Cover Art Mistakes That Get You Booted Off Streaming Services

1Cover art is one of the best ways to make an instant first impression on your listeners, but can also easily backfire and drive them away. Beyond this, cover art that doesn't comply with the guidelines of streaming and download services will be kicked before it has the chance to reach anyone. Here Chris Robley of CD Baby details how you can avoid such pitfalls.


by Chris Robley of CD Baby from the DIY Musician blog.

Why GOOD cover art is so important.

Oftentimes before anyone listens to your music, especially on digital platforms, they’ll first see your cover art.

Cover artwork is the visual gateway into your music, and it’s the image that listeners will associate with your music afterwards.

But if your cover art sucks or confuses people, potential listeners will never press “play.”

Worse, if your cover art doesn’t comply with our digital partners’ guidelines, the streaming and download services won’t even make your music available on their platforms.

Break the rules in your music. Follow the rules in your cover art.

The most basic rule is this: Every single release should have a unique cover, so as someone scrolls through your discography they can identify each release by the cover alone.

Here are some more cover art guidelines you must follow if you want your music published across all digital platforms without delay:

  • No information mismatch. The text on the cover needs to exactly match the info you entered for your release (artist name, title of the album or single, etc.). If you entered “Blueprints” as the album name, it can’t say “The Blueprint” on the cover art.
  • Careful with artist name abbreviations. Full abbreviations are OK, but not partial abbreviations (for instance, “ATM” is fine, but not “AT Machine”).
  • No record label information on the cover artwork.
  • Parental advisory warnings are not required, since there is an “explicit content” tag, but if you include one in your cover art, there must be at least one track with explicit lyrics.
  • Featured artist info must match. If you have a featured artist listed in the text on your cover art, that featured artist must be included in the metadata for the release.
  • Avoid copyright or trademark infringement. Don’t use characters, logos, or products that belong to other people, companies, or institutions. Just put a piece of tape on that Red Bull can so we can’t see the logo. And we’re sorry, but this also includes the Wu Tang logo.
  • 2Don’t use the phrase “The Original” if you’re referring to a cover song (because duh).
  • Do NOT use the image of an artist you are covering, or an artist you are influenced by.
  • Avoid watermarks. If you use a stock image, PAY to download the image without the watermark. And no, calling your album “Getty Images” doesn’t make it OK.
  • Avoid stretching your image to a different aspect ratio. That leads to blurriness (not the artistic kind), pixelation, awkward borders, or some other form of aesthetic assault.
  • Avoid up-scaling your image to a larger size. You’ll likely be committing the same crimes as above. For instance, taking an Instagram photo with a filter and then blowing it up to 3000×3000: yeah, that’s gonna look like crap.
  • Do NOT include the following:
    • Contact info
    • Advertising messages (“Buy my new single!”)
    • References to contextual time (“Brand new!” “Just release!”)
    • Barcodes (those go on the back cover of a physical product)
    • References to product format (CD, vinyl, digital single, rpm, etc.)
    • Availability (“Available on Spotify, iTunes, etc.”)
    • Nazi logos or other hateful crap (there are laws in some territories – and also it’s gross)
    • Gruesome images of graphic violence, or images that refer to violent content in the music (Cannibal Corpse is cool and all, but they wouldn’t be able to distribute that)
    • Pornography (we know it when we see it – so does iTunes)
    • Pictures of a clear CD jewel case. (First, it’s been done already. Second, it’s not allowed).
    • A blank white or blank black square image with no text.
  • Avoid excessive or irrelevant text/information
    • Text messages
    • Images that include a bunch of text
  • “Yeah but Kanye…” – Nope.

Here’s a few things that ARE allowed, though we still get asked about it a lot by artists:

  • 2Casing rules don’t apply to cover art, so you can have all caps or lowercase or whatever mix of the two you want.
  • You can use the same image for every single, as long as the text differs on each release
  • You can have an image with NO text, but you can’t reuse that image (without text) for another release
  • It’s okay to use the name of the artist you are covering, if:
    • It’s a tribute release (and not just a one-off cover song)
    • Your artist name appears larger than the artist you’re covering
    • You must have “Tribute To” larger than the original artist name
  • Karaoke tracks must include “Originally performed by” on the cover art
  • Karaoke tracks must be designated as such in the “karaoke” genre
  • Fan art — as long as it’s clearly distinguishable from the original (It’s OK to use your own drawing of Totoro on your cover of the Totoro song, but not if it’s SO GOOD it looks like the original)
  • Public Domain images — but be prepared to provide proof that you’re using is in the Public Domain
  • Stock art — as long as you’ve read the usage guidelines and are following those rules
  • Your social media handle — as long as you don’t mention WHICH social media platform

Here are the guidelines for the art file itself…

We need:

  • A square image
  • Preferably 3000×3000 (so it will look good when scaled down)
  • A .jpg file (and putting “.jpg” at the end of a .png filename, while creative wishful thinking, doesn’t work to convert the image file)
  • The color calibrated to rgb — if in Photoshop; no cmyk or uncalibrated image files (Tip: open a .png in Paint and save as a .jpg and it will automatically convert to rgb)

Okay, that’s a lot to think about, but better to make sure your cover art works in advance than have to change things last minute because it fails to meet our partner guidelines. We have a team of experts reviewing every release before we distribute it, so we usually catch problematic design issues, but it’s better for you to know all these rules long before you submit your music for distribution.

For info on how to design an eye-catching album cover, watch our DIY Musician Live discussion:

Chris Robley is the Editor of CD Baby's DIY Musician Blog. I write Beatlesque indie-pop songsthat've been praised by No Depression, KCRW, The LA Times, & others. My poems have appeared in Poetry Magazine, Prairie Schooner, The Poetry Review, & more. I live in Maine and like peanut butter chocolate chip cookies, a little too much.

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