Love it or hate it, streaming services have taken over the music industry. As most music aficionados know, that love-hate ambivalence is due to a few well-known issues: low artist pay rates, algorithmic manipulation, and of course, that Joe Rogan/Neil Young feud, to name a few.
In the design space, convenience has also come at a cost to album design, with cover art relegated to mere fragments of a user’s screen, and liner notes becoming entirely lost.
So far, Spotify’s canvases feature, which displays a full-bleed, three to eight second looped video on a user’s screen for the duration of a song, appears to be one early example of a digital design solution that works. Canvases regain many of the missing pieces of a physical album release, by offering a more visually immersive digital experience. If properly addressed (and if the approach catches on), designers, artists, and creative directors could do the kind of cohesive world-building in the digital space of streaming as they would for a physical release.
By the numbers, streaming services have been wildly successful. Both Apple Music and Spotify have gigantic user bases, with Spotify boasting an incredible 180 million subscribers. And with nearly every artist you can imagine being on one streaming service or another, casual listeners and fanatics alike have what they want on demand right in their pockets simply by paying the cost of a single CD once a month.
Even so, streaming services like Spotify, now over fifteen years old, are still figuring out how to design a visually compelling album experience for digital devices. Whether on Spotify, Apple Music, or Tidal, when you open the app, you’re faced with a series of track titles in list form, small icons of album artwork, and maybe an artist’s portrait, usually cropped in an unfortunate way. And while Spotify and Apple have fostered elaborate design campaigns centered around their own branding, on the artist’s front, there’s a lot left to be desired.
"If properly addressed, designers, artists, and creative directors could do the kind of cohesive world-building in the digital space of streaming as they would for a physical release."
When canvases first launched in 2019, it was only available to some artists. Since then, they have grown immensely, and are now available to any artist who uploads their music to the streaming service. Artists can always forgo using a canvas, but that might be a mistake. According to the company’s internal research, songs with a canvas are 145% more likely to be shared, 20% more likely to be added to a playlist, and users are 9% more likely to visit the artist’s homepage.
The canvas, rather than being just a tool to convince a fan to share the song on Instagram, can be a space that invites the listener into the “world” of the album; that is, the complicated details neatly assembled by designers, directors, and musicians, just as liner notes, back covers, behind the scenes photos, and album bios in vinyl sleeves used to. “We want a cohesive look and feel across digital assets, videos, merch, anything,” says Ben Chappell, creative director for Jack White and the Arctic Monkeys, among others, of the design strategy that surrounds an album release. “Everything should feel ‘in the world’ [of the album].” Chappell adds that canvases could be “an interesting place to do some of this.”
Brook Linder, a creative director who has worked with Beck and Grimes, and created canvases for Spoon’s most recent album, Lucifer on the Sofa, agrees. “When music started going to streaming there was a lack of personality,” says Linder. “There weren’t a lot of outlets for people like me, who are trying to create a visual world with the artist.” Canvases have positively expanded his ability to do so, according to Linder.
For Linder, canvases also offer a kind of nostalgia for the story that would unfold when he used to unwrap physical CDs. “In this generation, it definitely feels like we’re late to the party,” he says. “During the height of the CD, you’re unwrapping it and seeing the album cover and the little booklet inside. Those visuals are like an on-ramp to the music. It creates a context to experience the music. When streaming services first came around, all of that wonderful context was reduced to clicking on track one.”
"During the height of the CD, you’re unwrapping it and seeing the album cover and the little booklet inside. Those visuals are like an on-ramp to the music. When streaming services first came around, all of that wonderful context was reduced to clicking on track one.” —Brook Linder, creative director for Beck and Grimes
Some musicians and their design teams have started to take this seriously, taking advantage of the opportunity canvases present them to do the type of work Linder is talking about. Rosalía’s album from earlier this year, Motomami, for example, featured a unique canvas for each song of images of the artist with animated drawings referencing each song’s title and lyrics. Layered in grain, the canvases even have a paper-like quality to them, as if they could be from the vinyl sleeve. Fleet Foxes’ 2020 album Shore also had a unique canvas campaign featuring a drawing that corresponded to each song (which also appeared on the vinyl itself) and looping videos that resembled the nature photography of the album cover.
Spotify has called canvases “album artwork for the streaming age,” but many creatives in the industry still see room for improvement. According to Chappell, canvases, as of now, are usually just an “ask from the label,” adding, “if we have a creative solution for it, we’ll do it, but it’s not going to be a thought process from the jump.” The album artwork itself is still the priority, and is still seen as the main visual most listeners are going to be left with. And though Spotify may be the most popular streaming service, it’s not the only way people experience music. “It’s on one [streaming service], it’s only experienced by a user during certain periods,” Chappell tempers. “I don’t think it’s actually replacing anything.”
Some even find the feature frustrating. Imogene Strauss, a creative director known for her work with Charli XCX, says she finds canvases “annoying” in their current state. “We put so much effort into the album cover, and then you go on Spotify and you don’t see it,” she says. For Strauss, some of this frustration comes from the feature being an afterthought on the part of labels: “If the label said, ‘we have this money allocated for you to make a canvas specifically,’ then we would have done different ones for each song that were cool and purposeful.”
According to Strauss, because canvases aren’t deemed a priority, designers typically find a simple solution to address the demand. “Most of the canvases I’ve worked on recently have just been clips from the music video, or footage from something else we shot, but haven’t been anything hyper specific and made for Canvases,” says Strauss. “But that could change!”
Certainly, there is room for artists to create unique and compelling in-app experiences that can compliment the physical release. Even as canvases stand now, as an afterthought, they can garner a significant amount of user engagement for artists—Fleet Foxes’ Shore even resulted in a tattooing craze related to the featured drawings. And other streaming services are starting to follow suit: Apple Music, for example, launched “animated album covers” to a select few artists in 2020. Canvases could be the start of something really innovative in digital album design, if made a larger priority.
Speaking on the general reluctance of musicians, designers, and record labels to focus on canvases, Linder argues, “This is actually fantastic. We can really control the context of the streaming experience. All artists want to create worlds, they want the album to feel a certain way, they want it to mean something, and they want it to look a certain way, to the extent that they can control it on a platform like Spotify." He adds: "It’s all positive to me.”