FEATURE: U Got the Look: The Importance and Influence of Art and Visuals




U Got the Look


PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash/@timon_k 

The Importance and Influence of Art and Visuals


I have been inspired by a feature/celebration on BBC Radio 6 Music…


 PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash/@celmono2

where certain shows this week will present from various art schools/colleges around the U.K. (They are looking at the role art institutions have played regarding musicians and great expression). Everyone from Freddie Mercury and Madonna went to art school - this list gives more names - and it seems there is an inherent link between art and music. It is not only art and static imagery that affects music and brings it to mind. Look at music videos and the connection with film and we can see how important visuals are regarding music. Goldsmiths student Jack Barraclough talked to The Guardian about the a divide between music and art:

"I see a gap between music and art," counters Jack Barraclough. "If you look at bands made of art students and bands made of music students there will be a massive difference."

What's that?

"The music students practise."

One of the most famous sons of the London art school world is Jarvis Cocker, who enrolled at Central St Martins in 1988 to take a hiatus from Pulp and study fine art and film. Paradoxically, it was the move that cemented Pulp's success.

"The experience of just being at art school gave me a lot to draw on - Pulp's most famous song [Common People] is about something that happened there - but on a deeper level I was taught to think about things in a non-lateral way. We might be losing that as everything becomes results-based. It's terrible to imagine, but I fear that the years of the alcoholic lecturer who spouts out a few ideas before falling asleep are gone".



In terms of musicians; many go to art school to meet like-minded people who they can form bands with. There is that new way of thinking and freedom of thought that you can hear in artists like Florence Welch and Jarvis Cocker; M.I.A. and Lady Gaga. You might say art and music are different disciplines and require separate skills…but there is a clear connection between art and music. The most innovative and free-thinking musicians around think visually and understand the importance of thinking outside the box – putting importance on images and bringing their music to life through visuals and designs. Many say it is less likely we will find a new breed of art school-educated musicians because of tough times and a drop in enrolment. The same piece looks at the figures and the current state of play (the article was written in 2009):

Being an art school graduate has never been easy but, according to Graham Crowley, it's even worse being an art school lecturer. In October 2008 Crowley, a landscape painter and former lecturer, wrote in a letter to the journal Art Monthly that admin culture is turning art schools into "the educational equivalent of British Leyland", with a lack of resources, staff shortages, and an adoption of the corporate model, in which accountability and success are clearly measured. At the same time, there has been a 23.6% increase in the number of art students at undergraduate level between 1999 and 2007. The art school is still seen as an attractive place to spend your young adulthood”.


 PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash/@picsbylikesoda

Due to the lack of schools who have music on the syllabus as a compulsory course; it is becoming harder and harder to see where the musicians of the future will come from. The problem with studying music is that it can be expensive – going to colleges and universities – and the syllabuses is very particular. It can be hugely beneficial but how often do aspiring musicians get the chance to think about music in visual and artistic terms?! Maybe it is less black-and-white than I imagine but it is interesting looking at artists who have been to art school and how they create. David Bowie went to Bromley Technical High School and it was a very liberal space. He had his love of art and imagery furthered and one could draw a line between his time there and how he projected himself in music. Artists, when at these schools, can compose and paint whilst listening to different music and, naturally, a reverse trend emerges: the art they are creating inspires them musically and that ingrained bond between art and music come out. Not only do art schools and colleges allow aspiring musicians the chance to think in a different way and be set free but there is that lack of convention and rigidity. I feel a lot of people do not place importance on art and visuals when it comes to music.  


  PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash/@alex_andrews

I was speaking with a musician yesterday and she was saying how much she loves music videos and design. Not only does she love to write music and perform but getting involved with the videos and designing her own logo is paramount! Art schools are one of the few spaces that are not entirely digital and still place importance on the physical and human. It is important, as an artist, there is that tactile and tangible connection with your source and canvas. Whilst we can see how art school and these institutions have impacted some of the best classic and modern musical minds; I wonder whether a module needs to come into music teaching and those who attending music schools. I think art schools/colleges are great creative spaces that can open minds and bring the best out of possible musicians. I am not suggesting the art side is a waste and you only go there to think about music but I feel the way those at art school are taught and the environment they are in is a lot different to a conventional music school. I shall come back to this in the conclusion. One big reason why I raise the issue of imagery in music is the continuing wave of musicians who feel the visual aspect is unimportant. As this article explores, there is an essential need to get your visuals and artwork down:

Visual content is just that: a visual representation of the music. If you were to present your music without any visuals, it would be harder to get people to listen to your stuff. Imagine uploading a new beat on BeatStars or YouTube and it’s just a black or white square. How do you think this would be perceived in contrast to a thought-out, eye-catching logo or artwork cover? Notice how unassuming the image above is; does it make you want to hear what’s on the CD?


