Sunday, July 24, 2005

The Death of the Long Player

But surely I hear you say vinyl died as a mass format years ago, only kept on in some sort of half life by indie rockers and dance floor 12-inch aficionados. Well yes, the CD did replace the record but it is really just a holding station, a transitory format on the way to the download. The CD with all its initial claims for digital clarity and resistance to scratches was in effect never anything more than a miniaturised LP, a compact disc. The first CD’s even had diidy versions of full sized 12-inch artwork. True the CD could hold another 25 minutes of music and rehashes of the LP sleeve soon gave way to the intricate booklets, but the paradigm of the LP lived on. Only avant garde and classical musicians ever made any real us of those extra minutes and CD booklets are always somehow less than overwhelming, good for information but not for artwork. The CD saved space on the racks and cost record companies less to produce but in the end the CD is just another round disk that spins faster and is read by a laser rather than a stylus.

But the compact disc did give us CD quality sound which whist no better and some would say worse than analogue did have one advantage, it was digital and as such was format blind. At first the only other formats one could transfer digital music to were hideously expensive and often intentionally so. The failure of DAT as a consumer medium can be partly blamed on the fact that Sony was very wary about letting the general public near something, which could accurately clone music without any loss of quality and so aimed and priced the format at so called audio professionals. Well before p2p was even a gleam in Napster’s eye many knew the threat that digitisation posed to revenue streams.

It took the combination of affordable PC’s, the internet, the iPod and some fancy codecs to finally liberate the digital genie from the CD bottle, indeed to liberate music from the record. The full ramifications of this liberation have still to be felt; consumers have for the time being switched the fetishisation from format (the disk) to the means of playback (the iPod). But what of the music, there is an argument that the hoi polloi took to downloads as they only ever really wanted the one or two “hits” from LP’s/CD’s anyway not all the “filler” and everyone can recall their parent buying a whole LP simply for that track they heard on telly or in a film.

So will the download kill off the whole idea of LP once and for all ? Certainly the CD can only have a few more years to live. Now is the time to rip your collections to the computer and get down to Record and Tape Exchange before they become worthless. But what then? Will artists continue to release groups of tracks together or simply put them out one at a time? Might we see a return to the concept album in music, whereby longer self contained tracks are produced which defy easy separation into three-minute chunks? Freed from the format, music is now curiously liberated to become…

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