The Rise and Fall and Rise of the LP — Part 2

As we continue our look at the current revival of vinyl LP records, a brief review…

The many formats with which the public has listened to music have gone through a fascinating progression in the past century. Edison’s popular wax cylinders eventually gave way to the 78 rpm record platters, which in turn led to 33 1/3 LPs, and 45 singles (in addition to reel-to-reel, 8-track, and cassette tapes). Between 1948 and 1958–the year stereo recordings were first ready for mass consumption–sales of records increased 20 to 25 per cent every year. Not least among the factors was the rock & roll revolution, which led millions of teenagers to seek out their favorite songs in record stores, after hearing the latest hits on radio.

However, it took a full decade for stereo records to secure their place in the recording world, before surpassing mono (except for classical music, 90 per cent of which was being recorded in stereo by 1967). Not every consumer was willing to run out and purchase a new stereo system to replace their trusty hi-fi set. And, not every recording artist placed a priority on stereo recording right away. The Beatles famously mixed their landmark 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album in mono first, taking great care in doing so, along with their producer George Martin. But when it came time to work on the stereo version, the group wasn’t as interested, leaving that work to Martin, who devoted to it a fraction of the time he had to the stereo mix.

Interestingly, in an August, 1967 issue of Saturday Review, George R. Marek predicted the arrival of a new medium for playing music, in a piece he wrote regarding what records might be like in 1987: “The physical characteristics of a record may be further improved…It may be possible to stamp them from material which cannot be scratched or warped. An electronic device or a laser beam may scan the grooves to assure listeners of getting records without any ‘typographical errors,’ meaning ticks and pops…Perhaps there will be no needle, no mechanical contact of any kind, the sound being picked up by a light beam.”

In hindsight, Marek’s accuracy was astounding, especially considering that research and development of the CD didn’t even begin in earnest until the mid-1970s, when audio engineers for both the Philips Corporation in the Netherlands, and Sony in Japan, began designing working prototypes for a laser-read audio disk.  In 1979, the companies joined forces, pooling their respective resources and advances in development of the technology, and arrived at a standardized set of specifications, including disk size, which were initially approved by the International Electrotechnical Commission in 1980 (and, at some point during the birth of the CD, the spelling of “disk” mysteriously became “disc”).

Meanwhile, audiophiles continued searching for still greater improvements to the sonic quality of their vinyl records. In America, imported pressings and premium Original Master recordings issued on high-quality vinyl had mavens salivating. As for stereo equipment, a myriad of high-end turntables, speakers, equalizers, and other components, when used in the right combination, did the best they could to heighten the aural experience for those seeking perfection.

But the hype, interest, and genuine excitement preceding the arrival of CDs in American music retail stores gained momentum leading to the first releases. The first test CD, pressed at the world’s first CD pressing plant (owned by Polydor at the time) near Hannover, Germany, was Richard Strauss’s Enie Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony), performed by the Berlin Philharmonic.

In August of 1982, the factory was ready to begin mass production. The first CD to be manufactured there was the 1981 ABBA album The Visitors. However, the first album to be commercially released on CD was Billy Joel’s 52nd Street. It was released–initially in Japan only–on October 1, 1982.

 

Of course, a CD would be useless without something to play it on. Accompanying the release of 52nd Street was Sony’s CDP-101 player, as unveiled for the public in this ad. Six months later, on March 2, 1983, CBS records released 16 titles on CD in the U.S. and elsewhere, essentially opening the floodgates for the new format. By the end of the year, over a thousand different titles were available.

 

In the next few years, improved availability across all musical genres allowed CD prices to drop. The first to sell one million copies was the Dire Straits album Brothers In Arms, while another major event took place in 1987, with the release of the Beatles’ catalogue of albums.

What did this mean for the LP? The vinyl platter wasn’t in danger of obsolescence just yet, but record stores had already been clearing room in their bins, originally designed for 12″ albums, to make way for CDs (conveniently enough, the packaging for discs in those days was deliberately sized so that 2 units could fit neatly across a bin already sized for LPs).

The pristine sound of the CD proved too-tough competition for vinyl records, which had always been susceptible to scratches, ticks, pops, and skipping needles. There were diehards, however, who preferred what was often described as the “warmer” sound of LPs, and who resisted the cold perfection of the CD sound.

In recent years, even the CD has shown to be vulnerable, in the digital age of downloading and streaming music from various ethereal sources online. Still, the satisfaction of actually holding an artist’s creative work, complete with cover art and liner notes, has persisted among many listeners throughout the past few decades (myself included).

Which brings us to 2017. This past June, Sony Music Entertainment announced that it will begin pressing vinyl records again in March 2018, for the first time in nearly three decades. A factory near Tokyo is being fitted with new record-cutting and pressing machines. CNN reports that this is a direct reaction to the growing demand for LPs, from both older and younger generations–some of whom have grown up never having used records. Vinyl now comprises about 18% of all “physical music revenue,” which might not sound like much, but the number is growing.

So, feel free to indulge here in any number of clichés…Past is present, everything old is new again, Viva la Vinyl, etc.!

Until next time…

 

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