IN THIS IMAGE: The cover for FKA Twigs’ album, LP1/IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

Good graphics and branding can not only impact your streams and sales, but it can also have a ripple effect. Eventually, the graphics may become a part of your marketing material – on t-shirts, posters and the like. Fans will then buy and wear this merch or hang it up in their room or slap a sticker on a telephone pole, thus giving your name (see: brand) more recognition and additional advertising.

So when you are considering your marketing plan and imagining your brand, think about how visual imagery and graphics add to you and your music’s accessibility. Visual designs sell culture and identity”.

So many artists rely upon merchandise for revenue and that can involve everything from T-shirts and posters to keyrings and clothing. Having a brand/logo can really connect you to fans but for those with a more artistic mind; creating different scenes/images for your merchandise catches the eye and will lure more people in. I have not even talked about the visual side of music itself. I have discussed art schools and how literal art can lead to musical art. If you think about the best albums of the year – and of all-time, for that fact! – they are defined by incredible images, lyricism and storytelling. Great and memorable songs are ones where you are dragged inside and taken somewhere special; made to connect and feel something.


 IN THIS IMAGE: The cover for J.Cole’s album, KOD/IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

There is a lot to think about for artists but visuals should be need the top. I will end by looking at imagery online and music videos but I wanted to allude to album covers and design. Even getting the right font can be crucial when it comes to catching the eye and attracting people in. Maybe not as important now things are more digital…or are they?! Pigeons and Planes wrote a great piece last year that stated how imagery and album art is crucial right now:

In 2017, artwork appears as small thumbnails on digital screens far more often than on actual physical album covers. 80 years after a graphic designer at Columbia Records invented album art as a way to help sell vinyl in record stores, its original function is becoming a thing of the past. So, it’s worth asking: Does cover art still matter? Is Lil Yachty the only one who still cares?

“We're in a time right now where our attention spans are really low,” Mihailo Andic (designer of covers for Lil Yachty,GallantFetty Wap, and 6lack) explains. “We process information a lot faster and we process music a lot faster. Making something that's going to catch people's eyes within seconds is important. People only have that amount of time to be instantly attached to what you create. And you have to either grab their attention or you lose them right away”.


IN THIS IMAGE: The cover for Charli XCX’s album, Number 1 Angel (noted for its striking and strong image)/IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

There is not only the positives of creating great artwork – bad images can have a damaging effect on any artist, as this article explores:

Some artists have consistently great artwork. Some artists have consistently bad artwork that becomes great via its terrible nature. Some artists opt for the more artistic, and some artists strip their artwork back for a minimalist approach, preferring their music do the convincing. Each of these brands has an appeal, and the more successful are those which manage to make use of the music in some way as well. Artwork should be exciting, should be encouraging, should serve a purpose above just packaging. I think of some of my favorite records and part of what stands out is their artwork. Consider Nirvana's Nevermind and that infamous sleeve, now a piece of pop culture, doing so many things at once - stirring controversy, offering a capitalist commentary, while also just being visually compelling, unusual enough to stand out on a shelf. The Beatles' Abbey Road, Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures, Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon- album covers which have gone down in history, partly because of the music, partly because of the artwork”.


PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash/@ronaldcuyan

It is not only about exploring a collage of colours and making complex pieces. A single colour can, as explained here, make such an impression:

Furthermore, the use of a single colour, can be enough to trigger a certain feeling or emotion. Nowadays, with such leaps in technology record manufacturers are able to produce a kaleidoscope of vinyls of all colours and patterns. Thus, the physical vinyl itself, becomes part of the artwork and in turn, part of the collective musical experience”. 

The last points I wanted to raise are regarding visuals and music videos. There are so many artists who do not like making videos – feeling it is a needless step and their music is available on streaming sites. Whilst Spotify is the biggest market and most profitable site for many artists; you cannot discount the need to produce music videos:

With more music being produced and released than ever before, posting a few good songs or even an album isn’t enough to stand out and catch people’s attention in 2018. Cover art and all the other imagery you associated with your band is a huge opportunity to link your music to a larger and more compelling story than your music alone is going to be able to tell. The word “branding” comes to mind here, which may turn the stomach of a few readers. But rather than branding for the sake of turning a profit, you’ll need to think long and hard about the visual elements of your music in order to catch the attention of listeners and carve out an identity for yourself”.


IN THIS PHOTO: Lotus Quadrant/PHOTO CREDIT: Leah Roth Photography 

To compete in a world chock full of distractions, the visual elements of a band’s music are needed to send a message to listeners that’s both succinct and compelling. Whether you try going it alone or working with a visual artist, you’ll need to have conversations about what your music means and how to present it visually in a compelling way.

If you’ve managed to earn a following, the most devoted section of your fans will want more from you than just your music. Things like music videos, band photos, cover art, and posters are important ways to earn new fans and form a deeper connection with people who already love your music”.

