What do Frank Ocean, Nirvana, The Velvet Underground, and N.W.A have in common? They all have iconic album cover art. This article is going to show you how to make an album cover that catches music fans’ eyes, with helpful tips, tools, and tricks to make sure you can successfully upload your artwork to the world’s biggest music platforms.
Why you need an album cover
Music and visuals are perfect for each other. They seem like an obvious pairing, but this hasn’t always been the case. Back in the 1920s, album covers had a purely functional use — protecting the record inside. It wasn’t until 1940 that someone came along and changed the music industry forever. That person was Alex Steinweiss. Shortly after taking a job at CBS Records, Steinweiss had a eureka moment: instead of selling records in dull paper wrappers, Steinweiss suggested CBS should add art to the covers of the albums. His designs saw record sales soar, and the album cover was born.
In a digital world where music is largely streamed online, you may think: why is album art still important? Even in the modern-day music industry, cover art is still a vital part of music promotion and distribution. First of all, you won’t be able to submit your music to any music platforms without it. It’s a crucial part of the process.
You should see album art as an extension of your artistic vision — it’s part of your visual brand. Like Steinweiss said: “I wanted people to look at the artwork and hear the music.” That’s exactly what great cover art does. It reveals something about the music. Album artwork is like a portal into what the listener can expect to hear, and can even help them discover something about the person behind the music.
Each single, EP, or album can visually represent a specific stage of your musical journey. Your album design can influence every aspect of your release campaign: live show posters, tour set designs, merchandise, and much more.
Album cover design: The finer details
Album art is a place to express your creativity, but there are some rules you have to follow to make sure your single, EP, or album passes the guidelines set by major music sites.
Image size — the standard for most sites is 3000 x 3000 pixels.
Explicit images — any artwork featuring pornographic images, nudity, violence, or discrimination of any kind will not be accepted.
Explicit content logo — if any tracks or titles feature explicit language, an explicit logo could be added to your artwork. However, if you choose to include the explicit content logo on your artwork, there must be at least one track that includes explicit content. You cannot include the logo on your artwork if there is no explicit content on your album.
Links, logos, and characters — there should be no references to social media, music platforms, blatant use of brands, sports stars, celebrities, or film/tv references & characters.
Non-Latin alphabets — as long as the artwork title matches the release title, any choice of language is ok.
Blurry or pixelated images — if there is pixelation around words, images, or in the corners of the artwork, many sites will think this was not done on purpose. This could cause the artwork to be rejected.
Using the same artwork for multiple releases — an artist can use the same artwork for multiple single releases but it must reference the different single titles to distinguish them from each other. We recommend freshening up your artwork if you have the time. Artwork that is left blank, uses one color, or is too generic, will not be accepted either.
At iMusician we have created a PDF with artwork guidelines. You can use this for your own reference, or share it with your graphic designer. Download it here.
Can I use copyrighted images?
Unfortunately not. You need to have authorization from the copyright holder for any images you use. Using an image without permission falls under copyright infringement. If you want to be safe, there are many top-quality websites that offer free stock photos and images that you can use without worrying about breaking any rules. We recommend looking at Unsplash, Pexels, Negative Space, and Death to Stock — just to name a few. Canva is also a great resource for free stock images, but it’s so much more than that. Keep reading to learn more about Canva’s clever design software.
Another great place to look is New Old Stock. If you’re looking for a vintage aesthetic, this site focuses on vintage photos from public archives. Before using any of the images from this website be sure to check the license agreement. If you’re not sure whether you can use a certain image, check the institution’s rights statement via the link provided in the original Flickr posting. Most prefer that you link back to the original Flickr photo and mention the institution by name.
How to make album art — graphic design tips
Now you know the history behind album art and the finer details of the album design process, it’s time to bring your ideas to life. The best place to start is with research. Pick out some album designs you love and think about what makes them so appealing: is it the use of color, fonts, or photography? Are there any artists who visually stand out to you? Building up a collection of reference points and creating mood boards can help pull together all these influences and give you a clearer vision for your own album artwork.
If you decide to work with a graphic designer, your reference points and mood boards will give your collaborator a much better idea of what you’re trying to achieve with the visual aspect of your music. We’ll talk more about collaborating with graphic designers later in this article. Before you start your research, this blog post written by a professional graphic designer offers a wide selection of graphic design tips for musicians.
You don’t need to be a designer to create eye-catching artwork. All it takes is a lot of research and a good understanding of proportions, fonts, use of color.
How to create cover art with Canva
If you’re an independent artist or musician, you might not have the budget to fund a full photoshoot for your latest release. Plus, with all the different channels and content that musicians create these days, you need fresh images for many situations: album designs, single covers, YouTube thumbnails, SoundCloud mixes... the list goes on.
Thankfully, there are now online tools and apps that make the album design process quick and simple. One of those tools is Canva. Canva is a free album artwork maker that lets you create incredible album covers for albums, podcasts, and music tracks in just a few minutes. You don’t need any graphic design experience. The design layouts are already created for you by professional designers, making it easy to create pro-quality designs. You can customize the fonts, colors, images, and filters to create images that reflect your artistic vision.
Alternative ways to make your own album cover
iMusician is a platform that provides a complete portfolio of services that make it easy for artists and labels of all levels to manage the ins and outs of releasing a single, EP, or album. When it comes time to create your album artwork, we offer a technology-based artwork production solution that is directly integrated with the creation process of your release: simply create artwork from our library of royalty-free images that are ready for use (and free!). Select the image and font of your choice and you will have your album cover done and ready to distribute within minutes.
Another app that is great for graphic design newbies is Adobe Spark. It has easy-to-use template resources that you can easily edit and give your own personal touch. You can switch up the copy and font, take out images and replace them with your own photos, or browse through thousands of free-to-use images. Search by platform, color, or mood to find the perfect fit. You can also create your own artwork completely from scratch. You can even add your own logo, colors, and fonts, so everything fits with your aesthetic. Other apps worth checking out are Pixrl, Gimp, Designer.io, and Inkscape.
As an independent artist, you know what it’s like to forge a path through your love of music. If graphic design isn’t your thing, maybe try reaching out to a graphic designer. That way, you’ll have years of expertise at your disposal from a fellow creative who is following their passion.
If you want to have something designed specifically for your artwork, or you want to develop your own brand identity to apply throughout your career, partnering with a designer would be the best option. This would cost more money, but you get what you pay for. Start by asking around within your network, then move on to online musician forums and social media groups. If you still can’t find the right fit, platforms like Upwork and 99Designs can connect you to a professional designer.
If it goes well, you’ll have someone who understands your vision and will be able to continue helping with your artwork as your career progresses.
Album covers we love
Get inspired by a collection of album designs created by our global community.
How can we help you?
The minimum size for an album cover is 3000 x 3000 pixels. The image must be a square with a minimum of 72 DPI. Album art can be in either JPG or PNG format.
It all depends on your budget. You can use apps to make album covers. You can create free designs for your album cover using Canva or Adobe Spark. They’re both filled with professional templates and designs. If you have a bit of money to play with, collaborating with a graphic designer could be the way to go.
Many issues can cause problems when submitting artwork: incorrect image size, explicit content, copyrighted images, logos, and blurry pictures. You can find a comprehensive guide to all the most frequent issues above.
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