Apple has been quietly hiring iconic artists to design Apple Music playlist covers

Records should have good art. For albums as diverse as London Calling, Horses, and Fear of a Black, the images on their covers were as recognizable as the music on the wax. While Apple Music isn’t a record label (yet), it did recently decide to add original art to its playlists. Its goal was to bring that instant recognition to its own content, so the company enlisted everyone from the creator of the iconic AC/DC logo to the person who designed the art for Migos’ chart-topping album Culture to make it happen.

The artwork is meant to “connect more directly with the communities and the culture for which they were intended,” says Rachel Newman, Apple’s global director of editorial. Before now, Apple’s playlists had a uniform presentation that didn’t necessarily speak to the music. “In many ways, it’s a visual representation of the music that you will find inside that playlist,” said Newman. That includes Hip Hop Hits, Dale Reggaetón, and The Riff, which are all immensely popular.

The new art will appear over the next few months; Newman tells me that Apple has a lot left to unveil. The company plans to redesign “many thousands” of Apple Music playlists, and it’s only into the hundreds right now. The move shows that Apple is becoming more serious about its musical ambitions. Last summer, Apple Music overtook Spotify in North America in subscriber count, and creating custom art for its playlists could distinguish its offerings from Spotify’s. That’s a huge undertaking that involves coordinating both Apple’s fleet of human editors and the artists it chose to partner with.

Those artists are huge names in the industry, and they’re very close to the genres they design work for. “The Apple team mentioned in our initial conversations that they were big fans of my work,” Gerard Huerta wrote to me in an email. He began his career doing custom lettering for bands like Blue Öyster Cult, Boston, Foreigner, Alvin Lee, and Ted Nugent. He’s designed, among other things, the iconic AC/DC logo. Apple approached him to do art for the playlists “Classic Metal” and “The Riff.”

“The inspiration was really stepping back to a time when I created these old pieces. They come out of drawing, not typefaces or fonts,” Huerta continued. “You look at what is unique to the letter forms presented and just begin moving the pencil around.” His process, he says, involves creating a bunch of loose thumbnails and then turning those into pencil drawings. It’s only after that step that Huerta begins using a computer. “As always in logo design, you want to create a lock-up that is unique in its form, and has a feel for the emotion you are trying to get across,” he said. “I will have to say I referenced my old work.”

Stole “Moab” Stojmenov, a graphic designer from Italy who designed the cover for Migos’ album Culture, felt similarly. For Apple, he worked on “Hip Hop Hits.” “The main references were some of my previous works,” he wrote to me in an email, noting that he felt it was very important to preserve his style. But his real inspiration was the music. “It has always been the music. But this time was different,” Stojmenov continued. “Due to this mix I had the possibility to be inspired by a countless sets of realities and play and mix them in a singular way.” There were, he said, infinite possibilities.

Stojmenov’s goal was simple: to represent the sound, ambiance, and idea of a musical project. “Giving a shape and an image to music is never an easy process,” he wrote. “My style and my creative process have been always characterised by a significant presence of symbology and very powerful images, in addition to a very minimal and simple design. I think this project was somehow a bit different, but it also gave me the chance to create a real manifesto of my style.”

For Carlos Perez — who directed the video for “Despacito,” which earned 1 billion views on YouTube in fewer than 100 days, and who has worked with some of the biggest names in Latin music through his company Elastic People — working on the art for an Apple Music playlist was also a chance to rework previous inspirations. “I think the more important thing about the whole creative process was Apple really gave me the freedom to explore and really pushed — I think the key word was authenticity,” he said. With Apple, Perez worked on the “Dale Reggaetón” playlist, along with “Puro Jefe” and “Al Cien Con La Banda.”

“You know, reggaeton is Caribbean,” Perez said. “We’re just referencing what we understand the culture is behind the whole genre, which is — there’s a lot of bright colors, it’s all about dancing and sensuality.” And it’s a playlist he and his team enjoy for themselves. “We spend our days listening to music and we definitely have a lot of clients on the Latin/Urban side so we’re not only tuned into it to see what people are reacting to,” Perez said. “But above all, you know, to be inspired by it and sort of let it influence some of our work.”

That rootedness in specific cultures was something that Apple wanted to emphasize when it was commissioning art. “Suddenly there is really no strong definition of a genre anymore like there used to [be], you know, in the olden days,” said Newman, the editorial director. Genre is now, in her words, a melting pot. There are as many different styles and sounds as there are artists, and everyone is borrowing from everyone else, which means that having a persistent visual identity is even more important.

“The connection to music is — it has always been about kind of a tribe or a culture,” Newman said. “I just think that the difference is, these days, that there are just so many more of them.” In the old days, you’d be able to tell the style of music on a record by what was on its cover. (In a really general sense.) Newman said some of that artistry has been lost over time. “I think so many of these artists had done that work, and even those who hadn’t were very close to a lot of that work,” she said. “And I think just love the concept of being able to be a return to that kind of lost art in many ways.”

The kind of art Newman is talking about, of course, is still immediately recognizable. That’s part of what makes it special. Apple Music is going for the same thing, even though it’s hard to tell what kind of impact that art might have today. Streaming services are fundamentally distribution mechanisms for other people’s work, and it’s generally the work that matters. That said, it’s a competitive advantage to have the packaging and marketing of other people’s work be as high value as possible because it enhances the user experience. In that light, giving a platform a visible human touch becomes a very good idea.

Huerta was philosophical. “The value of a logo is not only in its design but in its use,” he wrote. “The reason we are aware of the graphic of ACDC is in its 42 years of use.” Apple probably isn’t expecting its playlist art to stay the same for four decades. But as Newman said, it’s a good indication that Apple Music is planning to continue to invest in and support the artistic community. “You’ll see us lean more heavily into making sure that our customers know that there are people behind the scenes creating great musical experiences and providing context around those experiences as much as possible.”

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