Thursday, 25 October 2012

Did the record industry deliberately kill off the vinyl record?

Recently there was a story on the Music Week website indicating that the record industry sabotaged the vinyl LP to make us all move over to CDs. They made good points about sound and quality , but during the 80s, I only had crap turntables to play records on, so I didn't know the difference.

As a consumer of music, then as now, I can say that I honestly believe this was the case but for different reasons. You can read music week's arguments above, but mine go like this:

1. The record industry seemed to market the CD as more attractive by adding extra tracks and tampering with the content on vinyl.

From the mid-80s onwards, certain albums were marketedly different in their vinyl configurations from the CD. In fact, it was quite common for notes to be on the vinyl sleeve saying "The CD and cassette contain extra tracks not available on vinyl" as it is on the back of John Mellencamp's "Scarecrow" LP.

Other albums would include substantially less music on vinyl than on CD, citing the reduced playing time of the LP as the problem. When daryl Braithwaite had a massive career resurgence in 1988, the first LP he released ("Edge" in 1988) has 10 tracks on vinyl, and 14 on CD. The album wasn't long enough to be a double LP, but then it was probably just long enough to fit on a single LP without compromising sound quality.

2. They made crappy sounding vinyl by squeezing too much onto the LP.

On that note, the more music on a record, the poorer the sound quality. 27 minutes at the absolute tops per side before the sound quality decreases too much. Neil Young's "Ragged Glory" LP is 63 minutes long, and it was crammed onto a single LP. My second hand vinyl copy was slightly worn when I got it, and the music was in danger of being drowned out by the surface noise of the vinyl. Ditto the first "Mr Bungle" LP, which stands at just over 70 minutes.

Then at the other end of the spectrum, you had "Beyond Salvation" by The Angels, a solid 49 minute album on 2LPs! You had to change sides every 10-12 minutes! A waste!

3. Quality control standards slipped markedly.

The amount of defects in the vinyl, little pieces of junk being pressed into the vinyl that can't be cleaned away causing a permanent skip on the record, were commonplace in the late 1980s. I have a few records that suffer this unfortunate condition and there's little you can do about it.

4. In some cases, vinyl editions just weren't pressed at all.

Around 1990 you started to see some albums just weren't pressed on vinyl at all. The marketing on TV and in magazines would just say "Available on CD and Cassette". Any vinyl you were able to buy of certain records wasn't even pressed domestically - it was imported. My copies of Guns 'n Roses' "Use Your Illusion" were both purchased when they were released, but they were both pressed in Germany for export.

5. After 1991, they just stopped pressing vinyl altogether in Australia.

At this stage, you were forced to buy a CD or cassette - these were the only two formats available and for an album there was at least a $10 price difference between the two (the CD being the more expensive). This left only indie labels and dance DJs making vinyl - the domestic mainstream industry did away with it. Small labels like Phantom and Red Eye in sydney kept pressing vinyl until about 1993, but they outsourced their work to the major label pressing plants. Eventually the majors pulled the plug on their pressing plants...

You could still get imports, but only specialist shops dealt with them. In rural NSW where I grew up, local record stores didn't even bother with vinyl - they'd give you strange looks and tell you either "don't bother" or "it'll be too expensive and it will take 6 months to get here from overseas".

6. Price-gouging for singles, and the introduction of multi-formats for collectors

Buying singles in the early 1990s meant that singles were around $5 on vinyl, cassette singles likewise and CD singles were $7.95. All of a sudden, you could then buy CD singles of (then) new bands like Pearl Jam for $1.95 - why would you wanna buy a $5 vinyl equivalent then? As well as releasing singles on a variety of different formats and loading extra content onto them. At one point, a single would be released by a major band on 7" plain stock sleeve, 7" picture sleeve, 12" with bonus tracks, Cassette, CD, sometimes coloured vinyl. The companies expected the hardcore fans to buy them all, and some did. Not all of us had that luxury of course.

These days the prices have all but turned around. I can get the latest Green Day album "Uno!" on CD for $15, but the same store will supply an imported vinyl copy of the same album for $38. Go figure...

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