Remember wax cylinders? 78s? Eight-track tapes?
Get ready to remember the black vinyl record. In the age of chrome-bias cassettes and laser-read compact discs, it's a technological anachronism whose days are numbered.
Vinyl, says Motown Records President Jay Lasker, "is today's equivalent of the black-and-white television set. You can still go into a store and buy one -- it represents some business and they still make them. But why would you want to when you can get a color television?"
Motown created a minor furor recently by eliminating about 200 midline titles in the vinyl format, leaving them available only as cassettes or newly created twofer CDs. A Variety headline blared "Motown Bangs Nail in LP Coffin," suggesting (a bit prematurely) that the vinyl era was already at an end.
"People thought it was a master stroke to put vinyl out of business," Lasker says. "But they should have asked, 'Is he doing it because he's not selling [records]?' We're not the assassin of vinyl, we're just reacting to ongoing changes in the business. Yes, at some point the CD will take over, and -- along with the cassette and DAT [Digital Audio Tape, a not-yet-available configuration that is being touted as the tape equivalent of CD] -- will put vinyl out of business.
"It's not going to happen overnight, but it's just logical that it will."
Once the cornerstone of the record industry, the vinyl disc has experienced a decade-long decline to a current low of 20 percent of the recorded music market's gross dollar volume. Some industry observers predict it could disappear as early as 1990, though it's more likely to linger somewhat longer, the province of small, independent labels, collectors and die-hards who refuse to make the move to a new technology.
"All of us have to refigure our game plan," says Lou Fogelman, president of Los Angeles-based Show Industries, which owns the retail record chain Music Plus. "But don't forget, the psychological factor is a big thing with dealers and customers. They perceive a record store or a home entertainment store as someone that carries records, and they want to feel comfortable. They want to see records even if they don't want to buy them. We're in a transition period that's developed over the last two years, but it's important that we go through an orderly transition."
Still, if the cassette (currently accounting for up to 65 percent of the market) is the format of the present and the CD is the format of the future, then the vinyl disc represents the glorious past. That's a hard fact for many in the industry to face, since the disc is a potent symbol of the greatest growth era in the history of recorded sound. And it's as hard for music lovers who treasure their battered copies of "Sam Cooke Live at the Copacabana," "Rubber Soul" or the original cast recording of "My Fair Lady." But in the last few months, there have been some definite distress signals for the vinyl industry:
Just released Recording Industry Association of America figures for the first half of 1986 show unit shipments for LPs and EPs down 25 percent while shipments for CDs are up 150 percent (cassette shipments are holding relatively steady).
Although there are some 80 million turntables and fewer than three million CD players in America, the dollar volume of vinyl and CDs is now roughly equal and shifting slowly toward CDs. CDs sell for twice the price of records, but even so, "those numbers are astronomical, particularly measured against the universe of players," says Lou Dennis, vice president of Warner Bros. Records.
The major push at record retailers this Christmas season will be on CDs and cassettes, with manufacturers offering better promotional, discount and return deals on those formats. CBS has instituted a nationwide "buy-five-CDs-get-one-free" program, a rare direct-to-consumer promotion. "Usually at Christmas album sales shoot up because it's a gift item," says James Bonk, vice president of Camelot Enterprises (185 Camelot record stores) and chairman of the Retailers Advisory Committee for the National Association of Recording Merchandisers. "We're going to try to teach the consumer that CDs and cassettes are now in."
Despite serious problems with availability of software, CD sales continue to exceed analysts' already rosy expectations: 5.8 million were sold in 1984 and 23 million in 1985 (after projections of 16 million). The total may reach 60 million this year. Worldwide, sales doubled last year to 100 million CDs, and predictions for 1990 are 660 million units.
Currently there are two CD plants in North America. By the end of 1987, there will be 15, with an annual production capacity of 150 million CDs. Though there is surprisingly little price resistance in the market now, domestic manufacturing could bring down the price of a CD from its current $ 17 to $ 13-$ 14 -- at about the same time the price of a vinyl record increases to $ 10.98. In Europe, where 9,000 CD titles are available, the average CD customer buys 15 CDs a year (versus the average vinyl customer's four albums). There and here, CDs have attracted customers who haven't been in record stores for years.
