Fail, fail, fail (and a success)

First, here’s a success — a good CD cover, sent to me by Lara Downes, a pianist whose new album it is:

lara downes album blog


Strong, evocative. And the image resonates with the album’s name. Thanks, Lara, for sending this to me! Your website is terrific, too.

Now for some bad ones. I doubt they need any comment, but I’ve added few words anyway.

From Sony Classical:

Ax blog


Who, looking at this  — and not knowing Manny Ax — would want to hear it, let alone buy it? Does the person shown here look like an artist, someone with taste and feeling, someone thoughtful? Not a chance. How could they have picked this photo?

Again from Sony:

Bell Denk blog


So frilly. A stereotype of French music — that it’s sweet and pretty (unlike the heavy German stuff). The two musicians look silly. Looking at this, you’d expect shallow, pretty playing. You’d never guess that the CD unexpectedly brings together a remarkably thoughtful pianist and a violinist who doesn’t have that reputation. But if there’s wonderful teamwork here, you’d never know from the image.

From Bridge records:



Claremont Beethoven blog


Makes me think of the various puzzlers in which you have to guess which of three doors to open. But look! Each one has a gorgeous babe! What this has to do with Beethoven is beyond me. And why are the three women making an entrance? Their trio has been around for a long time, and they’ve made many recordings.

But the back cover is worse:

Beethoven Clqremont back blog


Yes, the Claremont Trio has gone in for glamour. But here they look like three (very) young girls. Are they mature enough to be playing Beethoven? Not if you believe this photo. (And, just to be clear — I do not mean that glamorous women couldn’t knock Beethoven out of the park. Clearly I have nothing against glamour. Look at Lara Downes”s CD cover. What bothers me here is how young and unformed the three women look. Far younger and unformed than they really are!

From Anakleta, a Canadian label:

zombie quartet blog


Zombies. That was my first reaction. Zombies in the woods. Is this photo in any way appealing, interesting, exciting, artistic, musical, personable? Does anything about it suggest the grace and warmth of the Dvořák pieces they’re playing?

Making it worse is a sticker on the CD wrapping, which quotes a review that says the group plays with “intimidating perfection.” Whether they want to tell the world that you’re intimidating is their call (I think they’re crazy to do it, especially if they’re playing Dvořák.) But what in the photo suggests perfection in their playing?

The quartet also, sigh, uses a version of this photo on their website. Truly misguided.

And then finally my all-time favorite:

Notable Women blog

You couldn’t make this up. Notable Women, announces the title, and then we see a photo of a man. Yes, yes, yes, I know the title means they’re playing music by women, but somehow, as this recording was being produced, nobody caught the simple gut thing — title says women, photo says man. Might work, if there was some irony somewhere, if maybe the man looked like the women’s helper. Or something like that. But there’s not a hint of irony anywhere. Just the dead, literal, obvious meaning, contradicting itself the moment we look.

In my last post, I said that book publishers do better. For an example, look at the new releases page from the Yale University Press website. Not everything is great, but it’s all at least decent. They want designs that say something real about their books. And some of the covers are very good.

One last thing. I didn’t have to search for these covers. All I did was open the mail.



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  1. says

    Could you elaborate on why the first one is better than the others? I’m not a big fan of the slightly out-of-focus picture of her predominantly showing off her torso area, and part of her face is chopped off… I do agree that she has more charisma than any of the others though.

    • says

      Hi, jenny. Thanks for asking. I think, first of all, that a lot of contemporary design — not to mention 20th century and contemporary art — doesn’t present realistic images, full faces, full bodies, in perfect focus. I think we’ve moved into more abstract, more adventurous territory. In Lara’s case, consider the title of the album, Exiles’ Cafe. Think of what it means to be exiled. Cut off from your roots, from part of yourself, not living your idea of a full, complete life. That might go with off-center, partial images. But that’s just my interpretation. Lara might not have intended anything like that. If she’d made a CD of music for children, I’m sure she’d have a more direct image. (Though even some children’s books are looking much more abstract these days — look at the pigeon series, from Mo Willems.)

      • says

        Hehe, I commented on your newest blog post before seeing this… yes I do see your point about adventurous cover design and I’m all up for that. I also didn’t see the title until now so I guess it sums up the album title quite nicely. I’ve elaborated further in my other comment but this is an interesting discussion!

  2. says

    What Lara is playing in this album? This cover is an enigma.

    Sorry, folks, but classical music is all about the repertoire. I don’t give a damn about “album titles” – it’s total nonsense. I care about the music. If an album cover doesn’t say a word about works or composers, it is a MUCH WORSE FAILURE than the neutral but informative Ax cover or the ugly but super effective Naxos design.

