An Incomplete History of Pop

Our latest online exhibition, Paint the Town in Sound, has been produced in association with Mercury Prize nominated Sunderland band Field Music, and explores the relationships between art and music, artists and musicians.

One of our guest curators, Field Music’s David Brewis, shares his reflections on sleeve art in pop music.

Putting together the Paint The Town In Sound exhibition made me re-evaluate the importance of sleeve art. Every record sleeve aims to be memorable and every record sleeve is trying to tell you something about the music – through the imagery used, through the typography, through the colours, the visual reference points. A record sleeve also has to act as a sales pitch, but I don’t think I’d ever fully appreciated how that works and how much of that work is subliminal. I also didn’t fully realise how putting a few decades-worth of record sleeves in order could essentially tell a history of the music business across that time. But they do.

In particular, the difference between the sleeve designs from a major label as opposed to an independent label become quite clear. A major label, for instance, has always been much more likely to put a glossy photo of their artist on the sleeve. A major label, aiming for major sales, knows that they have to sell a person, an image, as well as the music, whereas the artists on an indie label are trying to present an idea, a set of principles – they may even be (unconsciously) trying to advertise the fact that they are independent, artistic, and not beholden to commercial tropes.

2 mixed media collages, surrealist portraits, frames and hung on a blue gallery wall.
With Guilt, 2019 and Hear You Smile, 2020 – mixed media collages by Graeme Hopper. He created the album artwork for Field Music’s 2018 album Open Here.

This contrast ebbs and flows through the years. At the moment, it might be at its widest. Major labels, battered by the post-download reshaping of the music industry, are in a period of intense risk aversion, while independent labels have lowered their commercial ambitions and are trying to find creative (and cheaper) ways to spread the word about unique artists with unique viewpoints. The most recent records included in the exhibition, from the likes of DuBlonde, Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs, Nadine Shah and Richard Dawson, pay testament to that.

It hasn’t always been that way. You might notice that there are very few records from the 90s in the exhibition. Partly, this is a result of practicality. Visually, vinyl records are more fun to look at, and in the 90s the CD was the dominant format. Covers designed for CDs were quite often brighter, less-detailed, glossier and, to me, less interesting. But also, independent labels (often financed by cash-rich majors) could aim for the same market as the big labels, so there’s a homogeneity to the boldness.

Display of album covers in a grid pattern on a white gallery wall, under the title label Paint The Town In Sound with Field Music
Display of LP covers from North East bands on display in the Paint the Town In Sound exhibition

In the 80s on the other hand – perhaps the peak of long-term thinking from major labels – North East nonconformists like Dave Stewart and Sting were given unusual degrees of creative control and could veer away from the safe and the glossy while selling millions of records. At the same time, Newcastle’s Kitchenware label could make a feature of the skewed or sceptical romanticism of bands like Prefab Sprout and The Kane Gang while still sneaking into the charts.

I hope you find it interesting to trace these lines in the exhibition – both in the record display and in the other works. I’m sure you’ll see things I’ve missed. And I’m open to being proved wrong about the 90s.

Listen to the Paint the Town in Sound playlist, specially curated by Field Music to accompany the exhibition.

Find out more about Field Music:




Take a deep dive into the sleeve art featured in the Paint the Town in Sound exhibition.

Paint the Town in Sound is the second in our series of Arts Council Collection National Partners Programme exhibitions. Find out more about the programme here.

Main image credit: Still from The Noisy Days are Over, 2015, Field Music. HD video file. Directed by Andy Martin. Starring Graeme Hopper

Stay connected with Sunderland Culture Instagram Twitter Facebook