America's retail outlets have already begun retooling. K mart, which had previously cut back on vinyl and concentrated on cassettes in its 2,000 stores, rolled out CDs in a big way last month. CDs are also becoming available in video and electronics stores, which traditionally don't carry records or cassettes. Meanwhile record stores around the country are eliminating LP bins and replacing them with CD displays.
Turntable advertising has virtually disappeared from the general readership music magazines. Turntable prices remain stable while CD player prices continue to drop (some are now available for less than $ 150, portables for less than $ 200). According to Billboard, CD hardware sales are growing by an annual factor of three and CD players will outstrip turntables this year. According to a recent Newsweek survey, by the end of 1986, CD players will be in 6.4 percent of American homes, up from 1.8 percent the year before.
Increasingly, radio stations are utilizing -- and promoting -- CDs, which have no surface noise, scratches or skips. Some classical stations are programming 75 percent CD. The classical market, first to appropriate CD, has been thoroughly revitalized, so much so that some observers predict it will be the first genre to abandon vinyl and be available only on CD or cassette. A similar revival has taken place in the jazz field, with both jazz and classical catalogues being extensively rehabilitated on CD. And just as CD-only stores are springing up all over the country, a number of labels have started to put their product out only on CD.
Historically, it takes years for a new music format to establish itself. That was the case with the quiet revolution of cassettes, which appeared in the late '60s but only took off in the mid-'70s as a result of the Walkman revolution and Detroit's switch from 8-track to cassette car players. But CDs have come on like gangbusters, and there is some fear that a too-rapid abandonment of vinyl could disenfranchise a lot of album buyers.
"There's been so much change in audio and video technology in the last decade that the average music consumer is a little scared and hesitant," says Camelot's Bonk, mentioning quadraphonic sound, 8-track, CD, video's Beta-VHS-8mm war and DAT, which -- being half the size of the standard cassette -- will confuse things even more in the next couple of years. "The consumer who doesn't have an exorbitant amount of discretionary income is being very cautious. But CD has happened in four years and even people who don't own it are aware of it."
"Almost every industry from cars to clothes encourages new technology or lines almost every year," says Howard Applebaum, vice president of the 28-store Kemp Mill Records chain. "The CD is a great thing for the record business. People genuinely seem to like it. It's not being jammed down their throats. It's the people's choice. If they didn't want it, they wouldn't buy it."
The decline of vinyl was a major topic at the recent National Association of Recording Merchandisers convention in San Diego. "This year it's leveled off," says Bonk, "and new releases on major acts still sell strongly in LP-to-cassette ratio, in some cases almost even -- for the first couple of weeks. But three to four weeks into a record you're looking at a 4- or 5-to-1 ratio."
One concern at the convention, of course, was that retailers shape the future before it shapes them. "As retailers and manufacturers, we agreed to try to control our inventory in an orderly fashion and let the consumer dictate to us how long [the LP] is going to be around and in what quantity," Bonk reports. "It's never easy to carry three configurations, but over the years we've been accustomed to that. At one time we had stereo, hi-fi and four track; then stereo, 8-track and cassette. It's almost like there's always been three configurations and now it's LP, CD and cassette."
And some industry people say that reports of vinyl's death have been greatly exaggerated. "There's no question that the No. 1 configuration here and in the rest of the world is the audio cassette," says Bob Altschuler, corporate spokesman for CBS Records. "But I think too many people have been discounting the continuing vitality of the LP. Consumers will still be buying vinyl -- there is no movement to scrap those 80 million turntables, they're not turning up in trash cans ... It is very premature and misguided to think the demise of the LP is around the corner."
Still, Altschuler concedes, "we are monitoring the situation very carefully and we are putting into the marketplace what we think are realistic quantities on LP releases."
Even after the current inability of CD supply to keep up with demand is corrected, says Lou Dennis of Warner Bros., "I think it will settle down where we'll do about 20 percent of our volume on black vinyl." And 20 percent of a $ 4 billion industry still represents some $ 400 million, which is more than the entire record industry was worth 25 years ago.
"Will the LP fade into the sunset?" asks Bonk. "Probably some day, but there's those 80 million turntables out there, and hardware dealers report that they're still selling a fair amount of turntables, needles, styluses and cartridges. I don't expect it to be like 8-track where you wake up someday in the next year and suddenly it's gone."
