I thought about writing a rant. A rant from someone who’s been buying albums for over three decades, and still does. A rant against the idea that a typical album has two good songs and eight bad ones (I can count on both hands the albums I’ve bought I’d categorize that way). A rant about why the concept of an album is important, that it provides artists a full “canvas” upon which to tell a story. A rant that I don’t understand why people wouldn’t want to sit down and listen to a work as a whole. A rant that I would argue there are more movies with filler — I’d rather just play the “good” scenes and skip the rest — than there are albums the same way. Finally, a rant that the LP was not developed by the record companies for the purpose of shoveling crap work on people at a higher price than the single.
But most of those rants ultimately come down to opinions. I have a theory that people do not normally sit down and listen to an album as a whole, or do not do so very often. This may be due to lack of time, etc., but I believe it’s so. Perhaps it’s because most people think music is for background listening, or at a party, or in the car, but not really an activity one does with the same attention as, say, watching a move. They tend not to give music the attention they’d give a movie, book, or TV show. My theory concludes that because of this, the songs on the album people don’t think they like are simply those that weren’t ingrained into their head by repeated plays of singles or cult favorites. People otherwise have little patience with music in general, as opposed to movies, etc., and want instant gratification.
As for me, I listen to albums as an activity of its own. Sure, I listen to music a lot in the background, and in the car as well, but that’s not where my love of music comes from. I have listened to music as a sole activity (i.e., doing nothing else while listening) since I can remember. On average at least an hour a day. It’s just me and the music. I listen to music the way other people may watch a movie. If you tried to watch a movie in the background you’d miss a lot. Guess what? The same is true of albums. It’s always been a bit strange to me that these two forms of entertainment (albums and movies) have such different expectations from their users. In fact, the different user expectations of a movie versus an album will eventually be the subject of its own post.
What I will address in this post is the last rant above. I can address this because it’s not based on opinion or speculation. It’s based on fact. The LP was not developed by the labels as a way of selling two good songs with eight crappy ones. It was in fact developed by music lovers, for music lovers, with much effort, to achieve a specific musical purpose.
I knew that the LP was produced in the late 1940s for the purpose of getting an entire classical work on one piece of vinyl, but I did not know the details of it. Then I read an excellent article on Nicholas Carr’s Rough Type site. In it he provides some details of how Edward Wallerstein of Columbia Records pushed the creation of the LP. It is especially interesting when it recounts how Wallerstein himself remembered the process. How when the engineers played him a 7-minute record he claimed it wasn’t long-playing. And later they played a 12-minute record and he claimed it wasn’t long playing:
“Mr. Paley [President of CBS], I think, got a little sore at me, because I kept saying, “That’s not a long-playing record,” and he asked, “Well, Ted, what in hell is a long-playing record?” I said, “Give me a week, and I’ll tell you.” I timed I don’t know how many works in the classical repertory and came up with a figure of seventeen minutes to a side. This would enable about 90% of all classical music to be put on two sides of a record. The engineers went back to their laboratories. When we met in the fall of 1947 the team brought in the seventeen-minute record.”
Mr. Carr then sums it up nicely:
“The long-player was not, in other words, a commercial contrivance aimed at bundling together popular songs to the advantage of record companies and the disadvantage of consumers; it was a format specifically designed to provide people with a much better way to listen to recordings of classical works. In fact, in focusing on perfecting a medium for classical performances, Columbia actually sacrificed much of the pop market to its rival RCA, which at the time was developing a competing record format: the seven-inch, forty-five-revolutions-per-minute single.”
Now, some may claim that while the LP wasn’t developed to sell eight bad songs with two good ones, the music industry perverted it into such a medium. Of course I would disagree, but then we get back to the potential rants opening this post and my theory about how most people listen to music. Such discussion is pointless, especially since, after all, it’s ultimately about enjoying the music in whatever form you choose. Now that people can just get the songs they want, they should be happy. As long as the album as an artistic work isn’t killed in the process, I’ll be happy, too.