Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Mystery of LPs

By Mike Dorf

There is a wonderful scene in Dan Kennedy's hilarious memoir of his brief stint as a middle manager in the record industry during its collapse--Rock On: An Office Power Ballad--in which Kennedy succinctly describes the problem facing the industry, even without the worry of free file sharing: With individual songs available on iTunes for 99 cents apiece, the record labels could no longer charge $15 for a CD with two songs that listeners wanted to buy and ten or so others that they had to buy to get those two.

That struck me as a trenchant analysis, until I started thinking about an earlier transition.  In my youth, popular music came packaged mostly as albums: eventually as CDs but before that as vinyl LPs that spun at 33 and 1/3 rpm and played about 22 minutes per side.  But not that much earlier, pop music typically came packaged as "singles"--a misnomer because each 45 rpm record had both an A-side, featuring the song listeners wanted to buy, and a B-side, featuring less popular songs.  It was also a package, but one sold on much more favorable terms to the listener than the LP package that replaced it.

But here we have an apparent economic mystery.  If listeners really only ever wanted the A side of a 45 or two of the twelve songs on an LP or CD, then they shouldn't have been willing to pay anything extra to get the B side or those ten worthless songs.  Record companies should have been able to charge the monopoly price for the desired songs, whatever that was, without extracting a premium because they included additional unwanted songs.  And yet, the very fact that the industry substantially shifted from 45s to LPs leads me to think that they were able to extract additional money for the additional songs.

That, in turn, leads me to think that those extra songs had some value to listeners.  (LPs also had an obvious advantage relative to 45s and 78s for listeners of works of classical music and other genres that could fit on a single LP but required multiple disks in the other formats.)  And indeed, LPs and 45s coexisted for quite a long time during which LP albums were sold as having value beyond the value of the individual songs they contained.  And that was not simply a matter of marketing.  There really are only a few great songs on Abbey Road (Come Together; Something; Here Comes the Sun), but the other songs work together to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.  The shuffle feature on an iPod may be very popular but something is lost in the shuffle.


Unknown said...

The phenomenon of the single release never really died. There were singles all through the cassette era (I remember seeing these flimsy cassettes that were noticeably lighter in weight than an album-length cassette because there was literally less tape on the reels) and there were (still are) even single CD’s.

The singles serve two distinct purposes, I think. On the one hand, someone who isn’t a huge fan of an artist but enjoys the one or two songs on an album that are polished up in the studio and accompanied by an MTV video in the hope that they’ll become hits, can buy just those songs as freestanding singles (and have the b-side thrown in essentially for free).

On the other hand, it is important to note that b-sides are often songs from the same recording session that the album and single came from, but which did not make it onto the album. So if someone is a seriously devoted fan of a particular artist, she might buy the single releases *in addition to* the album, even thought this means “re-buying” the a-side, just so she can get her hands on the (previously unreleased) b-side. This is not just speculation on my part: I can clearly remember in my high-school/college days having a few friends who were sufficiently enamored of a particular artist that they wanted to buy their entire catalogue, not matter how obscure, and they would have these big stacks of singles bought solely for the b-sides.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Timothy: Thanks for the recollection. I didn't mean to suggest otherwise. I was calling attention to the fact that in the 1970s through the 1990s the industry spent much more money promoting LPs and then full CDs than it did promoting singles--and that these promotions worked: Consumers mostly wanted to buy albums.

Unknown said...

Sorry if my comment was a bit non sequitur with respect to your principal point. I was remarking mainly on (and agreeing with) your observation that the industry was "able to extract additional money for the additional songs" and proposing that there were always two types of buyers out there: some (an artist's real fans) from whom the additional money could be extracted, and others (the larger radio-listening audience) who might be willing to purchase only the single (if anything).

I also agree with your lost-in-the-shuffle observation. I actually dislike "greatest hits" anthologies because they're like a whole field of quarterbacks. Too much. An album needs texture, needs both figure and ground to be interesting. (I never put in Abbey Road unless I have time to listen to the whole thing.)

Bob Hockett said...

Nice, thoughtful and observant post as ever, Mike. Here's a quick thought: Doesn't the rise of the lp in the '60s coincide with the development of the 'concept album,' the principal feature of which is precisely that phenomenon of the 'whole being more than the sum of its parts' which you note in connection with 'Abbey Road?'

I am admittedly no expert, but casual consideration of some pop musical careers I am at least somewhat familiar with suggests a significant shift about the mid-1960s. 'The Free-Wheelin Bob Dylan' and 'Another Side of Bob Dylan,' the bard's last early '60s albums, I think, were still basically grab bags of songs whose only organic unity was the presence of Mr. Zimmerman's voice (in several senses of that word) itself. But 'Bringing It All Back Home' (especially the all acoustic side 2) and 'Highway 61 Revisited' felt somehow more thematically unified. They really seemed to mark a move from short story collection, so to speak -- something like Joyce's 'Dubliners' -- to something a bit closer to an integrated collection or even a novel -- like Master's 'Spoon River Anthology' or Anderson's 'Winesburg, Ohio.' I suppose 'Blond on Blonde,' or perhaps 'John Wesley Harding' marked a sort of high water mark in this development.