In many ways, today's audio revolution is just another case of de'ja' vu. Consider, for example, this euphoric look at the musical future:
"Witnessing its performances one is apt to take the stories of genies bottled up for years waiting to be released at last, of frozen tunes released by warmth flooding the air with melody, and other romances of a like kind as veritable prophecies of the good time coming."
A recent testimonial to the great sound of the CD? No, a century-old commentary from the Illustrated London News after one of its writers heard the first working model of Thomas Edison's phonograph.
CD's selling points -- superior sound, longer playing time, indestructibility -- are really nothing new, and like the format battle, go back to the advent of the industry. Edison started working on the phonograph in 1877 (the idea had been addressed theoretically 100 years earlier) but after running into technical problems, opted to concentrate on his electric light project. He rejoined the battle in 1880 when Alexander Graham Bell's "Graphaphone" provoked Edison's "Improved Phonograph" and -- seven years later -- Emile Berliner's "Gramaphone."
Ironically, all these machines started out as simple mechanical stenographers, though Berliner soon developed the technology for recording music. This was such a revolutionary concept that machines were set up at state fairs and carnivals: For a nickel you could hear a cylinder of "recorded music."
The roots of the American record industry were established in Washington, where Columbia, a territorial franchise of the North American Phonograph Company, developed a "huge" catalogue by 1890 -- 59 selections, mostly by the United States Marine Band under John Philip Sousa. Sales of the mechanical stenographers had not been great, and people soon realized that music might be a way to salvage the flagging fortunes of their companies. To get the public interested, cylinder and phonograph manufacturers slashed their prices, another pattern that has been repeated with surprising regularity.
The first major format battle in the 1900s was between wax cylinders and shellac 78s, though each could only hold a few minutes of music. A bigger battle came four decades later, when the long playing record was introduced. Not that the idea was new. In 1904, one company came up with a 21-inch disc capable of holding 8 to 10 minutes (it was noisy, cumbersome and dead in two years). And in the early '30s, RCA introduced a larger disc that played at 33 1/3 and could get 14 minutes to a side. Once again, the sound quality was bad, and the Depression was hardly a good time to push a format demanding new equipment. Like the American economy, the record industry was then going through one of its slumps: In 1927, 104 million records had been sold; in 1932, 6 million.
RCA panicked and dropped the new format. A decade later, sales of 78s were back up to 127 million, a result of lowered record prices and the availability of cheap players. It wasn't until 1944 that there was a significant sound improvement with the introduction of "full frequency range reproduction." Three years later, record sales topped 400 million, but more significant changes lay around the corner.
Hi-fi LPs, capable of holding 23 minutes of music per side, were introduced by Columbia in 1948, the invention of Peter Goldmark, head of Columbia's research and development program. Goldmark, a chamber music fan annoyed with the interruptions caused by the short playing time of 78s, found a way to relieve his frustrations. With a bit of P.T. Barnum hoopla, Columbia unveiled the LP at a press conference with an eight-foot high pile of shellac 78s hulking over a 15-inch piles of vinyl LPs representing the same amount of music. Still, in that first year, only 1 1/2 million LPs were sold, with sales actually declining the following year before the format started catching on.
Although the LP seemed logical and practical, it met with its share of resistance. In 1948, the prestigious Gramaphone magazine harrumphed that "the substitution of a long playing disc is not a sufficiently valuable improvement to justify the complete abandonment of present methods of production." One great fear at the time (echoes, again) was that record buyers who had invested so heavily in 78s would be loath to adopt a radically different format. And even as pressing plants switched over, there was another fear -- that if the 78 repertoire disappeared too fast, it would be a long time before LPs would cover it. But the transition was orderly and, Jay Lasker points out, "vinyl sounded better, and despite all those players, in 5 to 10 years, the 78 was gone."
Goldmark's invention not only revolutionized the science and technology of sound but eventually provoked what came to be known as "the battle of the speeds." When CBS had settled on 33 1/3 rpm, the other industry giant, RCA, countered with the 45 rpm disc (and a slew of low-cost players). Eventually the RCA format caught on for singles, while the album speed remained at 33 1/3, and the two have coexisted ever since. The 78 lasted into the mid-'50s, hanging on in the R&B field until 1957, when it joined other audio corpses.
