What do you want to become?
Album Cover Designer
Alternate Career Titles:
Record Designer, Cover Artist/Illustrator, Graphic Artist
Career Overview: Album Cover Designers create cover art and layout for LPs and CDs based off an artist or label’s design ideas.
Average Annual Salary: $48,000
General Salary Range: Varies widely, can go up to $150,000+
Become an Album Cover Designer
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. The artist often develops a bond with the band(s) they work for, gaining their trust and often collaborating with them over long periods of time and multiple albums. Sometimes creating art for merchandise such as t-shirts comes along with the job.
“The Album Cover Designer typically either meets with the artist to discuss their ideas [and] concepts or else that information may be conveyed via the band’s label or management,” says Album Cover Designer Sonny Kay, who is known for his work creating memorable record covers for various artists. (Kay also started his own record label, GSL (Gold Standard Laboratories), which ran for over a decade.) “Sometimes the artist has a very developed idea of what they want created and other times there may be no concept or idea beyond an album title. Once a basic direction is understood, the Designer spends a week or two developing a series of rough ideas to present to the band. From these, either an art direction is established or, via the band’s feedback, the Designer will amend and resubmit them or potentially submit a new round of ideas altogether. Ideally, this step does not require a lengthy process of back-and-forth. Generally speaking, the longer a Designer works with a band, the more intuitive this step becomes. Album Cover Designers usually work with the artist directly, though it is not uncommon for the label or management to act as a liaison. Sometimes with major labels, Production Managers, printers and Designers may be involved. The smaller the band or more independent they are, the fewer people you tend to work with.”
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“There was a time when there were rock star Designers,” Kay recalls. “There weren’t many, but a select few made iconic and enduring works that still inspire new generations of artists. They were working in a time when the record industry was generating much more money from physical product than it does now. Vinyl, in particular, was far more important than it is now, so they were afforded massive budgets and incredible careers flying all over the world just to shoot a picture for a record cover. These days, any Designer has to be pretty diversified. Many artists need logos to accompany album art, t-shirt designs to support their touring and in some cases even backdrops and projections.”
A Designer has the skills to do almost any kind of layout work in addition to music packaging: books, brochures, flyers, print advertising, you name it. Many Designers go corporate for job security, but just as many remain independent and freelance throughout their careers. Some even publish books of their work or pursue the gallery circuit and exhibit in public. In this career, advancement means working with more well-known artists and labels, which means an increase in income as well as artistic prestige.
Education & Training
Album Cover Designers usually have training in Fine Arts or Graphic Design. ”School is recommended but is not for everyone,” says Kay. “You can be a success making art without school, but at the same time, school is a great opportunity if it’s there for you. Institutions like the Rhode Island School of Design and CalArts in Los Angeles have both produced many notable artists and Designers, but those are only two of many. School is advisable if you’re serious about it and you’re going to use that time to really immerse yourself in the work and really push, challenge, and train yourself. The value of training and truly learning a craft can not be underestimated.
There’s a reason the fine arts, and in particular, painting, have been things of awe for thousands of years. A great piece of art can take someone’s breath away. It’s one thing to be a Designer and have an inclination to be creative and make stuff. It’s another thing to refine your craft to the point so that it stops someone in their tracks. To me, that’s what all artists should strive for regardless of what their medium is. In this day and age, anybody can be good, creative, develop a skill, and compete. The trick is really to master your medium and own it. To that end, there’s a lot to be said about getting an MFA or a BFA, in other words, a fine arts degree as opposed to just getting a BA (Bachelor of Art). To get that ‘F’ in there really requires commitment and dedication to taking your skills and your unique self-expression up a notch. If you want to really prepare yourself for the world of art and the competition you’re going to have out there, then go for the BFA.
There are great schools and great educators all over the place. Whatever is available to you, make the most of it – don’t get hung up on prestige or reputation. They have nothing to do with making art. If you feel like you’re not being challenged then challenge yourself. Nobody is going to care about your work more than you. So if you feel like you’re not living up to your destiny then the burden is on you to fix that.”
Experience & Skills
“Any kind of art background in entertainment is useful in this kind of job,” recommends Kay. “Being around bands, musicians, artists, labels, Producers or venues allows you to soak up experience and make connections with the people you will be working with.” In Kay’s case, he was in a handful of bands that toured the US and Europe repeatedly, founded and managed a record label and distribution company, tour-managed bands and promoted concerts.
“Being creative is one of the best skills to have for this job,” he adds. “With record covers, there are a lot of options. That’s the beauty of record packaging, it has a tradition of being ‘anything goes.’ Alice Cooper put out a record with panties stretched around the jacket! There have also been albums released in metal boxes, leather sleeves, shaped jackets, you name it. If a record company is willing to spend the money, a Designer should be prepared to think big and do something really unique and exceptional, something iconic.”