A similar shift, roughly contemporaneous with the bard's, seems to mark the transition of the band (THE band, the one from Liverpool) from, say, 'Beatles 65' to 'Rubber Soul' and 'Revolver,' culminating in 'Sgt Pepper' and 'Magical Mystery Tour.' It's tempting to speculate that the Rolling Stones' never having successfully made that transition ('Let It Bleed' has wonderful songs, but doesn't seem to be integrated, and 'Their Satanic Majesties...' is simply comical) might account in part for their stock's having dropped relative to the Beatles' for a while in the later 1960s.

I'm sometimes tempted to look for some cultural explanation for the rise of the 'concept album' for a time in the later '60s, and the decline of the same in the '80s. My provisional conjecture is that as erstwhile teens became young adults in the first of those decades, they wanted more in the way of 'meaningfulness' of the sort we associate with the more venerable arts even in their pop music. Doubtless the political awakening of the times contributed to that. (This seems to have been the story in my sort of late-hippy mom's case, anyway.)

... continued ...

Bob Hockett said...

... continued from above ...

But there's a fairly fine line between 'meaningfulness' and mere pretension, of course (one that I cross too often -- as here!), and by the mid- to late-1970s that line had been decisively crossed by often ridiculous arena rockers like Pink Floyd and Led Zepplin. Surely PF's 'Animials' and LZ's 'Houses of the Holy' mark the apotheosis of pop musical 'meaning's' lurch into comical pretension.

Combine that development with the decline of wide public concern for matters of 'meaning' (or perhaps the redirecting of that longing toward weird fundamentalisms) and the concommitant dico-fication and Disneyfication of American life over the politically disillusioned 1970s and 1980s, and you get a possible explanation for the sort of punk and hippety-hop revolts of the late '70s onward, and their reinstatement of the 'single' as the favored unit of musical publication.

One last point: It is interesting, I think, to observe what appears to be a partial return of the 'concept album' in the first decade of the new millenium. Probably the purest instance of this is the Flaming Lips' albums put out since 1999. Two things that strike me as interesting about these are (1) the fact that these lads were sort of Pink Floyd freaks in their teenage years, and (2) the fact that, while their albums of the last decade *feel* sort of vaguely internally coherent and 'meaningful' -- with lots of references to 'life,' 'death,' 'God,' memory, etc. -- it's not at all clear just *what* they mean. (Just who *is* Yoshimi, and what *is* a pink robot?) This might make for a very nice symbol of the present age: All the trappings of meaningfulness and depth, without any clarity about just what is meant or is 'down there' in those pseudo-depths. Just like the poetry of Paul Celan!

Thanks again,

Michael C. Dorf said...

Thanks for these great comments Bob and Timothy. On Bob's last point, Dan Kennedy has an observation that seems a propos of the difference between the original concept albums and the revival. He says that when a band circa 1971 yelled to its fans "ARE YOU READY TO ROCK?!" they didn't do it ironically.

patrick bryant said...

Record labels were able to charge a premium for unwanted songs simply by making songs unavailable as singles. When I worked in a chain record store in the 80s and 90s, labels routinely deleted singles (45s / cassingles / cd singles) once they achieved popularity. This gambit "forced" consumers to purchase a full-length album they didn't necessarily want in order to obtain the single. At risk of painting with a broad brush, it was this and related maneuvers (deliberately not giving consumers what they wanted) that led to such frayed relations between the consumers and record industry.

michael a. livingston said...

There is a long and complex story to this question. Albums were essentially collections of individual songs until about 1967 when two albums, the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper and The Who's "rock opera" Tommy, established the idea of the "concept album" that was (as you suggest) more than the sum of its parts. At this point--and with the advent of stereo which many singles lacked--it became somewhat declasse to buy the old 45s. The long and the short of it is, you are right that it's not purely a question of technology: it's an interplay of technology and culture each influencing the other in myriad ways. One difference between Ipods and 45s is that the latter (i) don't sacrifice any sound quality and (ii) make songs relatively easy to mix and match and (in effect) create your own "concept" album: I think Prince actually tried to install technology to prevent people reordering his songs but this obviously is a losing battle.

Bob Hockett said...

PS: As if to prove the points made earlier, to the effect that (a) today's wave of 'concept albums' are a bit obscure of meaning if not indeed intentionally tongue-in-cheek, and (b) the F Lips were P Floyd freaks in their youth, it might be worth pointing out that the lads have recently put out, with the assistance of Henry Rollins and others, a cover of the entirety of P Floyd's 'Dark Side of the Moon.' Here is a sample, their rendition of 'Money': . Of course, the tongue-in-cheek 'concept album' itself seems to have come along toward the end of the original concept album heyday: I'd date it to Parliament's 1975 'Chocolate City' and 'Mothership Connection' albums, initiating a development that culminated in their 1979 'Gloryhallastoopid' album. Some readers might know this unsurpassed hit from the period in question: .