Bidding farewell to vinyl -- Why we'll miss the LP

Record companies don’t want to make them. Record stores don’t want to stock them. They’re still being played in homes across the country, yet many of them are crammed into milk crates or boxed next to old baby shoes in a corner of your parents’ basement. And even if they still occupy a prime place in your living room and your life, there’s no denying one inescapable fact: The vinyl LP — the focal point for a generation of baby boomers who grew up with rock & roll, studying lyrics and analyzing album jackets along the way — is about to go the way of five-and-dime stores and the 50-cent gallon of gas.

Ever since the introduction of the compact disc eight years ago, the LP’s days have been numbered. And if you’ve tried buying one in the past year, you must have sensed that its number is finally up. LPs are all but impossible to find in stores, and fewer than 25 percent of new pop albums are even released on black plastic (genres like jazz, classical, and country are nearly vinyl- free). In 1990, only 11.7 million LPs were sold, compared with 286 million CDs. ”From our standpoint, vinyl is pretty much finished,” says Henry Droz, president of WEA (Warner/Elektra/Atlantic), the largest distributor of pop albums in the U.S. ”The demand is just about nil.” As proof, Droz grabs a sheet with recent one-day sales figures for one of WEA’s top-selling albums: 25,000 CDs, 20,000 cassettes, and ”about 16” LPs.

But those are merely cold, hard facts. For anyone accustomed to cute, easy- to-use CDs, nothing brings home the passing of vinyl more than the simple act of playing an LP. You tug the record out of its cardboard sleeve, pop open the cover of your turntable, gently place the LP on the rubber mat, check the stylus for dust, press ”play,” and watch the turntable arm s-l-o-w-l-y drop onto the record. You sit down, examine the front cover of the album, flip it over, and start checking the credits listing songwriters, musicians, and friends of the band. When the side ends, you get up and flip the record over, and the ritual starts once again. Thanks to CDs, what was once a natural act suddenly feels as foreign as an ancient druidic ceremony. Even worse, it makes you feel as old as a druid.

To convince the public it didn’t need LPs took some doing — after all, the LP has been the primary way we listened to music for more than 40 years. Looking for a way to reproduce entire symphonies (and, later, lengthy jazz pieces) on a single record, Columbia brought out the first long-playing 33 1/3 rpm albums in June 1948. The LP sounded better and held far more music than its principal competition — the breakable 78 rpm shellac disc, which played for at most 4 1/2 minutes per side. The following year, RCA unveiled the first 45 rpm records. Ironically, 45s were first intended as competition for LPs, but after consumers rejected them because they held no more music than 78s, they became the standard format for pop singles.

During the ’50s and early ’60s, pop albums were little more than an artist’s major hit, with added filler. By the mid-’60s, the album had become the talisman of the emerging rock counterculture. Rock fans considered their music a serious art form, and to prove it they could point to albums like the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, and Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow — works with themes and continuity, not just random collections of songs. And that was only the beginning. Soon there were concept albums, rock operas, even songs that took up an entire side of an LP (like Bob Dylan’s ”Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” on his 1966 double album, Blonde on Blonde).

As the LP became a symbol of artistic expression, so did its packaging, which could range from lavish (the absurdly elaborate Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) to garish (the kidnap-note lettering of the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols). There was the circular cover of the Small Faces’ Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, which literally rolled off record- store racks; the rotating pinwheel on Led Zeppelin III; the school desk (with panties wrapped around the LP) on Alice Cooper’s School’s Out; the Andy Warhol-designed jeans-with-zipper of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers. Monty Python’s Matching Tie and Handkerchief was an actual three-sided LP. One side had parallel grooves: Depending where you placed the needle, you’d hear one of two completely different recordings. And there were LP covers shaped like sleeping pills, cigarette lighters, buckets of fruit, liquor-filled drinks, and packets of marijuana rolling paper.

Formats like cassettes and 8-tracks arose to challenge the LP, but vinyl did its best to hang tough. Then in 1983, along came the compact disc — ”perfect sound,” the record companies claimed, for a less-than-perfect higher price. As the industry realized the profit margin inherent in CDs, vinyl was doomed. Companies began pressing fewer LPs as soon as consumers began taking to the CD. Record-company salesmen began offering stores special deals for CD and cassette orders. And many store owners, particularly those in malls, were ready to listen to those pitches, in large part due to a space crunch: It had become impossible to fit three different formats into their stores, and they were only too happy to drop the one that was least profitable, bulkiest, most defect-prone, and least readily available.

