By Joel Francis
Gallons of cyber-ink have been spilled over the wailing and gnashing of teeth that has accompanied the transition from CDs to iPods.
While I love the convenience of my iPod and cannot be more than a few yards from it without suffering from withdrawal, I also miss the anticipation of new-release Tuesdays that the old paradigm brought.
It is comforting to know, however, that ours is not the first generation of music fans to suffer format growing pains. While reading Gary Marmorstein’s “The Label,” an exhaustive history of Columbia Records, I stumbled on a passage about the poet Philip Larkin, who was furious that long-playing records were starting to replace his beloved 78s.
“When the long-playing record was introduced,” Larkin is quoted as saying in the book, “I was suspicious of it: it seemed a package deal, forcing you to buy bad tracks along with good at an unwanted price.”
Larkin’s displeasure with record labels trying to foist bad tracks on consumers by bundling them with good ones was chillingly prescient. The argument he made in the late ’40s was echoed nearly 50 years later when the labels abolished the single and hiked album prices.
Other mid-century music consumers were upset that the new 22-minute side made listening a passive experience. According to their reasoning, since you didn’t have to get up and change sides every five minutes, the music would just fade into the background.
While classical fans rejoiced that an entire movement could be contained on a single side, jazz fans were less enthusiastic. Many fans, Larkin included, felt that the time limit on a 78 was the optimal span for a group to have its say and leave before overstaying its welcome.
As Marmorstein writes: “Larkin associated the halcyon days of his youth with winding the gramophone and listening to 78s by Louis Armstrong. To Larkin, a single shellacked side was a gem, not these vinyl platters that played interminably.”
Unfortunately for Larkin, the LP not only caught on but was the dominant format for 40 years, when the CD took over. Although Columbia unveiled the LP in 1948, strange parallels still resonate today. The more things change ….