Requiem for a Record Store

 

All Things Must Pass, a documentary about the rise and fall of Tower Records, is worth a look. It’s one of those interesting stories that are relevant to me because it’s ephemeral and generational. It’s like watching a doc about free weekly newspapers thick with ads, repertory movie theaters that showed old films, or even as recent as video rental stores; all things that were big in “our” time — baby boomer’s time — and have since faded. But whatever age you are, you may find it of interest.

I’d wondered how they managed to get interviews with people like Bruce Springsteen and David Geffen until I found out the director was Tom Hanks’ son Colin. As Colin’s dad nostalgically depicted in That Thing You Do, back when I was a kid, records were sold in places like TV and radio stores, department stores, and five-and-dimes (a pretty anachronistic phrase now).

A few record stores existed mostly for the classical and jazz fans (I can’t really call them “crowds”) and were smallish hobby and collector stores. We boomers have lived through the whole era of the giant record superstore, rock-driven places like Sam Goody in New York and Tower Records, which started in 1960 in Sacramento and made its first giant leap to San Francisco in 1967. Its early claim to fame was completeness; every record, every genre. That’s what the owners liked to see as the Tower difference, its contribution — a deep catalog, which was as much a commitment to being willing to move, inventory, and stock a lot of things as it was to fuzzier concepts that sound good in today’s interviews, like musical diversity.

Opening a Los Angeles store on Sunset Boulevard in late 1970 gave the Tower chain its real fame, due to its proximity to the live performance clubs and the area where many traveling musicians rented homes while recording in Hollywood. If it hadn’t been for that location, it’s hard to say if Tower Records would have been much more memorable than, say, Pacific Stereo or the Federated Group, both of them big California record-selling businesses with few pretenses of changing pop culture history.

T here are great stock shots of the Sunset Strip in the psychedelic Whiskey-a-Go-Go years, plus plenty of rare bits like a John Lennon radio promo for the store, and 16mm footage of Elton John briskly, expertly roaming every aisle. Anything he liked, he bought three copies of for his three homes. Former store employees said admiringly that he was one star who knew his stuff; if one rack of early jazz had been moved since his last visit, he asked about it.

When Tower opened in San Francisco in 1967, the founder, Russ Solomon, was a 42-year-old man in a suit and tie, serious in expression, balding on top. Five years later, he was bearded, wearing tie-dyed shirts, still balding on top but now with long graying hair on the sides. A side note: as far back as Lenny (1975), I’ve been struck by how much younger many already mature men tried to make themselves look in the late ’60s. Despite Russ’s (and to some degree the filmmaker’s) attempt to pose himself as a Gandalf or an Obi Wan of a musical revolution, he really wasn’t. He was a small businessman at the right time and place to become a bigger one, who smartly made use of the opportunities granted by a younger generation who liked music and was willing and able to spend.

Russ talks about the generations of people who started as clerks and rose through the record-selling ranks, as if he was Roger Corman, the roguish godfather of a thousand careers. But the evidence on film is mixed; some people, usually stars, praise the attentiveness of the knowledgeable staff, while less-elevated personages (i.e., normal human beings) complain that to them, the staff was too often rude, conceited, lazy, stoned, or all of the above.

Like the Tiffany Theater down the street, the original home of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” the record store had loose policies, no dress code, and no problems about being high on the job, as long as you could still do the job. One difference is, un-like the Tiffany down the Strip, you weren’t allowed to get high on Tower premises, though I’d bet plenty found basement and loading-dock spots to do so. From the mid-’70s on, cocaine had a bigger, more menacing presence, which the movie makes light of as just one of those historical things. But this also begins decades when the earlier thriftiness of Tower management gave way to wasted money and grandiose expansion.