Late in 1989, in what can now be seen as a historic turning point, Arista stopped pressing vinyl copies of Milli Vanilli’s debut album, then in the top 10. By this year, a number of best-selling albums in all genres — from Paula Abdul’s Spellbound to Clint Black’s Put Yourself in My Shoes to the soundtracks of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Boyz N the Hood — never even made it to vinyl. The latest and possibly most severe blow was dealt in April, when WEA, following in the footsteps of Sony, stopped accepting returns for credit of unsold vinyl from record stores. As a result, stores are now even more hesitant to order LPs.

Vinyl isn’t actually dead yet: Many of the albums on the Billboard Top 200 album chart are available on LP (if you can find a store that sells them), and although most labels report that the format accounts for a paltry 2 to 5 percent of sales, they acknowledge a demand in certain genres, like R&B, whose listeners may still be sticking to LPs. Independent labels specializing in alternative rock, folk, and blues still make their product available on LP, and in the future, many in the business predict, other independents will license the rights to old albums from the major labels and reissue them on black plastic in limited quantities.

Nonetheless, at some point the major record companies will finally pull the plug. Record executives say they miss vinyl and talk rapturously about their favorite old LPs, but they have been more than happy to see vinyl go. After all, they’re making plenty of money. LPs can be manufactured for just over $1 each, and now, according to one major CD pressing plant, the cost of manufacturing a single CD, between $3 to $4 in the mid-’80s, has fallen almost as low: CDs now cost between $1.10 and $1.65. Yet that price dip has not been passed on to the consumer, who still pays from $12 to $15. (In comparison, the manufacturing cost of a cassette is about 50 to 60 cents. LP manufacturing costs are rising, in part because it costs more per unit to press fewer album jackets.) WEA’s Droz calls the LP’s elimination ”a steady decline — a steady progression as orderly as I’ve ever seen.” If you were a businessman, you’d be proud too.

There are, however, plenty of people who will miss the LP. If you are a record- company art director, you’ll be forced to throw detailed artwork to the wind in favor of bolder, simpler images. If you are an independent band putting out your own records, you’ll have to make a much more daunting financial investment. In 1988, the New York rock band Hypnolovewheel released its first independent album on vinyl, spending $3,500 on pressing costs for 1,000 copies. The following year, the group went to CD for its second album, Candy Mantra, and costs tripled to nearly $10,000 for the same number of copies, thanks to such additional expenses as CD booklets and plastic jewel boxes. ”It’s definitely a drain,” says the band’s manager, Eamonn Bowles. ”You can’t break even with vinyl, and you can’t get into the chains because of it.”

And if you’re like many fans, you might conclude that the death of vinyl also goes hand in hand with the death of the album as we’ve known it. There isn’t any need to hear an album straight through from beginning to end anymore, since the programming functions of a CD player enable listeners to skip around or reprogram a record any way they choose. Producer Don Was, who has worked with such artists as Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan, recently said he encourages his clients to place their best songs near the beginning of their hour-long CDs. 60 minutes, he says, is longer than the attention span of most listeners, who may start to tune out midway through. The smaller size of CDs may even make the music itself seem less significant, since a booklet 4 3/4 inches square folded inside a plastic jewel box can’t match the visual sweep of the LP’s cover.

But the biggest cost may well be emotional. To the forever-youthful baby-boom generation, the end of the LP means admitting that a prized part of its youth has been rendered obsolete — and even worse, that another generation, raised in the glow of MTV and the technological advances of the past decade, may be about to take over. Some of the losses:

No more will you accidentally play an LP at 45 rpm instead of 33 1/3, making your favorite rock band suddenly sound as if it had either gone disco or swallowed several balloons of helium.

No more will you find messages scratched into the wide black bands between the last groove and the LP’s label.

No more will you revel in the glories of a two-panel gatefold sleeve (illustrating some sort of sacrificial ritual on the British moors, let’s say, as in Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy) or an enclosed foldout poster (Milton Glaser’s portrait of the former Mr. Zimmerman as a psychedelic-haired muse in Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits).

