Culture

RCA Record Player

RCA Record Player

The long-playing record has, and continues to have, a long and rich history in its role in the culture of America.  Its ability to hold an entire album as opposed to one or two songs made it an instant hit among the American public.  Just the same, it sparked a consumer “war” between Columbia Records and their rival, RCA Victor.[1]  Despite the intense popularity of the LP record, however, it did not come without its opponents, such as composers and live performers.  Within a few decades after the unveiling of the LP record, other more popular types of media such as the cassette tape and the compact disc threatened to completely wipe out the LP record.  Still, strong cultural ties to the LP record have kept it from fading from American memory, and have even allowed the record to make a surprising comeback beginning at the turn of the 21st century.

Columbia Record Label

Columbia Record Label

While the LP is generally seen as a highly successful invention, it started off with numerous drawbacks.  In the early 1930s, Columbia released a series of 33 1/3 rpm 10-inch records, but they were shelved in 1932 as a result of numerous mechanical problems, including a too-heavy pickup that cut straight through the record after only a few uses.  This led to numerous complaints from US consumers.  In fact, wasn’t until after World War II that the music industry boomed and sales were able to reach more than $10 million.[2]  The LP was far from the first vinyl record to be manufactured, but it was the first to allow for the recording of entire albums where previous records had only allowed for the recording of a few songs on one record.  Quickly after its release to the public, LP sales soared, allowing for its permanent adoption in the world of music consumers.  By 1950, just two years after its release, 62 companies were selling long-playing records, a feat which had never been seen in the industry up until that point.[3]   Just the same, the popularity of the LP record quickly ousted the previously used model, the 78-rpm record.  With this popularity, however, came controversy and, as with any industry, competition.  Columbia Records, the original manufacturer of the 33 and 1/3 rpm LP, was soon thrown into competition with RCA Victor.  RCA quickly responded to Columbia Records’ success by creating their own version of the LP record, this one playing at 45 rpm.  Naturally, this created an extreme amount of confusion and difficulty among consumers having to choose at which speed to play their records.[4]

The LP record, though traditionally thought of as merely a form of music media, in fact took on many more interesting rolls in its early years.  In 1960, for example, the Catholic Charities of the Chicago archdiocese revealed a set of 12 long playing records which could be used to teach mentally challenged children from home.  These records not only contained educational information, they were also created to entertain the children with stories, learning games, and speech lessons.  Chances are these records are not recorded among sales records because they were created on a charitable basis.[5]  In some cases, LP records were even used to train sales associates.  In 1962, Sales and Marketing Executives-International reported that in that year, record companies were expected to sell 65,000 sales training records.  This form of training was positive both for trainer and trainee; for trainers, it was beneficial to be able to put on a record, flip a switch, and have someone else do the training.  For trainees, this form of training was far more impersonal.[6]  And so, along their popularity as forms of music media, the LP records were also highly successful as educational and training tools.

John Cage

John Cage

While the 33 1/3 rpm long playing record did see a mostly positive public reaction and soaring sales in record time, it did not come without a bit of controversy.  There were, in fact, several groups who not only disliked the LP record, but all recorded music in general; however, most of their distaste was directed toward the incredibly popular LP.  Many people, namely composers and performers, gave all forms of recordings little to no respect.  This was mainly for the fact that in their eyes, the poor sound quality of the records was an insult to the beauty of live performances.  One of the biggest proponents of this argument was a man by the name of John Cage.  In 1949, Cage gave a lecture entitled “Lecture on Nothing,” in which he claimed “The reason they’ve no / music in Texas / is because / they have recordings / in Texas. / Remove the records from Texas / and someone / will learn to sing.”[7]  At the same time, many avant-garde performers attempted to resist the practice of recording.  Another argument was that many of the newest genres of the 1960s such as text scores, live electronic music, and free improvisation were created and based on the idea of being experienced in performance, not as a recording where the sound is always the same.  Some avant-garde performers did in fact allow their music to be recorded, but called it unsatisfactory.  Also, these recordings were sometimes sold as archival releases sold years or decades after the original recording.  These archival releases first appeared in the 1970s and 1980s.[8]

