Album Artwork

The creative side of choosing someone to trust with your album cover should be left to you (or your label – though if you have a label big enough to be making these creative decisions, you probably aren’t reading this in the first place). There’s likely an enormous pool of talented designers, illustrators and photographers to choose from within your friend group, local music community, or now available around the world via e-mail or Instagram DM. Instead, Trickle Down Music is here to offer a few suggestions on what to look for from your designer of choice, what to negotiate ahead of time, what formats you’ll be needing to consider, etc.


Designers, artists, illustrators, photographers, etc. deserve to be paid for the time spent on your album cover, as well as for the years of expertise they’ve developed. That said, for independent musicians, album artwork can go from a case of beer for a talented and supportive friend who expressed interest, to thousands of dollars for a professional design from an established visual artist (but ideally you’d still pay your pals if you can). I’d suggest starting by setting a number you’re comfortable with – one that takes into account the reality of your release, its sales potential, and most importantly, what you can actually afford to spend, and then reach out to artists while being up front about what your budget is.

Theme / Design

Just as its helpful in the recording stage to share reference albums to set an overall sonic direction for the album, it can also be helpful to share examples of album covers (or artwork) that you are drawn to and feel like a fit for your own work. In most cases, you’ll be reaching out to artists who already possess an aesthetic that you think suits your album, but reference material, descriptors and mood boards can help to narrow it down.

My personal preference is to always offer two options for the general approach to designing the album art. First, a more free-form version that invites the designer/photographer/illustrator to create something from their own inspiration after hearing about/hearing the album. Basically, trusting the artist completely to design something you’ll be happy with. Sometimes that creative freedom is what interests them in taking on your project…or sometimes it’s an added burden or time sink.

Second, one with more direction, in the form of suggestions of specific imagery or aesthetics you would like to be on your album art. In this case, I might suggest a specific image I’d love to see their take on, or detail an overall aesthetic along with some related feelings and/or themes and see where it ends up. Sometimes being able to take away some of the guesswork for an artist means they can more easily justify your project and budget.

Deliverables & Timeline

It’s very important to be upfront about what you’re actually needing from a designer, so they can properly assess if it’s worth their time/energy. Simply asking for an “album cover” may result in awkward conversations later when you ask for the back cover, the spine, the inner panels, and labels for vinyl or CD; a single image can become 4-5 images. In an ideal world, very early in the conversation, you would send over templates from the pressing plant, that the artist will be required to complete, so as to get ahead of any potential confusion or re-sizing issues.

Album cover: Jen Schier, shown in print proof form from

You’ll want to ask for those templates, ready for print (often in pdf or Adobe formats), as well as hi-res jpgs that you can use for digital distributors, your website and socials.


Another thing that’s best to get out of the way as soon as possible is to discuss how you plan to use the images. In most cases, that’ll just be for the album art itself, and for promoting your album on social media. That said, it’s best to be up front and broach the topic about if you plan to use the album artwork or photo on any other merchandise, or for any other purposes. An artist may have different rates for different purposes, and it’s way better to ask in advance for permission rather than risk having to apologize (or pay) later.

Example E-mails

Below are a couple of example emails used by Self-Cut Bangs. While the details and style would obviously change, they give a starting point for how to broach some of the more awkward or specific conversations about budget, usage, deliverables, etc.

Real world example: introductory ask

Hi _______,
I’m reaching out, because my band, ______, just finished an album and we were wondering if you may be interested in designing the album artwork? We’re big fans and think you’d be perfect for the project. We’re a small band, releasing the album independently again, and have a budget of $_______, which I hope isn’t an insulting ask (apologies if it is). If ever the album were to be repressed by a larger label, we’d of course be open to negotiating another fee (though realistically, we don’t expect that to happen). We wouldn’t be using the imagery created for anything beyond the album (no t-shirt designs, etc.)

The band is called _______. We are a rock & roll band that takes inspiration from bands like _______ and _______. You can hear some of ours songs here: _______.

In case you’re interested, there’s some nitty gritty details. I thought it might be better to lay it all out ahead of time so as to not waste your time later if some of this doesn’t seem worth it to you.

– The album has a planned release of _______, so we’d need the final artwork by _______.
– What we’d be looking for is: 
1) An album design including cover, back, spine, inside panels and CD and vinyl labels (though those can be super simple, just text). We’ll provide the song titles, legal disclaimers, and all necessary credits for the packaging.
2) Versions of that design adjusted for CD pressing and vinyl pressing specs and bleeds.

If you’re interested, we are equally open to giving some direction for the album cover (we have some thematic ideas), or just sending along some moods/examples of what we like, or letting you come up with something you’re inspired to create, free from those suggestions. 

All that to say, here’s hoping you might be interested, but absolutely no worries if you aren’t, don’t have the time, or if the budget doesn’t make sense for you.

Thanks for your time either way!

Below is an edited version of the creative notes we went for Self-Cut Bangs’ sophomore album. The original version was admittedly a little rambling (and still is)! While it’s very specific to our last album, I thought it might be helpful to see how we structured a discussion that included the more logistical concerns of the album cover (what we really need) with the artistic inspirations we were open to at the time.

Real world example: creative discussion continued

Hey _______,
That’s great news! Before we discuss in person, via phone or Zoom, here’s some general design notes.

1 – We’re really drawn to a style like your work found here _______ (the off-register, worn, silkscreen-ish look)
2 – We’d really like some sort of frame on the borders of the cover like in this example _______
3 – We’d love to move away from the black and white album cover of our first album and introduce colour (it doesn’t need to be bright and cheery, we’d just like colour)
4 – Oh, and we’d like it to say SELF-CUT BANGS (the band name, ideally on the top 1/3 of the album) and CIRCLE AROUND THE FREE (the album title, anywhere that you think looks good)

Some things we’d really like to steer clear of:
1 – Stereotypical rock & roll imagery (guitars, flaming dice, cars, devil horns, etc.)
2 – I’m sure this doesn’t need to be said, but nothing that could be construed as sexist/racist/homophobic, transphobic or offensive in any way.  

Within that, we see three ways to go about this!
1: Self-Directed/Your Vision
Basically, we’d be super down just to see where your mind/hand go after listening to the album or reflecting on the title. That’s exciting to us, to see someone go in a different direction than what we hear/intended. 
2: Our Direction/Vision
If, on the other hand, you’re wanting inspiration or direction, we’ve had a few out there thoughts. The album is called Circle Around The Free and we were hoping to visually convey a sort of freedom of sonic choices, but also calling to mind more generally the edges of freedom and a sort of escapism – an on the cusp of something, but not wholly other-worldly aesthetic.

More specifics: 
1 – We’re really drawn to the aesthetics of lenticular clouds lately. They form in a very specific pattern around objects. But we’re not super interested in them forming around mountains/trees/nature.
2 – In terms of what clouds could form around as a central image, we only really have one super out there idea: we’ve been stuck on this idea from a sci-fi short story in which a child figures out that if they arrange everyday items in just the right sequence, they open a door to another universe. Like a toy car on the floor in this spot, a pencil here, all seemingly random objects, but somehow they knew how to place them just so, cracking a code.

Sorry if that’s needlessly obtuse, but the important thing is a mix of the mundane and human with the otherworldly. 

But again, that’s just very specific, in case you needed inspiration. We also realize that might sound like gibberish to folks who aren’t us. We’re super down for whatever excites you first and foremost (your own vision), mixed with whatever doesn’t over-burden your time.

Sorry for the long ramble, and happy to hop on a call anytime to help narrow down these fleeting thoughts!