On Album Covers, Downloads and Textual Pragmatics

Andy Doe likes to poke fun at bad album covers on his blog Proper Discord, but in an article on NewMusicBox, he gives practical advice to those responsible for designing and selecting covers for classical (and other) recordings. He says, “A lot of customers will first experience an album cover as one of those little thumbnail images on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, or some other website. Getting them to click on it is the first step in the process of getting them to buy it, so the cover should make them want to see it bigger.”

What I find interesting is that this article looks at something that I postulated, back in the day when I was studying applied linguistics (I’m a Master), called textual pragmatics. In linguistics, and in particular sociolinguistics, pragmatics is “the ways in which context contributes to meaning.” (Wikipedia) My hypothesis at the time was that visual elements of any text we read – not just the font, but everything that we see, such as the type of book or magazine, the title of a publication, or the type of paper – help define our reaction to it, in particular the level of importance, status or value we assign to it.

You will most likely think more highly of an article in a national newspaper than on a blog like mine, but if an article from my blog were published in the New York Times, you would likely have more respect for the same text in the latter publication. Not because the words would be any different, but simply because its context – the place where it’s published – has higher status.

The same is the case for books (hardcover versus paperback), magazines (glossy versus amateurish newsletters), and other texts. Just look at academia and science: it’s far more important to publish your findings in a prestigious journal than some up-and-coming publication from a small university. And if I print out a text for someone to read, it will make a difference to the reader if they see a header showing a publication with prestige, rather than an unknown source.

This also applies to CDs. Andy Doe’s article discusses covers and packaging, but it’s worth considering what the textual pragmatics are that affect music downloads. Are all downloads the same? Are downloads from iTunes or Amazon “better” in some way than downloads purchased directly from an artist or label? They often are. I’ve bought music from smaller vendors that is poorly tagged or lacks album art. On the other hand, many labels offer digital booklets, that you can’t always get from iTunes or Amazon.

Are downloads considered to be a “lesser” product? Many people think so. Record labels don’t want to stop selling CDs, but since downloads are the future, they should make downloads high-status items. Since you don’t have a physical copy of a record, you’re getting less value from a download; if it’s just the same as the CD.

Downloads should be as good as CDs, or better. At a minimum they should contain everything that a CD does: that includes digital booklets and sung texts, for vocal music. The metadata should be perfect. And they can also contain bonus tracks, videos, extra texts, and, since they’re not time-limited, they can hold much more content than a single CD can hold.

As music shifts increasingly to downloads, record labels need to stop treating downloads as inferior products, and start making digital packages that include music and other content. It’s not hard to make a download a compelling product. Start with good covers, as Andy Doe suggests, then move on to the rest of the added value that is so easy to provide digitally.

4 thoughts on “On Album Covers, Downloads and Textual Pragmatics

  1. All too often it’s the so-called ‘majors’ who are the worst offenders when it comes to added value (or, more appropriately ‘expected’ value). DG/Decca offer direct downloads, but they are now so bad in terms of metadata that I’ve given up using them. But if I go elsewhere I’m penalised and expected to pay above the odds just because of the very fact that a ‘major’ is involved. One of my favourite download destinations is Qobuz, where the normal asking price is €11.99 for a CD-quality album download. For DG, Decca, Sony and the likes, the price increases to €12.49, while Harmonia Mundi consider themselves so special that their releases are priced at €13.19.

    I wrote to DG (Universal) about the woefully inadequate metadata and was told that “Unfortunately, the Universal Music discs or tracks do not have metadata encoded on them. Track listings and covers are usually identified automatically using a third-party service such as Gracenote. Unfortunately, our digital products available in the Universal Music Store do not contain any PDF booklets. We are very sorry for this! Attached please find the PDF booklet. I hope this helps.”

    • About a year ago, I bought a download from DG that was horrendous: I wrote about it here. I’ll never buy from them again, or at least until I have some idea that they’ve improved their offering.

  2. I’m addicted to digital artwork and digital booklets as well. It definitely makes a difference for me, if there is a booklet included in the download. And I have already not bought certain albums because of the lack of booklet PDFs.

    One artist who truely understands his audience is Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails). On his last side project’s digital release “Welcome Oblivion” by How to Destroy Angels, every track came with a slightly different artwork. By listening to the album, the artwork was slowely fading away… into oblivion.

    You can read more about it on my blog anakin.wordpress.com
    Look for the posting “The Social Network by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross”.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.