Arguments over 78s still resonate in iPod world

(Above: Guy Lombardo urges listeners to “Get Out Those Old Records” in this ode to the 78.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

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 ….


The Shins: Have Your Vinyl and MP3, Too

(Above: The Shins offer a free MP3 download coupon with their new album, Wincing the Night Away.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star’s Back To Rockville blog

The major labels may be lumbering in the past, but Sub Pop is starting to show hints of recognizing the digital revolution.

Starting this week with “Wincing the Night Away,” The Shins’ highly anticipated third release, fans who order any LP from the Sub Pop catalog will receive a coupon for a digital copy of the album. Simply go online, enter the coupon information and start legitimately downloading the files.

Or, as the statement on the Sub Pop Web site puts it: “The idea here is that people who buy records on vinyl should be afforded the same access to the digital files as those who buy records on CD, without having to consult some audiophile/computer expert/person working at Radio Shack.”

This is a great idea that also highlights the CD gradual slide into obsolescence. The first thing I do when I get a CD is rip it to my computer so I can put it on my iPod. There’s no point in gathering armfuls of plastic discs for road trips or worrying about if they might get scratched: the music is all safe on iPod, which can hold more than I could dream (or dare) to take anyway.

But for all their handiness, digital files don’t quite scratch the musical itch. There’s nothing to have or hold in a file that suddenly appears on a hard drive. Vinyl, the Shins and Sub Pop have realized, is the perfect remedy. Fans get big artwork, lyric sheets with type large enough to be read, and extreme gratification from the scratchiness that pops from the speakers when the needle is dropped.

If listeners don’t yet have record players, they’ve at least got a cool oversized souvenir of their direct support of a band. Hey, it doesn’t cost much more than iTunes and you get more, both physically and emotionally. Hopefully more bands will follow suit in the future, but for now, it will be fun to watch where this experiment goes.