Events then started spinning quickly. With the advent of multispeed turntables and the heightened consumer interest generated by hi-fi sound, record and equipment sales skyrocketed between 1952 and 1954 after a six-year slump. Then in 1957, stereo was introduced, despite resistance from most of the major record companies, which thought it would be of interest only to audiophiles. As late as the early '60s, some record buyers were still sporting "Bring Back Mono" buttons, and one highbrow music magazine insisted that the future of stereo would be "limited by the fact that its technical advantages can only be fully realized in the case of classical music ... there are important marketing considerations which make it unsuitable for the pops market."
Wrong again: Stereo proved to be the biggest advance since the LP, becoming so popular with record buyers that in the mid-'60s, another boom period was on. By the late '60s, listeners accustomed to stereo were no longer satisfied with mono, and to phase the format out, the price of mono records was raised to equal stereo. "No one knew the mono disc would disappear as quickly as it did," says CBS' Altschuler, though some people suggest the same thing will happen in a few years with vinyl and CD/DAT.
The next audio revolution was a slower, more subtle one, as cassettes (which, like Edison's phonograph, were originally conceived as a carrier of the spoken word) gradually took over the market, reflecting America's preoccupation with portable sound.
But if the cassette revolution was played out quietly, the dawning of CD has been a public spectacle.
On one level, record companies' enthusiasm for and commitment to CD is understandable: Manufacturing costs for CDs are higher than for LPs, but so is the profit margin. An LP costs roughly $ 1.50 to manufacture and wholesales for $ 5. At $ 3, the manufacturing cost of a CD is twice as high, but it wholesales for around $ 10.50.
Right now, most CDs are manufactured in Japan and West Germany and costs have actually increased because of the dollar sliding against the yen and mark. But the opening of American plants should lower costs considerably, as well as speed up the filling of orders.
"When the supply-demand curve meets, then there will be pressure to drop prices," says Altschuler. "If player sales continue to exceed the curve of discs, we won't see that."
Bonk agrees. "Once supply catches up with demand, you're going to see a decline in prices and that will balance the profits out and cut into LP sales again -- dramatically."
"I think record companies are being coy about what their intentions are," says Kemp Mill's Applebaum. "If compact discs were available at a retail price of to $ 9 to $ 10, I see very little reason why people would want to go out and buy albums. We don't have a lot to say about it, but if the manufacturers wanted to, they could speed the demise of black vinyl just by lowering their CD prices -- and they're certainly raising their prices on vinyl."
Lest anyone doubt that the industry is committed to CDs, Bonk points out that each of the 15 CD plants starting up represents an investment of $ 20 million to 30 million. "And when a company like Du Pont gets together with Phillips [which developed the CD] to build a big plant in Charlotte [N.C.], you know they're looking beyond audio."
Recently, Phillips and Polygram formed a new company, American Interactive Media, to develop software for an interactive CD system, CD-1. They're hoping for a 1987 rollout. In addition to its audio function, CD-1 will be able to read CDs programmed with user-manipulatable graphics, animation, video games, video and printed texts. A single CD-1 will be able to accommodate 300,000 typed pages, equivalent to 1,000 floppy discs or a 20-volume encyclopedia.
"The powers that be, the companies that are investing this money, are going to make sure the CD is the sound carrier of the future," says Bonk.
Still, some retailers remain hesitant about pulling out LPs too fast. A CBS survey indicated that two-thirds of the people who buy cassettes shop the LP area before making their decision. After all, albums are more exciting visually: Their covers and liner notes make them "very seductive," says Applebaum.
Yet the seductiveness of CD sound should triumph in the end. "The difference is so vast," as Jay Lasker says, "than even the worst tin ear in the world can notice it."
"Do people make a decision to buy a record because of the sound or the emotion?" Lou Dennis wonders. "In most cases, probably the emotion. But later, will they buy it on CD or DAT because of the sound? They're already doing that."
For die-hard LP lovers, there may be a laser turntable in the works that will read vinyl records without inflicting wear and tear. But the future seems to be anything but vinyl.
"1990 is too early," says Jim Bonk about its demise. "It's got at least five years left." Still, around 1992, you might start looking for "Bring Back Vinyl" buttons.