Among many other things, the ongoing stream of news about Björk’s new Biophilia project has got us thinking about the various ways in which music has been released over the years. Biophilia‘s idea of releasing song as interactive iPad applications seems to be all the rage at the moment — along with Björk, Belgian duo Soulwax have just released a series of mixes as iOS applications that are “like musical films based on the record sleeves,” which look way cool and are also free to download. It’s all a far cry from the days of going out and getting hold of your favorite artist’s new CD. But a brief look at the history of music shows, it’s often — although not always — innovators and creative trailblazers who’ve embraced new formats and the possibilities they hold. Over the next few pages, we survey these restless innovators, both musical and technological (along with those people who just happened to be in the right place at the right time).
The 33rpm LP
Recorded music had been around ever since Thomas Edison came up with the idea of inscribing a groove onto a wax cylinder, but by the early 20th century, the limitations of the 78rpm disc were pretty clear — the format mean that pieces longer than about five minutes couldn’t be released without being split across sides. The answer came in the form of the microgroove 33rpm record, first launched by Victor in 1931 with a recording of Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski, playing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Unfortunately, the idea was ahead of its time, and trying to launch a new format in the middle of the Great Depression was perhaps not the greatest business decision that anyone’s ever made; despite its excellent sound quality and far greater playing time, the 33rpm LP stiffed and was pulled off the market two years later. Happily, however, it didn’t go the way of Betamax, DCCs, and other failed formats — it was relaunched in 1948 by Columbia and was a roaring success.
Vinyl was all well and good at home, but anyone with even a cursory understanding of US history knows that Americans love their cars. And gramophones aren’t a whole lot of use on bumpy roads. The first format to bring portability to music was the Stereo-Pak, a four-track cartridge system invented by Illinois entrepreneur, used car dealer, and generally fascinating character Earl “Madman” Muntz. He called his cassettes “CARtridges,” and they went on sale in Los Angeles (of course) in 1962. They were eventually joined on the market by a superior eight-track version (which, unlike Stereo-Pak tapes, could be rewound and fast-forwarded), and by the end of the 1960s and early 1970s, cartridge players were apparently reasonably commonplace in cars. We’ve been unable to uncover what the first release in this format was — perhaps a reader can enlighten us? — but through the magic of Google Books, we came across an 1968 issue of Billboard that discusses the CARtridge industry in a fair amount of detail: “On this week’s Top LPs chart, 28 of the 35 albums which have been on sale for four weeks or less are available in at least one form of tape cartridge … and nine of the top 10 albums are offered on cartridge.” There’s another article that says “variety packs” — i.e., cartridges with multiple artists featured — have been a commercial failure. Clearly, the age of the mixtape was still to come. And if you’re interested, there’s a whole multi-page feature about Muntz and his technology here — start from p41.
The quadraphonic record
Beloved of audiophiles like Lou Reed and David Gilmour, but largely shunned over the years by the public, quadraphonic sound has had a long and storied history. The idea of using four audio channels instead of two was first introduced to the public in the early ’70s, and for a while, a steady stream of records were released on the Quadradisc format. The first quadraphonic album to hit #1 in the USA was the soundtrack to Elvis Presley’s Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite, which remains the highest-selling quad album ever. Unfortunately, the public never really embraced quad sound — you needed a special amplifier and two extra speakers to enjoy its benefits, and there were a bewildering array of different quad formats to contend with. Eventually, the idea of four-channel audio fizzled out, although the public has since has flocked to buy 5.1 surround sound equipment for their home theaters.
The 12″ single
Apparently, the maxi-single came into existence by accident — disco producer Tom Moulton asked for a 7″ test copy of one of his singles, but the studio engineer only had 10″ discs available. Moulton noticed that the wider groove spacing on the 10″ disc led to a greater dynamic range for the sound, a light bulb went on in his head, and the idea of the 12″ single was born. The first such disc released was Gloria Gaynor’s 1974 single “Never Can Say Goodbye” (which also featured vocals from a hyper-talented 12-year-old tyke named Michael Jackson), but the most famous is New Order’s “Blue Monday,” which remains the biggest-selling 12″ single of all time. The story about Factory Records losing money on each copy sold due to the cost of the sleeve — related to hilarious effect in 24-Hour Party People — may or may not be true.
