The Day the Music Died

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I originally wrote this essay in the fall of 2005 for Art History 495 at Iowa State University under Dr. Julie Schlarman. I present it here with updates and addenda.

“Album jackets are still a mine of arcane information and secret knowledge, the thrill of a new acquisition is still as physical as it is aural.”

-Brett Milano, Vinyl Junkies

On February 3, 1959 the music died. The plane was a Beech-Craft Bonanza, painted red with white and black trim and it crashed carrying three musicians enjoying resounding chart success. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson, and the plane’s pilot all lost their lives that day in northern Iowa. Later in 1971, Don McLean released his perennial “American Pie” and forever immortalized the event as “The Day the Music Died.”

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Lives taken on February 3, 1959

This assertion is wrong. Indeed the events of the 3rd of February, 1959 were a dark day for the music industry, but by no means was the casket being lowered. In fact quite the opposite was about to happen. A motley group of four from England would explode onto the scene and usher in more creativity and sonic exploration than ever before. Bob Dylan fused political awareness into his unique brand of folk. Groups like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath would invent ‘heavy metal’ while punk bands like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols further pushed the envelope. And that was just the 60’s and early 70’s.1

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Crash Site Memorial near Clear Lake, Iowa

Perhaps McLean lived too close to the times to fully realize that status of the music industry. Looking out over the cliff of the 21st century, we can now analyze with better perspective events tied to popular music and in doing so identify the real “Day the Music Died”.

Music takes many forms; everything from early Homo sapiens beating rocks and dancing around fire to teenagers text messaging a vote for their favorite American Idol. At the heart of it, there is an artist involved. The identification of the artist gives a face to the music, another person with who we can identify with. But that person is often neither the single representation of the music nor even a true representation at all. 2

Our inquest into the real “Day the Music Died” lies not in plane crashes or rock ‘n roll suicides, but in matters of artistic integrity. The creation of the music itself and the means it is propagated has everything to do with our investigation. Corporate invasion for the purpose of the bottom line is like a cancer. Remember those old vinyl LPs? Ask anyone who grew up with them and a fondly smile will likely cross their face. Compare the size of the cover of an LP to a modern CD (psst, it’s a lot smaller!).

If fact, therein the transition from LP to CD lies the true “Day the Music Died.” Both literally and figuratively, the CD in many ways represents the virus-like co-called demise of popular music. Corporate roots reached deep into music and began to suck the money out, in effect changing the very nature of the industry. At the same time the shrinking canvas size stifled creative freedom.

Roots

To understand something you must understand where it came from. This is no different with music, specifically recorded music. History points to Thomas Alva Edison, an inventor of the highest caliber, recording “Mary Had A Little Lamb” in the 1890’s. His work was in fact the result of several inventors each making distinct contributions.3 The reaction was less than positive and would set the precedent for subsequent advances, right up to our current day. 4

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Thomas Alva Edison

Broadcasting in general cast a wary eye on prerecorded music. Radio depended on live acts for their content, and the new medium was seen as an attack upon the livelihood of those involved. In Britain, more extreme measures were taken as the “needle time” policy was established. For every minute of prerecorded music played, union members had to be compensated for lost wages. Even more shocking, the policy remained until the early 80’s.

To avoid these regulations, the BBC commissioned artists to come in and record live “session” versions of their songs. These recordings date back to the 1920’s and the sessions of nearly every popular British band in the 60’s remain wildly popular with fans today, providing alternate versions of favorite songs.

Ironically, this early example of corporate stifling ultimately had opposite effects. Fans today now have hundreds of song variations of their favorite album hits to choose from.

Fast forward to 1945. After shellac resources, the material records were made from, were eaten up by World War II, normalcy eventually returned in production, but it brought a new war with it. Know as the “War of the Speeds,” Columbia and RCA Victor battled for supremacy in the recording industry. The standard of the day was the 78, referring to how many times the record spun per minute. To increase the amount of music on a single record side, Columbia proposed the LP (long player) at 33 1/3 rpm. RCA fired back with the 45 rpm disc. LPs ultimately won, but the 45 made enough niche to survive as singles, usually in jukeboxes.

