How is Album Cover Art Found? A Beginner’s Guide

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Choosing the right album cover art for your music is a mixture of making the first impression and trying not to disappoint people who are already your fans. That’s why deciding on cover art and getting the right design is actually important.  

When it comes to album cover art, you can make the design yourself, find the perfect print, pay someone for a design, have a contest, or if you have a label, let them do it for you. The decision is yours and depends upon your situation, your know-how, your time, and your budget. 

Let’s face it, not all musicians also have a background in design or photography. So, I’m going to share both free and paid methods that musicians can use to get the right cover art for their albums.

Before we move into all of these excellent suggestions for finding or making album cover art, you should find out if you even need to bother with that task. 

Have You Checked with Your Record Label?

If you are signed with a record label then you need to ask about the cover art for your albums. Record labels generally provide the cover art for the albums they release and promote. A lot of the time, they will do this without any input whatsoever from the musical artist they have contracted with. 

For musicians who have been independent before signing the record deal, this can be a bit jarring – especially if they have their own artwork or have a specific type of artwork or design that they want to use or continue to use as the case may be. Sometimes, compromise can be in order – but not often. 

Why would the record label want to only use their choice of art? Mainly because they want every album to reflect their known brand and the values they want to represent to the public. They’re also doing it for maximum profit. They know what sells and will choose cover art that helps with marketing. 

Therefore, if the cover art decisions are that important to you, be sure to have a good relationship with the label executives you work with, ask that it be in the contract, and barring all of that, if you want to change their mind on a particular choice, be sure to come to the meeting with several possible proposals and a good reason for it. Not all labels are immovable on this, but just know that it’s a good possibility. Remember, once you sign the contract with a record label, the music becomes their product. They make the decisions on artwork, packaging, and graphics. 

If you don’t have someone making or hiring someone to make your album cover art, and you need to come up with something yourself – maybe you’re an independent artist or your record label is small and hasn’t made the plans for this, or the label doesn’t mind leaving the cover art up to you, so long as it gets final approval. In these cases, it’s time to do some research. 

Creating the Album Cover Art Yourself

A music artist can create their own album cover art by creating a design in Photoshop or other software. You will need to have the right tools and skills for this, but if you have the time and know-how it can be done. I know, I’d constantly be hopping back and forth from YouTube and through tutorials, because I don’t know much about Photo Editing Suites. 

Photoshop by far is the most well-known and most recommended of all software that I know of. There is a free trial available, but a subscription to the service usually runs around $21 per month. Personally, unless you plan on using this application for many other projects, this wouldn’t be very cost-effective. So, you might want to look around for something less expensive or even free. 

That brings me to Canva. It’s free but has a paid version that comes with perks. It’s less complicated than Photoshop and its peers. Not only that, but it provides templates specific for album cover layouts. It also has templates for logos and social media. There are a lot of companies that use Canva, partly because it automatically sizes everything correctly. It’s free to use, but for the templates and images, there is a subscription fee.

There are honestly so many Canva tutorials on YouTube that I can’t choose the best one! So you have plenty of hosts and guides to work with. Not only that, but if you use one of these YouTube host affiliate links, you can get a discount or a longer free trial with access to more than the norm. And just because you don’t upgrade, doesn’t mean you can’t use “pro” content – you can pay for it a la carte. That can definitely get expensive, though and there are still some limitations, which I’ll mention below. 

Another paid option that you may want to look at is Placeit. This website provides a huge selection of templates (including an album cover template) that you can edit to create a unique album without the need for the design experience. My hubs uses Placeit and he pays a yearly subscription of $89 but you can get it for $14.99 per month for as long as you need or want it. He uses it for things like t-shirt design as well as other template designs that are fairly easy to work with.

So these are considered “mock-up” designs and can be used anywhere – not just on the templates provided. That means it has more to offer than a program like Canva. However, there is no free version at all. So, look for those regular discounts and affiliate discounts where you can find them. Because with access to over 60,000 templates, new weekly templates, and template designs for just about any situation including t-shirts and videography – the price is very much worth it for those who are in the business for needing such things.   

