See and Hear

For the past several years, all vehicles have come with some sort of infotainment screen on the dashboard. One reason was to provide a built-in navigation system, which was (a) expensive and (b) not as good as a Garmin that you could pick up for a fraction of the price at Costco. As time went on it was determined that the screen could serve as an interface for plenty of things and thereby eliminate the need for the knobs and buttons that were characteristic of how people would ordinarily control things like audio volume and the HVAC system. On the one hand this was done in order to minimize costs: those knobs and buttons had a cost that could be eliminated by some lines of code. On the other hand this was one of the automaker’s attempts to be like Apple: people were becoming increasingly familiar with the swiping of the screen on their iPhone (introduced in 2007), and as Apple was (and comparatively is) perceived as being the company with the greatest appeal (in 2020 it became the first publicly traded company to have a valuation in excess of $2-billion and is pretty much the most valuable company in the world, while traditional OEMs pout and kick and quietly weep when they look at the value of their companies compared to Tesla, but that is another story), the auto companies decided that they would develop the same sort of user interface (perhaps not taking into account that when you are doing something with your phone you are staring at it and when you are driving an SUV, you are piloting something that weighs over a ton at some velocity, so you probably ought not to be concentrating on a screen).

Mazdas have screens for the infotainment system in its vehicles. There is a fairly sizable knob located on the center console between the two front seats. Various options are presented on the screen in the dash (e.g., audio, navigation) with each of the choices in a circle with the circles being arrayed in an arc. (This brings up the point that if you have an iPhone or an Android device you have an interface that is one or the other. If you get into a Mazda and then climb into a Chevy you’ll discover that each of them has its own approach. So while there is interface consistency on the phones, there is none in vehicles. Even vehicles made by the same company–say a Chevy and a Cadillac–have different approaches. No wonder that J.D. Power surveys find that people are not particularly happy with their infotainment systems.)

Last week some Mazda drivers in the Seattle area who were listening to, say, “All Things Considered” on KUOW, the NPR station in the Puget Sound region, discovered that their Mazda infotainment systems don’t work. Either they can only listen to KUOW or the Connectivity Master Unit in model year 2014 to 2017 just doesn’t work so not even the tones of Audie Cornish or Steve Inskeep can be heard.

Apparently the problem is that the radio station sent out image files in its HD stream that didn’t have extensions. The system, in effect, said “WTF?” and having said that a sufficient number of times it just gave up the proverbial ghost. Imagine trying to get what is now a vintage Connectivity Master Unit in a period when semiconductor chips are in seriously short supply.

But this isn’t about Mazdas.

Rather, it is about the image files that are sent along so that when you are listening to whomever you see what is approximately a two-square inch picture of the person or an album cover accompanied by text indicating what you are listening to.

This is about album covers.

While getting a bit of a boost from the sales of physical LPs, album art is something that has become pretty much as common as a Mazda RX-7.

Some people might imagine that album covers were to the records what a Campbell’s label is to chicken noodle: simply a label that is not as important as what’s inside the package.

To say that in some cases album covers were art is not to exaggerate in the least bit.

Andy Warhol was deeply involved in creating art for musicians, ranging from the Velvet Underground to the Rolling Stones, from Diana Ross to John Lennon.

As it says in the catalog for “Warhol on Vinyl: Record Covers 1949-1987+,” an exhibition curated by Laura Mott held at the Cranbrook Museum of Art in 2014-2015, “his design of record covers was the only medium in which he worked consistently throughout his nearly forty years of artistic production.”

Think about that: Warhol is probably known mainly for his silkscreens. But they were a part of his output; the record cover design had an even greater consistency of execution, although the silkscreen approach was certainly deployed.

How extensive was his work in the album area? “During this period he created close to sixty unique cover designs, and when one adds the variations of size and color—much like his serial paintings and prints—as well as his designs appropriated by other artists after his death, the complete collection of Warhol imagery on vinyl records exceeds well over two hundred.”

There are some artists—say Stanley “Mouse” Miller for his work for The Grateful Dead and Roger Dean for Yes—who are primarily known for album covers. Peter Blake (now “Sir”) was a working Pop artist in the late 1950s to mid-1960s, known among those who were interested in British Pop, when he was selected in 1967 to design the sleeve for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And from then Blake received multiple commissions for album art (e.g., Paul Weller’s Stanley Road; Eric Clapton’s 24 Nights; Oasis’s Stop the Clock; The Who’s WHO). Arguably, there was his artistic career before 1967 and his career after.

To be sure, anyone can find album art and display it on the screens of their iPhones or Dell.

But there is something that is being lost as the physical media give way to streams: not only the work of musicians, but the work of artists whose graphic work serves as a visual analog to the work inside.

The “ideal” size of a Spotify album cover is 640 x 640 pixels. The dimensions of a CD cover are 4.75 x 4.75 inches. The dimensions of an LP sleeve are 12 x 12 inches.

Which is the superior canvas?

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