History of the Record Business Stumbles Over the 60s
Just over 60 years ago, on June 18 1948, the president of Columbia Records in the US unveiled a "Revolutionary Disk Marvel" in front of about 40 journalists. Inside New York's Waldorf Astoria, Edward Wallerstein took out a 78 from an eight-foot high stack, and proceeded to play a symphony. The music stopped after four minutes.
He then went on to take out a 12in "long player" - as Columbia had decided to call the new records - from a 15in high stack and placed it on a specially adapted phonograph. The same symphony boomed out, but this time it lasted for more than 20 minutes. The hard-bitten hacks were stunned: in Wallerstein's own account, "a new era had come to the record business".
However, as Travis Elborough notes, new eras "in the record business never arrive quite so neatly". The 12in, 33 1/2 rpm disc had in fact been first tested by RCA Records in the early 1930s. As soon as the "long player" was launched, there was a format war: furious at Columbia stealing a march, the president of RCA, David Sarnoff, launched a competing format, the seven-inch, 45rpm single.
In early 1949, American consumers had the choice of three different-sized discs and speeds. No wonder they got confused - and sales slumped. It took a while for the formats to find their own level, with the single being used principally for pop, and the album for classics and light orchestral. The fragile shellac 78 was consigned to history.
As you might guess from the title, Elborough's history of the long player is both affectionate and, at points, determinedly light. He pronounces himself a "magpie" who is offering "an unashamedly rhapsodic, if highly partial, tour of the LP's life and times". But he undersells himself.
The first half of the book, which deals with the origin, launch and increasing popularity of the 12in during the 1950s, is fascinating. With 60% of Americans becoming homeowners by the end of the decade, the hearth became the centre of cultural and consumer activity, and a whole range of moods and music became available to fill that market.
Format began to dictate form. There was a boom in records by previously forgotten composers, such as Vivaldi - whose Four Seasons was one of the first big long-playing sellers. There was a trend for what is now called "exotica": faux ethnographic mood music by the orchestras of Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman and Les Baxter, which promoted hi-fi both as technical accessory and make-out music.
Much of the 50s material is very fresh and clear. However, Elborough hits big problems with the advent of the Beatles and the full 60s. This is over-recorded rock history, and the sheer weight of data means that both style and narrative thread start to fray. As he writes when recounting Dylan's history, "oh, do the math, repeat to fade".
The structure becomes more episodic and the examples more random, while the author's previously well reined-in penchant for the unnecessary digression and unfunny aside is allowed more space in the canter for the finishing line. Elborough also falls for the tedious tropes that bedevil much music writing: the insistence on personal experience and the fear of being thought too serious.
The first half of The Long-player Goodbye is model social history. One more edit of the book and a cool rethink could have led Elborough to stop his narrative, say, with the incredible popularity of both The Sound of Music and Sgt Pepper in the mid-60s. This would have allowed him to focus on the book's strong points and tease out the implications of his introduction.
As he notes, the LP was also a product of comparative scarcity - even though the market for recorded music expanded exponentially during the 60s. In 2005, 44,000 albums were released, as opposed to 5,000 in 1973. This raises the question of value: the more there is, the less important music becomes - hence the common, and mistaken, attitude that music should be free.
Downloads and ripping mean that many music consumers have returned to the pre long-player era, selecting individual tracks and disregarding the rest. A direct result of form following format, this magpie economy could hardly be more different from the linear nature of the LP. The full implications are still being played out in the courts and in musicians' heads.
The LP had a good 40 years in the sun. It may have been an arbitrary concept, but it shaped consciousness - although obsolete for more than 20 years, it still persists as a kind of connoisseur speciality. Hence the continuing reissues of limited vinyl editions and the spectacle of long-defunct rock bands reforming to play their classic album. There's nothing quite like the sound of the needle hitting the groove.
(R) thedailystar.net 2008