    • says

      Everyone has opinions, Adriano, but not everyone thinks their opinions are the unquestioned truth.

      What you say might be true for established classical music listeners, those who know the repertoire. Or for some of them. But for the new listeners we need, repertoire isn’t likely to be an attraction, because they don’t know the repertoire. They’re also more discerning in some ways than long-time classical music listeners. They want a striking artistic experience, not another rendition of something they already know well. So for them, a title like Exile’s Cafe is an attraction. Makes them curious about what the music might be, and also starts them down the road of imagining it. I have to say that was my experience, too, and I’m an experienced classical music listener (to put it mildly), after working in the business for more than 30 years. I want striking artistic experiences, and Lara’s project immediately looked to me like something that might give me one.

      All of us in classical music have to learn to look outside our normal ways of thinking. Because the outside world doesn’t think the way we do, and that’s one of many reasons we’ve lost so much support.

  3. says

    How on earth can you possibly say that the first one is good? An insane camera angle, out of focus with bizarre arms akimbo – and just in case you needed to know the instrument, we stuck a piano in there. I don’t care what kind of artistic comment it seems to be making, it looks like when my five-year old goes on a shooting spree with my phone camera.
    If that’s a good cover, then this one of a deer in a car park makes for fine art relevant to Bach in every way –

    • says

      Hi, twobean. Glad you’re so open to contemporary art and design! Is this how you react to a Jackson Pollock painting? “My five year-old could do it!”

      I’d say that Lara’s design is entirely mainstream, in the world we live in. Is it troubling that two commenters, you and one before you, find it impossible? Is our classical music world really _that_ conservative?

      As it happens, I love the CD cover you linked to, with the deer in the car park. It’s quite a wonderful performance of the Brandenburgs, too. I’ve never asked myself whether — or in what specific way — the cover might be “relevant” to Bach. It’s artistic and evocative, and suggests, in a wordless way, something about the space the music and performances might inhabit. It really speaks to me.

  4. says

    Lara’s website has an awesome mission statement by way of introduction right on the main page. Makes me wonder what I would write, and how to write such a statement, without resorting to cliche.

  5. says

  6. says

    Hi Greg,

    These are all underwhelming, it’s true, except for the Downes and Claremont Trio album. The Claremont Trio’s actually makes a strong case for itself, I think, which is that they’re A) young performers, which is always a breath of fresh air in this industry, and B) the concerto’s a team effort, and they’re presented in the images as equals. I’m not quite sure why you’re bothered by their glamor shots; maybe that’s intimidating to people who don’t dress up very often (most of us), but if someone’s looking to bring some class into their life (a role classical music continues to fill in the US and elsewhere, for better and worse), it seems like something a consumer could reasonably think would fit that bill. Maybe they could’ve dressed in jeans and t-shirts in front of a San Francisco storefront, but I think that would be less interesting than what they chose. I’m not quite sure that anyone needs to look “mature enough” to the average listener to have their Beethoven taken seriously in this day and age, either, or that they look “unformed.” Perhaps that is another of my notorious misinterpretations, however….

    The academic press comparison is interesting, but there’s a crucial difference between the two, which is that there’s no tradition in publishing of putting the author’s picture on the cover by academic presses. (Political pundits’ books being a different breed.) Some labels are going a more abstract and subjective route, but most like the above still try to work with the performer’s image. Mileage may vary…


    • says

      Marc, the women in the Claremont Trio aren’t young performers. Donna Kwong, the pianist, took one of my Juilliard courses at least 15 years ago, which would make her around 40 now.

      I’m also troubled, to speak honestly, by how, in so many of your comments, you don’t seem to have noticed what I actually said. Here’s part of what I wrote about the Claremont CD cover:

      “And, just to be clear — I do _not_ mean that glamorous women couldn’t knock Beethoven out of the park. Clearly I have nothing against glamour. Look at Lara Downes”s CD cover. What bothers me here is how young and unformed the three women look. Far younger and unformed than they really are!”

      So that’s two things you didn’t seem to notice. First, that I explicitly said that glamour doesn’t bother me. And, second, that the cover makes the women in the trio look far younger than they really are. Meaning that they’re not young.

      As for book publishers, yes, there’s no tradition (for the most part) of putting authors’ pictures on the cover. For good reason! Because book publishers understand that this won’t make the covers appealing. Or, to put it with less compassion for the classical music world, it’s because book publishers know what they’re doing.

      • says

        Greg, you know, when I try to change course and be gracious, and you react with this condescension and scorn, it makes me wonder what exactly you’re trying to accomplish. What school of persuasion did you attend?

