Add Cover Art Images to Your Digital Music Collection
Cover art adds an important visual dimension to a digital music collection. A single glance at an album cover delivers an emotional response associated with that album, and browsing your collection visually is a feast for the eyes. Most digital music players pull down cover art images for your music from public APIs. This is easy and convenient, but sometimes you don't get the right album covers. Different players may display different covers for your albums, and obscure albums get left out. The main ingredient missing from a digital music collection is the physical product and its associated art. Adding images to your music folders brings the joy of holding a beautiful album cover into the digital realm.
Like me, you may decide to take control of things and store the album covers for each of your digital album folders alongside your music files. Full-featured digital music players like Foobar 2000 will look for files named cover.jpg or cover.png and display these in place of images pulled from a remote API. I've actually taken this a step further with my own collection and store the back cover, gatefold and liner notes for many of the albums in my collection.
Where to find cover art?
You could use your smartphone to snap photos of every physical album you've ripped, crop and rename the files and drop them into your album folders. If you just enjoy working on your collection and have the time, this can be a rewarding option. You'll end up with high quality, high resolution images of the actual albums you own, complete with the instantly recognizable bent corner of your favorite Joan Jett record. I promise I won't think you're crazy if you do this. For many of us, though, that's just too much work. Thankfully, others have already done this for us and shared their work.
MusicBrainz takes pride in being the Internet's community-managed music database. Much like Wikipedia, MusicBrainz eschews design and asthetic for utility and content and sports a web design right out of 1998. The site's mission is stated right on its home page, and couldn't be clearer: "MusicBrainz is an open music encyclopedia that collects music metadata and makes it available to the public." And for added assurance, MusicBrainz has teamed up with Archive.org on a project called Cover Art Archive to make its cover art collection available in perpetuity.
You can search the MusicBrainz site for an album (use the Release dropdown in the site search) and download the image manually, or use one of many API libraries and clients available to interact with the database. Many of the images are very high quality, and often include multiple releases and formats with liner notes, gatefolds, backs and labels for many releases. You're not likely to find a more complete collection of cover art. If you are so inclined, you can even download the entire database for your hoarding pleasure.
If you prefer something a bit more automated, try the MusicBrainz Picard cross-platform tagger application, which includes cover art pull-down in its Santa-sized bag of tricks. I strongly recommend making a copy of your music library on a USB stick and pointing tagging and file manipulation programs at the copy to avoid making unwanted changes to your precious files. Once you're sure you know what you're doing, go ahead and point it at the real thing (after backing up, of course). Picard can embed cover art into MP3 tags or save them as separate files with a customizable file name. It can also pull covers from Amazon in addition to the MusicBrainz cover art archive.
Behind MusicBrainz, Discogs is probably the second most comprehensive sources for album cover art. If you aren't aware of this site, you're missing out on an amazing resource. Not only do they have almost any album I can think of, in many cases there are images for multiple releases and formats. This means you can often get an image of the exact release you own of an album, including the back, label and liner notes as well. They're not super high resolution images and quality definitely varies, but if you're looking for more than just the cover, this is your best bet.
The main benefit of Discogs over MusicBrainz is that you get to browse their marketplace and build a want list of releases missing from your collection while you work. You can buy fairly priced used music from all over the world on a secure, reputation-based platform. It's a goldmine. For this reason, I have mostly pulled images from Discogs manually, and I really enjoyed the process of searching up the albums, noting what release I owned, and selecting the cover art version I wanted in my collection.
For the developers out there, there is the Discogs API awaiting your scripty skills. But if you're looking for something a bit more automated, read on.
Album Art Downloader
Album Art Downloader is a creatively named open source application that runs on Windows and is the clear leader of this pack after Picard. Although seeing a project hosted at SourceForge always makes me wary (it's full of apps that haven't been updated in 10+ years) this one is an exception. As of this writing, updates were made just two weeks ago. There's almost no information about it on Sourceforge. The interface is fairly simple and not terribly customizable. It likes to use Folder.jpg as a default file name, which I find annoying. And it does require an older version of the .Net Framework to be installed on your machine, which can make getting this up and running a bit fiddly. But in terms of scouring tons of sources (26 as of this writing) for album images one at a time and efficiently identifying missing cover art in your collection, this tool is the tops.
Album Art Exchange
Album Art Exchange boasts over half a million album art images and has an obsessive focus on quality. Some of the images on this site are suitably sized for printing, but most seem to be around 600x600. That's not huge, but it's bigger than most of the images at Discogs. And all of I've sampled are of exceptional quality. You won't see flash glare or photos taken at an angle here.
The Long Tail of Downloader and Cleanup Apps
From here, there are many more (mostly paid) applications that can pull down images for your files. Upon review, I don't see any that improve upon the options listed above, but by all means take a breeze through this list if you are still looking:
- Bliss is well done but charges for more than 100 albums. Worth a look if you don't mind paying.
- PerfectTUNES is well done but requires purchase to actually save artwork.
- Tidy My Music
- Creevity is free and very simple, but correspondingly limited in capability.
If I'm missing any of note, drop a comment and I'll add it here. Stay tuned for a post close to this topic on fun things you can do with all those downloaded covers.