Music is old, old as the Paleolithic pounding of the first stone tools. The song is old, too — a few millennia, or 40. The album? Not so much. What has since become the standard unit of popular music, despite its relative infancy, has drastically changed the way we think about and appreciate music itself.
In 1877, Thomas Edison released his cylinder phonograph. For the first time, sounds could be captured like lightning in a bottle and played at will. Though Edison initially intended his device to be used for speech, music eventually found its way onto wax two or three minutes at a time. By 1895, cylinders were out and the first music discs made it into the home. As stunning as the feat was, the cylinders sounded awful. In 1921, Dream Street by D.W Griffith hit theaters, and with it arrived the Photokinema, a primitive sound-on-disc system. It’s mostly a gimmick. Then comes The Jazz Singer and a slew of Photokinema one-uppers, creating a competition between production companies to see who could get sound to match up to lips on screens the best and for the longest time between swaps.
The same race was going on outside the theaters, as records bounced around in rotations per minute until the industry decided that 78 rpm was perfectly nice. Fast forward to 1931, RCA-Victor unveiled its 33 1/3 rpm phonographic disks. The sound quality was leagues above anything 78s could produce, and they could play up to 15 minutes of music per side — three times as long as a 78. As a New York Times article announcing the occasion noted, the new records were perfect for Broadway scores. In fact, the vast majority of early recorded music was recorded in pursuit of re-creating something else: Vaudeville acts, classical symphonies, movie scores and the like. They acted as pocket-sized recreations of other experiences, undoubtedly lesser than the real thing.
The 1948 introduction of Columbia Records’ long-playing record — new-and-improved with microgrooves and an extended runtime to 23 minutes per side — would change that. Music became records and records became the real thing. The LP was born, and it sounded really great. Really, really great. To this day, a vinyl disc with some grooves in it spun at 33 1/3 rpm is considered the gold standard of high fidelity listening. Columbia’s discs had another advantage over their ancestors by RCA-Victor, a booming post-war economy. Within a decade, LPs, and their smaller-format 45 rpm cousins, dominated the record industry. Labels could now pack 46 minutes of music onto a vinyl disc and sell it for a killing. Popular music was soon made for records, made to be bought! With the 1950s came rock and roll and by the 1960s the recording studio had become an instrument in and of itself. The album revolution was happening and it was happening fast. Even if 45s made up the majority of records sold by unit, LPs accounted for the majority of record industry revenue.
Albums were made for everything, and they were largely treated like dinner plates on which individual heapings of music could be dumped. In other words, they were anything but sacred. The Beatles’ second album is a prime example. To those in England, it was “With the Beatles,” To those in Canada, it was “Beatlemania! With the Beatles.” In the U.S., it was chopped up, seasoned with a few tracks from their previous release and repackaged as two albums: “Meet the Beatles!” and, fittingly, “The Beatles’ Second Album” (no exclamation point, sadly). If it was music and less than 46 minutes, there was an album for it. Soon thereafter, however, the album became something more than a dinner plate. It became a meal. By the mid-60s, the album became the standard unit of pop music. Records like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Pet Sounds were defining statements rather than just packaging for a few singles. The LP became more than a format.
They were big, they had art, liner notes and, most importantly, a story to tell. If you wanted your music to feel substantial, if you wanted it to sell, if you wanted it to mean something, it better fill up two sides of vinyl. And while the industry never stopped throwing singles onto a disc and calling it a record, even pop music became defined by the album. Thriller, Songs in the Key of Life, Rumors, What’s Going On are all among the greatest collections of pop songs ever, but they’re remembered as opuses, as works of art greater than the sum of their parts all squeezed onto 46 minutes of wax. Forty-six minutes, that’s an important number — any longer and the sound quality of the disc would start to diminish.
Moreover, lower limits like the Recording Academy’s 30 minute bar-of-entry provided additional constraints. The album’s physical, commercial and artistic presence forever altered what we thought a work of music should be. Album length and song count became greater concerns than technical ones, and limitations originally born of science between noise frequencies and grooves-per-inch forever made their mark on music itself. The physical medium left an impression on the music within it: The album’s arc should take 40 minutes, the side one closer better feel substantial if I’m going to want to get up from my chair to flip the record over.
The fact that LP is synonymous with album is evidence that the idea of the LP transcended the physical medium that birthed it. Even as vinyls have come and gone, CDs rose and fell, and streaming dominated the world, the idea that an album should be somewhere between 30 and 50 minutes, that music is best produced in subhour chunks, remained.
On Spotify, any collection of songs shorter than 30 minutes is considered an EP. A “single” is still two songs — 45s had two sides — and we still talk of A-sides and B-sides as binaries corollary to the ones and zeros that carry our music today. The discs of double albums — longer works that filled two LPs rather than one — are still demarcated on Spotify. Even though I can listen to The White Album without ever switching a disc or picking up a needle, the borrowed memory of doing so still feels somehow significant. The fact that an album is an experience, that it’s more than its songs, is exactly why the idea that The Eagles’ Greatest Hits (1971-1975) is technically the best selling album of all time — after passing Thriller last August — is so underwhelmingly frustrating. It’s like chopping up the best scenes from The Shining, Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey, splicing them together in iMovie, and calling it the greatest film ever made.
Of the top 10 albums on the current Billboard 200 chart, not a single one is shorter than the prescribed 30 minute benchmark for an LP, and only one or two venture beyond the 45 minute mark. Who says that music has to be 30 minutes long to mean something? As a culture, we love the album. It’s the most important Grammy, and we protect its name from sub-30 posers, even though we hardly ever listen to them front to back. Even the music of artists like Solange and Kendrick, who continue to exemplify everything great about the album as both a format and concept, is cherry picked by streaming listeners. You just have to look at the playcounts. Interludes between songs with millions of plays barely break a thousand.
What beyond nostalgia is left of the album, then? Well, what we make of it. Sure, vinyl sounds nice, but this isn’t some nostalgia fest for the good old days. Some of the best music ever made was made in the last five years, and digital media have enabled ways of creating and consuming art that were previously unimaginable. All possibilities should be explored. We can simultaneously get caught up in the whimsy of “Old Town Road,” a cultural moment untethered by an album, and enjoy 10 hours of drones looping on Spotify. The possibilities are endless, and the pop album should not live on as half-baked padding to a single or two.
Forget the 30 to 45 minute benchmark, if it means something at two minutes long or if it means something at two hours, it’ll mean something. If there’s something to hold onto from the LP — beyond the name — it’s the idea that music should mean something. It should feel substantial. We should want it up on our wall and as the soundtrack to our lives. It should capture the moment. It should teleport you to another world. It should lift the spirit, tickle the brain, and comfort the soul. And if it’s just a bop, then let it be just a bop.
Both because of and in spite of the material circumstances of its creation, music is a beautiful conduit of meaning and expression in this tiring world. Not bad for a couple squiggly lines on a piece of wax.
Eric Krebs | firstname.lastname@example.org .