One top executive in particular is casually said to have hired women strictly on looks, and for closed-door sex. This is the kind of thing that is regrettably not confined to Tower, or to the 1970s, but was especially acute in the cultural/historical border between the increase in public exploitation of sex, and the protections offered to women by changing laws. The documentary shrewdly, or perhaps a bit cynically, introduces the sexism part of the story by having it told by a sympathetic woman, sort of defusing it as supposedly being a funny thing about the old days, or at worse, well, “you know what men are like.”

This film was released in 2015; if it had been after the #metoo explosions of 2017, I doubt it would have been so (relatively) cavalier. As it is, the level of boss-employee hanky-panky described here would, unfortunately, have gotten little more than sympathetic laughs at a festival or a PBS screening, ten, 20, or 30 years ago.

In the ’80s and ’90s, mass merchandisers re-entered the record-selling arena; companies like Best Buy, Circuit City, Walmart, and Target, were willing to take losses to get people into their stores to buy other things. Their vaster marketing power, meaning larger orders, got them cheaper wholesale prices than Tower. The bigger retailers said in their own defense that they were selling only a mere fraction of Tower’s much-vaunted wide selection, but they knew as well as anyone that Tower counted on selling the mass hits just as much as everyone else to keep up the profit margins that allowed them to boast of stocking the complete Muddy Waters discography.

If you ask, finally, “What killed Tower Records,” “the internet” is a reasonable two-word response. But it’s a little more involved than that.

Sometimes, business isn’t as stupid as people like to assume. Well before the web was used to distribute digital audio, the record chain was innovative enough to use a new medium, a website, to sell records. This was a time when internet commerce was still new, and like other, similar sites, it didn’t have massive success at first. Tower knew it could be a force for selling and someday even home delivery, but they had no way of guessing that music would end up being exchanged for free. It never occurred to them, because despite decades of (by then) nearly everyone having an audio tape recorder, home re-recording of music, though not exactly welcome, or technically legal, had never caused much of a dent in revenue. Tape copies had to be done in real time (real slow time), and second- or third-generation copies already sounded terrible.

What made the MP3 files so stealable and exchangeable was the simple fact of being digital. Making copies that were nearly as good as studio originals, something the record industry chose to do. It wasn’t the only way they screwed up strategically. Once the web was used for outright theft, the record companies would spend years and millions of dollars in legal expenses in a futile attempt to try to shut it all down.

At the same time this digital door to piracy opened, millions of younger record buyers were being squeezed out by the industry’s unwillingness or inability to come up with a successor to 45 rpm vinyl singles. There was some (very) limited success with cassette singles. CD singles were tried but failed in the marketplace. That suited the record companies and artists just fine, because they’d long wanted to funnel everyone into buying albums, which by the late ’90s cost $18; say, $24 now. Besides the money, this had creative elements, ego, and pretention going for them; over decades, albums had become the symphony, the novel, the feature-film medium of rock. But younger people, deprived of the cheap way we ’60s kids had of entering their record-buying age, were ready for Napster, which did what the industry didn’t think possible: give away everything they owned for free. So, it was either $18 or free. A lot of people took “free.”

David Geffen admits the industry made a huge mistake by not simply cutting the prices of records, and the semi-proof was the success of the standardized 99-cent download at the Apple online store. I resist the hero-izing of Steve Jobs when it’s excessive, but I have to admit that his fame, and ruthless reputation, gave him the clout to bluff the record companies, who all felt that their own individual artists deserved a uniquely better deal.

As late as 1999, Tower was still a billion-dollar-a-year company with global ambitions. By 2004, it was bankrupt. All in all, Tower Records had quite a 44-year ride.

All Things Must Pass is available through several streaming services, though I saw it through the miracle of free TV on Pluto.com, a useful and interesting cable substitute.

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There are 82 comments.