        Your words: “Are they mature enough to be playing Beethoven? Not if you believe this photo.” Wow. 0_o, as the kids would say.

        You should take a look at what Hyperion, Harmonia Mundi, and LSO Live do with their covers. Striking; individual; and, curiously, all in the UK; and while far from changing the prevailing tide, I think they check the boxes of good design. May the peace be with you.

        • says

          Marc, I can understand your anger here, but I fear it’s largely defensive. I didn’t say anything condescending. I made a serious criticism of you — that in many of the comments in which you object to things I say, you show (and very clearly, I’m afraid) that you haven’t noticed what I’m actually saying. You may hate to be criticized (few of us like it), but at some point you might want to ask yourself whether what I’m saying might be true. In the reply to you that you’re objecting to, I gave a very clear example of my point. You don’t address that at all. Instead, you get angry because I’ve criticized you.

          The larger issue here — and I suppose everyone with any kind of public career has to address this in some way — is how to respond to anyone who repeatedly criticizes me, and who in his critiques ignores or misrepresents what I’ve said. I can answer patiently and calmly, over and over and over and over and over, explaining what I’ve actually said, and what its meaning (very plain to most other people) really is.

          But eventually, being human, I get tired of that. And I call the situation as I see it. I try to do it factually, without calling you names, without, for instance, calling you condescending. I just say you misunderstand, and, as I said, I give what I think is an unmistakable example. I notice that in your angry response, you don’t mention my example, don’t try to refute it, and in fact act as if I’d never given it. Which, I fear, then becomes another example of what I mean. You’re happy to call me names, but you won’t address what I’ve said.

          Since you’re a smart and capable guy, I think there’s something beyond logic that’s going on here. My guess — and of couse I could be wrong — is that you’re often angry at what I say. And that then you do what all of us do, at some point in our lives, and doubtless more than once. I certainly include myself in that. You respond, but so driven in your response by your anger (whether you show it or not) that you don’t take time to really weigh what I’m saying. I’ve done that, as I said. Which is fine, and if we could both agree that something of the sort might be going on, could actually lift this dispute to a higher level. We could talk about what I take to be your larger objection to many things I say, which (as I put it together) is that you in general like the way classical music is these days, and think I’m harming or demeaning it by the critiques of it I make.

          Which is fine, and would be, in my view, a very productive thing to talk about. Much more useful than what we’ve actually been doing. I’ll take responsibility for not replying to you in the right way. I think that, much earlier than this, I should have raised the question of what we most fundamentally disagree about, so we could zero in that, and not snipe about details that, in the larger picture, can look rather trivial.

        • says

          And let me call one on myself — I just did what I’ve objected to when you do it. I ignored something important that you said. So I apologize for that, and want to thank you for mentioning those labels. I do see their CD covers, and I agree, they’re doing a decent job. I’d add that when I was last in London, I was impressed by some really high-quality graphics in advertisements in the Underground for the LSO and the English National Opera. I tend to think they’re a bit ahead of the US in this regard.

          There’s no doubt that there are some good classical CD covers being made. Lara just cited some, as have others, and I’ll pick some of my own favorites in an upcoming post. The real problem, as I said in response to another comment, is the prevailing low quality (as I see it) of classical music graphics, and in fact of classical music communication of all kinds, verbal and visual. CD covers are only a symptom of that. We need to present ourselves much better than we do, if we want to reach a new audience. We’re talking to sophisticated people, moving in a sophisticated world, and compared to most of what they encounter, we look oddly blank, and certainly unconvincing.

  7. says

    I really enjoyed this post Greg. Got a chuckle out of the Notable Women cover. And thanks for introducing me to Lara Downes’s project. I just watched the trailer for Exiles Cafe on her website. Now I’m off to read Mo Willems blog. Fun!

    • says

      And about Mo Willems — your kids are too old for children’s books, but Willems’ stuff for kids is just marvelous. The entire Pigeon series. And, a big favorite in our house, Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs. I can’t recommend these highly enough. (Though, full confession here — Anne and I were big children’s books fans before we had Rafa.)

      The Goldilocks book became a touchstone for Rafa when Anne was on a business trip. He’d ask me to read him the book over and over, because he liked seeing the dinosaur family. (Forget that the dinosaurs want to eat little girls.) Once he brought the book over to me, opened it to the page with Papa and Mama Dinosaur standing together, and left it for me to contemplate. “See, Daddy? That’s how it _ought_ to be!”

      Though that has nothing to do with how subversively clever the book is…

  8. says

    I’m really glad you brought this up, Greg. Classical music album covers have a long and inglorious history. Right now, as I write from my office, there is a double album of the incomparable Earl Wild playing the Chopin Nocturnes sitting on my shelf. On the cover, he has been photoshopped into a canoe and is…holding a paddle. It’s absurd and hilarious and a bit sad.

