In 1939, Alex Steinweiss, at just 23 years old, landed a job at Columbia Records where he worked as the label’s first art director. CBS had recently opened a new headquarters in Bridgeport, Connecticut and their advertising manager was eager to hire someone to design promotional displays and advertisements for the label. It was a dream job but Steinweiss already had greater things in mind.
These days we tend to take album artwork for granted, yet prior to Steinweiss, the record industry really didn’t have much of a graphic tradition. When the 78 RPM emerged during the beginning of the 20th century, they were usually sold separately. Each record would last just three-to-five minutes and each one was typically packaged in dull paper or cardboard sleeves that either had the name of the producer on it or the name of the retailer who was selling it.
By the 1920s record labels began to offer special ‘record albums’. These were dark-coloured books with leatherette bindings and empty sleeves (quite similar to photo albums). A record album would offer more protection for a collector’s records and allow for them to build a personal record collection. By the mid 1920s some record companies were expanding on the album idea by issuing specially pre-assembled albums. These albums could include recordings from a particular artist, a genre, a suite of classical music or even a hits compilation. Despite this novel idea, all of these collections looked generally the same and offered very few visual clues to help consumers tell each one apart.
“To my mind, this was no way to package beautiful music,” Steinweiss remarked in the fantastic book Steinweiss: The Inventor of the Modern Album Cover. For him, these indistinguishable covers had to change. Eager to do something about it, he walked into management and insisted that they adopt a new way to sell records. Initially, Columbia were reluctant to get onboard (a $2500 investment for Steinweiss’ idea was certainly a lot to ask for), yet they finally gave in and when record sales increased by almost nine-hundred percent the idea was obviously heralded as an indisputable success.
Throughout the forties Steinweiss’ work dominated the world of music. Records, which had typically been sold at the back of appliance stores, had become desirable objects that could capture the imagination (and wallets) of music lovers everywhere. From jazz bands to show tunes and from classical works to pop acts, Steinweiss – quite literally – covered them all. “I love music so much,” he said in the 2009 book “and I had such ambition that I was willing to go way beyond what the hell they paid me for. I wanted people to look at the artwork and hear the music.”