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  1. Jon1979 Lincoln

    Buying a LP record at $5.99-$7.99 in order to get 1-2 good songs was annoying, but manageable in the 1970s; buying a CD for $13.99-$17.99 for the same thing in the 1990s just set things up 20-plus year ago for people to grab mp3s off the Internet. And the record stores weren’t unaware of the new medium — I remember when Macromedia Flash use first started to become widespread, Tower financed a series of online flash animation shorts from John Kricfalusi (talk about someone negatively having a #MeToo moment) after he had burned his bridges with the cable networks over the Ren & Stimpy production fiasco.

    So they knew what was trending as far as where their younger consumers were going. They just had a horrid business model at the turn of the century that in some ways, resembled the Big Three automakers’ situation around 1970, where they had become so accustomed to having a virtually captive audience while offering up substandard products at excessive prices. Customers were looking for cheaper alternatives, and ‘free’ music via sharing services like Napster set things up for Apple to come in with a pricing plan that at least gave the record companies some $$$ for their music catalogues from people willing to pay a fair price, but whose convenience made record stores superfluous. 

    • #1
    • October 5, 2019, at 5:15 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  2. Aaron Miller Member

    In the 90s, I usually drove to a Blockbuster Music because it offered a bigger selection than smaller stores and offered kiosks where you could listen to s full CD before buying it. If I wanted something not in stock, a smaller shop would order it for me. That’s how I got a CD for a Southern grunge band that strangely had to be delivered from Japan. Then there were mail-order music clubs.

    Prices at the time (before Napster) felt predatory unless the whole album was good. There were two prices that I recall, $12 and $18. Compare that to modern movie prices (beyond theaters), which can vary anywhere from $3 to $10 to $25.

    As a youngin’ at the time Napster hit, I understood what music professionals refused to admit: that free music helped to sell worthy content. Many bands in my (paid) collection today would have remained unknown if not for the Pandora-like discoveries enabled by Napster. Lacuna Coil from Italy and Leaves’ Eyes from Germany are two examples.

    My friends and associates didn’t listen to those bands, so couldn’t have introduced me. There were no advertisements for those bands that reached me. I just found the songs in the Napster user collections alongside the songs I was looking for, and at no cost was willing to try them out. Napster introduced me to entire genres of music.

    If I liked the songs, I bought better-quality mp3s or CDs of those songs from stores. If I couldn’t afford the better quality yet, I could continue to listen until spending money was again available; thereby maintaining my interest, rather than letting that song or band slip down the memory hole.

    Besides, “theft” is not exactly accurate. Theft involves taking something real and depriving someone of something. The music industry wishfully equated Napster downloads with lost sales.

    What one will accept or take for free is often not what one would ever buy. What is worth 10 cents to you might not be worth 2 dollars to you, and almost certainly isn’t worth $10. Record labels’ response to Napster reminds me of gypsies in Europe who will shove a bag of spice into your hand and demand payment for what you were never willing to purchase.

    In other words, record labels could not identify lost sales with any certainty. A copied mp3 cost them nothing. A copy in the ears of someone who didn’t like the song enough to buy the song cost them nothing. There are other concerns and valid reasons permissions should have been requested. But record labels were rightly viewed as tort-happy vultures.

    On Audible, there is a free audiobook called Free: The Future of a Radical Price by Chris Anderson. It explores the history of giveaways (Jello at banks!) and its increasing usefulness to promote sales. Among Anderson’s examples are bands whose album sales increased from previous albums after giving their songs away.

    • #2
    • October 5, 2019, at 7:02 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  3. Stad Thatcher

    Gary McVey: David Geffen admits the industry made a huge mistake by not simply cutting the prices of records, and the semi-proof was the success of the standardized 99 cent download at the Apple online store.

    Excellent post!

    I think one additional nail in the coffin of record stores (and maybe even labels) is the advent of self-publishing. Whether it’s a book, a piece of music, or a video, artists are able to publish their work without what I read was a huge middle-man cut taken by traditional publishers and distributors. A long time ago, I read rock groups made more money touring than from album sales. So yeah, price has a big thing to do with it. With iTunes and other services, 99 cent (or $1.29) songs means I’m going to by a ton of music, even if I already own the CDs.

