And why don't they sound as good as a regular record?
Picture discs can look striking, which is why often they’re used as display items among collectors. The sound quality often doesn’t match that of the standard pressing, but a well-made and looked-after picture disc can play very well.
Some of the earliest ‘picture discs’ were essentially Flexi-discs pressed on postcards, which is a method still used today and a good way for labels and artists to promote work in an intriguing but cheaper way.
This was a technique often employed in Russia & Poland and Manfred Mann released several, pictured below.
The starting point for what most of us would recognise as a picture disc is the same as a normal black vinyl – a PVC puck flattened.
The next step is different though: on either side sits (normally) a strong piece of paper or card with an image printed on it, with a thin piece of polyethylene foil which holds the music pressed on the outside.
This is all pressed together and trimmed to create a picture disc. Here's a video showing picture discs being manufactured.
There are two common observations about picture discs – the sound quality is lower and they’re more expensive.
Instead of the music being cut into the vinyl, it’s only present in the outermost foil component (the Flexi-disc part), which makes the playback noisier. If you've ever played a Flexi-disc, you'll be well aware of their playback issues!
There are extra manufacturing steps compared with pressing a standard vinyl, which is why they are often more expensive.
Another less common type of picture disc is fully clear, with a shaped image set into it. This allows for even more creativity, such as this Guns N Roses 7” that has extra sections to create the shape of a gun.
Finally, a very intriguing moment in the world of picture discs is the incorporation of ‘zoetropes’ – creating moving images through movement. The two concepts slot together perfectly to create impressive records.
It was previously used largely for children’s records but has since been used by many contemporary artists such as Kate Bush, Bombay Bicycle Club and Bonobo.
Picture discs are very often released as limited or special editions.
See below to watch a YouTube video that tells the history of zoetrope records and shows many examples including one from Kate Bush's 'Running Up That Hill'