The Golden Age: The LP

So the hero of the story, the vinyl LP record, takes stage. Twelve square inches around, the LP has become an icon in a world where CDs and subsequently MP3s are the favored medium for music.

In Brett Milano’s book Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting, the author delivers a monologue that sums up a lot of the attraction of vinyl:

“The urge to collect records begins with the fascination of the record as an object, going beyond simple appreciation of the music…..a vinyl junkie would make discoveries about the record itself. Compact discs will remain a sticking point for collectors, but you don’t have to be one of those vinyl snobs- the kind who think that digital sound is flat and heartless- to appreciate that playing a record is a whole different experience. Placing the needle in the groove is a physical act- maybe a sexual one, if you really want to stretch the metaphor- and it’s just not the same as pressing the button on your CD player, where you can’t even see what’s going on. And even though they’re more high-tech, CDs just aren’t as mysterious. There’s a computer-age explanation for why that digital sound gets reproduced, just as there’s a computer-age explanation for everything” (Milano).

The obvious difference between the LP and the CD is the actual canvas space. On an LP the workable space is much larger and as a consequence the artist took more consideration in the composition. Many tricks and gimmicks that were used on the covers are evidence of that total package consideration.

Some records used the die-cut cover. The Rolling Stones implemented this on their Some Girls cover with the die cut revealing the record sleeve underneath. The Doors’ L.A. Women put a different spin on the die cut by affixing a clear yellow tinted window to their die cut.

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Die cut Covers

Some of my favorite record conventions are the inserts included with many discs. Inserts could be anything, as long the distributor agreed to produce it. One early favorite is from the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Not only do we get stunning cover art, but also a frame worthy gatefold spread and psychedelic record sleeve. A full size sheet of cut-outs accompanied the record featuring a mustache, badges, uniform stripes, a picture card, and, of course, a stand up of the Beatles themselves.

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Sgt. Pepper’s Gatefold

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Sgt. Pepper’s Cut-outs (left) and record sleeve (right>

Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon included several additions consisting of sticker sheets and two full size posters. It is not even physically possible for a CD to include anything of this caliber.

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DSoM Poster #1

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DSoM Poster #2

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DSoM Stickers

Other notable inserts include a cardinal t-shirt iron-on from Chicago’s VIII and the 3D glasses included to be able to view Grand Funk Railroad’s 3D cover and included poster of Shinin’ On. Colored vinyl was also a popular gimmick.

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Grand Funk’s Shinin’ On (left) and Chicago’s VIII (right)

Andy Warhol got his start in the art world composing covers for jazz artists on the Blue Note label. He continued to produce cover throughout his career for such artists as Billy Squire, John Lennon, and the Rolling Stones. He famously designed The Velvet Underground’s The Velvet Underground and Nico‘s banana cover, with peel-able banana sticker, and the Rolling Stone’s Sticky Fingers, with zip-able crotch.

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Selection of Andy Warhol’s Cover Art

Roger Dean’s classic cover art still remain a staple of record cover ingenuity. He is known for his fantasy art for groups like Yes and Asia.

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Selection of Roger Dean’s Cover Art

Other important cover designers include pop artist Peter Blake who made waves with covers for artists like the Beatles (Sgt. Pepper’s) and Paul Weller (Stanley Road).

Another important aspect refers to the quote from Thompson’s Music Lover’s Guide to Record Collecting at the beginning of the paper. It reads: “Album jackets are still a mine of arcane information and secret knowledge, the thrill of a new acquisition is still as physical as it is aural.” That arcane information and secret knowledge is tied to the particular history of the individual album itself. Often times a name, or even an address, is scrawled upon the jacket. Maybe there is an unusual stain or an odd tear. These observations lead to thoughts about previous owners…Who was that person? Why did they get rid of it? How did it arrive in the shape it did? Again, this is baggage that a CD just doesn’t carry.

