I started reading David Weinberger’s new book, Everything Is Miscellaneous, this weekend. I’d been looking forward to it. Weinberger has a supple, curious mind and an easy way with words. Even though I rarely agree with his conclusions, he gets the brain moving – and that’s what matters. But I have to say I didn’t get very far in the book, at least not this weekend. In fact, I only reached the bottom of page nine, at which point I crashed into this passage about music:
For decades we’ve been buying albums. We thought it was for artistic reasons, but it was really because the economics of the physical world required it: Bundling songs into long-playing albums lowered the production, marketing, and distribution costs because there were fewer records to make, ship, shelve, categorize, alphabetize, and inventory. As soon as music went digital, we learned that the natural unit of music is the track. Thus was iTunes born, a miscellaneous pile of 3.5 million songs from a thousand record labels. Anyone can offer music there without first having to get the permission of a record executive.
“… the natural unit of music is the track”? Well, roll over, Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news.
There’s a lot going on in that brief passage, and almost all of it is wrong. Weinberger does do a good job, though, of condensing into a few sentences what might be called the liberation mythology of the internet. This mythology is founded on a sweeping historical revisionism that conjures up an imaginary predigital world – a world of profound physical and economic constraints – from which the web is now liberating us. We were enslaved, and now we are saved. In a bizarrely fanciful twist, the digital world is presented as a “natural” counterpoint to the supposed artificiality of the physical world.
I set the book aside and fell to pondering. Actually, the first thing I did was to sweep the junk off the dust cover of my sadly neglected turntable and pull out an example of one of those old, maligned “long-playing albums” from my shrunken collection of cardboard-sheathed LPs (arrayed alphabetically, by artist, on a shelf in a cabinet). I chose Exile on Main Street. More particularly, I chose the unnatural bundle of tracks to be found on side three of Exile on Main Street. Carefully holding the thin black slab of scratched, slightly warped, but still serviceable vinyl by its edges – you won’t, I trust, begrudge me a pang of nostalgia for the outdated physical world – I eased it onto the spindle and set the platter to spinning at a steady thirty-three-and-a-third revolutions per minute.
Now, if you’re not familiar with Exile on Main Street, or if you know it only in a debauched digital form – whether as a single-sided plastic CD (yuk) or as a pile of miscellaneous undersampled iTunes tracks (yuk squared) – let me explain that side three is the strangest yet the most crucial of the four sides of the Stones’ double-record masterpiece. The side begins, literally, in happiness – or Happyness – and ends, figuratively, in a dark night of the soul. (I realize that, today, it’s hard to imagine Mick Jagger having a dark night of the soul, but at the dawn of the gruesome seventies, with the wounds of Brian Jones’s death, Marianne Faithfull’s overdose, and Altamont’s hippie apocalypse still fresh in his psyche, Mick was, I imagine, suffering from an existential pain that neither a needle and a spoon nor even another girl could fully take away.)
But it’s the middle tracks of the platter that seem most pertinent to me in thinking about Weinberger’s argument. Between Keith’s ecstatic, grinning-at-death “Happy” and Mick’s desperate, shut-the-lights “Let It Loose” come three offhand, wasted-in-the-basement songs – “Turd on the Run,” “Ventilator Blues,” and “Just Wanna See His Face” – that sound, in isolation, like throwaways. If you unbundled Exile and tossed these tracks onto the miscellaneous iTunes pile, they’d sink, probably without a trace. I mean, who’s going to buy “Turd on the Run” as a standalone track? And yet, in the context of the album that is Exile on Main Street, the three songs achieve a remarkable, tortured eloquence. They become necessary. They transcend their identity as tracks, and they become part of something larger. They become art.
Listening to Exile, or to any number of other long-playing bundles – The Velvet Underground & Nico, Revolver, Astral Weeks, Every Picture Tells a Story, Mott, Blood on the Tracks, Station to Station, London Calling, Get Happy!, Murmur, Tim (the list, thankfully, goes on and on) – I could almost convince myself that the 20-minute-or-so side of an LP is not just some ungainly byproduct of the economics of the physical world but rather the “natural unit of music.” As “natural” a unit, anyway, as the individual track.
The long-playing phonograph record, twelve inches in diameter and spinning at a lazy 33 rpm, is, even today, a fairly recent technological development. (In fact, recorded music in general is a fairly recent technological development.) After a few failed attempts to produce a long-player in the early thirties, the modern LP was introduced in 1948 by a record executive named Edward Wallerstein, then the president of Columbia Records, a division of William Paley’s giant Columbia Broadcasting System. At the time, the dominant phonograph record had for about a half century been the 78 – a fragile, ten-inch shellac disk that spun at seventy-eight rpm and could hold only about three or four minutes of music on a side.
