Back in the days of the widespread record store, there was really no choice but to trust a band's visual aesthetic. As a kid, before I could jump online and read reviews and sample albums freely, I spent my allowance carefully based almost entirely on what album art caught my eye. Like most kids, I was fairly clueless, but I somehow lucked into a semi-respectable CD collection simply because bands like Black Flag and The Misfits had album covers that looked cool. The way we experience music today is vastly different, obviously, but the principle remains basically the same: if it looks cool, chances are it'll probably sound cool.
A band's visual language is vital and should be congruent to the sound; or at least demonstrate intention and thoughtfulness. Even simply scrolling through a band or musician's Instagram account gives your brain the same kind of information and signifiers as when people would skim through zines to find their new favorite artists (and by the way, some of us still do the zine thing). It's an advertisement, yes, but it can be a part of a complete artistic statement.
Eliza Lutz, Matron Records founder, visual artist/graphic designer and member of post-rock act Future Scars, knows the value of promotional art and how it relates to the ways bands sell themselves. Visual artistry and music have been connected disciplines for Lutz for years—not simply from a promotional vantage, but as it applies to her own work as an artist. On the upcoming Future Scars album, for example, the intention behind the music and the visual art came from the same source.
"I have synesthesia, so for me visuals and sound are just incredibly crossed," Lutz explains. "For this record, I wanted to lean into that. I created these crazy color collages and made tunings to those collages and wrote the album to the color palettes."
Todd Ryan White, co-founder of local cassette label King Volume Records, agrees on the importance of aesthetic. White has created album art for labels like LA-based Prosthetic Records and New York's Tee Pee Records, and his relationship with the visual side of music marketing stems from growing up entranced by and entrenched in the homemade aspects of punk rock and skateboard culture.
"I just try to be involved in music as much as possible through art," White tells SFR. "Some people are inspired most by other artists, and the only artists that really inspire me are musicians—there's something about the sonic quality and what it elicits visually that's easier for me to perceive than looking at other people's [visual] artwork."
King Volume Records specializes in collectible releases with an emphasis on strong visual style. Harking back to the days of flipping through actual records in a real-life retail store, the physical
format-focused label seems to favor bands whose sounds and visuals connect, even in unconventional ways.
"There are so many signifiers and expectations that come with a specific sound. I'm really interested when people push that," White says. "You see something that's completely different and doesn't fit the mold but it still fits the music. It's both serving the band's needs and cutting new territory; if you create a new visual language for a band, their sound will come with it, and you can start to create associations that you would never expect."
Both Lutz and White tout the importance of a band's narrative being conveyed through music and visuals alike.
"When I sit down with a band and they have an album and we're talking about releasing it," Lutz says, "I always try to think about what is the story they're trying to tell about the music and with their band on a larger scale."
White sums up similarly.
"You can build a band up so much more when you're crafting a consistent story," he says. "There's a sense of immersion in what the artist is trying to accomplish; that would be sonically, visually, and the performances as well."
So while it's not always wise to judge an album by its cover, we're practically hardwired as humans to do it anyway. The visual language that accompanies music is something that should never be
discounted, especially in the streaming age. In other words, hone a visual style to accompany that music. You'll be surprised what else falls into place.