The saying goes, "don't judge a book by its cover," but that's not the way things really work. We immediately judge books by their covers, and the same is true of albums. Often, cover art plays a huge role in determining whether we decide to give music a listen or skip it entirely. Whether at the record store or scrolling through Spotify, an album cover is the first thing people see when they are browsing for new music.
As a musician, having a great album cover can be key to drawing in listeners and spreading your creation to the world. A great album cover is also important for giving your music an identity, brand, and personality. Of course, having a great album cover is easier said than done. It takes hard work to make an effective album cover, but you shouldn't be afraid to go for it and do it yourself.
Look for Inspiration for Your Album Cover
Inspiration can be hard to come by, so don't expect the perfect album cover to suddenly just pop into your head. It can be overwhelming if you have no idea where to even begin when it comes to making an album cover, but these strategies will help you get inspired and cultivate your own unique idea for visually representing your music.
1. Look At Your Influences
Looking at other album covers can give you a better idea of how to come up with your own. A great place to start is examining what inspired you to make music is in the first place. Take your favorite album down off the shelf, hold it in your hands, and take a good long look at the cover. You can also just do a quick Google search if you don't have a physical copy handy.
What is it about the artwork that resonates with you? How does the image describe and encapsulate the music it is accompanying? Ultimately what do you like about this album cover? By taking an in-depth look at an album that has influenced your music, you can form a narrower idea of what you want to get out of your own album cover. It can help you determine the exact feeling you are trying to elicit with your own album art, as well as give you some ideas of how this has been done successfully in the past.
2. Look At Your Peers
There is more music being made now than ever before, and looking at album covers that are being created by your peers can be a helpful exercise in finding the inspiration create your own. It's also important to understand what genre your music is, and how it falls within the contemporary music scene. After all, a piece of artwork that is perfect for an indie/shoegaze/dream-pop album probably wouldn't work for a trap mixtape.
Take a look at what current artists who make similar music to yours are doing for their album covers. The more examples you can find, the better. Next, see if you can identify similarities, differences and trends in what you see. There's no shame in putting your own unique spin on something that others have attempted in the past, and having an album cover that is similar to your peers will also signal to listeners what to expect when they listen to your music.
3. Look At The Internet
I know that's a pretty vague statement, but don't be afraid to venture out on your own and find inspiration by looking at photography and design blogs. The front pages of Flickr, Reddit, Pinterest, and others have a limitless supply of beautiful images that might just give you that spark of inspiration. Another option is to limit your Google search to pictures that are unlicensed, and interpolating these free-to-use pictures into your album artwork. Never use a copywritten picture.
4. Look At Your Music
If you've come this far, you've already written, recorded, mixed, and mastered a collection of original songs. What unifies all of them? Do you have any lyrics or imagery that stand out in particular and might sum up album itself? What is your project called? Many albums, like Doolittle by Pixies and American Idiot by Green Day, pluck the album artwork from directly out of their lyrics. If there's something you've already written that you think would be the perfect album cover, by all means, use it.
What Does the Art Say About the Music
Your album cover is your music's front door, and like your music itself, it is artwork. When we engage with art, we feel a certain way, depending on what that art is. A somber black-and-white photo makes us feel differently than a placid watercolor, just as death metal makes us feel different than bluegrass.
As previously stated, your album cover will in many cases be the determining factor in whether someone chooses to listen to your music or moves on to something else. However, you don't want them to be confused or disappointed with what they get when they do listen to your music, so make sure that the tone and mood of your cover art at least somewhat approximates the mood and tone of the music itself. Great album artworks in concert with your music to create a unified message, and it's not just for it to just be funny, cool looking, or eye-popping.
Take Your Own Photo
If you're a DIY musician, chances are you're on a tight budget. Hiring a professional photographer or graphic designer may get you the best quality image for your album cover, but it will also cost you a hefty sum. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to do it yourself.
Do you own a smartphone? Of course, you do. Mobile cameras get better and better every year, and you can use yours to capture an image that looks great and has the added benefit of being uniquely yours. Once you have the perfect image in your mind, don't be afraid to go out and just point and shoot.
Before doing so, you might also want to check out some introductory photography tutorials on YouTube. There are plenty of free resources that can help you learn the basics of things like lighting and framing, which will take your smartphone pics to the next level. Also, don't be afraid to draw something. Even if your drawing isn't a masterpiece, it will still be uniquely yours.
Create Your Design
Now that you have a photo, drawing, or image to use as a base, it's time to transform it into an album cover. There are a few different resources that you can draw upon for this step in the process:
1. Adobe Photoshop
Adobe Photoshop is the premiere software for manipulating images, and if you have access to it, that's what I would recommend using. You don't need any advanced experience to add text to your image and play around with the various filters and tools included in the software. Of course, Photoshop is also very pricey. See if there are computers at your local public library that have it, or if you are a student, see if it is available through your education institution. There are also a wealth of free online tutorials for Photoshop if you want to learn more advanced techniques.
This is a free browser-based program that is similar to Photoshop in many ways. If you don't have access to Photoshop but know your way around it, this is a great option to explore.
Union is a paid app that allows you to creatively combine images together and create amazing collages and optical illusions. It costs only $1.99, and is much easier to get the hang of than Photoshop. Images created with Union tend to have a very surreal look and feel to them, so it's worth exploring if that's a conceptual route you're interested in taking.
If your photo is already picture-perfect and you're not interested in doing heavy editing, Phonto is a good choice for you. The app allows you to add text to images, and it comes with a variety of fonts and styles.
Having a great album cover is essential to the success of any DIY musician, and hopefully, this article has provided you with some of the tools and insights to go out and create the perfect piece of artwork for your project. Let's recap everything that was covered.
First, you need to be inspired. If you have a strong idea in mind already, go for it, but if you don't, look at your influences, your peers, the internet, your music to find inspiration. Next, make sure that your concept makes sense and matches the tone of your project.
With your idea firmly in mind, go out and take a photo or make a drawing to make it a reality. Using the editing software of your choice, add text, filters, and whatever else you need to put the finishing touches on your design.