The Internet seems to be about a lack of face and making sure we have everything we need as quickly as we wish! If we start to overlook the visual side of music then that could have a devastating effect. Some great videos from this year show how potent a great video can be. Look at how we can forget about tracks after listening to them – do visuals and a strong brand help keep them in the mind? The article goes into more depth:

Music on the Internet is consumed and forgotten about daily, if not hourly. So from a record label point of view, an artist needs something bigger than an MP3 to get noticed. They need strong creative visuals to give them a substantial competitive advantage over their peers. Look at FKA Twigs and Tyler The Creator, perfect examples of two musicians who have made their visual impact just as powerful as their music. Music videos form a large part of an artist’s general creative vision and output. When you can stream music anywhere and everywhere a music video is a focal point — it draws your attention, or at least helps to.

Music videos are still an important jumping off point for directors to hone and explore their creativity. They give young talent an opportunity to break into different areas of the film industry — they are still very much a way in. The media still look at music videos for discovering new talent, and those ideas are then applied to so many other things. Take the example of Bonnie Prince Billy’s video Bonnie directed by Harmony Korine, the technique in the video was then applied to a Thornton’s chocolate ad”.

Many directors cut their teeth in music videos before going on to make films — Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and more recently Daniel Wolfe are poster boys for this. These are visionary filmmakers who, without the existence of music videos, wouldn’t be making the exciting and experimental work they are now. It’s an outlet of inspiration no matter where you’re at in your career — they will always excite people”.

Not only does ‘art’ in music come from the cover of vinyl and streaming sites; there is that consideration when looking at lyrics and the way artists express themselves. As stations like BBC Radio 6 Music look at the association between art and music; I wanted to investigate the way visuals have helped raise and cement careers; how we would not remember some of the very biggest artists were it not for their strong attachment to art and imagery. Music is intangible and electronic these days. More and more, it is becoming about flicking a screen, choosing a song and then immersing yourself in whatever nonsense is happening on your phone. Fewer people are studying album covers and talking about artistic visions in music. As I have shown here; artists cannot ignore the role imagery plays in music – even when streaming is taking over from physical formats. There is something beautiful about great deigns and those musicians who think in a very different and inspirational way. Artists like Beyoncé have created visual albums and ensure live shows are as theatrics, spectacular and visually-arresting as possible. Getting the right set, stage look and visual aspect there is important. Not only can a fantastic and tight set impress people but a well-designed and eye-catching backdrop (lighting and props too) can go a very long way.


 IN THIS IMAGE: David Bowie as ‘Aladdin Sane’/SOURCE CREDIT: Brian Duffy (1933-2010), David Bowie as ‘Aladdin Sane’, 1973. Sold in the British Modern and Contemporary Photography sale in May 2015/PHOTO CREDIT: Brian Duffy © Duffy Archive & The David Bowie Archive ™

From art school alumni such as David Bowie to newer acts who are keen to invest in good photography. As this article attests; about 4% of bands/artists feel strong imagery and photos are important tools. I am a journalist who relies on high-resolution photos and cannot stand it when I get sent crappy photos or artists explain they only have a few – not understanding why it is important to have a few great shots in your locker:

The reality is, almost every promoter that we talk to mentions how important photographs and album covers are in their selections. A great photograph is what immediately separates you from anyone else at first glance. You’ve worked hard to make sure that your music is as good as it can be, so why not invest some time in making sure that first visual hook is just as good?”.


IN THIS PHOTO: Molly Rankin (L) and Kerri MacLellan (R) of Alvvays perform onstage during day two of the 2016 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival Weekend 2 at the Empire Polo Club on April 23, 2016 in Indio, California/PHOTO CREDIT: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images North America

Great photography and images helps preserve artists after their careers have ended or when they try to appeal to generations way down the line. How many acts of today are going to be remembered for audio alone? Jessica Brassington, writing in 2015, pitched for the beauty of music photography:

Music photography is an art form that we rarely hear much discussion about yet we visually see it on a daily basis. The image is extremely powerful within the music industry and we take for granted the photographs we see of singers and bands because it is something we automatically expect to see; whether it’s an album cover, festival highlights or a gig review, photography is always there.

However, it is not very often that we stop consider the artist behind the lens, fighting for that perfect shot, that perfect depiction of the band’s vision. It’s a beautiful art form with a significant and important purpose…”

I feel art and music should be studied more and how important it is to realise music now, as much as it ever was, is a visual medium that need to appeal to the eyes as well as the ears. If artists come into music and overlook things like photography, videos; merchandise designs and a more artistic approach to songwriting then that can have a huge effect on their memorability and legacy. Start putting art back into the forefront and stop thinking it is unimportant. Think about all the music you grew up around and can you honestly say you were not blown away by the album covers and images?! We all were, and so, we need to tell generations to come – and artists out there – art and images are as substantial as…

THE music itself.