Stock Photos or Images from an Internet Search

You can find album cover art for free using stock photography services. There are so many options to choose from and you will have access to millions of images that could help inspire your artwork, too! 

If you use Google as your search engine and Google Images or Pinterest – keep in mind that these may not belong to a free photography program at all. Google is great for finding the right images, but then you need to find out about the copyright owner and their rules for using the image. The owner might just want credit – though not likely. It may not be free at all, even though there are copies that were stolen floating around the internet. Or, if you find something you like and assume it’s free, you could later be sued by the copyright owner and face lawsuits and bad press. So, please do your due diligence with Google Images and Pinterest or you may end up paying a heck of a lot more than you ever bargained for.

There are other, well-established stock photo options, including some that are free to use. The standards have a search engine and a specific limitation on how many photos or what kind can be used from their services. I’ve used Shutterstock, which has a free trial and then runs $29/month for 10 photos. Now, this is the norm – iStock by GettyImages is also this basic price but has a premium service as well.

Stockphoto promotes a cheaper option, but the photos available for that $10 unlimited price are in a specific collection and might not be up to the needs you have. They then entice you with better quality photos for bundles of images or $39 – $99/ month depending upon the collection you choose. That’s a tough one. 

Most free stock photo services also have search engines. If you want to use a photo, you download it, then credit the photographer. Some have the option to follow the photographer and even donate money to them for the use of their artwork. All of these have moved to high-resolution quality. I like Pexels and Unsplash.   And Pexels also has free classes and tutorials available along with stock video content. Pixabay has photos, videos, vectors, and even music. But for album cover art, any of these services might be the one that holds your perfect picture. 

Commissioning a Freelance Designer or Graphic Artist

If you have a budget, then it might be worth commissioning an experienced freelance designer to create original artwork for your album. Designers should charge by the hour or project, so make sure that they are affordable and will work within your budget before hiring them.

Some great websites to find freelancers are Fiverr or Upwork. These websites allow you to post a job listing and then search through freelancers who are interested. You can filter by the type of work they do, their experience level, hourly rate, and even browse through their portfolio before hiring them.

You can also hire a graphic artist to design or create the artwork for you. There are many designers out there that have worked with musicians before and understand what they need. Some are actually focused on making album cover art in particular. Cover Art Factory is well known on music apps such as Amazon Music, Spotify, Apple Music, and Deezer. Another notable service is airgigs – which doesn’t just provide album cover art designers, but handles freelancers for all manner of musical pursuits, including vocal packages, mixing, sound design, and voiceovers. This is like Fiverr for the music industry. 

Hosting a Fan Art Contest

If you are looking for a more unique and personal type of album cover art? Some musicians host fan art contests. This you’ll find sometimes with independent musicians or small record labels. It’s definitely something that would have to be approved by all parties concerned. But it is definitely a fun idea fulfilling both the needs of the band and the fans who have something artistic to offer. This is also an excellent way to help your fans connect with one another.

You can either give them the theme ahead of time or let them come up with their own idea, which they will submit directly to you or your designated judges. Some things to keep in mind when hosting this kind of contest:

  • Make sure there are certain rules in place on submissions – make sure that the rules match what you or your band (and/or label) find acceptable!
  • Include guidelines about what materials you’d like the artist to use. For example, if you want something illustrated digitally make sure they know how much resolution the image needs to be (usually 300 dpi).
  • Be clear about the benefit to the winner – social media mentions, the notoriety of being recognized on the album, any payment that might be made, etc…

If you actually need album artwork because it hasn’t been provided to you, there are so many ways to find the right one. Should nothing out there be appealing to you or your bandmates, you can make cover art yourself or have someone take your ideas and design the cover. It all depends on how much you’re willing to spend and what skills and resources you have available. It’s best to do research about all of your options first. I hope I’ve given you a great base to start from. If you used this article to help you find, create, or hire someone to handle your album cover art – let us know! 


"I would have previously thought of myself as an audiophile. But by gaming and listening to my children and their friends, I've been introduced to an entire realm of artists that are not on the radio. I wanted to share them and things I learn about music as I research - with you!"