    • #3
    • October 5, 2019, at 7:03 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  4. EB Thatcher
    EB

    Stad (View Comment):
    A long time ago, I read rock groups made more money touring than from album sales.

    In college one time, I said to my then boyfriend, “I guess these bands tour so that people will buy their albums.” He said, “No, they make albums so they can tour.”

    • #4
    • October 5, 2019, at 7:34 AM PDT
    • 11 likes
  5. EB Thatcher
    EB

    Gary McVey: A few record stores existed mostly for the classical and jazz fans

    In the late 70’s and during the 80’s Atlanta had both Tower Records and Turtle Records (a Southern chain headquartered in Atlanta.)

    However, in the 60’s at Lenox Square (Atlanta’s first mall and still one of the best,) there was a nice-sized record store. I don’t know what their major emphasis was because I wasn’t in the record buying mode until the late 60’s. But you could get the latest 45’s there. They had a soundproof room (or maybe more than one) with a window. You could “try out” the record before you bought it.

    • #5
    • October 5, 2019, at 7:43 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  6. Aaron Miller Member

    EB (View Comment):

    Stad (View Comment):
    A long time ago, I read rock groups made more money touring than from album sales.

    In college one time, I said to my then boyfriend, “I guess these bands tour so that people will buy their albums.” He said, “No, they make albums so they can tour.”

    Frustratingly, a musician might prefer one side or the other, creation or live performance, but the business model doesn’t adapt. 

    15% of album sales used to be the ceiling for mega-hit bands like Metallica. Below 10% was more common. Album sales were cited as a measure of popularity, peehaps because attending shows is a greater investment which atttacts fewer fans. 

    Today, record labels are only necessary for larger-scale advertising and their connections to TV, magazines, and other traditional media for further advertising. Production and distribution are a cinch. 

    Relatively speaking, that is. I was never any good at recording my own music. Hiring a professional studio to record is still expensive.

    • #6
    • October 5, 2019, at 7:51 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  7. Vance Richards Member

    There was a Tower records in my town when I was a teen. It was good but there were a lot of places to buy records back then. On the other hand, going to the Tower in downtown NYC was always and adventure. We could spend hours walking up and down the aisles. Way more fun than just doing a search on Spotify and if you disagree . . . 

    • #7
    • October 5, 2019, at 8:06 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  8. Percival Thatcher

    I remember what killed my record store experience, and when it happened: the Sony BMG rootkits in 2005. 

    Installing DRM software on my system on the sly? Understandable, if still damnable. Installing DRM with exploitable security flaws? I am outta here.

    • #8
    • October 5, 2019, at 8:08 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  9. danok1 Member

    In the early 1980s I discovered J&R Music World on Park Row in NYC. One could find any genre and any artist for $4 – $9 an album. I’d go once a week and just browse through the seemingly endless bins. Miss those days.

    • #9
    • October 5, 2019, at 8:09 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  10. Songwriter Member

    If you find this subject interesting, I recommend How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt. Other than for a handful of needless jabs at the political right, the book is a well-told, even-handed tale about the development of the MP3 and a lone employee at a CD manufacturing plant (in the US), who was personally responsible for the piracy of millions of recordings. 

    • #10
    • October 5, 2019, at 8:24 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  11. RightAngles Member

    I’ve been struck by how much younger many already mature men tried to make themselves look in the late Sixties.

    One of the saddest things was that lost generation of people who were age 30-49 in the 1960s and 70s. I remember in my 20s meeting an older co-worker of my boyfriend’s on an evening out in our local bar. The guy was wearing jeans and an acid rock t-shirt, and he had a perm in his hair. He looked so ridiculous to my eyes, and I could tell he kind of knew it.

