Bijan Stephen, the Verge:
Records should have good art. For albums as diverse as London Calling, Horses, and Fear of a Black, the images on their covers were as recognizable as the music on the wax. While Apple Music isn’t a record label (yet), it did recently decide to add original art to its playlists. Its goal was to bring that instant recognition to its own content, so the company enlisted everyone from the creator of the iconic AC/DC logo to the person who designed the art for Migos’ chart-topping album Culture to make it happen.
The artwork is meant to “connect more directly with the communities and the culture for which they were intended,” says Rachel Newman, Apple’s global director of editorial. Before now, Apple’s playlists had a uniform presentation that didn’t necessarily speak to the music. “In many ways, it’s a visual representation of the music that you will find inside that playlist,” said Newman. That includes Hip Hop Hits, Dale Reggaetón, and The Riff, which are all immensely popular.
Original artwork is something that Apple seems to be taking seriously, from this to the App Store. This is especially interesting to me:
“The connection to music is — it has always been about kind of a tribe or a culture,” Newman said. “I just think that the difference is, these days, that there are just so many more of them.” In the old days, you’d be able to tell the style of music on a record by what was on its cover. (In a really general sense.) Newman said some of that artistry has been lost over time. “I think so many of these artists had done that work, and even those who hadn’t were very close to a lot of that work,” she said. “And I think just love the concept of being able to be a return to that kind of lost art in many ways.”
The kind of art Newman is talking about, of course, is still immediately recognizable. That’s part of what makes it special. Apple Music is going for the same thing, even though it’s hard to tell what kind of impact that art might have today. Streaming services are fundamentally distribution mechanisms for other people’s work, and it’s generally the work that matters. That said, it’s a competitive advantage to have the packaging and marketing of other people’s work be as high value as possible because it enhances the user experience. In that light, giving a platform a visible human touch becomes a very good idea.
A few years ago, Spotify launched a new identity that made heavy use of duotone artwork to unify the disparate photographs and illustrations provided by musicians’ representatives. Though that prescriptive identity has shifted somewhat in recent years, the overall feel of Spotify’s custom art is very much tied to their identity. It’s a uniform, more or less.
But the playlist covers Apple is creating and commissioning are all over the place. Some are illustrative and bright, while others are based on photos. Some are greyscale, and some are a Spotify-esque duotone. The only unifying characteristic is the Apple Music logo in the upper-right. I’m a little conflicted about this. There’s no solid identity for what constitutes an Apple Music playlist, and everything I’ve seen seems to be experimental without necessarily being cohesive. It’s a little less confident than most design we see coming from Apple. However, it’s very true to its medium; these playlist covers are as varied as album covers and feel almost more integrated because of that.