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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Columbia Records Invented the LP

      I love giant businesses.  I know that isn't a very "DIY" attitude, but most people who subscribe to the ole' DIY ethic are poor failures and that ain't me, babe. One of my favorite writers about business is Alfred Chandler and if you are ever looking to understand modern business corporations without being indoctrinated or terrified, Chandler is your guy.  The fact is, enormous corporations exist because they get the job done.  One of the great things about corporations in the context of capitalism, is that if they fail, they cease to exist.  No one ever give Corporations credit for that quality.  This is especially true as we move closer to the present day: impressive.

     Music is no exception.  For most listeners, the fact that large corporations control the distribution of music is of no concern.  For those to whom it is a concern, 95% of the people who have stopped to think about it HATE the role that giant corporations play in distributing music.  This is an attitude that was carved out by Theodor Adorno in the 20s and 30s.  It's not like this viewpoint was a given.  Adorno's contemporary, Walter Benjamin, thought that mechanical reproduction of sound had a liberating quality regardless of it's mode of distribution.  It is most ironic that the discourse surrounding the role of business in culture has been shaped by a bunch of European intellectuals who didn't understand anything about genres like jazz, let alone rock and roll.

     The fact is that music has a liberating quality even when it is distributed by giant corporations and it is in fact true that we have giant corporations- and only- giant corporations to thank for fantastic innovations that make modern diy culture feasible.  This point is brought out in a book I'm currently reading about Columbia Records.  It is called, Columbia Records: The Label by Gary Marmorstein and it is quite incredible because it is a business, rather then artistic history of Columbia Records.

  Columbia Records invented the LP record in 1948.  Before this point, records were made out of shellac and played at 78 rpms.  These records were bulky, could only hold a song a two a side, expensive and broke easily.  At the time of the invention of the LP, Columbia is one of only two companies that had the resources to create something like the LP- the other was RCA/Victor.  Neither Columbia NOR RCA/Victor had any real interest in upgrading from the 78- they just saw it as what they had to deal with.  Everyone had record players that played 78s- in order to accommodate the LP people would need to buy new record players.

  After that, RCA/Victor responded with the 45, or as the kids know them "7"s."  So...your punk as fuck vinyl record that you just made 300 of to sell at shows- wouldn't even exist if it wasn't for two enormous corporations battling for market share in the recorded music industry in the 1940s.  And let me tell you something else: It's not like everyone was like "OH- the LP AWESOME- thanks COLUMBIA RECORDS!!!"  No- they bitched and moaned, and people predicted catastrophe.

  All in all, it's a great example of a major corporation- a record company- no less- making the world a better place. Stick that in your DIY pipe and smoke it.

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