wanted a third or fourth opinion (which usually matched up with their instinctual gut feeling). Again, I saw tacky pitches from artists rejected. Of my favorites? The Chiara’s recording of the Jeff Friedman Quartets and Sarah’s Penelope are among them.

    Do I think covers with pictures of the artist(s) work? Sure. Neither are classical, or even American, but check out these two:

  2. says

    I love that Larsen album cover. I’m perfectly fine with contemporary art but I just didn’t like how the woman’s face was chopped off a bit for no apparent reason. I think by doing that it restricts her charisma as a musician since you can’t see all of her face. It’s like if a musician’s face is in bad lighting for no apparent reason. However I have the opinion that listing the works one performs is becoming very stale, and I like the album title.
    I happen to be a metalhead as well as a classical performer and of course there is huge contrast in album covers. However I guess I’m from that world where the album cover must convey what the music is about and the album title…

  3. Steve Ledbetter says

    I had not encountered “Exiles’ Cafe”– either the recording or the cover–until you brought it up here. But I think it’s smashing! I’m surprised by the complaint that it doesn’t list the composers represented; the first thing a cover like that makes me want to do is to grab it and TURN IT OVER precisely so I can see what suggestions came to her in response to that phrase,because it is certainly evocative.

    And how many covers have their been in the last few decades that show only a part of the artist? And not in a vertical pose like a Matthew Brady portrait? It has life in it. As for “soft porn”? well, the mind boggles…

    • says

      I made this point in the next thread. It does make me want to turn it over. But in an age where access to the physical disc is less and less likely, would it make me click through on I-tunes? Would I even know what genre it is?

  4. says

    Artistic covers are wonderful and if it helps buy cds or garner a bit more press, as in this case, great. I get very annoyed and bored with the full face photo of the performer or conductor. I want to hear great music and the combination of great art feeds the experience, and art with a contemporary influence is most welcome. Sadly, it seems more and more covers are just designed for thumbnails.

  5. says

    The image in the Downes cover seems suitable for an ad for an upscale product in The New Yorker, perhaps perfume. It does not convey either Exile or Cafe. It suggests this music is glossy, superficial, perhaps offering a pleasant background ambiance, but nothing of substance. I’ll skip this one, no matter what the genre. The Downes cover is a Fail.

    The Wolf Larsen cover is much better. Good photo and graphic design. I’m interested in what stories this person tells.

    I just happened to see a photo of a woman that would be better for the Exile CD. This woman is strong, confident, attractive, experienced, alone, in a nonfancy environment. This woman knows something about being an individual, being in exile. The image makes me interested in her music.

    Worthwhile experiment: Take these 3 photos, and get reactions from the intended audience. Snag some strangers in Whole Foods. Which CD would they buy? The ultimate answers come from the buying public, not us industry insiders.

    Thanks, Greg, for the stimulating ideas, even though I think you’re off-base here.

  6. Gavin Borchert says

    We could long argue the merits of any given CD cover, but the overall point, that the classical-music world could stand to step up its visuals, seems indisputable. And not only CDs, but ads, posters, season brochures, websites, all of it. I never again want to see flowing, “elegant” script or people in formal wear. Judging by the Gardiner/Bach and Vivaldi/Naive series–and by the Met’s Gelb-era ad campaigns featuring Brigitte Lacombe’s photos of their name stars in representative roles, which I find gorgeous–the simplest solution is to find an expert photographer and get out of their work’s way.

    Though if I were king, I’d just give Chris Ware carte blanche and a blank check. I can’t recall when I last saw graphic design anywhere as breathtaking as the covers he did for Fantagraphics’ reissue volumes of “Krazy Kat”:

    • says

      “We could long argue the merits of any given CD cover, but the overall point, that the classical-music world could stand to step up its visuals, seems indisputable. And not only CDs, but ads, posters, season brochures, websites, all of it.”

      I was waiting for someone to say this.

      As an aside, am I the only person who thinks that Naxos’ non-style is so brazen that it’s almost stylish? “We are so focused on the music that we can’t be bothered to do anything with the cover except use the same font we always use and some public-domain picture.” I get kind of sad when they try to have graphic design (like for Marin Alsop’s recordings).

      • says

        Love your Naxos point! It reminds me of the days when there were record stores, and Naxos would have its own display. Price was the main appeal of their CDs (which isn’t to say that many of them aren’t good), and the non-style in effect underlined the bargain price. Very smart branding, whether it was done consciously or not.

        • says

          Reading this article and the last, I got to thinking again about how CD covers work nowadays. I remember commenting on a thread years ago about problems with some striking covers that gave little information, so that people in record stores had to be interested enough to turn them over to tell what was on them.

          But that was, as you’ve said, when there were record stores. Now that I almost never see classical discs in what few CD stores I find (except in used bins), I suspect that most people are buying them online, and wonder about the connection of the design and what further information people get (if any) from the websites from which they buy them.

          • zenner41 says

            I certainly get recorded music (CD or digital computer files — they’re basically the same thing in different physical manifestations) almost always online (where else can you get it nowadays, if it’s classical?). And it’s definitely mostly from the sites where I buy them that I get the basic information — who the performers are, what tracks are on the particular CD or bundle of files, etc. The trouble of course is that, except for web sites on which the performers themselves sell the goods, what information is provided and the design of the performing are determined by the company which runs the site (for example, not to mention names, but I’m thinking especially of the site that sells everything from books to lawnmowers and the site run by a very rich computer company). Since almost all the music they sell is non-classical, the whole buying experience is rather contorted and unwieldy for classical music customers. And I hate to think what classical newbies make of the experience. Sites that specialize in selling classical music do a lot better, but in any case, I don’t think the musicians have much influence over how their recordings are presented. And I think that even the specialized classical sites don’t take the needs and wishes of newbies into consideration much; they assume a fair amount of familiarity with the classical genre in their users, I think.

    • says

      Yes, the problem is larger than CD covers. It’s an overall problem with classical music communication. We just don’t know how to talk about or picture what we do. And in fact we convey the impression that we don’t do anything much, if the feeble words and images we come up with are the best we have to offer.

  7. says

    Greg, I really have nothing to say other than: well done. You created something. What a great thing for a creative person to do.

    Oh, yes. And you and I must have similar taste. I appreciate the covers you have mentioned liking so far.

    Keep it coming. Seems like the classical crew needs you to “rock” them. (Pun intended.)

  8. says

    I think that the people who disliked the Lara Downes photo because it “cut off part of her face,” etc., are your typical getting-on-in-years “classical” music fan, whose esthetic tastes were formed 50-60 years ago and have never changed since. They certainly don’t dig contemporary photography. The last time a professional portrait photographer shot a subject sitting straight up, looking right into the lens, and included the whole face in the shot was probably about 1965.