    Classical music should absolutely take a note from book publishers. My own textbook went through quite a revision process: an established graphic illustrator heard the ideas from both myself and my editor, submitted several designs and color schemes, and we collectively reached a consensus. I can’t quite shake the feeling that when I look at the vast majority of classical album covers that I’m looking at the work of one person, wearing many different hats, hastily assembling something before a deadline. Remarkable artists and albums (like those pictured above) deserve to benefit from good design, photography, and art.

  9. says

    Well, the first one looks like a fail to me. Although she gloriously shows her chest, it’s what not I’m interested in unfortunately. I’d like to know who are the featured composers for example (Even after clicking the link and reading the information… I still don’t know!!!) and I must admit I was unable to even read the performer’s name. As for the title, I supposed it is about exiled composers but I don’t get the cafe part… Isn’t a CD cover supposed to be informative?

    Manny looks serene and happy. He is older, more mature and he (as well as J. Bell) already has a wide, solid and faithful audience. No need for extravaganza, and at least I know who is playing what.

    It would be really interesting to get the sales reports for these CDs as well as learn about the audience targeted to really be able to judge if they are a failure or not. Your taste isn’t universal and some people might actually like very much what seems ugly to you.

    I understand your point. But you also have to consider that budgets can be tight and sometimes you just don’t have the money for another photo shoot or design.

    Now I’m looking forward to your book… to see its cover!

    • says

      Perfectly fair to hold me to my own standards. If my book is physically published (it doesn’t have to be), I’ll be very demanding about the cover.

      Low budgets, as I’ve said in response to at least one other comment, are no excuse for bad work. You can work with young designers just starting out. Or even with students. Anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit could develop terrific CD cover designs for very little money.

      Of course my taste isn’t universal. But I think I’m speaking here for people who aren’t in the classical music world, and apply the design standards of the world at large. I run into this repeatedly. Classical music people seem tone deaf (so to speak) about how the outside world thinks. And sees. And feels. And so we keep coming out with performances, marketing, graphics, all sorts of things, that look entirely unappealing to the new audience we want to attract, and so badly need to attract. A new audience that — in such things — actually has higher standards than we do.

      I’m also struck by how literal everyone (in the three comments like this I’ve seen so far) who doesn’t like Lara’s album seems to be. You want to know the composers. Well, suppose you didn’t! Suppose you just were willing to accept that the album had an aesthetic that might draw you in? And that you’d find out who the composers were later? That’s how I approached Exile’s Cafe. I listened to it without knowing who the composers were going to be, and loved hearing music without having the preconceptions that composers’ names can create. It was fun trying to guess who the composers might be.

      As for your not knowing what “Cafe” might mean, here, quite honestly, I just shake my head in dismay. How many films and pop albums and books have had titles with “Cafe” in them? It’s a meme in our culture, suggesting various things — a gathering place, a kind of smoky nocturnal life, much more. In the case of exiles, a cafe has special resonance, because it’s also a place where people who aren’t comfortable at home, or who don’t feel they really have a home, will gather. Exiles might well feel like that, so a cafe might function as a home. Rather plodding, to spell out the literal meaning of something that I would have thought was so plainly evocative.

  10. Philip Arlington says

    Like Jenny, I don’t like the first one either. It looks like a trite attempt to be arty met a tacky attempt to sell cleavage. There is nothing adventurous about a blurry photo.

    Numbers 3 to 6 all look good to me.

    No. 2 is at least honest. Your suggestion that someone dressed like that doesn’t look like that have taste or feeling or is thoughtful is merely a prejudice (and if you think about it hard really a rather nasty, demeaning prejudice at that), but I admit that it is a common prejudice, and therefore you have a point from a marketing perspective.

    The more I think about it, the more your point of view on No.2 seems like a perfect example of the way the arty crowd think that prejudices are things that only inferior castes of people such as businessmen have – as they sneer at their core audience in a prejudiced manner, and thereby alienate it.

    • says

      You’re entitled to your own opinions on these covers, but you’ve misunderstood what I said about the Emmanuel Ax one. I didn’t say that someone who looked like that couldn’t be sensitive, or thoughtful, or an artist. I said that nothing in the photo suggested that he was. Which is a very different matter!

      I think you’re confusing two things here. One is a prejudiced judgment of an individual. Very bad to have those. To think that someone who doesn’t look “artistic” couldn’t be an artist.