Kay believes being flexible and willing to collaborate is essential. He advises, “A good rule is to not take anything personally. That can be difficult, especially when it comes to work you’ve spent a lot of time on and you’re really attached to. To have somebody disregard it or shoot it down or want to change it can be devastating. Removing yourself from that possibility is a very healthy thing. Maintaining a healthy sense of detachment from everything you create is a good rule. As most Designers will tell you, being a bit of an art snob comes with the territory! Daily life is a minefield of poor design so it’s easy to be opinionated.”
In terms of the work lifestyle for Album Art Cover Designers, Kay says, “If you’re a freelance artist, it really varies. It isn’t unusual to go from so-called ‘feast or famine,’ and it can be very unpredictable. However, you make your own hours, create your own schedule, and generally live life on your own clock. You answer to nobody but yourself. Your work is as expressive of you as you want it to be.
Or you can land a corporate job and have a potentially entirely different lifestyle. Along with a salary, you’d have all the benefits that come with being part of a corporation – as well as all the commitments and sacrifices a job like that requires. Answering to a board of directors, for example, is not for everyone. Corporate jobs don’t generally encourage real creativity; they foster expertise in specialized compartments and are (in my experience) plagued with petty competition and bureaucracy.
How much work you actually do varies, depending on the amount of projects you have. You can put as much time into something as you want. Some people really like to spend long hours on projects because they’re perfectionists. At the end of the day, you want the art to be the final product, not the check. The work will show how much time you put into it. Sometimes you’ll find yourself watching the clock and cutting corners to pinch pennies, so to speak, if you have a lot of work to complete. The work will suffer from that.”
“You find work by putting yourself out there and creating relationships with people in the field,” suggests Kay. “Start with what’s available to you in your community. In the beginning, one of the best ways to ingratiate yourself with someone and to prove that you’re serious about your work is to do something without being asked or paid. That will go a long way, even if you don’t know them personally yet.”
Typically a price is negotiated in the beginning of a project with a label, Manager, artist or whoever is paying. Then you deliver the final product for that price. There are some situations where there are multiple revisions that may go beyond what seems like reasonable changes or the gears are switched completely in midstream. In those cases, you may be able to ask for more money. Generally, you get a deposit, typically 50%. It depends on who you’re working with, of course, but getting a deposit from a new client is highly advisable.
Unions, Groups, Social Media, and Associations
There are no unions or associations specific to Album Cover Art Designers, although some could be members of graphic design organizations such as AIGA or Graphic Artists Guild. Kay himself isn’t too caught up in social media groups; he prefers to keep it simple by just finding “artists that you admire and inspire you and follow them.”
- “Start meeting people and networking in the music and entertainment industries because the most important thing (after the quality of your work, that is) is who you know. All the schooling and all the skills are useless if you’re in a vacuum. You have to be visible and have relationships with people.
- Start doing this however you can. Spend time creating something exceptional for a band you love and get it to them. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t. Why on earth wouldn’t you do something if you felt compelled to do it? You’re not hurting anyone else and it’s a creative gesture. You’d be amazed at some of the mileage you might get.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Do it for the love of art, not because you think it’s some kind of path to glory. It’s very competitive and any kind of success takes a long time, but nothing worthwhile comes easy. If you’re in it for overnight success you’re going to find out overnight that you’re barking up the wrong tree, because you’re not going to be rich tomorrow. It’s a slow process. It’s about really having something special to share with people. To recognize that in yourself and have that desire to manifest it. If you don’t have that desire, if you’re lukewarm about it, not only will that be reflected in your art, but you will fall by the wayside because it’s too competitive. It’s got to be special. There can’t be one million Record Designers; there’s just not enough work. It’s a very small pond. It’s about differentiating yourself by excelling at something.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“I think it’s the same mistake people make with any kind of thing they perceive from the outside as being prestigious or glorified or exciting. It’s really as much hard work as shoveling snow or being a Bricklayer. It’s just a different kind of work, a different strain on your mind, a different kind of long-term commitment. It just develops in a different way the way your talent develops differently, and you grow. Anybody that wants a quick return should not bother.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“Do they have something unique that they’re bringing to this tradition, is there something novel or new or unusual about what they’re doing and will it resonate with people?
It doesn’t have to be or do any of those things, necessarily — it just needs to resonate with people. The really good stuff advances the medium and pushes the limits of what people can expect from it and what’s possible.”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“Why do it?
Ever since I was a kid I almost felt a magical, magnetic attraction to music and I feel like experiencing art with music as one conceptual experience is like a very potent form of communication — arguably one of the most potent. It’s really rewarding to see a finished product, to see a thing that I worked on my computer monitor for weeks or months as a printed thing in the real world, that people experience in tandem with a piece of music that a lot of other people spent their time crafting.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
Sonny Kay is a Graphic Artist and Illustrator, punk rock vocalist, record label founder, and underground music icon. Beginning in the early nineties, his cut-and-paste flyer-making gradually evolved into designing album covers, and by 2007 he was mastering a graphic technique all his own, crafting seamless, painting-like collages, often on behalf of some of the most colorful names in rock music. Ranging from the provocative to the surreal to the incomprehensible, Kay’s work is true to his anti-authoritarian nature while often exploring themes of higher consciousness, multi-dimensionality, and so on.