rock-o-the-northMusic is art. Or at least it used to be. Once upon a time the way a record looked could make the difference between silver and gold, gold and platinum. When all was said and done, recorded and mixed, publicised and reviewed, the final selling point for any record was its sleeve.

Big budgets went on artwork and design. Big companies placed huge faith in the individuals responsible for marrying image with the music. And big kids like me saw a shiny 12 inch sleeve with a smart logo and often shelled out a few quid based on the look alone. That was the power of the simple picture in a bygone era.

But that power has been on the wane for some years now. These days it seems there’s no point forking out a small fortune on an image which will get lost in the corner of a website, on the screen of an iPod or even the back of a CD rack in your favourite music store.

It might make it big on the odd poster, a tour shirt or a TV screen but for how long? Album sleeves are no longer worth a hefty slice of any label’s budget and they no longer lure the kids like they used to.

The first time I clapped eyes on Def Leppard’s Hysteria my heart missed a beat. All I’d heard from the band was lead single Animal and it was good. But the artwork was better.

And when Andy Airfix revealed his full album concept in all its 1987 glory I was gobsmacked. It was the perfect image for the perfect record at the perfect time. And that iconic sleeve – as much as Mutt Lange’s production, Steve Clarke’s solos and a raft of vital videos – helped the Lepps shift more than a few million albums.

The antithesis of Hysteria’s complicated, multi-faceted, challenging sleeve was Metallica’s Black album. Only on closer inspection could you see the band’s iconic name and a coiled snake – at first glance this was a deep, dark and dangerous diversion from the norm. And it mesmerised millions of record buyers the world over.

There was no image quite like stacks of the Black album, placed side by side, one upon another creating a wall of pure rock fury. It was a design classic then and it is now.

In 2009 rock and metal art is a lost art. Even the revival of vinyl is only having a limited effect on labels and bands looking for the next big thing. All credit to AC/DC, Guns N Roses, The Answer and Metallica for turning to the traditional record again at a time when downloads rule.

But the class of the music on all four far outweighs the quality of the artwork. So bad is The Answer’s Everyday Demons sleeve that an unsuspecting punter would have no idea of the hidden gems which lie beneath the frankly underwhelming surface.

One day I would love to buy a record again based solely on its artwork. But even Def Leppard don’t do sleeves like they used to. And that says it all.