On Saturday, 13th October, the UK celebrated its first ever National Album Day and so it seemed only fitting that following its launch in London, the Album Art Through The Ages exhibition headed to the North’s music hotspot, Manchester. As it leaves Manchester Piccadilly train station the exhibition will travel further upwards and terminate at Glasgow Central (Nov 6th-19th).
Arriving at the bustling central Manchester station, I wondered if there was going to be an artsy vacant shop used for the exhibition’s venue, away from the stress and relentless crowds, but instead, the exhibition took place along the station’s retail avenue situated directly in between Pret a Manger and Krispy Kremes. While I was happy to be able to get coffee and a doughnut, I couldn’t help but question whether this was the right venue for the exhibition.
For passers-by, it was a nice enough aside to their journey, but for people visiting expressly to see to the exhibition, it was underwhelming. Inevitably, I arrived at the wrong end of the exhibition. It wouldn’t have mattered if the collection wasn’t intended to be viewed chronologically, but it was and so when I saw the most recent artwork first, it was frustrating that it hadn’t been signposted properly.
I made my way to the beginning of the timeline, where, in 1949, Alex Steinweiss allegedly invented album artwork; frustrated by the drab and unattractive packaging of discs, he convinced Columbia Records to let him design a few. One of his first was the cover for the 1950 recording of Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra playing Frede Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite. Columbia Records has since authorised him to design a further 2500 album covers. Although this may have been a milestone in music history, the display itself certainly didn’t appear to be a milestone in the station’s.
A section read “In an age where instant access to promo videos was not available, the vinyl sleeve would often be the only visual representation of the band the album could enjoy”. I found this particularly interesting as I could see how this imagery had inspired the lifestyle choices of generations, from clothes to home decor. I’ve definitely sat in the Oasis Definitely Maybe living room a few times when I was growing up. Artists rejected this too; The Beatles’ The White Album, when compared to its predecessor Sgt. Pepper’s, was “an avoidance of any visual distraction, encouraging the listener to simply just listen”.
With more advanced technology and streaming services taking over, this role seems to be changing, and sometimes for the better. For example, the exhibition shows how The Temper Traps’ self-titled 2012 album included a moving image version with the iTunes LP and how artists are now frequently releasing digital content with albums.
Apart from this display perhaps being better appreciated in a quieter location with a larger effort made to embellish the space it is contained in, it was a thoroughly enjoyable exploration of the art, music, and unique stories behind some of the world’s most renowned album covers. I left pondering at the future of album artwork, especially given the industry’s move to online streaming.
Maybe we’re in need of another Steinweiss, someone to once again bring its role to the fore.
Be sure to catch the exhibition at its final stop in Glasgow Central and also vote for your favourite artwork at www.artvinyl.com.