Wallerstein, being a record executive, invented the long-player as a way to “bundle” a lot of tracks onto a single disk in order to enhance the economics of the business and force customers to buy a bunch of songs that they didn’t want to get a track or two that they did want. Right? Wrong. Wallerstein in fact invented the long-player because he wanted a format that would do justice to performances of classical works, which, needless to say, didn’t lend themselves all that well to three-minute snippets.
Before his death in 1970, Wallerstein recalled how he pushed a team of talented Columbia engineers to develop the modern record album (as well as a practical system for playing it):
Every two months there were meetings of the Columbia Records people and Bill Paley at CBS. [Jim] Hunter, Columbia’s production director, and I were always there, and the engineering team would present anything that might have developed. Toward the end of 1946, the engineers let Adrian Murphy, who was their technical contact man at CBS, know that they had something to demonstrate. It was a long-playing record that lasted seven or eight minutes, and I immediately said, “Well, that’s not a long-playing record.” They then got it to ten or twelve minutes, and that didn’t make it either. This went on for at least two years.
Mr. Paley, 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.
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. Recalls Wallerstein:
There was a long discussion as to whether we should move right in [to the market with the LP] or first do some development work on better equipment for playing these records or, most important, do some development work on a popular record to match these 12-inch classical discs. Up to now our thinking had been geared completely to the classical market rather than to the two- or three-minute pop disc market.
I was in favor of waiting a year or so to solve these problems and to improve the original product. We could have developed a 6- or 7-inch record and equipment to handle the various sizes for pops. But Paley felt that, since we had put $250,000 into the LP, it should be launched as it was. So we didn’t wait and in consequence lost the pops market to the RCA 45s.
A brief standards war ensued between the LP and the 45 – it was called “the battle of speeds” – which concluded, fortunately, with a technological compromise that allowed both to flourish. Record players were designed to accommodate both 33 rpm albums and 45 rpm singles (and, for a while, anyway, the old 78s as well). The 45 format allowed consumers to buy popular individual songs for a relatively low price, while the LP provided them with the option of buying longer works for a somewhat higher price. Of course, popular music soon moved onto LPs, as musicians and record companies sought to maximize their sales and provide fans with more songs by their favorite artists. The introduction of the pop LP did not force customers to buy more songs than they wanted – they could still cherry-pick individual tracks by buying 45s. The LP expanded people’s choices, giving them more of the music they clamored for.
Indeed, in suggesting that the long-player resulted in a big pile of “natural” tracks being bundled together into artificial albums, Weinberger gets it precisely backwards. It was the arrival of the LP that set off the explosion in the number of popular music tracks available to buyers. It also set off a burst of incredible creativity in popular music, as bands, songwriters, and solo performers began to take advantage of the new, extended format, to turn the longer medium to their own artistic purposes. The result was a great flowering not only of wonderful singles, sold as 45s, but of carefully constructed sets of songs, sold as LPs. Was there also a lot of filler? Of course there was. When hasn’t there been?
Weinberger also gets it backwards in suggesting that the LP was a record industry ploy to constrain the supply of products – in order to have “fewer records to make, ship, shelve, categorize, alphabetize, and inventory.” The album format, combined with the single format, brought a huge increase in the number of records – and, in turn, in the outlets that sold them. It unleashed a flood of recorded music. It’s worth remembering that the major competitor to the record during this time was radio, which of course provided music for free. (The arrival of radio nearly killed off the recorded music industry, in fact.) The best way – the only way – for record companies to compete against radio was to increase the number of records they produced, to give customers far more choices than radio could send over the airwaves. The long-playing album, in sum, not only gave buyers many more products to choose from; it gave artists many more options for expressing themselves, to everyone’s benefit. Far from being a constraint on the market, the physical format of the long-player was a great spur to consumer choice and, even more important, to creativity. Who would unbundle Exile on Main Street or Blonde on Blonde or Tonight’s the Night – or, for that matter, Dirty Mind or Youth and Young Manhood or (Come On Feel the) Illinoise? Only a fool would.
And yet it is the wholesale unbundling of LPs into a “miscellaneous pile” of compressed digital song files that Weinberger would have us welcome as some kind of deliverance from decades of apparent servitude to the long-playing album. One doesn’t have to be an apologist for record executives – who in recent years have done a great job in proving their cynicism and stupidity – to recognize that Weinberger is warping history in an attempt to prove an ideological point. Will the new stress on discrete digital tracks bring a new flowering of creativity in music? I don’t know. Maybe we’ll get a pile of gems, or maybe we’ll get a pile of crap. Probably we’ll get a mix. But I do know that the development of the physical long-playing album, together with the physical single, was a development that we should all be grateful for. We probably shouldn’t rush out to dance on the album’s grave.
As for the individual track being the “natural unit of music,” that’s a fantasy. Natural’s not in it.