Sunday, April 1, 2012

The rise and fall of THE ALBUM........

I wish I could say this record contained some great lost psychedelic masterpiece, but in fact - it's a spoken-word recording that is little more than a pre-historic "infomercial" designed to teach you how to perform facial exercises in order to rid yourself of unseemly wrinkles and make your face look younger and more vibrant! Such was the power and ubiquity of the long-playing vinyl record in 20th Century culture - it was at one time a viable method of advertising and persuasion in areas of life that had NOTHING to do with music. Before "workout videos" there were "workout records" - even for your face!

For reasons I don't entirely understand I found myself meditating on the concept of THE ALBUM today. While this concept might seem old hat now, the idea of the “self-contained collection of relevant music in one place” – The ALBUM – is really a kinda new concept, in terms of music consumption and appreciation. If we harken back to the era of the 78 RPM disc – the album was the cardboard container which held several 78 discs together, either as a set of, say, classical music – like all the 78 discs that comprised the entire Beethoven 9th. There were also blank holders you could slip your favorite hits into. Awright – you don’t know what I mean – here’s one:
See how the discs are stored in this thing? Well, when 45 RPM discs were invented, they came out with holders for those too. Storage and organization tools. Funny how these things were manufactured to look like books sitting on a shelf with their spines facing outward. How analog! A tribute to Gutenberg maybe? Now, I could be wrong, but it would seem likely that when 45 RPM discs hit the market, it must have been around the same time as when 33 & 1/3 RPM “Long Playing” discs arrived. Let’s call it 1948. The difference? The material of the disc itself – vinyl compound used for the new LPs was more durable than the shellac of the 78s, which could shatter easily. Also – the resulting grooves from the new cutting process known as “microgroove” could reproduce a more sophisticated frequency response – potentially better sound (though I will concede that there are 78s that sound shockingly hi-fi).

The long-playing discs, using microgrooves, could contain longer musical passages so whereas that Beethoven symphony took up several 78 RPM discs that had to be changed one to another to hear the whole deal – the same performance would easily fit on one LP record flipped only once. Niiiiiice. The typical running time of an LP could be between 40 to 50 minutes. Sometimes less, occasionally more. For popular music releases, an industry standard of 30 minutes of music was the minimum to be considered “album length”. Some sneaky artists would get away with 27-minute long albums once in awhile. Rarely would the program last beyond 50 minutes. The main reason, aside from basic economic concerns (always leave the audience wanting more than less!) was the fact that the fidelity of the music would suffer if too much information was squeezed on one side of an LP (witness several of Todd Rundgren’s solo albums from the 70s – great music, squashed sonics – at least on LP!).

The long-playing format was reserved mainly for classical music and hits collections until the 1960s. As the baby boom had access to disposable income and better record playing gear, popular groups met the demand for more sophisticated music product with quality material not just reserved for 45 hit singles, but transferring better quality songs to LP records. Thus began the idea of using the LP format length of 30 – 45 minutes as a framework within which to create a singular piece of art that hangs together beyond just a collection of hit or miss tracks. The ALBUM as a potential artistic platform was born. Pet Sounds. Sgt. Pepper. A Love Supreme. Hot Rats. The GREAT ALBUM had arrived.
This notion kinda faded from view once black-light posters and lava lamps fell off the hipness radar. And by that time, the new physical music format – the compact disc – was ready to replace the LP as the preferred physical music product. Now, to tell the truth, although the analog versus digital debate rages on, there were and (still) are a lot of benefits to CDs – find one that has been mastered well (and there are plenty!) and you’re going to be satisfied for life. Unless you really abuse of compact discs, they will keep providing the same fidelity from the point of purchase. Plus – many titles that went out of print on LP came roaring back to life on compact disc. I’m no purist – CDs were a blessing in many ways, even though they get short shrift now.

The effect on popular music, however, was another issue. Popular artists had gotten pretty good at putting programs of 40 to 45 minutes worth of music together in a way that could hold the average modern person’s attention and entertain. But even that was a struggle at times. How many great artists put out “duff” albums in a career? PLENTY. It seems that as CDs came onto the market, there had already been a sense of “giving up” among major artists to put together great ALBUMS full of quality tunes. The old standby of using an LP to prop up a couple of hits with a bunch of second-rate "filler" was making a comeback by the late-70s. Some artists continued to take the album format seriously as in days of old, but for the most part – the industry and the public had moved on. Times change – it’s really no big deal. LP records can be a lot of fun and I wouldn’t want to be without my vinyl albums, but deep down I know that LP records were merely another MYTH VEHICLE of the modern age. The myths those plastic waffles spread were pretty potent though! Entire careers and industries revolved around those things. Wild times!

Vinyl records have made a comeback of sorts, but they remain the least convenient medium through which music enjoyment can be experienced by a LONG STRETCH. Analog music devices will likely continue to thrive for the hobbyists, but not for the masses. The Album has officially given way to “The Playlist”. Convenience has won over the public, as well it should I suppose. New myths will replace the old. Not even the vinyl record was a suitable container for talents like Frank Zappa who insisted that all his albums were really just “one big album” he identified as the “Project / Object”. Yet, Zappa was a master at using the medium to his advantage. He understood the power of the vinyl record as a conduit for musical knowledge as a young lad himself – from the discovery of Edgard Varese on a crusty old LP to the doo-wop and R&B hits he loved so much on 45s. As much as Zappa predicted the downfall of vinyl record culture with the emergence of digital recording techniques, he was a product of that analog culture himself.

For those who still crave the analog experience (or even the physical music product experience) this month is host to a new phenomenon : Record Store Day. This quasi-holiday has turned into a minor-movement to bring awareness to the smaller record shops that continue to serve and fascinate music lovers all over the country. Here's a link about how to find out more:

The basic gist is - if you value a local record dealer - get out and buy something on that day or any day. Times may be changing, but it would be a sad day indeed if there were no more places to browse discs. In November we get to vote with our political consciences - this month we can vote with our purchasing power whether or not we still value our local record haunts. But don't take it from me, here's Mel Blanc:
                    HAPPY RECORD STORE DAY EVERYONE!!!  APRIL 21, 2012 - NO FOOLIN'!!!!

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