The audio cassette
The humble audio cassette was first conceived as a dictation medium, but soon became popular as a cheap and portable alternative to LPs. It’s unclear what the first album released on cassette was, but perhaps the most notable early cassette release was Bow Wow Wow’s “C30, C60, C90, Go!,” which came out as a cassingle in 1980 and had a blank side B for fans to record their own music onto. The latter innovation didn’t amuse their record company, who fired them for encouraging piracy. And, indeed, the cheap, re-recordable nature of tapes led to much record industry angst — which goes to show that industry bodies have always been somewhat removed from reality — and also to a thriving culture of creating your own mixtapes for your friends. The name “mixtape” lives on today, even when referring to things that are neither mixes nor tapes (shout out to the world of hip hop), and the cassette format has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, with plenty of bands these days putting out obscure tape-only releases that end up on eBay months later for outrageous prices.
The compact disc
It’s a truism in the music industry that being in the right place at the right time is a far more important consideration for success than being, y’know, good. So it is with Dire Straits’ mega-successful 1985 album Brothers in Arms, which will be remembered by history for being the record that businessmen everywhere bought in order to show off their shiny new compact disc players. Brothers in Arms was the first album to sell a million copies on CD, the first album whose CD version outsold its LP counterpart, and also one of the first albums to be recorded digitally from start to finish. Even though it wasn’t the first CD full-length (that distinction goes to Billy Joel’s 52nd Street), Brothers in Arms remains synonymous with the format.
Readers of a certain age will remember the brief period when MiniDiscs were all the rage (readers not of such certain age will find it hard to believe this actually happened, but believe us, it did.) For a few months around the turn of the millennium, the tiny discs promised to be the future of portable media – smaller and more robust than CDs, a blessing for anyone who ever owned a Discman. Unfortunately, MiniDisc players were largely pieces of shit with a propensity for falling apart the day after the warranty expired (thanks, Sony), and then some genius came up with the idea of a hard drive-based MP3 player. Goodbye, MiniDisc. But still, there was time for at least one MiniDisc-only release: the appropriately titled MiniDisc, by Autechre side project Gescom, an album of 88 tracks designed to be played randomly in any order (an idea designed to take advantage of MiniDisc’s ability to shuffle tracks without the short gap you get when doing this with a CD). At the time, it seemed cutting edge — now, like the format itself, it remains a historical curiosity.
Twelve years ago next week, Yahoo issued a press release with details of a “groundbreaking, multimedia event.” The event in question was the web launch of “the first album from a major artist to be released exclusively in the MP3 format,” and it remains a historical curiosity for two reasons: first, it was indeed the first MP3-only release by an artist on a major label, and second, it’s probably the only time anyone’s ever referred to oddball duo They Might Be Giants as a major artist. The album, Long Tall Weekend, was released via eMusic, where it remains on sale today — and it made them the most legally downloaded artist of a year that’s chiefly remembered for being Napster’s halcyon period.
The distinction of being the first band to release a record on a USB stick apparently goes to obscure German punk band Wizo, who released the topically named Stick EP in September 2004. Since then, various artists have embraced the idea of the USB-stick-as-album — most notably the ever-innovative Trent Reznor, who sneakily leaked his own songs by leaving them on USB drives in the bathrooms at various concert locations, surmising (correctly) that fans would find them and upload them to the web, thus creating online buzz and anticipation for the new album. (Amusingly, the ever-clueless RIAA still tried to get the tracks pulled off the sites hosting them, even after being told by Interscope that it was all part of a marketing campaign.) More recently, an Australian company called D:Net Media has been pushing an idea called DDA — basically an album on a USB stick with a bunch of bonus content — although sadly, it hasn’t exactly set the world on fire.
If you’ve never heard of VinylDisc until now, then don’t worry — neither had we until we started researching this feature. Quite why the world needs a hybrid CD/vinyl format is unclear, but it’s kind of cool — and if you’ve ever dreamed of having a single disc that’ll play in both your CD player and on your turntable, then dream no longer. The technology was patented in 2007 by a German company called Optimal, and a few bands have amused themselves releasing songs on the format. What a time to be alive, eh?