    • #11
    • October 5, 2019, at 8:47 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  12. RightAngles Member

    A favorite memory is on Saturdays in 7th and 8th grade when my friends and I went to our little Main Street to the record store and spent our whole allowance there. At the front of the store were copies of the Silver Dollar Survey, WLS Radio’s list of the Top 40 for the week, and that was our guide.

    • #12
    • October 5, 2019, at 8:50 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  13. The Reticulator Member

    Who needs recorded music, anyway? (We have a pile of LPs that we’re going to ditch ‘cuz we need to downsize our possessions. So it’s not as though I’m unfamiliar with the concept. And we do have electronic devices, but other than an occasional YouTube video I don’t use them for listening to music.) 

    • #13
    • October 5, 2019, at 8:51 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  14. ddavewes Member

    I also miss the big city, well-stocked record store. It facilitated serendipitous moments where you entered the store with nothing particular in mind and ended up walking out with a 4 inch stack of LPs.

    One big disadvantage even the biggest brick and mortar stores had was the lack of a deep inventory. Of course, the store could order anything you wanted but that took several weeks to arrive.

    The various web-based stores have access to just about every recording available. If it’s out of print, they will show third-party vendors that have used copies of the recording.

     

    • #14
    • October 5, 2019, at 9:19 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  15. Jon1979 Lincoln

    danok1 (View Comment):

    In the early 1980s I discovered J&R Music World on Park Row in NYC. One could find any genre and any artist for $4 – $9 an album. I’d go once a week and just browse through the seemingly endless bins. Miss those days.

    I still have my $113 1977 Technics direct drive turntable from J&R, when it was just a hole-in-the-wall records and electronics store at the corner of Park Row and Beckman Street. By the 90s they had expanded to take up almost the whole block, and they did make it far enough into the current era to have their own iPhone app. It, like the store, doesn’t work anymore, thought I think online electronics killed J&R off more than anything.

    • #15
    • October 5, 2019, at 9:43 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  16. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    I’ve been struck by how much younger many already mature men tried to make themselves look in the late Sixties.

    One of the saddest things was that lost generation of people who were age 30-49 in the 1960s and 70s. I remember in my 20s meeting an older co-worker of my boyfriend’s on an evening out in our local bar. The guy was wearing jeans and an acid rock t-shirt, and he had a perm in his hair. He looked so ridiculous to my eyes, and I could tell he kind of knew it.

    David Frum’s 2000 book, The 70s, brought up a major contributing factor that made the decade the era of divorce. Men tend to go for younger women (not me; my wife is two weeks older than I am), and for every three men born 1925-45, there were four women born 1945-65. This put “older” women in a very difficult position, and middle-aged men in a position of considerable moral hazard. As a young guy, I was aware that older men envied us our so-called freedoms, which they felt they’d just missed out on, and many of them tried to get in on the action.

    Later, the same thing happened to us, but over money. Rob Long’s books (here’s one) details how older TV writers envied and resented Gen-X-ers like him for coming into the industry at a time of much more lucrative deals. A good show runner of the Sixties could buy a nice house in the San Fernando Valley. A good show runner of the Nineties could make $30 million dollars. Jobs, Gates, and Ellison were boomers, but what caught the media eye of the Nineties and Oughts were the Brins, Zuckerbergs and Bezos thrillionaires in the their twenties. Now I was the old guy at the bar, seeing them on TV and resentfully thinking, “Why the hell wasn’t I rich that fast?”

    • #16
    • October 5, 2019, at 11:13 AM PDT
    • 11 likes
  17. Doug Watt Member

    Tower Records offered a wide range of music, unlike mall stores that offered not much more than the top 40. One of Chris Rea’s albums was not available in the states, with the exception of Tower Records that purchased large quantities of the album in Britain and sent them to the States. From Classical to Rock Tower had a great selection of music. 

    • #17
    • October 5, 2019, at 11:18 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  18. Django Member

    When the Tower in Mountain View went belly-up, I checked out this place. https://www.rasputinmusic.com/

    Just not the same.