      But the choice of photos used in marketing is an entirely different business. You need a photo that will attract people to the recording. A photo that looks entirely blah, in which the artist seems to have very little character of any kind, isn’t going to work. So it’s not about making Ax look like some stereotyped idea of an artist. It’s about giving him any character all, about making him look like someone whose playing would be interesting to encounter. Maybe I didn’t make this completely clear, but still I would have thought the distinction between what I meant and the prejudiced judgment you think I was making ought to have been obvious.

    • says

      No harm in showing your own work! As a producer, in this case. You’ve given a good example of one of the choices I described us making at Entertainment Weekly, the choice to have a graphic designer create something, rather than using a photo. Often it’s the best choice.

  11. says

    Yes, many covers are dreadful. I’ve guessed that it comes about because people running labels are aural, rather than visual. But this is no excuse for an organisation like Sony.
    Now that the old function of a cover – to stop you while flipping through the CD rack in a record store – is no longer very relevant, the test I apply is “Do I want this image in my house?”
    One set that passes this test with top marks is Gardiner’s Bach Cantata series, using marvellous photos by Steve McCurry. Nothing to do with the music, but good enough to make me buy the CDs rather than download.
    Another I love is Naive’s Vivaldi Edition
    All Naive’s releases have great covers.

    Taking this thought further, no one has managed to translate the joys of owning a CD – sleeve notes as well as cover art – to downloads. PDFs just don’t cut it.
    We lost something when we went from 12″ LPs to CDs. There is an opportunity for someone to capture the same pleasures when we download rather than buy the CD. (Or the LP).

    • says

      Good calls on the Gardner and Naive covers! The Gardner Bach covers are marvelous. Draw you right in. Make you want to hear the performance. And they also have a larger meaning, since the people shown on the covers are typically not from western cultures. They suggest that the spirituality of Bach’s music has universal meaning. We might argue about that, but if Gardner believes that the music has universal meaning, he has every right to believe it, and he communicates the thought wonderfully with the covers of the CDs.

      I use one of the Naive Vivaldi covers in my course on the future of classical music. It’s the one for Vivaldi’s opera Orlando finto pazzo. You can see it here: It’s one of the Naive/Vivaldi covers that show exotic, highly sexual, and very distinctive women. I ask my students if they think this is an appropriate image for Baroque opera. I think it’s appropriate, because Baroque opera was highly sexualized, not in its content, but in its ambience. The big stars were castratos, whose sexual appetite was legendary. Some were gay, some were straight. The straight ones were perfect lovers for aristocratic women. They were superstars, to begin with. And they couldn’t get anyone pregnant!

      And then there was the scandal about Vivaldi himself, in the years when he was touring Italy, presenting his operas. He was an ordained priest, but never said mass. And lived with two young women. People in the 18th century drew the same conclusion about that as we might. So any public appearance by Vivaldi carried with it a whiff of sexual scandal.

      Finally, opera houses in that era were a place where all kinds of licit and illicit love affairs could be advanced. Often in full view of people ready to gossip about it. And even — as you can read in Julian Johnson’s book “Listening in Paris” — to shout out comments when, for instance, they saw a priest sitting close to a beautiful woman during a performance.

  12. says

    Greg– all this space/time spent without any musical commentary! I’d like to (at least) know if the objects under discussion lived up to their vaunted or excoriated packaging. –David Starobin, Director of A&R, Bridge Records.

    • says


      That’s a fair question in a larger context, but with all respect, it’s irrelevant to the point I was making. I wasn’t talking about the value of these recordings. I was talking about how effectively they’re marketed, or, more specifically, about whether the cover design contributes to effective marketing. If there’s any connection to the musical value of the recordings, I’d put it this way: Why cripple a musically valuable recording, by saddling it with a terrible cover, which will make people not want to hear it?

    • says

      This comment intrigued me: a discussion about design and marketing is met with an industry insider wanting the debate redirected to whether the recordings themselves are any good?! The whole point is to explore some of the ways in which classical musicians (via decisions made by themselves as well as by their publishers and agents) present themselves to the world through visuals. What are the images of classical music, and why are these the images that are believed to work? Why are the visual languages and conventions from other parts of the recorded music industry shared or not shared by classical music?

      I would suggest that it’s this idea {that unless we’re talking about music we’re not engaged in serving the music well} that leads record companies to come up with hysterical covers like the ones above.

  13. Tom says

    For me, the first cover is a Fail. The focus is her exposed, quasi-generic body, marred by the Steinway logo. No clue what the content is. The cover suggests warmly unobtrusive, ambient music that stays in the background, perhaps at a refined cocktail lounge. If I were flipping thru new CDs at Amoeba, I’d instantly skip past this. And since I know who Ax is, I’d prefer that anytime. (No offensive to the pianist, I don’t know anything about her.)