In Vinyl Junkies the author stumbles upon two copies of the same record, one clean and the other rather beat up. As he began to walk away with the clean one, he lamented about the used one. It was a Mardi Gras song, so it must have been played at parties. “Maybe it was played at some society function as the debutantes got into costume.” Finally he decides he “couldn’t let the thing sit in a dusty box forever; it needed to be the soundtrack for a few more parties.” It’s this mystery that LPs seem to hold that turn even a used copy into a doorway to a different place.

The Real Day the Music Died

The real “Day the Music Died” is less an actual day and more a year: 1982. The first commercial compact disc, Billy Joel’s 52nd Street, was released to much speculation. Many believed CDs would self destruct in only a few years. The thought only new releases would be available in the new format was prevalent (but really, have record companies ever passed up the chance to cash in?). Others cringed at the idea of replacing a lifetime’s collection of vinyl on CD.

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Happy Family? A LP, 45, and CD

According to Thompson, 750 million new CDs are sold every year in the US alone, and that reflects only sales of new CDs. One collector called the medium “cold” and “soulless” (Milano). And in many ways they are; you can’t watch them spin like vinyl and you may need spectacles to view the cover.

In many ways the compact disc has cheapened the value of a record. After all, almost anyone can record themselves and put it on a CD today. New technology places more and more mixing and editing control in the hands of the common man. This is great in one sense, but in another it only increases the amount of crap to shift through to find good music.

In other ways the CD has made of for vinyl’s transgressions. Portability is one of these areas. Cassettes and 8-tracks were portable too, but did anyone really enjoy those? Or ever try listening to vinyl in your car? Surprisingly, Chrysler’s 1956 DeSoto did try to market an in-dash record player!

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In-Dash Record Player

The days of getting up every 20 minutes to flip your vinyl to side 2 are gone, just point a remote and instantly go to a song.

The introduction of vinyl has also spurned the remastering of albums. Some argue that remastered works are not how the songs were originally meant to be heard. In reality, the sonic quality attained actually is a truer sound to what the artists wanted. Instruments and beats that once were minuscule on the original now contribute more to the overall experience. Not all remastering is good though. Even George Martin, the Beatles’ producer, claims is you haven’t heard the mono version of Sgt. Pepper’s you haven’t heard it at all (Thompson).

The biggest issue in the CD versus LP debate seems to be about the overall sonic quality. Some like the pops and clicks of vinyl that give LPs individual character. Others claim a clean vinyl will sound better that a CD any day. Chris Tham’s study of spectral and dynamic comparison between CDs and LPs may finally put this issue to rest.

Her conclusion is this: “LPs do have a usable dynamic range far greater than the measured dynamic range would suggest, and LPs consistently have higher relative dynamics over digital formats. But it is also true that LPs have higher distortion levels which translate to ultrasonic frequency harmonics.”

The remastering of CDs has lead to what some call the “Loudness War.” Take a look at this video to see exactly what is going on.

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Waveforms Comparison Between LP (top) and Remastered CD (bottom)

In essence, LPs are hindered by inherent problems with the vinyl medium itself (like ease of scratching). But if a perfect copy is played, that LP will demonstrate more dynamics in its frequency range than a CD. This is not to mention that very expensive speakers and a well trained ear may also be necessary to differentiate.

Music producer Bill Inglot, in Vinyl Junkies, asserts that sound quality is relative to facts about the recording itself. Sometimes the LP is better, sometimes the CD.

“There are just too many variables- how well the master tape has held up, whether the remastering engineer can get inside the original engineer’s head- to give either medium the objective upper hand.”

-Bill Inglot in Vinyl Junkies

Conclusion

The LP marks the high point of artistic merit in the music industry. Creative covers and inserts add a dimension not found in any other medium. Compact discs do add a dimension of portability and convenience that is hard to dismiss. Perhaps the best solution is a mix of both?