And that’s just the beginning. No more loving decisions about which side of a record to play first — or obsessive arguments over which side is better. No more frustration trying to jam an LP’s crumpled paper sleeve into its cardboard jacket. No more dancing gingerly to keep the needle from skipping. No more playing records in reverse to hear alleged backward messages (like ”Paul is dead, miss him, miss him,” supposedly buried between ”I’m So Tired” and ”Blackbird” on the White Album). Nor will you smell the wonderfully dusty scent of an old album jacket you just pulled off the shelf or use that jacket as a place to roll the perfect joint.

What it boils down to, in the end, is no more heart: To an older generation, at least, music threatens to take on the cold, sterile feel of the mall-based record stores that only stock CDs and cassettes.

Maybe in another 20 years, we’ll be hauling CDs with cracked plastic cases down to the used-CD shop to trade them in for DAT tapes or some other new technology. And maybe we’ll be as sentimental about their demise as we are about the death of the LP. But only if that happens could it be said that the CD truly replaced the black vinyl and cardboard now collecting dust in our homes and our hearts.

1877: Thomas Edison creates a device that records sound on tin foil-covered cylinders. He calls it a phonograph.

1894: Emile Berliner records music on discs; 78 rpm platters with 4 1/2 minutes of music per side later became the format for the next 50 years. Guns N’ Roses’ two-part Use Your Illusion would have been a 15-record set.

1948: Columbia Records introduces the LP with a gala 101-album release. Most are classical, though there’s also Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore. Consumers buy new equipment to play them on.

1949: By the LP’s sixth month, 1.2 million are sold. Original cast album of Oklahoma! is issued and by 1956 is the first million-selling LP.

1958: First stereo album: Marching Along With the Dukes of Dixieland, Vol. 3. Consumers need new amplifiers, new needles, and two speakers instead of one.

1958: Van Cliburn wins piano competition in Moscow and becomes national hero. His Tchaikovsky piano concerto tops the pop album chart for seven weeks.

1965: Eight-track tape debuts. ”The exciting NEW way to enjoy the music you want in your home…in your car…or wherever you roam!” — from an RCA LP inner sleeve.

1966: Cassette tapes are introduced. By 1980, they finally outsell bulky 8-tracks. Three years later, selling 237 million units, they even surpass the LP.

1967: The Beatles release Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Now even pop albums are Serious Art.

1972: Quadraphonic sound is inaugurated with Hugo Montenegro’s Love Theme From The Godfather and The Fantastic Philadelphians, Vol. 1, both on RCA. The format dies when consumers, confused by competing quad systems refuse to buy new new equipment

1979: Digital sound is introduced, signaling the end of the LPs, which can record digital sound but reproduce it non-digitally. Ry Cooder’s Bop Till You Drop is the first digitally recorded pop LP.

1983: Sony and Philips introduce the compact disc. More than 800,000 shiny CDs are sold by the end of the year, though purists claim LPs sound better. Consumers buy new equipment, and vinyl — noble but tired — starts its trek into history.

Shop in the Name of Love: Buying LPs and Turntables

Believe it or not, it’s still possible to buy LPs and even turntables to play them on — you just have to know where to go.

For turntables, forget department stores, which no longer stock them, and visit your local audio outlet. Even there, you’ll most likely find your choice limited to $90 cheapies or higher-end models, which start at $300 and can climb as high as five figures.

If you’re looking for LPs, you’ll find that major chains like Tower and Musicland carry little if any vinyl. So you’ll have to look up one of the surviving vinyl specialty stores that dot the country, such as Record Surplus in L.A., 2nd Hand Tunes in Chicago, Joe’s Record Paradise in Washington, D.C., G&A Records in New York, and Waterloo in Austin, Tex. Don’t count on finding all your favorites there, though. Any store’s stock of new and used LPs depends on which records other customers traded in and which cut-outs-LPs deleted from a record company’s catalog — a distributor unexpectedly discovered in a warehouse. But it’s possible to stumble upon some real finds-recent Sting albums, that copy of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid you’ve wanted for years, or out-of-print ’50s and ’60s LPs from the vaults of the pioneering Folkways label — for as little as $3 to $5 apiece.

”Who knows how long I’ll be in business?” says Jim Mayhercy, owner of 2nd Hand Tunes, which stocks 50,000 LPs and 45s in each of two Chicago-area stores. ”But right now I have a good, steady LP clientele.”

You can also mail-order used LPs via catalogs (such as Down House Music in El Cerrito, Calif.) and record-collector magazines like Goldmine and DISCoveries.