    • says

      Tom, to be honest, I’m a little surprised to see this from you!

      We need to understand what people outside classical music are going to think. Lara’s cover design seems entirely mainstream, in the larger picture of current work in graphics. So it should immediately speak to people outside classical music. And if you aim a classical release only at those who already know who the artist is, you’re helping condemn classical music to the small and shrinking audience it currently has.

      • says

        Greg, I’m surprised that you’re surprised!

        First, I’d never select a cover that demeans (in my opinion) a woman in this way.

        Next, I think a cover should offer excellent graphic design that has a strong connection to the music. If the Downes CD has soft jazz, then maybe it makes sense. If it’s classical, the cover is misleading. I suggest showing this to strangers, out of context and who don’t know this person, and asking them what kind of music they think is on this CD, and if they’d consider buying it.

        Finally, since most people responding here think the cover doesn’t work, that’s pretty much the definition of Fail. It’s a puzzling choice, since there are many compelling covers to choose from. For example, David Lang’s Child CD:

        • says


          I wouldn’t confuse responses here with any kind of objective survey on the appeal of Lara’s cover. That would be true even if everybody loved it. A self-selected sample is invalid, as statistical data, right from the start. And also the negative responses seem to have a larger bias. Many of the people seem uncomfortable with contemporary art and design (“I can’t see her whole face” “My five year-old could do it”), which makes them outliers in our current world. And many of them seem to think a listing of the composers’ names is the most important thing the cover should have. Which means they take a particular, and very limited view, of classical music and how it should be talked about. It also means they’re missing the point I’ve tried to make from the start of this discussion, which is that CD covers should address the new audience we need to find, and be part of an effort to create a lively, wider market for classical recordings.

          As for testing this with people, I’d love to do that. I’d do the test with people who don’t normally listen to classical recordings. See if this — as part of a varied group of covers — would make them choose this as something they might want to hear.

          But in a wider sense, I’ve made this test repeatedly, by spending years outside the classical music world, and by talking to people outside classical music about their perceptions of it, and their reactions to particular classical music communications. Even my Juilliard students, who _are_ classical music people, are pretty much appalled at the CD covers, press releases, and other communications the classical music world sends out. If you spend a lot of time with the words and imagery coming from other parts of our culture, it’s not hard to conclude that classical music is off in its own bubble, not able to communicate with people outside it. This isn’t a scientific conclusion. I don’t have surveys or studies to prove it. But the difference between what classical music puts out and what we see in the rest of the world is hard to miss.

          As for whether people would think this CD is classical music — Tom! The whole point is that they shouldn’t think that! They should think it looks like it offers an engrossing artistic experience. Lincoln Center’s White Light festival (along with their Tully Scope festival a couple of seasons ago) demonstrated that there’s an audience eager to go to classical concerts if they’re part of something larger than classical music, something with wider artistic appeal. That’s what we have to do with classical CDs. Make them offer an engrossing aesthetic experience, no matter what musical genre they are. And then, of course, deliver that experience. To make them unmistakably look like they offer classical music kills the whole enterprise, and is one of the worst things that could happen to our art form. We need broader appeal, not narrower. And most of our communication seems to offer no aesthetic experience at all. Just a list of composers and “acclaimed” artists, with the content of the music — the things that happen to us when we hear it — never stated.

          I’m reminded of something I blogged about a while ago — that we should all get out of the classical music business. We should stop thinking we’re offering classical music, and instead start offering art, joy, exhilaration, profundity, fun, music. A whole range of things that get muted when we curl up inside our classical music bubble.

  14. Herbert Pauls says

    I am finding this discussion quite interesting, and wonder if you could give us a bit of historical perspective on this problem. That is, where did we come from, and where are we going.

    I am interested to know what you think of album covers for the most popular classical artists – those who sold millions of units in past decades (Karajan, Gould, Cliburn, I Musici, Heifetz, Callas, Pavarotti, etc.). Or all those old Steinweiss covers on 78s. Do you think they were better? Have classical covers declined in artistic flair? Or (for the sake of argument) were they equally bad back then? In either case, what might their effect have been on the non-classical public? Did they attract people to the genre?

    These are probably questions that would require some pondering, but I wonder if you have any initial reactions.

    • says

      Good question! And quite a big one. Quickly, I’d suggest two approaches to answering your questions.

      First, the larger design context. Design, in decades past, or certainly generations past, hadn’t reached the peaks it’s reached now. So nobody expected the powerful graphic approaches we see outside classical music now. Thus it wasn’t an issue if classical LP covers (or 78b albums, but those didn’t normally have graphics, if I’m remembering correctly) didn’t show any graphic flair.