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Vinyls by memorymotel

20080405_object.jpgThe physical presence of the LP can never be replaced. Its appeal is a lot like a mail order special released in conjunction with Led Zeppelin’s Presence album. They offered a small statue, featured on the cover in apparently random scenarios. It was called “the object” (right) and was valued basically because it existed, plain and simple. The object, like an LP, influences the beholder in a way only inherent to that item. Holding an LP, smelling its musty odor, seeing the light refract off the vinyl scratches, and watching it spin on a player are an experience that only the LP can offer.

CDs do the same in a much more manufactured empathy. The cold, sterile plastic casing emits feeling that every other CD offers because they all share that plastic case. Even so, the ease of use and portability lend a convenience to the listening experience.

The smaller canvas size of a CD reduces the importance of the cover art. Where is today’s cover equivalent of Sgt. Pepper’s or the trippy artwork of Roger Dean that accompanied so many Yes albums?

So, both mediums offer equally indispensable qualities. To truly appreciate the music, nothing beats holding a record. The thrill of opening a gatefold cover, of being required to flip it over to side two (to make sure you’re still listening) is priceless. Yet throwing a CD mix together for a friend or grabbing your favorite albums for a road trip are a luxury that will not be relinquished.

Personally, I own a collection of over 600 vinyl records and under 30 CDs. My digital music library is gigantic, clocking in at over 200 GB. I do not buy CDs, but I will enthusiastically purchase vinyl, new release or old, and I have turned several friends into vinyl junkies in the process. Living abroad, they are the possession that I miss the most. Nothing beats throwing on a record at the end of the day.

So give me both: let me choose how best to fulfill my musical needs (You hear that RIAA??!). But if, for some inexplicable reason, just one must be chosen, I’d pick vinyl every time.

Footnotes

  1. A strong case can be made that the “day the music was born” was perhaps the debut of Elvis or the Beatles.
  2. Case in point: the 90’s phenomena of “Boy Bands” such as the Backstreet Boys and ‘N SYNC. Members serve as perpetual puppets, neither writing their songs or playing instruments. Instead, they sing well and look pretty.
  3. Other inventors include Emile Berliner, Chichester Bell, Alexander Bell, Charles Tainter, Charles Cros, and Leon Scott.
  4. Current speculation about MP3s and downloading are virtually the same as speculations about vinyl LPs when they were first introduced. Current figures show that while CD sales for 2004 were down, the addition of legal downloads has again increased the net profit for the music industry to over 4 billion dollars.

Bibliography

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15 Comments

  1. Luciano wrote:

    Wow! What a story… You kept me in awe and drooling all over. I’ve been an LP collector for almost 50 years so I understand every word written down. There is a very special feeling when you first pick out the record; then you take it out from the stack and draw it from its cover… that smell really turns me on everytime I listen to my beloved LP’s. I own more than 3 thousand LP’s. They are in every corner of the house. Just bought a new turntable with regular RCA connectors plus an USB connector so I can download the discs to my pc’s hard drive. There’s also a software disc to help you get rid of those clicks, pops and scratches. The result is great! Hope you can comment on that alternative in coming postings.

    From Mazatlan, Mexico.

  2. tbell wrote:

    Luciano, thanks for the comment. I have seen the USB Turntable. It or something similar will be what I purchase when I return to the US since I sold my old one.

  3. Luciano wrote:

    OK. But don’t wait too long. I’m sure you will find something interesting to talk about the topic. By the way, I forgot to tell you: My new turntable’s brand is ION. I paid 120 dollars at Best Buy last year when I visited my daughter in California. One nice thing it also has is a dual output connector. One is the regular “phone out” RCA kind but the other is intended to be connected to a TAPE input of your amplifier. That is a wonderful idea because most of the new home theater amplifiers don’t have a PHONO IN jack connector. You have to take special care with this one because in case you connect TAPE OUT into PHONO IN you sure gonna burn something!

    Well, keep posting. I promise to write a comment as soon as I can read your new material.

    From Mazatlan, Mexico.

    Luciano Romero.

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    Hi there Tyler –
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    Dr Julie

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