Alex Steinweiss, Jim Flora, David Stone Martin, Reid Miles, John Berg, Paula Scheer, Andy Warhol, Rick Griffin, Mouse & Kelley, Neon Park, Peter Corriston, Hipgnosis, Roger Dean, Jamie Reid, Peter Saville, Mark Farrow, Stanley Donwood, The Designers Republic, Banksy, José Bort, Daniel Gil, Jordi Fornas, Iván Zulueta, Máximo Moreno, Juan Gatti, Javier Aramburu.
In 1977, Malcolm McLaren, the ineffable manager of the Sex Pistols, when questioned by a music reviewer on the lack of instrumental talent of the band he represented, he responded icily: ‘if people only bought albums for the music, this business would have folded a long time ago’.
The history of popular music has proven that genres like jazz, blues, rock and roll, pop, psychedelic, glam, punk, soul, disco, hip-hop, indie pop, electronica and any of the more fleeting sub-genres that have appeared in the last 80 years are not just music, but also image. Prior to the popularisation of music videos on channels like MTV and internet portals like YouTube, this image had its most perfect incarnation (apart from the actual appearance of the musicians) on the 7, 10 and 12 inch album covers that protected the vinyl discs.
The exhibition Vinilygráfica aims to trace the genealogy of the relationship between graphic design and pop music, through a meticulous selection of over 200 album covers released between 1940 and the present, spotlighting the figures—often unknown—of the art directors and designers behind the main record labels.
Graphic design has been linked to the music industry practically since its inception, first on the covers of sheet music notebooks acquired by aficionados in the 19th century, and later on the album covers that protected the 78 rpm shellac discs since the turn of the 20th century. These discs were first marketed and sold with austere brown paper sleeves over them, bearing no designs, until the appearance in 1940 of the record ‘cover’ as we know it today. Pioneers in this field include Alex Steinweiss, Jim Flora and David Stone Martin, present in this exhibition with some of their most iconic designs.
With the appearance in 1948 of the long-play (LP) 33 rpm vinyl disc, the 31.1cm card cover that wrapped it became a symbolic blank canvas just waiting to be filled with meaning, in a stimulating display of fine art experimentation that has long fascinated and pleasantly surprised us. Renowned designers among sector professionals who are largely unknown by the general public, like: Reid Miles, John Berg, Peter Corriston, Paula Scheer, Hipgnosis, Roger Dean, Jamie Reid, Peter Saville, Stanley Donwood, Jordi Fornas, Juan Gatti and Javier Aramburu have collaborated with a distinguished group of photographers, illustrators and visual artists who have created some of the most powerful visual images of 20th century popular culture. They also connected album buyers to the graphic arts in a much more emotional way and, at times, even in a more durable way than the actual music recorded on the grooves of the vinyl records they protected.
Album cover graphic design has played a prominent role in building the identities of composers and performers and symbolically transmitting the sociocultural values associated with each music genre by implementing iconographic codes that are today part of the collective imagination. However, they have also contributed to familiarising music lovers with the most avant-garde artistic trends of every era. In the 1950s and 1960s, this was done via bold dialogues between illustration, typography and photographic images, which in the 70s moved into experimentation with materials and formats. There was an endless gallery produced of fold-out covers, die cuts, stickers, cut outs and all types of gadgets that have also been employed as effective marketing tactics, as sales soared in a spectacular fashion.
Musical graphic design underwent its first large mutation with the arrival of punk and the shrinking of budgets at the end of the seventies and a deep full-fledged overhaul of packaging formats with the advent of the compact disc and the popularisation of music videos in the 80s. With each technological innovation, graphic design has seen its functions morph, to later reinvent itself, revealing a powerful ability to adapt to each new audiovisual ecosystem.
However, the story seems to have come to an end, making McLaren right. In the modern age of digital downloads and social networks, music is no longer consumed and promoted as a physical commodity, and the record industry has been facing a crisis that it has yet to recover from. Although for new generations record stores are in the best case scenario somewhat exotic and, in the worst, a vague flashback to the past, in the second decade of the 21st century, we are witnessing a surprising resurrection of vinyl in elite consumer circles situated in a strange niche between trend hunters and those nostalgic for the analogue era. Both groups seem to serve as reminders that the future of musical graphic design is yet to be written.