    • #18
    • October 5, 2019, at 11:26 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  19. tigerlily Member

    I grew up in Sacramento and so well remember Tower Records. At least in Sacramento, Tower also had two large bookstores – much larger than any of the mall bookstores of the era such as Waldenbooks – probably about 2/3 the size of a Barnes & Noble. The first store was in the Tower Theater building on Broadway just a couple blocks from Edmonds Field, the minor league ballpark. In addition to the theater and the record store was Tower Drugs, Solomon’s fathers business and Joe Marty’s – a bar and grill run by a former major league player – Joe Marty. Below is a photo of the original store building.

     

    • #19
    • October 5, 2019, at 2:23 PM PDT
    • 14 likes
  20. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    A great picture and a great description, Tigerlily. 

    • #20
    • October 5, 2019, at 2:51 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  21. tigerlily Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    A great picture and a great description, Tigerlily.

    Thanks Gary.

    • #21
    • October 5, 2019, at 2:56 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  22. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    I always like slipping a tech history note in somewhere, so here’s one: A lot of you younger folks may not realize that LP meant long playing. The 78 rpm records that had been the world standard for decades were full sized by today’s standards, but only played for a few minutes per side. Originally, “record album” was quite literal; looking like a thick, old fashioned photo album, it had paper sleeves for a half dozen two sided records. 

    CBS invented the long playing 33 1/3 record, which became the standard of the industry. The term “record album” was retained although it wasn’t a true album anymore. 

    It’s forgotten now that RCA was directly competing to replace the 78. But RCA took a different approach, keeping the short playing time of a 78, but on a much smaller, thinner record–the 45–combining it with a record changer. They weren’t thinking of pop singles; originally even the NBC symphony was expected to release their music on 45s. Sure, there’d be breaks in the music, but people had been used to that for decades. Besides, the lighter weight meant a thick stack of them could be set up to play for a half hour. 

    • #22
    • October 5, 2019, at 3:13 PM PDT
    • 12 likes
  23. Django Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    I always like slipping a tech history note in somewhere, so here’s one: A lot of you younger folks may not realize that LP meant long playing. The 78 rpm records that had been the world standard for decades were full sized by today’s standards, but only played for a few minutes per side. Originally, “record album” was quite literal; looking like a thick, old fashioned photo album, it had paper sleeves for a half dozen two sided records.

    CBS invented the long playing 33 1/3 record, which became the standard of the industry. The term “record album” was retained although it wasn’t a true album anymore.

    It’s forgotten now that RCA was directly competing to replace the 78. But RCA took a different approach, keeping the short playing time of a 78, but on a much smaller, thinner record–the 45–combining it with a record changer. They weren’t thinking of pop singles; originally even the NBC symphony was expected to release their music on 45s. Sure, there’d be breaks in the music, but people had been used to that for decades. Besides, the lighter weight meant a thick stack of them could be set up to play for a half hour.

    Remember when “real” audiophiles insisted on 15 ips reel-to-reel tapes because they claimed they could hear the distortion from tracking angle errors in the inner grooves of an LP? In a way I miss the craziness of the 1970s and early 1980s audio scene. Ohm Fs, Quad Electrostatics, Bose 901s, and that “plasma speaker”. I remember seeing a custom system of dual Altec Lansing 15 inch speakers (two per side, four woofers total) mated to horn drivers for the high end. Each of the stereo pair was hidden in a column, one on each side of a huge fireplace. The columns appeared to be part of the decor, and the speakers themselves were invisible. 

    • #23
    • October 5, 2019, at 3:34 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
  24. Percival Thatcher

    Django (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    I always like slipping a tech history note in somewhere, so here’s one: A lot of you younger folks may not realize that LP meant long playing. The 78 rpm records that had been the world standard for decades were full sized by today’s standards, but only played for a few minutes per side. Originally, “record album” was quite literal; looking like a thick, old fashioned photo album, it had paper sleeves for a half dozen two sided records.

