Streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal have irrevocably changed the way we listen to music and interact with our favorite artists. While streaming is undeniably convenient, its prevalence means we’ve lost touch with something important: album artwork.
Sure, you can still see album covers in small icons in your app of choice, but the days of leafing through the sleeve notes of your most cherished albums in the hope of finding hidden easter eggs lovingly disguised by the artist are well and truly gone (unless you’re a die-hard vinyl junkie, that is).
For one musician, the trade-off between great album artwork and the ease of music streaming isn’t a fair deal.
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Tom Vek is something of a cult hero of the indie scene. Having released his first album in 2005, the multi-instrumentalist and graphic designer has dipped in and out of the music industry, with long absences in between albums.
Now after a six-year hiatus, he’s back with his latest release, New Symbols – and a new music streaming device that he hopes will put album artwork back in its rightful place at the center of our homes.
Giving artists control
Currently being crowdfunded on Indiegogo, Sleevenote is a “unique premium music player that allows you to experience your music collection as a rich art-led experience”.
The Wi-Fi and Bluetooth-supporting device comes with Spotify, Apple Music, and BandCamp built-in, and sits somewhere between the size of a CD and an LP, with a square design that allows album artwork to be presented in full screen as you listen. You can even interact with the artwork, using the touch-sensitive display to select songs directly from the tracklisting on the back of the artwork.
The idea that a device designed to promote album artwork would be so heavily involved with the very services that killed physical sleeve notes is a little odd – but as Vek explains, Sleevenote is designed to give artists “control over how their music is presented,” and hopefully, could encourage fans to purchase music in the future now that they have “a valuable place to put it”.
There's also the ability to transfer your FLAC, WAV, and MP3 files (with enough storage for 3,000 albums) and support for Hi-Res Audio codecs.
The inspiration for Sleevenote came about as Vek was designing the booklet art for his second album in 2010: “It hit me that not everyone getting the album was going to see all the design, and album details, photos, credits and so on.”
For him, Sleevenote represents a reprise from the complications of modern life, while still offering all the benefits of modern music streaming: “People are having a harder time tearing themselves away from their smart devices, and it means that you can have a digital music experience without all the baggage that comes along with using your phone or tablet.”
The device is also meant to give music lovers a way to display their music collections without the bulk of traditional vinyl or CD collections.
“I feel like people would get a kick out of seeing a sleek square obelisk in their environment and being able to say ‘that’s my music collection’”, he explains.
No more compromises
But does today’s music consumer really care about album artwork? Vek believes so.
“I think if Spotify became a list of text you’d get your answer there. My opinion is that it is already too close to being a list of text, and you get all this blurry background or cropped artwork or rounded corners so it fits in with a UI style.”
As a graphic designer, that bothers him: “[Album artwork] is so mistreated, and because I’m a designer I want to know the context the work is being shown in.” As a result, Vek believes artists are making compromises when it comes to their sleeve notes in a bid to fit in with the user interfaces of the major streaming services.
“I’ve noticed certain trends like a bit of simplification, because art is shown smaller, and text coming off albums as they are always accompanied by the text info”, he explains, though that’s not always the case. “Sometimes I’ll see new artwork that is super intricate and detailed, almost to spite these tiny thumbnails, and I really want to embolden designers to feel great about working on a bigger canvas.”
That’s why Sleevenote comes with its own database, which allows fans and designers alike to upload interactive back covers and booklet artwork images – whether this will one day become part of record labels’ distribution process depends on whether Vek’s streaming device truly takes off.
Of course, it’s early days, and if Sleevenote reaches its £500,000 (about $650,000 / AU$900,000) funding goal, it won’t start shipping until October 2021.
We can’t help but feel somewhat pessimistic about the whole venture. While we love the idea of bringing that interactive tangibility back to album artwork, the convenience of streaming music directly from your phone or tablet is likely a bigger draw to consumers than preserving the artistic vision of musicians and designers.
Sleevenote isn’t cheap either, with prices starting at £533 (about $700 / AU$960) for Indiegogo investors – while that’s not as expensive as some of the best MP3 players you can buy today, it’s definitely a considerable cost.
That means the streaming device is likely to appeal to a very niche audience of audiophiles who miss the feeling of leafing through their old album sleeve notes and reveling in the intricate artwork and bold designs of their favorite records.
Maybe that’s enough – and a small cohort of artwork enthusiasts could be enough to make streaming services rethink the way they present the music we love. And for a cult indie star like Tom Vek, appealing to a small audience of dedicated music fans could be the perfect outcome for this ambitious project.
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Olivia was previously TechRadar's Senior Editor - Home Entertainment, covering everything from headphones to TVs. Based in London, she's a popular music graduate who worked in the music industry before finding her calling in journalism. She's previously been interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live on the subject of multi-room audio, chaired panel discussions on diversity in music festival lineups, and her bylines include T3, Stereoboard, What to Watch, Top Ten Reviews, Creative Bloq, and Croco Magazine. Olivia now has a career in PR.