Long player: bonus track

A while back, in the post Long player, I disputed David Weinberger’s contention, in his book Everything Is Miscellaneous, that the vinyl record album was a purely economic contrivance and that we purchased and listened to albums not “for artistic reasons,” as we had assumed, but only “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.” The form of the album was actually created, I argued, to expand both the artistic canvas and the supply of recorded music, and, indeed, its arrival unleashed a remarkable flood of creativity in popular music while also vastly expanding the supply of recordings, to everyone’s benefit.

In recently rereading Marshall McLuhan’s classic Understanding Media – insanely brilliant, with an equal emphasis on both words – I came across a brief passage in which McLuhan describes how the LP album spurred a burst of creativity in jazz as well as pop:

… the l.p. record suddenly made the phonograph a means of access to all the music and speech of the world … With regard to jazz, l.p. brought many changes, such as the cult of “real cool drool,” because the greatly increased length of a single side of a disk meant that the jazz band could really have a long and casual chat among its instruments. The repertory of the 1920s was revived and given new depth and complexity by this new means.

McLuhan’s book was published in 1964, a couple of years before rock musicians would realize that the LP form allowed them a way to extend their creativity beyond the individual track. Well before what we now recognize as the golden age of the album, the LP was viewed as a liberating technology, for musician and listener alike, not as a means of constraining choice and oppressing music fans.

10 thoughts on “Long player: bonus track

  1. Charles

    You’re talking about “technomorphia.” One of my art history professors used to go on and on about this topic, he defined it as the tools and media shaping the form of the content. A quicker definition might be “when all you’ve got is a hammer, every job looks like a nail.” Anyway, the “liberating technology” of LP records only imposed a new, longer format, a change in degree, imposing a new (albeit looser) set of restrictions than the older medium (Edison cylinders? 78s?). It was a newer, larger cage, but still a cage. But without restrictions to fight against, most artistic media loses focus and becomes ill defined and lackluster.

    Somewhere in one of McLuhan’s books, he made some interesting comments about new media supplanting the old. IIRC, he said that each new medium fails on its own terms and does not fully achieve the goals for which it was designed, but instead, always fulfills the goals of the old medium it replaces. I’m trying to see how to apply this rule in your LP example, but I’m not seeing a clear answer.

  2. Tom Lord

    Charles, the rule applies this way:

    CDs replaced LPs because they fulfilled the LP’s promise of durability and ease of access. Remember that CD players were the first home medium that allowed easy random access to individual tracks (remember the fun of dropping a needle between tracks on an lp?). Qualitative changes in audio weren’t all that important to most users because most users have poor or medium quality equipment in the first place.

    Digital on-line is challenging CDs because it continues durability and easy of use but now fullfills the CDs promise that anyone and everyone can possess a huge library of sounds. Once again, audio quality takes a back seat because most people use crappy equipment.


  3. Charles

    Right, Tom. But I’m wondering what the LP replaced. 45s? Wax cylinders? The Player Piano? And what was the old media trying to achieve? Obviously these media formats evolve with improved technology, but I wonder if it really was a paradigm shift as McLuhan’s rule applies. IIRC McLuhan’s specific example was TV replacing Radio.

  4. wren

    The CD replaced the LP which replaced the 45 which replaced the 78. (I was there, LPs replaced the 45s as the dominant physical delivery device.) In every case, capacity increased 78

  5. Tom Lord

    The commentary section conversation about LPs helps to illustrate why McLuhan’s rule of thumb is interesting but not obviously useful. You can retrospectively construct these narratives of what promise from the previous media was kept by the replacement but it’s a very different matter to try to project that into the future.

  6. Charles

    Right, Tom, I think that was McLuhan’s main point, it is a cautionary tale to all new media producers. We can’t see ahead, we set off on a new medium with goals we think we can achieve, but we don’t realize we are destined to fail. So we just end up fixing what the old medium was supposed to, it’s a fallback position, relying on the old tried and true standards set for the old medium.

    Anyway, feel free to speculate along McLuhan’s lines when investigating any new project, whether it is a YouTube or a Skype or whatever. You know it will fail at its grand objectives, but what old media is it going to end up as?

    But now that I know 45s and LPs supplanted 78s, I know what the deal is. 78s did not have high fidelity, their sound quality was relatively poor. But I have audiophile buddies who still swear by their vinyl LPs even today. But then, these are the sorts of guys who buy $2000 speaker cables, so I suspect they’re slightly insane.

  7. Mike of Concrete

    I try to get original-issue vinyl of anything before about 1985 when I can, as CDs were pretty poorly mastered in the early 80s. Yes, this makes me an audiophile and a vinyl geek… but sorry, no uber-expensive speaker cables. Sound-quality-wise, there’s no reason digital *has* to be crappy. I take my vinyl and rip it lossless and it still sounds great. I think the tracks people *sell* today are crappy for the same reason TV news is crappy: The target audience does not care. There’s another angle, too. I suspect, but cannot prove, that digital music sales today are replacing singles, not so much CDs. And anyone who’s listened to “Exile on Main Street,” as you cite in your original post, or “The Dark Side of the Moon,” knows that the track isn’t always the be-all and end-all of music production. Sometimes, though, it is. The most popular music (especially in Europe) is, in fact, song-based and not meant to be consumed in long form. For these kinds of performers, the CD really is a collection of tracks rather than an album. CD sales are provably falling, and I wonder if they’re falling more for track-based artists than for those who still put thought into the form of CD (track ordering, interludes, and the like). A specific example of what can happen is St. Etienne’s “Tales from Turnpike House.” As released in UK, this is a concept album that flows very naturally from song to song, documenting a day in a council tower and the lives of its denizens. But some record company exec decided to rearrange all the tracks, cut some, add new ones, and release this track pile — not album — in the U.S. In that form, it’s nearly unlistenable, as the songs lose their flow and the interludes sound like filler, classic bit-waste. And I own that on CD, by the way. I’m sure it was mastered digitally, so I don’t gain anything from seeking out vinyl.

  8. Bertil

    2000$ speaker wires? Only? He *is* insane, or death: I wouldn’t trust someone with such cheap taste, the sound must really be crappy through those. . . (I got it wrong? Sorry.)

    Seriously: can’t you both be right? Can’t a new technology, when in the hands of most people become something simply useful and profitable (Not having to trample grapes to make wine), changing slightly the equilibrium of things, and in the hands of others, a great stuff (Look Guttemberg: the book looks better when pressed this way!)?

    I would love to see the changing shape of albums and pils-of-tracks sales — but supposed you can tell one from another, I can’t imagine how you would take into account the release figures.

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