On Vinyl

By David Bottoms

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We’ve again swarmed into the shops for the sixth annual Record Store Day, held across the globe on April 20th. From the initial idea of a record-shop employee named Chris Brown through a six-person launch team that held the first RSD in 2008, the event has grown wildly more popular with each passing year as artists compete to play related shows and buyers swarm to snap up troves of limited-edition goodies.

From 10 special releases and 300 participating stores in its first year to over 1400 locations in 2010, it’s become a major event, even spawning an extra “Black Friday” incarnation in November 2011. Here’s a capsule history of the vinyl record, to see why Record Store Day is so symbolic and indeed important.

On June 21st, 1948, in Atlantic City, Columbia Records unveiled something new. It was a 12” 33 1/3 rpm long-playing record. The record used a recently perfected microgroove mastering and stamping process, which was just what it sounded like: a way to have a finer groove upon which could be placed much more music. There was no more need for the shellac 10” 78 rpm disc, which contained only one song per side (about 2 ½ minutes of music), was extremely brittle and was further hampered by its worst and most obvious drawback—it hearkened back to before the time of electrical recording, and was therefore wholly unsuitable to the studio practices and techniques that were being honed by the late ‘40s and early ‘50s.

The new format initially appeared on 10” records but within a couple of years the 12” disc became the norm. These replaced the old, bulky 78 rpm sets with their brown-paper sleeves and heavy cardboard jackets. These new records kept the name of those sets, however, and were called “albums.”

Two things dovetailed to make the LP explode. The first was Postwar prosperity, in which things that might have once been thought of as luxuries were now considered part of the basic furnishings of a home. The second was more intangible, as we pursued sound for the sake of sound…for music as accessory to one’s lifestyle, as a way to impress friends or provide accompaniment for a meal or a cocktail party, all in the interest of the cultivation and refinement of America’s social life.

Indeed, only the 1949 introduction of RCA Victor’s 45 rpm “single” topped the popular and commercial force that was the LP (and even though the term came to be common in later years it was initially a registered trademark of Columbia Records, and was emblazoned prominently on their products’ jackets).

The field of competitors was—by ten years after the rollout—huge, and they together with Columbia were known as “The Big Six.” The group included both the venerable (Columbia, RCA Victor and Decca) and the newer aspirants (Mercury, Capitol and MGM).

If rock ‘n’ roll started on the 78 and 45, then Rock became entrenched in the grooves of the LP.

June 2nd, 1967 was the date of the U.S. release of Sgt, Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was an album which swept away the use of the LP theretofore as a delivery system for a few hit singles padded with liberal amounts of filler. As a sonic palette it was like nothing we’d heard. Its possibilities sparked a worldwide rush to creative exploration as the format’s popularity soared accordingly. Furthermore, FM radio was born literally of the LP’s expansive, restless nature.

Other sound-delivery systems of the early to late ‘60s included the cassette and 8-track tapes, but these were developed merely for portability: the album was still where you found the lyrics, photos, posters, stickers, calendars and other ephemera that could be tucked into the glossy jacket.

Technological progress never sleeps, however, and in 1982 Sony and PolyGram debuted, with much fanfare, something called the “compact disc.” Its selling points were simple. You got convenience, small use of space, instance access to a specific track and oh, yes: “pristine” sound. Now you could get rid of your tired, cumbersome and heavy vinyl, which was invariably described (either at the time or in hindsight) as “scratchy” and so forth–which it was of course if the records hadn’t been handled properly–and participate in the excitement of this new item.

The introduction was a bit premature, as the discs of the first two or three years were subject to sound degradation and physical deterioration even, but the spell had been cast. The go-go ‘80s were about the new and exciting, the vibrant and colorful, and the industry shipped a great many Duran Duran and Culture Club discs to the delight of their new customers.

The “album” was suddenly yesterday’s papers. Antiquated, funny, maybe even a little pathetic. By the millions they were hauled to the curb, offered at yard sales, schlepped to landfills, or just left to sit, forgotten, in dusty hallway closets or worse—moldering away in the fetid, oily heat of the garage.

In the American popular-culture psyche, the death of the album didn’t need to be announced. It was in large part taken as a given. We’d moved on.

Critically, the entertainment industry had had its first taste of introducing a new sound playback system, the physical media that went with the system, and the fact that the consumer would have to replace his entire existing setup and inventory. This was a delicious realization, and would not be the industry’s last.

Vinyl never went away, however.

Concurrent with the introduction of the CD was the golden age of independent record companies. Indies, although they did deal with CDs, still produced vinyl records. They produced 7” singles so that up-and-coming bands would have something to sell at shows, and then mail-order networks would have something to offer in fanzines and catalogues. The indies continued on, and continue to this day in an unbroken support of the format for which they are to be lauded.

Several trends contributed to the modern resurgence of vinyl appreciation. One specific instance was the late ‘90s accord between the family members of Jimi Hendrix, in which his catalogue and vast number of unreleased (at least in modern years) recordings were finally shored up into an entity called “Experience Hendrix.” This laid the groundwork for a comprehensive reissue series, as well as the release of several new packages such as South Saturn Delta and Valleys of Neptune.

Whereas the majors had held their cards close to the chest in a policy that precluded vinyl releases by all but a few marquee artists (the 1995 double LP set Beatles Live at the BBC on Capitol was considered a rarity only a few years after its release), now they were more willing to get back on board.

A few years back—speaking of Capitol—they introduced a reissue series for artists such as Radiohead, while Metallica enjoyed a vinyl reissue series that featured heavyweight discs that were mastered for 45 rpm playback, thus providing a stunning listening experience. Chain stores such as Hot Topic, FYE and Hastings began to offer full racks of new stuff, including offerings of interest to a wide range of listeners and tastes. It didn’t hurt that acts like Green Day had always been big supporters of vinyl, to the extent of Billie Joe Armstrong showcasing both his primary and side bands on wax.

Meanwhile, what of the compact disc?

The very first time I was in a record store that contained no vinyl was in a mall in Waukegan, Illinois in 1990. Vinyl records had, at the end of that first era, topped out at around $9.00 each, bought new-in-store. By the mid-‘90s a CD purchase compelled you to pretty much part with a twenty-dollar bill, but what the industry was seemingly blind to was the fact that taking into account the raw materials and production costs of compact discs, the perception (rightly) grew that the buyer simply wasn’t getting value for money.

Couple that with a trend toward singles—this even before the rise of file-sharing—and you’ve got a recipe for the kids moving away from complete packages in favor of individual songs. The only surprise is that CDs held out for as long as they did. Therefore we’ve seen something very unusual in human history…the birth, ascent and demise of an entire industry.

As a final thought about the shiny, beleaguered CD, it must be noted that the vast majority of material produced over a century never appeared digitally.

All of which brings us back to Record Store Day.

From the tactile heft of records to the fascinating smell of the past they exude, there are many reasons why people collect them. These range from finding new artists and chasing elusive rarities to reveling in their retro cachet and even eyeing their investment potential. People sell, trade, collect and hoard records for these reasons and more (visit www.recordcollectorsguild.com to join an international community of dedicated enthusiasts), and the wonderful thing is that there is still, even now, so much for them to find.

                                                                                                                        Dave Bottoms

 

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