      Second, the competition classical music faced. Attracting a new audience wasn’t an issue. There wasn’t any classical music crisis. (Don’t believe the people who say classical music has always been in crisis. I’ve been in the business, as student and professional, since the late ’60s, and I never heard public talk of a crisis until the early ’90s.) So nothing special was required to attract a classical music audience. I remember the ads for the Metropolitan Opera that ran every day in the New York Times when I was growing up, in the ’50s. They were very small, and had nothing but text — lists, using last names only, of the cast and conductor for each performance. And of course the name of the opera. Nobody, not the audience or the opera house, needed anything more. Many people had long subscriptions, and single ticket buyers knew enough about opera to judge which performances they wanted to hear. If Kurt Baum was the tenor, stay away! And you’d rather hear Renata Tebaldi than Lucine Amara or Mary Curtis-Verna, though those last two weren’t at all bad.

      So I think these issues played out very differently in the past. They barely mattered.

  15. amfennell says

    At first glance, these could all be used as photos backgrounds for the current meme rage! Chuckling.

  16. says

    >> First, here’s a success — a good CD cover <<

    So the 'good' cover is the one with the pair of tits, and not a mention of what the music on the disk is??

    You're a sad failure, Sandow. You're not even a musician at all.

  17. says

    I agree that the new releases page from the Yale University Press website show good covers: strong graphic design and a clear description of what the content is. By these standards, the Downes cover is a mistake, and would never have been designed by the Yale Press.

    • says

      Hi, Tom,

      No, that cover wouldn’t be used by most academic presses, but not because it doesn’t convey the content. Its just because academic presses are more restrained about the imagery they use. Lara’s cover beautifully conveys the exoticism of exile, and also its loneliness. What else would the content of the album be? Nobody would be surprised to see an image like this on a pop album cover, or an ad for a film.

  18. TFox says

    What a great discussion. I think the varied responses show something about what classical music is, and how it’s perceived and sold.

    I sent this link to a friend. Her response: “I like #2 the best. It’s straightforward and the man looks kind. The top one is a good example of what I always see and what bugs the hell out of me — out of focus soft porn imagery, fuck me pose, and letters printed on her tits too tiny to see without peering closely. Yeah, I interpret that as about the music. If she had any musical prowess she wouldn’t have to sell herself like that.” Different consumers, different tastes, I guess.

    For me, though, the only one that works is #3. I’ve heard of the performers, and would be interested to hear how they sound together. I’d only see the cover image briefly while buying the download, though.

    • says

      Very interesting to have other responses. I love the one to Ax — that he looks kind. I’d love to be wrong about my judgment of that cover!

      But soft porn? That seems like an extreme response to Lara’s cover. Cleavage is more than common these days, in life, on the street, in stores and clubs, as well as in film, TV, fashion, and photos. I’ve known women well known in classical music to show it, and one widely respected woman, with a history of important administrative jobs in the field, joked over brunch recently that you always knew she was ready for battle if she went into a meeting showing cleavage.

      I’m a reasonably red-blooded man, and Lara’s cover didn’t tickle any sexual nerve of mine. Certainly didn’t make me think of soft porn! For which Lara would have to be showing her nipples, at the very least. I’m not saying that to be polemical, but simply to anchor this discussion in reality. Cleavage is one thing, but soft porn is something very different. It has particular traits, which just aren’t showing here.

  19. says

    The negative comments are kind of hilarious to me. If you really want to know who the composer is, how long does it take to flip over the CD? Since we mostly buy cd’s online, we’ll be able to see all the info we need on Amazon or iTunes, etc.

    As for me, I agree, the first one is the best one. It’s sensual and dynamic – the blurriness connotes movement. I stopped caring about classical album covers very early on due to the absurd covers I grew up with in the ’80’s. I think Barenboim’s Bruckner cycle had one of the nine planets on each cover. They got somewhat more interesting in the ’90’s. In college, I worked at the Tower Records in Boston – the classical section took up half a city block. We would have various impromptu album cover scavenger hunts. One of them was to find the album showing the most skin on the cover. That was 15 years ago and Lara’s album cover would have been nowhere near the top of the list for that contest.

  20. says

    I’m not sure that CD covers are that important these days in attracting folks with no knowledge of “classical” music to the genre (I use quotes because I hate that term!). Who’s buying CDs at all these days, first of all? The last I heard, the bottom is practically dropping out of the CD market.

