• Manojna Yeluri

Album Cover art and licensing your rights – immersive media & the future of the music industry



The connection between an album’s artwork and its music is special in that it helps create a visual context for the narrative that’s been setup by the music. As such, album artwork has always had an interesting role to play in the evolution of the music industry, and arguably will play an increasingly important role in the days to come. 


New formats for music consumption and merchandise are increasingly relying on the creation of immersive and unique experiences for audiences and fans. This points to an extended number of opportunities to apply and monetize the visual elements and artwork associated with an album or artist. The question to be answered is whether the artist responsible for the creation of the original album artwork, stands to benefit from these innovative business models, and if so how?


Copyright, Contracts and Cover Art – the basics


While the specific nature of the creative process and subsequent contractual negotiations involved in each instance varies, concerns over the rights in cover artwork often boil down to determining three things – ownership, usage and value. In other words, the three questions to that require careful thought are;

  1. Who owns the rights over the completed artwork?

  2. What is the artwork going to be used for? and

  3. How much is the artwork worth?

Answering these three questions is crucial to figuring out a deal between the artwork’s artist and the musician, band or project they are working with –  a deal that can help determine the artist’s relationship with both their musical client, their finished artwork and adaptations or derivative works based on the finished artwork. 


Usually, the artist behind the artwork is offered a deal where they are

  • Working for hire, being paid a one-time fee, and in essence creating artwork that’s in line with a brief while acknowledging that they never had any claim in rights over the artwork;

  • As per the agreed upon fee model and terms, asked to sell all or some of their rights in the artwork (i.e their copyright) that's either already in existence or designed based on inputs from their musical client; or

  • Licensing specific rights of the artwork to their client for a prescribed period of time, in accordance with conditions of usage and fee models, while still being the copyright owner in their work.


The Big Picture 


As you might have guessed, licensing requires a more layered understanding of the rights involved, and might seem a bit more convoluted than a sale or work-for-hire deal. The apparent complexity and the fact that it limits the buyer’s ownership of a copyright in the finished artwork, could be one of the many reasons we don’t see enough instances of album artwork licensing in the independent art and music scene. 


But by choosing to opt out of licensing arrangements, the creators of album artwork might be leaving a lot more money on the table, than they’d like to believe, especially considering the current direction of the music industry and the potentially incredible derivative works that can be made based on the original artwork. 


When considering any kind of  licensing agreement, it’s necessary to be clear about;

  1. What you’re granting a license over (scope of creative work)

  2. Who you’re granting it to (an individual or a company)

  3. What purpose you're granting a license for (only music sales, not for publishing in magazine spreads for eg.)

  4. What kind of usage and mediums does your license extend to (print, digital etc)

  5. Whether you’re granting an exclusive or non-exclusive license (exclusivity)

  6. What places or territories the license extends to (a region or worldwide) and

  7. How long the license is going to last for (x number of years OR the lifetime of the copyright of the artwork)

Being aware of all these rights (and possibly a few more – which is why it’s important to consult a professional legal counsel, a trusted colleague or peer mentor before signing any dotted lines), can help the creator of an album’s cover art optimise their relationship and revenue share in their work, while also leveraging the success of the album, as well as any other commercial creative opportunities that rely either wholly or largely on the artwork. 


If that seemed a bit convoluted, here’s a great example – merchandise. Merchandise has been a long standing revenue stream in the music industry, with audiences keen on supporting their favourite music and musicians by way of purchasing band/album merchandise. Often, the merchandise is adapted or created anew in keeping with the album artwork. If the artist creating the album art work thus agrees to a deal or a license wherein they receive a share from the net receipts earned from merch sales as some kind of royalty payouts, this opens up a recurring revenue stream for the artist and helps optimise their efforts and interests in the artwork they made.


But here’s the thing – merchandise is just one small piece of the pie.