Another threat to LP records which, without their strong cultural roots, may have completely removed them from the market place by the 1980s.  In 1973, 73 percent of all album sales in the United States were composed of LP records.[9]  By 1982, compact discs had become widely available and were quickly becoming a major threat to LP records.  The popularity of the CD in its first years rivaled that of the first years of the LP record; the decline in popularity of the LP record, however, was helped along by the availability of cassette tapes as well.  For all intents and purposes, the LP record should have disappeared from store shelves and the American memory forever.  In the first six months of 1988, just six years after its release, CD sales totaled over $1 billion, a gigantic 47 percent increase from the first six months of the previous year.  That same year, LP record sales dipped to $302.7 million, a 27 percent decrease.[10]  Due to this increase in the popularity of CDs, many people believed that the LP record would disappear by the early 1990s.  Mitch Perliss, the director of purchasing for Show Industries, believed that vinyl records would disappear from chain record store shelves by 1990.  Russ Solomon, president of Tower record and video retail chains was only slightly less pessimistic; he predicted the disappearance would not occur until 1992.[11]

Many experts in the music industry predicted the disappearance of vinyl records by at least the end of the century, and in fact their prediction almost came true.  Rather than disappear, however, at the start of the 21st century, vinyl records have begun to make a rather impressive comeback when faced with competition from many more forms of media such as the iPod and websites such as YouTube where music can be heard for free.  Some buyers are nostalgic baby boomers, but an increasing number of members of Generation Y are starting to purchase turntables and long-playing vinyls.  These younger consumers appreciate aspects of the vinyl that cannot be gotten out of an iPod, such as warmer sound quality and more elaborate album covers.  In her article on the return of the LP record, Kristina Dell interviewed David MacRunnel, who, at the time, was a 15 year old high school sophomore, stated that “bad sound on an iPod has had an impact on a lot of people going back to vinyl.”[12]   This new spark in the popularity of vinyl records has even led to contemporary artists releasing their new albums on vinyl; however, in order to bring in more business, record companies also include deals such as coupons for free audio downloads.  Sales are still small, claiming only 0.2 percent of all music sales; yet this statistic may be underrepresented since most sales are in small indie shops from which sales are not recorded.[13]

The LP record may not have an obvious cultural impact in the same way that artifacts such as the axe or the light bulb did, but its mark can still be seen in society decades after it was first released.  Whereas many technological artifacts are placed into complete disuse after more modern, better quality inventions are created, the LP record continued to stay in use, even if in smaller qualities.  The nostalgia and strong cultural ties of the vinyl, specifically the LP record, have kept it in the minds of Americans and on store shelves, although the store may be nothing more than a small indie shop.  Mention the word vinyl, and even younger men and women who have never heard or seen them can tell you what they are and name artists who became famous in the age of vinyl records.  Vinyl records have also been making a gradual comeback in recent years; even though they may never reach the popularity they once enjoyed, the LP record has proven over the last seven decades that it will continue to hold a presence in the music industry.

 


[1] “Columbia to Defend Long-Playing Record.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Feb 10, 1949. 37, http://ezproxy.umw.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/105774947?accountid=12299. (accessed Mar 27, 2013).

[2] Scott Thill. “June 21, 1948: Columbia’s Microgroove LP Makes Albums Sound Good.” Wired. http://www.wired.com/thisdayintech/2010/06/0621first-lp-released/. (accessed Apr 15, 2013).

[3] Paul Hume. “Those ‘LP’ Records are here to Stay.” The Washington Post (1923-1954), Oct 08, 1950. 2, http://ezproxy.umw.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/152220487?accountid=12299. (accessed Mar 27, 2013).

[4]  Ibid.

[5] “Long Playing Records Age Youngsters: Agency Will Give Children Help.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Dec 4, 1960. (accessed Apr 17, 2013).

[6]  “Long Playing Records Train Sales Workers.” New York Times (1923-Current file), Apr 1, 1962. (accessed Apr 17, 2013).

[7] David Grubbs. “Remove the Records from Texas: Parsing Online Archives.” American Music Review 40, no. 2. (Spring 2011). 2. (accessed Mar 21, 2013)

[8] Ibid.

[9] Steve Hochman. “Will Those Vinyl Records Be All Played Out by 1990?” Los Angeles Times (October 8, 1988). http://articles.latimes.com/1988-10-08/entertainment/ca-3116_1_vinyl-records. (accessed Mar 26, 2013).

[10] Paul Farhi. “Compact discs turn tables on vinyl record sales.”(Mar 01, 1989).  Washington Post. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.umw.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1400-60908?accountid=12299. (accessed Mar 26, 2013).

[11] Hochman.

[12] Kristina Dell. “Vinyl Gets its Groove Back.” Time Magazine (January 10, 2008). http://www.time.com/-time/magazine/article/0,9171,1702369,00.html. (accessed Mar 27, 2013).

[13] Ibid.

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