Cover art, label art, CD case illustrations and other forms of media 'packaging' have been around as long as media content itself. By the turn of the 20th century sheet music cover art and illustrations had reached their zenith to the point that the sheet music covers themselves have become highly collectable. It goes without saying that the primary intent of such compelling cover images was to promote the content in a highly competitive field of content suppliers. Sheet music of the day commanded prices as dear as, by comparison, CDs of today. Naturally the desire to make the cover art as compelling, attractive and inviting as possible was the primary impetus behind investing in the finest illustrators of the day for media cover art.
Turn of the Century Lithographed Sheet Music Cover
Admittedly there's no direct analog to today's 'ID3 tagged' .mp3-type media art, but cover art wasn't simply an advertising vehicle. Many Golden Age Radio collectors employ cover art to enhance an individual recording as it plays in a visual interface like Media Player, iTunes, RealPlayer or the like. Naturally there's a desire to make the visual representation of the recorded media accurate as to content, but going even further, there's a growing desire to seek a visual representation of some of the history of these Golden Age recordings
On a personal note, I much prefer the Golden Age Recordings in my collection which haven't had the bumpers, intros/outros, PSAs or commercials clipped from them. It's apparent that during the early days of Golden Age Radio collecting, there was no apparent desire to preserve the historical advertising cues from recordings being traded. Understandably, well over half of the source material available was electrical transcriptions or magnetic tape reels from either sponsors' advertising agencies, network syndications, government recordings such as AFRS and AFRTS, or content sydicators themselves. Such recordings left 'room' for local orgination commercials, bumpers, Station IDs, PSAs, or news clips. Unfortunately a great deal of the local origination cues are missing in the vast majority of recordings of the era.
Those recordings that did escape the splicing knife provide both immeasurable insights into the popular culture of the era and even more importantly, vital provenances to establish or aid in the accurate chronological cataloging of this priceless material.
This brings us to a discussion of what constitutes appropriate cover art for digital Golden Age Radio recordings. The word 'appropriate' may be argumentative itself. After all, cover art is a very personal preference. Just as in every other vehicle of artistic expression, each person has their own idea of what's attractive, appropriate or important to them--as rightly it should be. Indeed any collection is a very personal endeavor and the pleasure one derives from his or her hobbies are--or should be--the most important aspect of a recreational pastime. But there are also certain kinds of collections that rely to a very high degree on accuracy and precision--stamps, coins, art and ephemera among them.
There is understandably a vast continuum of ways to collect and enjoy Golden Age Radio recordings, as well as any other recordings of a cultural, sentimental or historical significance. My personal preferences have evolved a great deal in this regard over the years. Indeed, as more visual research material and contemporaneous radio ephemera surfaces, I've found myself fascinated with promotional clippings, ads and illustrations promoting the radio shows of the Golden Era. Even the transcription labels themselves were, in many cases, taken to a high level of artistic expression and pride by sponsors and networks alike. Even the later AFRS transcriptions of the World War II and post-war era evolved into highly entertaining and even fanciful representations of the content they labeled.
So let's say for the purpose of an opening discussion that there are three broad categories of Golden Age Radio collector:
- The casual collector, who collects, listens to, and enjoys his or her personal preferences in radio shows, genres or episodes for simple diversion, relaxation or affinity to the material.
- The hobbyist, who collects episodes, shows or genres with an eye towards amassing all obtainable recordings of a particular genre, show or era.
- The archiver/preservationist/radio historian, who catalogs his or her collection of Golden Age Radio, preserving or further enhancing its accuracy and documentation with each new addition or acquisition to the library.
Granted these may be too broad, but they'll serve as a point of departure. In fact what may appeal to the casual collector may not appeal to the archiver or historian. Indeed the archiver/historian may accept nothing less than an original electrical transcription label in whatever condition it was encountered at the time it entered his or her library. The casual collector by contrast may take great pleasure in a more fanciful representation of his collection, employing very personal, evocative or imagined artwork for labeling any collection of recordings.
For the hobbyist or historian, representational accuracy might have greater appeal than the more personal, imaginative approach to cover art. Indeed for the vast majority of Golden Age Radio collectors, an indefinable balance between imagination and historical accuracy in cover art seems to strike the happiest medium. But let's keep it as simple as it need be: cover art appropriateness is in the eye of the beholder.
I employ a combination of personal taste and nostalgic historical tone with most of my cover art or disc labeling efforts. Indeed as a sideline hobby I've evolved into over time has been 'rehabilitating' old transcription labels. Here's a representative before and after example:
Click for full size
Click for full size
So as not to bore you with the details I'll simply say that I found the possibilities of the original label intriguing and simply wished to restore the label to its original glory. Granted I took a bit of license in reassembling the label elements, primarily so as to be able to use the label for both CD labeling and cover art purposes. But I attempted to preserve the authentic look and feel of the result.
In any case you can get an idea of what my motivations were in going about restoring the original electrical transcription label. There are several rehabilitated electrical transcription labels included in the cover art gallery below. To head off any hyper-literal criticism, keep in mind that I hoped to use the same artwork for both CD/DVD labeling as well as mp3 cover art, hence some movement around the larger CD/DVD opening to accomodate all of the text and graphic elements from the original E.T. label. I've found that the more damaged, torn or defaced the original E.T. label, the more satisfying it becomes to fully restore or rehabilitate it.
So much for E.T. label rehabilitation as it applies to cover art. The other source of cover art I enjoy employing in my designs are original newspaper clippings or promotional ads contemporaneous with the original airing of any given show or series. To that end I've often done little more than rehabilitate such a clipping to incorporate it into the cover art format I've standardized on:
- To maintain iTunes/iPod compatibility, I've standardized on a 320 pixel square target format.
- To maintain compatibility with the other de facto standard in the PC world--Windows Media Player--I've standardized on a web indexed background color target of hex value 6194dd, which appears to be the default Windows Media Player background color.
- Where possible or appropriate, I keep the original Photoshop or Illustrator background transparent so as to ensure that all graphical or textual elements can remain just as pleasing irrespective to the target platform's native background color(s).
Here's a before and after, using that strategy:
Click for full size
Click for full size
AFTER - Resized and Background applied
Click for full size
If this is all a bit technical, the short version is I attempt to preserve both iTunes and Windows Media Player compatibility with the same basic graphic format. When either an original E.T. or contemporaneous clipping are unavailable, I'm left to draw on my imagination, photos of the actors of a show, universal 'icons' of the period, or failing availability of all other graphical resources, creating an original artistic vignette or collage, hopefully representative or evocative of the theme of the show or series. If you're interested in more discussion, examples or resources for employing these techniques, see the links section at the bottom of this article. That said, here's the cover art we've developed thus far. Some you'll enjoy, some you won't, but I would hope that you get some idea of what I've felt valuable to include in historically or thematically appropriate cover art.