An even bigger picture? New media and Universe-building


Over the years, album cover art has taken multiple forms including and combining creative elements like illustrations, collages, typefaces, and stylised photographs. While memorable artwork always provides an insight into an album’s songs, some cover art has taken it a step ahead creating unique characters and elements that become a part of a recurring theme in the musician or bands’ career, spanning not just one album, but several (think Eddie and Iron Maiden, Kanye West’s Dropout Bear, or the Gorrilaz). 


These characters and narrative universes with defined aesthetics have become synonymous with the audience’s experience of their music – and that’s exactly what an increasing number of artists, labels, promoters and platforms are looking to work on. 


It’s no secret that post COVID 19, an increasing number of stakeholders in the entertainment and music industry are looking for new (and social distance-friendly) ways to experience ‘live’ music. While a number of artists and promoters are exploring livestreaming performances (both free and ticketed) as an alternative to live concerts and gigs, there are also some who believe that a virtual concert, complete with avatars and immersive digital universes might bring audiences even closer to the experience of an actual live show.

In April 2020, Travis Scott along with the game Fornite, announced ‘Astronomical’, an in-game virtual concert that had 27.7 million views across five pre-recorded sets, and saw the debut of his new song “The Scotts” with Kid Cudi. Nearly a year ago, DJ Marshmello had performed an exclusive in-game concert in Fortnite, which was free entry so long as the game avatars found their way to the concert venue inside the game – the concert was ‘attended’ by 10 million concurrent users. As of May 2020, Sony Music advertised positions in an effort to recruit a team of “dedicated to reimagining music through immersive media.”


While there’s definitely a lot brewing on the virtual concert and immersive experiences front for musicians (more of which can be found in an upcoming blog post), there’s arguments to suggest that these opportunities can extend to artists who created the original characters and visual elements of the musician’s album art. It might seem like a stretch until say 45 seconds into the Astronomical event and elements from Astroworld’s cover art appear – that’s a licensing opportunity if we ever saw one.


Artwork licensing and the future


The idea of album art inspired multi-media isn’t necessarily new or unique to a particular kind of musician or genre. There are designers like Nicholas “NickyChulo” Fulcher who have worked on creating cover art inspired VR work for Childish Gambino’s Pharos, bands like Indian independent project, “As we Keep Searching” who had an instagram filter inspired by the album and song art created by Tanaya Sharma, several live music performances that regularly feature visuals inspired by the band or musicians’ album art or select motifys, music videos that feature cover art inspired characters like Kanye West’s Dropout Bear (created by Takashi Murakami who also retains the copyright), or even this particular initiative by Sony Music which serves as a digital colouring book of famous album cover art. 


The idea that cover art can be an intricate universe of references and details isn’t unfamiliar, but the potential it carries in a rapidly evolving digital-first world of music experience and consumption is mind-blowing to say the least. With innovation knocking on the door, why should those responsible for the creation of these memorable characters and universes, stand to lose out on new audiences and revenue opportunities?


When Derek Riggs, the illustrator behind most of Iron Maiden’s cover art, created the character Eddie, he probably didn’t imagine that it would become the iconic mascot that it did. Derek Riggs didn’t just create album art – he created a visual universe that revolved around the music of Iron Maiden. But reportedly when the band and the illustrator parted ways, it started off an entire string of arguments about the ownership of the character Eddie (who Derek Riggs claims he still owns the rights over), and it’s still a bit unclear as to who owns what. 


What is clear though is that no one can fully understand the impact and significance an album’s artwork, or a song’s artwork can have and what it might be worth in the future. It could result in the creation of logos, characters, memorabilia, entire visual universes, that are inseparable from the music they accompany and a whole host of derivative works in a wide array of physical and digital mediums. In which case, it might be good practice to consider the option to enter into a licensing agreement over your artwork, and seek the proper counsel to help you navigate such negotiations. You never know what the future holds.

Photo byEfe KurnazonUnsplash

© 2020 Manojna Yeluri

  • White Facebook Icon
  • White Twitter Icon
  • White Instagram Icon