    CBS invented the long playing 33 1/3 record, which became the standard of the industry. The term “record album” was retained although it wasn’t a true album anymore.

    It’s forgotten now that RCA was directly competing to replace the 78. But RCA took a different approach, keeping the short playing time of a 78, but on a much smaller, thinner record–the 45–combining it with a record changer. They weren’t thinking of pop singles; originally even the NBC symphony was expected to release their music on 45s. Sure, there’d be breaks in the music, but people had been used to that for decades. Besides, the lighter weight meant a thick stack of them could be set up to play for a half hour.

    Remember when “real” audiophiles insisted on 15 ips reel-to-reel tapes printbecause they claimed they could hear the distortion from tracking angle errors in the inner grooves of an LP? In a way I miss the craziness of the 1970s and early 1980s audio scene. Ohm Fs, Quad Electrostatics, Bose 901s, and that “plasma speaker”. I remember seeing a custom system of dual Altec Lansing 15 inch speakers (two per side, four woofers total) mated to horn drivers for the high end. Each of the stereo pair was hidden in a column, one on each side of a huge fireplace. The columns appeared to be part of the decor, and the speakers themselves were invisible.

    The debate between the digital audio and analog audio partisans got so heated that EE Times stopped printing the letters that were sent in by both sides. It had progressed into the realm of the other holy wars.

    • #24
    • October 5, 2019, at 3:42 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  25. The Reticulator Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    I always like slipping a tech history note in somewhere, so here’s one: A lot of you younger folks may not realize that LP meant long playing. The 78 rpm records that had been the world standard for decades were full sized by today’s standards, but only played for a few minutes per side. Originally, “record album” was quite literal; looking like a thick, old fashioned photo album, it had paper sleeves for a half dozen two sided records.

    CBS invented the long playing 33 1/3 record, which became the standard of the industry. The term “record album” was retained although it wasn’t a true album anymore.

    It’s forgotten now that RCA was directly competing to replace the 78. But RCA took a different approach, keeping the short playing time of a 78, but on a much smaller, thinner record–the 45–combining it with a record changer. They weren’t thinking of pop singles; originally even the NBC symphony was expected to release their music on 45s. Sure, there’d be breaks in the music, but people had been used to that for decades. Besides, the lighter weight meant a thick stack of them could be set up to play for a half hour.

    Dad had Rachmoninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 on a stack of 45s. I listened to it several times as a youngster, and still expect every other performance to sound like that one. He also had Dvorak’s New World Symphony on a heavier stack of 78s. When listening to a performance now I expect it to get stuck in the same place that Dad’s recording would get stuck in a groove, requiring manual intervention to move it along. In 1962 he had a little extra income, so bought a 2nd car (a VW beetle) and a console turntable for 33rpm records. It may have been capable of playing 78s, but we didn’t play those much more. It also played 45s, but we mostly left those behind, too.

    • #25
    • October 5, 2019, at 3:43 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  26. Percival Thatcher

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    I always like slipping a tech history note in somewhere, so here’s one: A lot of you younger folks may not realize that LP meant long playing. The 78 rpm records that had been the world standard for decades were full sized by today’s standards, but only played for a few minutes per side. Originally, “record album” was quite literal; looking like a thick, old fashioned photo album, it had paper sleeves for a half dozen two sided records.

    CBS invented the long playing 33 1/3 record, which became the standard of the industry. The term “record album” was retained although it wasn’t a true album anymore.

    It’s forgotten now that RCA was directly competing to replace the 78. But RCA took a different approach, keeping the short playing time of a 78, but on a much smaller, thinner record–the 45–combining it with a record changer. They weren’t thinking of pop singles; originally even the NBC symphony was expected to release their music on 45s. Sure, there’d be breaks in the music, but people had been used to that for decades. Besides, the lighter weight meant a thick stack of them could be set up to play for a half hour.

