Years ago, album art really was art. It meant something to the album (or you could hope so). It was big, and bold; the 12-inch black-and-white pictures that came with the double vinyl LP of The Who’s Quadrophenia – in 1973 – was a miniature version of the film (which wasn’t made until much later). If you bought any album by Yes (I confess!) or Genesis (all right! I was young!) or indeed anyone in those vinyl days, you got much more than just a record. There was the front and back, and sometimes the sleeve holding the record; it might be a “gatefold” so that the sleeve opened up. Now, of course the artist would have the usual thanks to mum and dad (in the case of The Who, saying that Quadrophenia was nothing like their own lives and that they’d bought them nice houses. In the Outer Hebrides) and the guy who bought the drummer’s cymbals. But there was plenty of art to look at to consider while you listened to the record.
Now? You’ve got 10,000 songs on your iPod; but no art to look at. Well, you can, but it’s on a small screen. Recently though I undertook the huge task of adding the album art to all my encoded songs – all 4,000-odd of them. That’s a lot of albums. Why? Because I’ve been trying out the Sonos music system, which includes a handheld console that has a much bigger and clearer screen than an iPod. And it looks cool if you show the album artwork on the screen to go with the song that’s playing. (The Sonos stuff is very, very cool; I’ll write about it presently in The Guardian. If you like music, and you’ve got a big digital library, I’d say it’s the thing to get. But anyway.)
A couple of interesting things about digital album art. Firstly, you can have more than one piece of artwork attached to any track. It’s true – in iTunes, try selecting a track, dragging a few different pictures onto it, and see what happens. The first picture you dragged on shows up, right? But if you then get the track information, click the “Artwork” tab, and edit, you’ll see all the images you stuck there. (I don’t know what the limit is on pictures there, but it certainly got me mulling about steganography. But that’s off-topic here.)
Secondly, there’s no point in worrying that a picture is going to bloat your track. A typical MP3 file uses about 1Mbyte per minute. If you add a 100K picture to a three-minute track (stuck into the “headers”), you’re in effect adding an eighth of a minute to the track size – or about 7.5 seconds of playing time. It’s not significant, really; and most picture files you’ll add are much more like 10-50Kbyte, which is nothing to worry about.
So where did I find the pictures? At first, using the very clever art4itunes.com site. You export your song list from iTunes (see the site; it’s simple) and then the site mulls it over a bit and throws back the album list and images from Amazon (US or UK; you pick, as well as picking the image size. Go for bigger; you won’t regret it.)
That was fine for a while, even if it did get quite boring dragging the picture onto the “Drag artwork here” image well on iTunes. Truth is, this is a very boring task. I’d have Applescripted it but couldn’t wrap my head around the process of finding the correct-sized image and adding those to multiple tracks. And at that time I was focussed on “right” – matching the album title and CD cover.
But then I ran into all my classical collection, which is much more difficult. Many are 20 years or so old (I bought them when CDs were new) and those versions haven’t been made for years, such as Karajan conducting the Beethoven symphonies. (I know, those are still around, but not the exact covers I had.) So I began using Google Images to see if that would turn them up. In doing that, I stumbled onto vinylparadise.com, which I know is in Japanese, but which is a wonderful collection of scans of covers of vinyl records.
It was my Proustian moment: I got the instant recall from some of those classical vinyl covers of looking in my youth at the hundreds that my father collected. The Firebird! The Planets, with a picture of the planets for the cover.
And then I began to think: actually, those pictures are better than the ones that were on my CD. So I began to look through the covers for suites like The Firebird, and chose the one that I thought was the best piece of art – what I’d like to look at while listening to Stravinsky.
But then I began to think some more. Why should I be encumbered by the picture that the record label put on the front of the CD? Why not have something appropriate to the track name, the year, the artist, the suite name? If vinyl LPs had multiple bits of art to look at, why constrain myself to a single image for all those different tracks just because they were on the same album?
So after the Proust came the epiphany. (I think it was the same for Proust. He got a multi-volume book out of it. I get a blog post. Ain’t progress grand?) Why not search for images on the artist name, the album name, the track title, the year it came out, for anything that I liked? If I’ve managed to break up the album into pieces, why not do the same to album art? Suddenly, I felt set free from a strange constraint that had been bugging me unconsciously all through the process.
I wrote a script that searched Google Images (and then later picsearch, which has a few more options) on that basis. (Unusually for an Apple product, iTunes has an excellent Applescript interface that lets you get at pretty much any aspect of a track, including details about the artwork(s).) I found stuff that you wouldn’t consider as being album art. But it was track art. It worked for me.
What’s next? Well, there are two strands here. First, there’s what you can do for yourself. If you’re good at scripting (sorry, Windows users, but I don’t know what’s available through VBScript and iTunes) then you could search for images and add those automatically to individual tracks. I may do that, updating as I go. As part of that, I wonder whether you could put an animated GIF into a track artwork. Now that would be smart, eh? Haven’t tried it. (Update: see comments. You can do it, but the results are disappointing.) And is there any way to make multiple bits of a single track’s artwork show up sequentially through a song? Or is that some unimplemented feature? Even more than that – music is such a personal thing; why not find tags on Flickr that match what you’re looking for? Or pictures from your personal collection? I know that the image that would have most resonance for me for Radiohead’s Just (on The Bends) isn’t the album cover; it would be a picture of Keelhaul at Bosherston Head. I have my reasons. We make our own personal playlists now; why not the same for the images that we tie to our music?
Secondly, since record companies seem to be trying to get us to buy CDs through incentives like more online content if we buy and click and register, why don’t they give us some more album art – for each track? – that we can add when we rip the songs? It would be clever. It would be cool. And it would both bring us forward into the digital age, where a “track” carries so much more encoded information than just where it is on a spiral track heading towards the oblivion of the spindle; and at the same time bring us level with, or perhaps slightly ahead of, those days when albums were big things that really were works of art.
Over to you: what does album art mean to you? Have you ever thought of it this way? How about now?
(Update: for Apple users, there’s now a downloadable Automator action that twill let you find out which tracks don’t have artwork. It’s written by Thomas Peters; the action doesn’t exist in the set of iTunes actions you get provided from scratch. It’s rather neat; it’ll even create a playlist for you (cough Small Paul cough). Have a look.)