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The incredible shrinking album cover

Faced with sluggish CD sales, artwork designers are readjusting for a digital world

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June is the 40th anniversary of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," the Beatles record that raised the bar for album cover art with its colorful collage of famous faces. But not everyone's celebrating – some critics say that album art is nearing its imminent demise as fewer people buy CDs, digital-music consumers overlook the thumbnail-size cover art that appears on their iPods, and illegal downloaders never see it at all.

Last month on Wired Magazine's website, Eliot Van Buskirk mourned album art's "slow death." On Design Observer, an Internet think space for designers, author Adrian Shaughnessy predicted that as digital music replaces CDs, JPEGs (album artwork that typically accompanies purchased audio files) will oust CD inserts.

Is the traditional album cover really dead? No, but it has undergone an extreme makeover. The new-and-improved version is smaller, interactive, and loaded with extras. When Beck released "The Information" last fall, for example, the cover was a blank, graph-paper-style grid, with sheets of stickers enclosed in the packaging. Beck fans became cover artists, each able to personalize their own copy. Good Shoes, an English indie-pop band about to release their debut album, has conceived a cover-art contest. Anyone interested can download a stencil from their website (goodshoes.co.uk) and submit a design. The band will select the best entry for their album cover.

"Music fans today need to feel connected with bands," says Gail Marowitz, creative director for Wind-up Records, the indie-label of bands such as Stars of Track and Field and Evanescence. "They hear a band, and they go right to MySpace to become [the band's] friend. To them, it's a personal thing."

In her 20 years as a designer, Ms. Marowitz has worked for Columbia Records and won a Grammy for her pulp-magazine-style cover for Aimee Mann's 2005 album, "The Forgotten Arm." But unlike many veteran designers, she's not fighting cover art's digital rebirth. "I'm always trying to figure out how to make the online experience more interesting," she says. "Whether it's a digital booklet or a special package with a limited run so that the fan base will go out and buy it immediately, it's all about packaging."

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