    In the quite large city where I live, there are hardly any places you can walk into off the street and buy CDs any more — especially “classical” ones. I think most young people — and that’s who you are primarily interested in attracting, I gather — primarily download digital files. I (an oldster) do so too, except when there is a particular reason I would want the CD, such as an opera libretto (though they are a very endangered species these days). (I also record Internet and broadcast radio, I must confess.) If I do get a CD, it’s always from an online site today, and I hardly glance at the little pictures of the covers. But then, I’m not a “classical” newbie.

    I guess what I’m wondering is: how important are CD covers in interesting newbies these days, really? I know that covers were really big in all music genres in the LP days, but today?

    • says

      Of course you’re right. CD covers are such clearly don’t matter much, for all the reasons you say. But the graphics on them are often used to promote the recording, in whatever forms it’s available. And the graphics approach used for the album may be part of the overall graphics approach used to promote everything the artist does. So in that way, the CD covers are quick emblems for a lot of larger things that need to be fixed.

  21. Ollie says

    • says

      Thanks, Ollie. Nice to see you here! I think of you sometimes when I read “Where the Wild Things Are” to my little boy.

      And thanks for sharing those CD covers. They’re terrific.

  22. says

    Greg, I’ve only just read this post. Hilarious! Especially the title “Notable Women”, which really is more than half the problem with *that* album cover…

    And coming at an album cover title-first is probably the way I’d address each of these examples (if I were the record company executive responsible!) – how does the *title* draw me in? and then, how does the image expand or direct my idea of what that title might mean? and finally, how does the repertoire (and the performance of same) tell the story promised by the title?

    The first example works beautifully in terms of title, I want to know more and I want to hear what music might be played in this fictional (or historical?) location. I’m not sure that the lush image that accompanies the title then contributes very much to my emotional journey, unless it’s to suggest that the performer has been exiled from the piano and will be presenting the repertoire on an unknown instrument (new country for all of us?). Which could actually make for very interesting listening: how entertaining it would be for this cover to be the ‘cover’ for a collection of bagpipe performances, for instance. :-)

    But the real problem with image #1, for me, is that it participates in the noxious classical music discourse that declares that one’s eyes should be closed in order to experience maximum musical meaning, as if the glory that is classical music requires one to avert one’s eyes in order to avoid retina damage. Ugh.

    And a quibble: to my eye the placement of the title is just all wrong. Too declamatory, neatly positioned up there in the right hand corner like a square on a form at the passport office. :-)

    But MY GOD, it beats the pants off the next cover, which looks as if a kindly auditor is explaining why the bank is about to repossess the grand piano your great aunt left you in her will.

    It’s an image that would have been much enhanced by a more engaging title than Variations, unless all Emmanuel Ax’s album covers prior to this have been quite colourful (Ax in clown costume, Ax chopping down a tree, Ax as a giant striding through some recognisable metropolis, Ax snorkeling around a coral reef, Ax hang-gliding) and this cover was indeed a Variation on the visuals for which he was known.

    Then it would be intertextually subversive.

    But something (can’t quite place what it is) about his face suggests my theory is fanciful.

    Classical music album covers really are a gift that keeps on giving….

    • says

      Elissa, you gave me my laugh for the morning! Thanks for it. Brightened my day.

      I’d be curious to know how Lara might reply to your “eyes closed” point. I know exactly what you mean, about old-style reverence for classical music. But my take would be that Lara’s beyond such things, that her album cover (and in fact her whole career) takes place in s post-classical space, in which such considerations don’t matter. Certainly outside classical music the closed eyes wouldn’t suggest reverence, especially in an image like this one!

      • says

        Hmm. “Eyes closed” CAN signal reverence, but it can also signal – hmm, how to put it delicately?

        Classical music {marketing} has for many years believed and asserted that it takes consumers on a sensually spiritual/spiritually sensual journey to fulfillment: it’s how to get your rocks off without needing anyone to touch you.

        So the image of a listener or performer blissed out to the extent their eyes are closed signals not so much reverence as it does climax. And that’s where the narrative of classical music opens a big wide door to all those naked covers, and to all those visual tropes of faux sexuality (female performers being depicted as waiting to provide or experience pleasure, namely).

        I think what’s interesting about Lara’s cover is that it *does* fit this visual narrative, and that the record company chose this image (eyes closed, climactic) rather than the less sexualised images Lara talks about and shows in her blog post. I’m also intrigued that the record company used a rationalisation of “more abstract” (as a code for “more sexy”) along with that telling a story with the cover image was not helpful (a widely held classical music perspective).

        A semiotic analysis of the images reveals that Lara’s gorgeous cover isn’t breaking the mould at all…

  23. Carlos Fischer says

    Dear Greg…it’s been a long time i don’t comment …here is one of my favorites cd covers from all CDs i own…….