A cover art designer is a graphic designer who specializes in producing artwork for music-related projects. Often, graphic designers who produce cover art and liner notes also dabble in designing posters, T-shirts, and other merchandise for music artists and record labels.
When Vinyl Was King
Truly iconic album covers don’t just define an album, they defined an era, a generation and, in some cases, an entire musical genre. Sometimes they do all there, which is the case with The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club, considered the most famous album cover ever produced, topping the list of the top twenty-five covers.
The widely-recognized album cover that depicts several dozen celebrities and other images were created by Jann Haworth and Peter Blake, who in 1967 won the Grammy Award for Best Album Cover: Graphic Arts for their work on it. And, while costs were not made public, it's said that at the time, it was the most expensive album cover ever made.
Many of the most memorable album covers of the '60s and early 70s were high-concept artworks designed by famed graphic designers like Hipgnosis and Roger Dean, who worked in-house for Roxy Music. Their work was glamorous imagery, more like a 50s fashion shoot than an album cover and they commanded in-house salaries equivalent today to a six-figure salary.
Today, album cover designers (who create cover art and layout for LPs and CDs) earn an average salary of $48,000, though the general salary range varies widely. Salaries can go up to $150,000, or more, based on experience, a well-developed portfolio, and whether or not a designer is producing work for a well-known artist. Freelance designer's (with a roster of established clients) can earn on the high end of the scale, as can designer's working in-house if it's for a major label like Universal Music Group or Sony Music Entertainment.
Employee vs. Freelance
Many graphic designers working as freelancers are hired to design cover art on a per-project basis. If you want to work as a freelance graphic designer, you will need to build your portfolio which can mean doing some initial projects either for generous discounts or free until you have a portfolio that lands you the type of paying gigs you want. If your clients are pleased with your work, you'll likely find new business through referrals. Graphic designers working full-time in-house give up the potential for lucrative gigs in exchange for a steady paycheck.
The Design Process
An album cover designer not only designs and/or illustrates the art that’s on an album cover but more often than not, does the entire layout, including the back cover, insert or booklet, lyric sheet, CD face print, etc. Freelance design artists often develop a bond with the bands they work for, gaining their trust, and collaborating with them over long periods of time and multiple albums.
Typically, the designer meets with the artist to discuss their ideas. Sometimes the artist has a well-developed idea of what they want to be created and other times they have no concept or idea at all and it's up to the cover art designer to come up with the ideas. Once a basic direction is understood, the designer develops a series of rough ideas to present to the band. From there, the designer amends their initial concept and after a (hopefully) short back-and-forth process they settle on the cover's design.
Generally speaking, the longer a designer works with a band, the more intuitive this step becomes. Designers usually work with the artist directly, though it is not uncommon for the label to act as a liaison. Sometimes with major labels, production managers, printers, and other designers may be involved. The smaller the artist or more independent they are, the fewer people the designer works with. The process is basically the same when working in-house.
There are times when a record label or the musicians themselves have very specific ideas about how they want their album covers and other merchandise to look. They may have photos or designs in mind, and they may have decided on everything from typefaces to color schemes. In this case, the designer is in charge of laying out their client's artistic vision—typically using graphic design software—and putting it into the proper format to be delivered for manufacturing.
Education and Training
While schooling is not for everyone, most album cover designers usually have training in Fine Arts or Graphic Design and attempt to get into one the prestigious institutions like the Rhode Island School of Design and CalArts in Los Angeles. The value of training and truly learning a craft cannot be underestimated.
The days of the rock star designers pretty much came and went with the 70s. This is when vinyl was king. These days, many designers diversify because an artist may also need a logo, T-shirt design, backdrops, and other design art to support their tours.