    Dad had Rachmoninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 on a stack of 45s. I listened to it several times as a youngster, and still expect every other performance to sound like that one. He also had Dvorak’s New World Symphony on a heavier stack of 78s. When listening to a performance now I expect it to get stuck in the same place that Dad’s recording would get stuck in a groove, requiring manual intervention to move it along. In 1962 he had a little extra income, so bought a 2nd car (a VW beetle) and a console turntable for 33rpm records. It may have been capable of playing 78s, but we didn’t play those much more. It also played 45s, but we mostly left those behind, too.

    Early tunetables capable of playing LPs had three speed selections.

    • #26
    • October 5, 2019, at 3:47 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  27. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    In a second-hand store in Baku, Azerbaijan, I saw an album of a Stalin speech on five 78s. The speech took up nine sides. The tenth? Nothing but applause. 

    • #27
    • October 5, 2019, at 3:52 PM PDT
    • 13 likes
  28. Django Member

    Percival (View Comment):

    Django (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    I always like slipping a tech history note in somewhere, so here’s one: A lot of you younger folks may not realize that LP meant long playing. The 78 rpm records that had been the world standard for decades were full sized by today’s standards, but only played for a few minutes per side. Originally, “record album” was quite literal; looking like a thick, old fashioned photo album, it had paper sleeves for a half dozen two sided records.

    It’s forgotten now that RCA was directly competing to replace the 78. But RCA took a different approach, keeping the short playing time of a 78, but on a much smaller, thinner record–the 45–combining it with a record changer. They weren’t thinking of pop singles; originally even the NBC symphony was expected to release their music on 45s. Sure, there’d be breaks in the music, but people had been used to that for decades. Besides, the lighter weight meant a thick stack of them could be set up to play for a half hour.

    Remember when “real” audiophiles insisted on 15 ips reel-to-reel tapes printbecause they claimed they could hear the distortion from tracking angle errors in the inner grooves of an LP? In a way I miss the craziness of the 1970s and early 1980s audio scene. Ohm Fs, Quad Electrostatics, Bose 901s, and that “plasma speaker”. I remember seeing a custom system of dual Altec Lansing 15 inch speakers (two per side, four woofers total) mated to horn drivers for the high end. Each of the stereo pair was hidden in a column, one on each side of a huge fireplace. The columns appeared to be part of the decor, and the speakers themselves were invisible.

    The debate between the digital audio and analog audio partisans got so heated that EE Times stopped printing the letters that were sent in by both sides. It had progressed into the realm of the other holy wars.

    Lot of that was pure BS. You can’t argue whether someone likes the sound, but questions about the accuracy of reproduction are not just opinion. Given that both technologies had their own problems, they might sound different. If both were perfect, the sound would be identical. There was one thing that was indisputable: Several very early CD releases were done from third or fourth generation copies of the master tapes. Just a rush to capitalize on the early CD craze. Those didn’t sound as good as the LP played on a top-notch system. When Roxy Music’s Avalon was released on a CD made from the master tape, I played it along-side the LP and, except for the occasional pop or click on the vinyl, I couldn’t hear any difference. After that, I was happy with CDs. But I don’t claim to have audiophile ears. 

    • #28
    • October 5, 2019, at 4:01 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  29. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    Ampex, inventor of (practical) videotape, all but bankrupted themselves when they invested heavily in manufacturing pre-recorded open reel tapes. Most ran at 7 1/2 ips, so the signal to noise wasn’t too bad, but the Dolby system allowed even 1 7/8 ips compact cassettes to sound good, so cassettes (and their sneered-at cousins, 8 track) became the prerecord format that succeeded. I was able to pick up dozens of Ampex open reel tapes for about a buck each, circa 1973. 

    • #29
    • October 5, 2019, at 4:13 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  30. Django Member

    I got a laugh out of a review of Avalon that said it was the “ultimate in adult make-out music.”

    • #30
    • October 5, 2019, at 4:18 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
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