Century of Spinning Plastic Discs

By Wayne Shevlin

Opening salvo of the 21st century: announcing the end of the copy economy – sunset on the century of spinning plastic discs.
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Viktor Vasnetsov – Grave-digger (1848 modified by WS) – Public Domain   

The Byrds once advised aspiring rock n’ roll stars: “Sell your soul to the company, who are waiting there to sell plastic-ware”.  The goal was crystal clear: multi-platinum.  “The name of the game, boy – we call it riding the gravy train”. That meant millions of copies. Copies of plastic discs.  Plastic discs that must be pressed, be warehoused, be shipped, unpacked & racked, sold and be played.  Millions upon millions of plastic discs – they formed the basis of my personal existence and shaped the culture of my generation for many decades.  They were also the foundation of an entire industry.  An industry based on the unquestioned premise that copies had value.  And now they don’t.

Running a record section in late 1970s New York City we knew all these plastic discs by their catalogue numbers – it was a matter of pride:  Billy Joel’s The Stranger, the first Boston album, Frampton Comes Alive and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.  You may wrinkle your nose, but these were monsters.  They arrived by the truckload.  The boxes lined the walls and filled every available corner of the shop.  We ran out of room.  I threw my back out lifting them all.  Records had weight, let me tell you.  When an album hit it big, you knew about it – physically.   Queues stretched out the door and around the block.  In the surreal rush of a hot new release we were the shamans. We had the mojo everyone was desperate for.  We had gravitas and impact because we were the source – the only source – of the plastic discs.

You could see the sense of awe in peoples’ faces as they held the latest big album in their hands for the first time.  We felt real pride in getting the hot new music to the people.  My father queued up at midnight for the release of The Beatles White Album.  And now, strange as it seems, these once ubiquitous plastic discs are now nothing more than the artefacts of a bygone culture – mine.  They are now relegated to curios that might be dug up by an archaeologist.  Once upon a time, in a place far away, these things really mattered.  How sweet.  How sad.

Once, a serious music collection made a design statement: ceiling high spines of vinyl LP album sleeves replacing the need for wallpaper.  Alan P’s entire flat was wall to wall coloured cardboard in milk crates.  Nowadays, this personal statement of his intense commitment to music would fit in his shirt pocket.  Kind of loses its impact.  Hard to point at it with pride and impress your date by saying “that’s mine”.  (Probably didn’t impress your date back then either, but we always hoped for the best.)  A thousand vinyl albums against a wall had gravitas.   Sharing your space with them proved that you really cared.  It said something about you personally.

Vinyl was superseded by the CD – the new, modern plastic disc.  The CD heralded a new age and an extraordinary renaissance where, for over a decade,  music spanning the entire 20th century was dusted off and given a new lease on life.  New music continued to be created and thrive while, simultaneously, three older generations re-purchased the music of their youth.  I kept an eagle-eye out for über niche artists, waiting for them to make their way to the top of the re-issue schedule: Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon, Passport’s Cross Collateral, Gentle Giant’s In a Glass House, and hundreds of others equally obscure. And they all appeared eventually. And then, when the concept of re-mastering became the rage, we waited and bought many of them all again.  How many industries can convince their customers to buy the same thing three times in this way?  The 90s music industry wallowed in sheer mania of it all.  Boy – that was a gravy train.  And now it’s over.  And it won’t happen again.

It won’t happen again because the CD was not just another kind of plastic disc like the 78, the 45 and the LP before it.  The CD was – as it turned out – a Trojan horse.  The CD had – hidden within its friendly, familiar plastic disc persona – the razor sharp teeth of digital bits.  Shiny and round, it masked the truth about itself.  It was not just a copy.  It was a clone. What it contained could be set free from the plastic, every bit as good as the bits that originally made it – the music was not bound to the media. The CD put a digital production-master of its content into the hands of anyone who held it.  Ironically, its very power made it valueless.  The media was no longer the message.  The media was superfluous and the copy had no value.  If CD began the process, then the online digital file completed it: from media is the message to media superfluous to media non-existent.  MP3 killed the value of the copy and signalled the death of the artefact.

Are artefacts important at all to this new generation?  For these digital natives, is there any value in stuff – or does mere access to content trump ownership?  Music is now just bits in the ether.  A 60GB MP3 player may contain the same content, but it is not the equivalent of Alan P’s ceiling high wall of vinyl.  How do we now show our intense, personal commitment to music?  Do we have one?   Somewhere we lost the gravitas.  We lost the mojo.  We lost the love of the artefacts.

Spinning plastic discs: they’re so 20th century, really.

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The record business? Its always been about the technology.

Edison, Berliner, Johnson invented the record business. They brought into being the modern music industry. Capturing sounds from the air so that they could be played back in any place and at any time. Imagine the revolution in thinking that brought about. And what do the three fathers of the music business have in common? They were all techies, not “music guys”. In fact, the more we trawl back through the history of recorded music and the more we look around today’s Apple led world it becomes clearer that all the great surges in music consumption have been driven by technology not necessarily by the prevailing quality of music. Sure there have been exceptions – Sinatra, Presley, The Beatles, Michael Jackson who have shifted game changing volumes and were exceptional in many regards, but ultimately people bought 78’s, 45’s, LP’s and CD’s not Frankie, Elvis, Ringo or Jacko themselves. And what also drove that 50 year upward curve of music sales from 1950 to 2000 was that people sometimes bought the same recording on each of those new formats as they came out. Conversely if it was the quality of music that drove the sales increase for those 50 years, then that must mean in these days of declining sales that our music is of inferior quality?


So why the rant on this site dedicated to the history of recorded sound? Because at the weekend I took the plunge and bought a Spotify Premium package and finally joined the latest music revolution. I’ve been using Spotify for free for a year or so but much as I found it useful as search and listen engine I never enjoyed the experience of listening on the computer and I don’t have space for my computer on my hi-fi rack….so I played about on Spotify and then bought the occasional record I liked on CD to listen to properly.


No longer. With the Spotify Premium account I can still search and listen but now I transfer what I like the sound of to my phone and can listen on headphones as I commute and can easily plug into the high fi and the docking station. So now I have pretty much all the music I could possibly want in the world at my fingertips. To be played anywhere, anytime. Its Edison to the power of Elvis x The Beatles + Berliner. Quite, quite fantastic.

This morning I threw on three new albums, Gruff Rhys, Sbtrkt and Little Dragon. Never heard of them? Neither had I really. I chose them because of reviews I’d seen. Pre-Spotify I would never have explored further as they were not on my top list to check. Boy, they are now. All three albums contain superb work and I’d recommend all of you to try them. Get Spotify. Treat yourself to the Premium model. And start trying the new music once again. Its the greatest music discovery engine ever and so easy to use. Edison, Berliner and Johneson would approve.

Memoirs of a Musical Dog – Edison to The Beatles

As part of their Omnibus series, The BBC made a documentary about the history of recording in the late 1980’s which was called Memoirs of a Musical Dog. It aired on Friday May 27, 1988. It’s very good and thanks to the power of youtube, you can see it here:

Part One Early years of Edison and Berliner and Johnson including the origin of Nipper and His Masters Voice:

Part Two Fred Gaisberg recording Caruso recalled by his later assistant David Bicknell and Len Petts demonstrating a recording horn:

Part Three Electrical recording, Abbey Road, Menuhin remembering Elgar:

Part Four Gramophone accessories, Gracie Fields at the Hayes record factory, 1930’s picture discs, making 78 discs, recording messages home from the war:

Part Five The LP record, the 45 single, jukeboxes, The Beatles:

You would never guess this logo was designed in the 1980's