Last night I went to a gathering of guys grilling meat. Two other Saporta Report Thought Leaders were there, so you know it must have been lively. The guest of honor was Flournoy Holmes. Remember the “Eat a Peach” album cover? Flournoy was the artist. Hearing Flournoy’s stories about the Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker, Wet Willie and other Southern Rock bands was a poignant reminder of the golden age of rock and the near death of the album cover.
Album covers were an important touchstone of the rock generation, providing a source of enjoyment, delight or even controversy. A folded cover provided twice as much space for art, whether as a single disc such as the Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper’s” or a double album like “Eat a Peach.”
As new formats such as CDs became available, the size of cover art shrank. When mp3 players and file sharing eclipsed CDs, the importance of cover art diminished further. The demise of the album cover tracked the demise of analog music and ultimately the contraction of the recording industry, at least in dollar revenues.
Unfortunately, there was a loss of fidelity with each succeeding medium. In the early days of rock, vinyl was the preferred way to listen to music. (Reel to reel tapes were too cumbersome, 8 Tracks unintentionally forced you to hear two songs at once, and cassettes never sounded that great.) Over time, the quality of the vinyl diminished, so audiophiles demanded “direct to master” special pressings, or sought out higher quality imported records.
When CDs were introduced, the record industry wanted to sell you the same albums you already had but in a new format. They pitched the new format as “compact and mobile and indestructible. They are digital, so they really reproduce the sound accurately.” While claims of convenience and durability were accurate, claims concerning sound quality proved to be incorrect. CDs sampled the original musical source. The fidelity of a CD depends on its “bit rate,” a measure of data throughput in a given amount of time.
[http://mp3.about.com/od/glossary/g/Bitrate-Definition-What-Does-Bit-Rate-Mean.htm] As a general rule, the more samples per second of a sound source (i.e., the higher the bit rate) the higher fidelity (sound quality) the resulting sound is. A C’s low bit-rate facilitates reproduction only of sounds between 20Hz – 22.05k Hz. Because of their lower “bit rate,” CDs are missing some of the information from the original music source, resulting in lower fidelity in the higher frequencies. This affects the harmonics, which in turn diminishes the listening experience. [http://ourvinyl.com/insights-into-music-formats/]
Although didn’t take long for audiophiles to figure out that the old vinyl technology offered superior sound quality to CDs, the trend towards digital sound continued.
The late 90s witnessed the proliferation of the mp3, leading to the introduction of the iPod in 2001. The mp3 format made it possible to have access to hundreds or thousands of songs from a player that fits in your pocket or on your hard drive.
Again, convenience trumped high fidelity. The bit rate of a standard audio CD (1,411 Kbps) is far higher than the best bit rate for MP3s (320 kbps).
[http://mp3.about.com/od/glossary/g/Bitrate-Definition-What-Does-Bit-Rate-Mean.htm] With a CD, at least all of the sonic information between 20-22k Hz is present and not altered by a compression algorithm. An mp3 fits on your iPhone because it takes up less memory. Memory is reduced by deleting about 91% of the sonic information from the original CD recording, in a way that it is lost forever. [http://ourvinyl.com/insights-into-music-formats/]
But now a curious thing is happening. Vinyl records are making a comeback, with sales increasing every year since 2005. According to Nielson Soundscan, from 2010 to 2011, sales of vinyl increased by 36%. (Keep in mind that, with 3.9 million sold, vinyl records make up a small fraction of all music sales, so the percentage increase reflects a low starting point.)
The reason for this surge in popularity is that vinyl records can reproduce frequencies well above those produced by CDs. Since vinyl is a literal copy of a sound wave, and is not comprised of “samples”, it reproduces all frequencies across the sound-spectrum with greater quality and equality than CDs or mp3s. This means the high frequency information is replicated with as much fidelity as the low frequency information. [http://ourvinyl.com/insights-into-music-formats/]
Advocates of vinyl argue that music is analog by nature, so vinyl results in a certain authenticity that gets lost in converting sound digitally. [http://ourvinyl.com/insights-into-music-formats/]
I have continued to listen to vinyl records over the past 25 years, even as I introduced CDs and then mp3s into my music collection. I have thousands of songs on my iPhone. But there is still something special about listening to a vinyl record.
Many musicians are introducing their newest albums on vinyl, including Jack White, Radiohead, the Arctic Monkeys and Morrissey.
With new albums comes new album art and, after meeting Flournoy Holmes, I know just the artist for musicians to call.